When I convened over 400 people to announce an antigun violence effort called #ManUpPHL last Monday at the Community College of Philadelphia, I knew our effort would be bigger than our own work. It would also be about supporting the work of others.
That’s why, on Saturday evening, a little more than two weeks after 10-year-old Semaj O’Branty was shot in the head as he walked home from school, I joined the men of the Black Male Community Council of Philadelphia as they led a peace march through the boy’s Frankford neighborhood.
As the demonstration neared its conclusion at Torresdale and Margaret Streets, I stood near Semaj’s mother, Anita Williams. Behind her on a chain-link fence framed by yellow crime scene tape, there were photos of shooting victims, including Jarell Seay. I knew Jarell as a cheerful little boy whose family attended the same church as ours. Jarell was shot on his doorstep on Easter Sunday 2011. His family now fights gun violence through a foundation dedicated to his memory.
But this moment was about Semaj, and the larger family that had gathered to demonstrate outrage at the shooting. Earlier that day we’d received news that his condition was improving, and as cameras focused on Semaj’s mother, she chose to focus on that.
“He’s not going nowhere,” Anita Williams said, her voice quivering. “He’s still going to be here. Please continue to pray for my family.”
After that she broke down, and the gathering of men and women enveloped her in a sea of love and support.
That kind of love is necessary in the wake of the gun violence that blankets our neighborhoods in never-ending cycles of retribution. But more than that, it is necessary for the black community to work together to stop the gun violence from happening in the first place. That means supporting the dozens of unsung antiviolence efforts that take place on a regular basis. It means realizing that if we truly want to stem the tide of gun violence that is killing mostly black and brown Philadelphians, we must unite.
That’s why I started ManUpPHL, not as a stand-alone solution, but as a conduit through which regular men and women of color can combine their skills in an effort to save our community from gun violence. Yes, we will offer mentoring to men who need it, thanks to the training we’ll receive from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Philadelphia. Yes, we’ve constructed a database of resources and an online app to unite them, through the expertise of Joel Wilson and his technology company, Tech Core 2. Yes, we are training volunteers to help us reach even more people.
The key to our success, however, will not be about pretending to have all the answers. The key to our success will be asking the right questions. What help does a man need to choose something other than gun violence? What resources can we offer him that are better than the streets? What outcomes are we seeking that we can measure and replicate? And perhaps most importantly, what organizations can we support that are already doing the work?
We will offer mentoring, accountability, resources, and consistency in weekly meetings throughout the city. We will offer jobs and guidance and help to move through life. We will offer hope.
I’ve seen past efforts peter out because men tend to operate in silos, competing with each other rather than lifting each other. But not this time.
This time, black men will have to build trust, because if we want to stop the gun violence, we have no choice.
So on Dec. 3 at 6 p.m., with the support of businessman Jeff Brown, ManUpPHL will begin mentoring men — on employment, financial literacy, education, fatherhood, and criminal justice — at Shoprite locations in North Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, and Northwest Philadelphia. We’ll mentor men at Mercy Douglass Residences in West Philadelphia as well.