I know everyone’s calendars are filling up fast as the weather improves, but I’ve got an ask:
Keep things a little loose in May (exact date to be determined), maybe save a couple of hours of personal time or vacation time or “For a Good Cause” time, which isn’t a thing, but probably should be when Parkway Center City Middle College students come calling.
If you recall, last year the students took the lead after I found my way to their school auditorium to hear essays they had written just days after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting. Back then, they were struggling with whether they would participate in the national school walkout in support of the survivors of the Parkland massacre. They struggled to understand why their daily experiences with gun violence never got the public’s attention in the same way.
"I'm not saying that those kids' lives didn't matter,” wrote 15-year-old Jordyn Williams. “I'm saying they aren't the ones being treated like nothing."
A lot has happened since that day, though not enough to save the victims of school shootings every 12 days, on average, since Parkland, or the hundreds of people killed every year in Philadelphia, often without their killers ever being caught.
Still, much like Florida’s Parkland students, Parkway students have stepped into their voices and their power, in no small part because of their amazing teacher Maureen Boland. They’ve also found solidarity with any number of people and organizations, including March for Our Lives; Love Button Global Movement, an organization that fosters acts of kindness; and the mothers of Philadelphia murder victims — some of whose children were lost to gun violence around the age of the students whom they joined last week for a school talent show.
“The day of her prom, I was at a cemetery releasing 18 balloons,” Shonda McClellan told the students about her daughter Erica, shot to death in 2017. “The day of her graduation, I had to walk across that stage to accept her diploma … when it really should have been her.”
They offered the students some of the advice and warnings they had offered their own: Be mindful of your friends and your surroundings. No argument is worth a life. No neighborhood or corner is worth dying for.
Stand up and be heard, advised Camen Pagan, whose brother was killed in front of their mother’s home in 2016.
“If they don’t give y’all a seat at the table," she told the students, "bring your own table.”
The talent show, which students called Parkway Performs for Peace, was a precursor to Fill the Steps, and if I had any doubts in their abilities or dedication to take over, they disappeared as I sat in the auditorium and was reminded — in their poems and performances, their laughter and their tears — of how much is at stake if this city doesn’t do something besides overpay the suits for uninspired antiviolence road maps that inevitably lead to cemeteries.
As of April 22, there have been 102 homicides in the city — most by gunfire. Nearly every day someone in this city is burying a loved one. Shooting victims who don’t die from their injuries are left with lifelong wounds that are even easier to ignore. And yet, there remains a vulgar detachment from those who convince themselves that they are immune, even as a recent study from Temple University found that gun violence in Philadelphia is an “everyday mass shooting.”
Marquise Millen, 18, was one of the Parkway students who took to the stage with a poem overflowing with truth. One line especially stood out:
“Our voices need to be louder than their automatics.”