Alison Fortenberry says gun violence took away her safe spaces.
Since she was a girl, Fortenberry, of the Fairmount section of the city, has seen gun violence in her church, schools, and neighborhoods. Now 15, she has borne witness to its painful effects.
On Monday, Fortenberry stood atop a stage in the Girard College armory to read her poem to about 40 people.
“Because of a gun, I’ve lost the safe spaces in my life. But because of our gun culture, it doesn’t seem to really matter,” she said. “Where we are, my story is not unique; it’s the unspoken story of many childhoods.”
Fortenberry was one of thousands tasked with envisioning a world without gun violence, an issue that plagues Philadelphia’s communities, at the 24th annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service.
About 5,000 volunteers went to the 171-year-old Girard College, where they channeled the spirit of the slain civil rights leader to work on more than 125 activities — including projects, training, workshops, a jobs fair, and a health fair — to commemorate King’s revolutionary legacy.
This year marked the 10th that the signature project was held at the school in North Philadelphia, where King joined Philadelphia NAACP president Cecil B. Moore and thousands of demonstrators in 1965 to demand a change in the admissions policy, which excluded African American students.
Across the region, 150,000 people of all ages and races braved frigid temperatures on a federal holiday to donate time and sweat in about 1,800 community service projects throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, according to Todd Bernstein, founder and director of the region’s King Day of Service.
On what would have been King’s 90th birthday, Day of Service planners saw “a real connection” between the gun violence that brought about his death and that suffered by African American communities 50 years later, Bernstein said. Without such violence, King might still be alive.
"In a nation divided, we can embrace Dr. King’s legacy by joining together, promoting tolerance and understanding, and serving others,” Bernstein said.
The record number of volunteers “speaks to how much Philadelphians value the importance of service and bettering their communities,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in his opening speech.
Kenney mentioned his administration’s recently released antiviolence plan, which aims to “dramatically reduce the number of shootings in our city.”
His speech was a backdrop to a first for the event: “Dream Booths” — 100 6-foot, three-dimensional booths that displayed cloth panels on which volunteers had scribbled messages and created images about what the world would look, sound, or feel like without gun violence.
The booths were assembled by volunteers, including Gov. Tom Wolf, Kenney, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, and other officials.
The booths are to find homes in schools, community organizations, and public spaces throughout Philadelphia. Bernstein said he hopes they propel a discussion about the effects of gun violence and ways to solve the issue.
They represented an opportunity to “reach out into the community and show that this is not their problem, this is our problem,” said Jeffrey Harlan, founder of Cloud Cloth Education, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit. Harlan is also director of the Dreamline program, which inspired the booths.
On each booth were about 50 banners, to humanize the issue and envision community solutions, Harlan said.
The rectangular cloths hold words written by mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and friends who have experienced gun violence in one way or another. The cloths have values written on one side and dreams scrawled on the other.
“The notion that we must dream, that we must look to a solution before we can make it manifest, that’s what we’re inviting everyone to do," Harlan said. "Not just today, but going forward, as these booths go out into the community.”