About 25 people gathered at the West Mill Creek Playground basketball court, known as “the Pit,” late Saturday afternoon, and began pulling up weeds and cleaning up trash.
The man who got them there was longtime barber Taj Murdock, one of the main organizers of Black Brotherly Love, a new group formed early last month in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis. But what really motivated Murdock and his fellow leaders to form the group was the continued gun violence in Philadelphia and the need to connect with youths to expose them to better opportunities.
“In our inner cities, the image of the Black man has been diminished a lot, because you see a lot of negativity, especially in communities like this,” Murdock, 45, said as he cleaned up a pocket park across from the basketball court at 51st and Reno Streets. “You typically may see Black men going to jail every day, Black men being murdered every day....”
“How can we come out, and they can see us in a different image and different light? By being active in our community,” he said.
Murdock, who since 2015 has headed T.E.A.M. Inc. (The Empowerment Achievement Movement) and its Men of Courage nonprofit mentorship program, partnered with four other Black men who also head their own youth-centered nonprofits to form Black Brotherly Love. The group started off with the Brotherly Love Juneteenth Silent March 2020 in West Philadelphia to emphasize “the upliftment of the Black man,” he said.
Saturday’s West Philadelphia playground cleanup was the group’s first effort to connect with youths. It plans to continue in other parts of the city.
Counted among the members of the movement is a man whose hair Murdock has been cutting for two decades — Philadelphia Police Inspector Derrick Wood, commanding officer of the Southwest Division.
“We want to talk to young people in their teens, 20s, to engage them in ways they need,” Wood said Friday. “Maybe it’s the first step in changing their lives.“
Wood was on police duty Saturday, but showed up at “the Pit” to show support for the cleanup event.
Kyle “the Conductor” Morris, 30, CEO of the Education Culture Opportunities (ECO) Foundation and another leader of Black Brotherly Love, cut away the weeds from the grass above “the Pit.”
“They want more activities and more programming, more stuff to do,” Morris said of the youths.
Antwann Postell, 30, a basketball coach and entrepreneur who lives near the playground, also got involved.
“I’m not sure if just the presence of a cleanup is going to stop the gun violence,” Postell said. “It’s more so the effect that they will have on the younger people, to give them a different perspective and outlook on life.”
Lending their construction skills at the pocket park Saturday were volunteers with East Mount Airy-based Trades for a Difference, led by Jordan Parisse-Ferrarini. They replaced a wooden slab on one of the three benches in the park, and painted one bench red, another black, and the third green, the colors of the Pan-African flag. City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents West Philadelphia, helped paint a bench.
Murdock grew up in Nicetown as the only child of a single mother. For a time, he was a celebrity barber, cutting hair for NBA player Rasheed Wallace, then Boyz II Men, and touring with the R&B group for a year and a half starting in 2012. Living now in West Philly, he says he’s seen a need for years for Black youths in the city to have mentors as well as recreation, art, and other opportunities.
Murdock’s biggest impact may be his ability to connect with youths.
About two hours into Saturday’s cleanup, Murdock and Jarue Lawson, 42, chatted with four youths leaning against a wall on 51st Street. Two of the youths appeared to have no interest in cleaning up as the older men talked to them about their lives. But after several minutes, they accepted a broom and shovel, and began cleaning up trash from the street.
“This is where I’m from, my ‘hood,‘ ” said Latef Morris, 16, explaining his change of heart.
Added Quadir Lanier, also 16: “I be out here every day. I don’t want to see it dirty all the time.”