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Philadelphia is hoping to change the way it fights gun violence by funding smaller community groups

Research on successful violence-reduction strategies in other cities shows that programs are more effective when led by groups based in violence-torn neighborhoods.

Mayor Jim Kenney speaks at a news conference to discuss the anti-violence funding in the new budget on Wednesday.
Mayor Jim Kenney speaks at a news conference to discuss the anti-violence funding in the new budget on Wednesday.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

When Philadelphia City Council members last month fought to include $68 million in new spending for violence prevention in this year’s budget, they weren’t just trying to boost the price tag of the city’s response to the record-setting pace of shootings. They were also trying to change the way the city doles out money to organizations working on the city’s priorities.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke and Mayor Jim Kenney on Wednesday unveiled the first detailed glimpse of that new way of doing business with the announcement of how Philadelphia will disburse about $20 million that lawmakers earmarked for community groups.

Instead of funding long-standing partners or large organizations with experience applying for grants, the city intends to funnel the money to medium-size neighborhood-based groups that will also receive help on navigating the application process, building up their capacity to handle large amounts of funding, and monitoring outcomes.

The money, Clarke said, will go to “organizations that have waited way too long for serious resources to be made available to put them in a better position to deal with the serious work out in the neighborhood, on the ground, every day, too frequently without any support from government.

“They do it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s in their heart. They’re passionate. They work hard,” he said. “We want to make sure we get them the necessary tools and support.”

Research on successful violence-reduction strategies in Chicago, New York, Oakland, Calif., and other cities shows that programs are more effective when led by groups based in violence-torn neighborhoods and with community members who have the credibility to break through to young people at risk of shooting or being shot.

But many caution that the significant increase in Philadelphia’s investment in that approach won’t amount to much unless the city properly manages the grant program.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s office has produced reports detailing what it sees as the failure of Kenney’s administration to monitor the outcomes of similar, albeit much smaller, efforts before the pandemic. Rhynhart said Wednesday she’s hopeful the new program will mark a turning point.

“It’s a good thing to get the money to boots on the ground, to community groups,” she said in an interview. “The issue then is to ensure that it goes to the right groups. ... The key to it is the rigor of the program evaluation.”

Wednesday’s announcement was a notable moment of harmony between Kenney and Council after a week in which some lawmakers bitterly criticized the mayor over his refusal to declare a state of emergency over the gun-violence crisis, despite the city’s being on pace to see almost 600 homicides this year. Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who has led the charge for the declaration, said Wednesday that she will continue to push the mayor but was grateful that the city is moving forward with distributing the $20 million.

The city will start accepting applications for the Anti-Violence Community Partnership grants ranging from $100,000 to $1 million in early August and make selections about a month later, administration officials said Wednesday. The city has not finalized the details for the request for proposals but is considering limiting the pool of applicants to organizations that have been working on antiviolence efforts for a certain number of years and have current operating budgets between $500,000 and $25 million.

Council will play a significant role in the process. Clarke on Wednesday announced that he is appointing five members to a new Violence Prevention and Opportunity Monitoring Group, which will help craft the request for proposals, work with the groups that are selected by the administration, and measure outcomes to inform future funding decisions.

Erica Atwood, who leads the administration’s antiviolence efforts, said she understands people who are concerned about the potential for politically connected neighborhood groups to win out in what could be a sprawling application process.

“I’m one of those people,” said Atwood, senior director for the Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice & Public Safety. “We tend to stay in an echo chamber when it comes to supporting an organization, and human nature tends to go with what we know.”

But Atwood said she is confident that the city can ensure a transparent and ethical process for awarding the grants, and hopeful that Council members will be helpful in getting the word out about the opportunity to organizations in their districts “who may not have the wherewithal, the capacity, or even the desire to jockey for position in front of politicos.”

“The impetus for this structure and how we’re standing up these grants is to ensure that we are diversifying support that comes from the city,” she said, adding that Philadelphia is attempting to be “cognizant of the racial dynamics that exist in the philanthropic world and making sure we are not doubling down on the disparities that exist.”

Atwood said the organizations that receive money from the program are likely to be judged by metrics such as how many at-risk youth they served, rather than changes in the rate of shootings or homicides in their neighborhoods.

One group that has worked on the front lines of the city’s gun-violence crisis without official support is Germantown’s EMIR Healing Center. EMIR stands for “Every Murder Is Real,” and the group provides therapy and victim services to people affected by gun violence, strategies that experts say can break cycles of violence fueled by revenge.

Chantay Love, program director at EMIR, spoke at Wednesday’s news conference and said the grant program will help to fix an unfair system in which people who work on antiviolence efforts in Philadelphia are poorly paid while people with similar jobs in wealthier areas make more without being questioned on the efficacy of their work.

“They got to be able to feed their families, and they deserve to have this type of work and not to be scrutinized in a system that we already know is racist,” Love said. “That’s not right when other counties are paying their people that’s doing this type of work, starting, $70,000, and no one has questioned it.”