This is usually the time of year when I start planning the annual Fill The Steps Against Gun Violence gathering at the Art Museum.
Not this year.
For the last five years, I’ve called on Philadelphians impacted by violence — that’s all of us — to meet at the steps to raise awareness of an unrelenting epidemic, to put faces and stories to the rising statistics, to stand shoulder to shoulder and realize that’s how close all of us are to the violence that plagues our city.
And every year — despite a recurring fear that I’d be standing there alone — you’ve shown up.
It started in 2016 with a last-minute call to the steps after the massacre in an Orlando nightclub. While the nation reeled over that mass shooting, I did not want the moment to pass without calling attention to the daily death toll in Philadelphia.
Year after year, the gathering grew into something I could never have imagined. We built and nurtured a community on those steps, and I love this city for that.
I watched loved ones of people killed by guns transform into activists and advocates. I watched them grieve together, and grow together.
I watched young people from all over the city step into their collective power and make me believe that they will do better by this world than we ever did. My heart soars when I think of the amazing ninth graders from Parkway Center City Middle College who led the 2018 gathering. They’re on their way to college now.
It was on the Art Museum steps in 2019, as a thunderstorm rolled in, that the idea for a support group for paralyzed gunshot survivors was born.
Last year, I moved the event online because of the coronavirus and asked the community to help me #FillTheFeeds Against Gun Violence with their stories. Even in our solitude, and through a hashtag, we found a way to support one another.
I considered calling us back to the Art Museum this year in my desire to be around people again, always hopeful that one day we would actually fill those iconic steps.
But this has been a time of necessary reflection and reevaluation for all of us, and there is something I’ve increasingly been reckoning with: Awareness is vital. It’s why no matter what else is going on in the world, I continue to write stories about the effects of gun violence, and why I’m always striving to find new ways of telling these stories. In 2020, I collected the list of names of all the people shot and killed in the city that year and published them. It’s one thing to read about individual victims. It’s quite another to see a list of nearly 500 names of people killed by gunfire.
I championed collaborating with the Philadelphia Obituary Project to publish obituaries in The Inquirer that honor homicide victims with stories that reflect not just the moment they died but a fuller picture about their whole lives.
All of those efforts, in one way or another, came from those gatherings at the Art Museum.
And yet, if by now someone isn’t aware — and outraged — over the epidemic raging unchecked in this city, I’m not sure any gathering is ever going to do much to change that.
That’s not to say that there isn’t value in getting together, in building community around a movement. Hell, if you tell me you still want to gather, I’ll consider it.
But we need more. Awareness has to turn into action.
When I started thinking about what form this would take, I was all over the place: Maybe we should push for more victims of gun violence to hold positions of power in the city? How about scholarships for Philadelphia students working on gun violence initiatives? I’d love to work with a Philadelphia student, or neighborhood, every summer to help them report their own stories. I briefly thought we could turn Fill The Steps into a nonprofit, but as anyone who has read my columns knows, I’m in no rush to add any more organizations to an ever-growing roster of efforts that are never adequately evaluated. (This is me waving at you, Office of Violence Prevention.)
What was easier to conceive was whom I should turn to as I figure this out. This effort wasn’t built or nurtured at my desk, or in the newsroom. It was created and championed by the community.
So, I’m turning to you.
It’s time to build on Fill The Steps. How can we do that? What should that look like? Who should be involved?
I want to hear from all of you: Send me your ideas, no matter how big, how small, or how out-there. I want to hear them all. I’m accessible on nearly every social media platform as @NotesFromHel or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whatever we decide, we’ll step forward together.