I have only a few hazy memories from when I was 13, that bridge between being a little girl and a teenager. It was a carefree summer spent riding a red five-speed bike around my neighborhood.
Ryshee Shaw is 13, but his life has been anything but easy-breezy like that.
His dad was killed in Brewerytown when Ryshee was just 2 weeks old. The youngest of four raised by a single mom, Ryshee was bullied in school. When taking care of him became too much, his mother left him in the care of the city Department of Human Services. He now resides temporarily at Forget Me Not, an emergency youth services shelter in North Philly.
Still, on Tuesday he pulled off something many of us would never even attempt: He led the “Rise Up Break the Chains Youth March” down Broad Street to City Hall to protest gun violence, mass incarceration, bullying, and other issues. Ryshee cut a striking figure that day in his gold kufi and ripped jeans, a thick metal chain dangling from his lanky shoulders.
“I was so proud that a 13-year-old would stand up and take the initiative that people twice and three times his age don’t do,” said his mother, Ryshidah Wright, who marched alongside Ryshee carrying a poster he made.
Demonstrators gathered on primary election day at Broad and York Streets and continued to City Hall, where they rallied briefly and listened to speeches before disbanding.
The demonstration wasn’t the largest march this city has seen. It wasn’t the best-organized. Nor was it well-publicized. I heard about it only after an Inquirer photographer got stuck in traffic behind it and started taking photos.
It caught my attention primarily because of who was at the helm. You just don’t see many kids doing this kind of thing.
“We are the future of Philadelphia,” Ryshee told me when I reached him the next day. “We have children killing other children. We have children killing adults. My father was murdered when I was 2 weeks old. And when I tell people this, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m sorry.’ No one cries, because it’s the norm now. People are dying, and it is the norm now.”
Mecca Robinson, the founder and CEO of Forget Me Not under the city’s DHS, told me that Ryshee “was placed in our care after having a bad experience with kinship care. He’s been placed here with us pending a reunification with mom.”
“Ryshee came in bright, willing, and had this creative mind. He’s a poet. He is a motivator. He is an inspiration for youth in Philadelphia.”
Anti-violence activist Terry Starks, formerly of Philadelphia CeaseFire, helped Ryshee gather participants and brought out the coffin he pushes through city streets to shock youngsters into understanding the stark consequences of gun violence.
“He walked side by side with us with the casket,” Starks said of Ryshee. "But it was his march. So we let him use the microphone. We let him do all of the talking. We let him headline. Like when we got to City Hall, he introduced all of the speakers after he spoke first. It was just mainly about him and his galvanizing the youth.
“The fact that he was 13, I just felt like he’s a true leader, because he was leading 18-year-olds, all age groups. What I saw in him was a true leader in the making.”
When I think of all Ryshee has faced in his short life, I’m reminded of a Chinese proverb that says, “Out of the hottest fire comes the strongest steel.”