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A new billboard urges you to look at the faces of our dead | Helen Ubiñas

Speak for Philadelphia's dead.

A new billboard on Girard Point Bridge in Philadelphia asks passersby to speak for murder victims whose cases are unsolved.
A new billboard on Girard Point Bridge in Philadelphia asks passersby to speak for murder victims whose cases are unsolved.Read moreOutfront Media

Tracey Anderson's grief was still raw last November when she read my column about the 26 teenagers who had been gunned down in Philadelphia so far that year.

One of those killed was Tyrese Johnson, a teenager she considered her own, especially after his mother, her best friend, had died of cancer in 2015.

In that column, I appealed to readers to "look at their faces," to consider all that was being lost as the number of young people being shot and killed in Philadelphia was mostly met with indifference.

For days, Anderson said, she couldn't make it to the end of the column, stopped by Johnson's face, and the memories of a young man with so much potential, who was set to graduate from high school a few months before he was killed. And the faces of the other young people, lives similarly cut short.

It seemed to her that the loss of one child barely registered before we were on to the next. Each death buried under the next and the next and the next … until it was if they were never here.

And then around Thanksgiving, she got an idea. She called me: What about a billboard? One with the faces of Philly's dead, that for one fleeting moment might force people to be reminded of how much was being lost in the city?

I liked the idea and wished her luck making it happen, even as part of me wondered how she'd be able to pull it off. Billboards aren't cheap. Not everyone wants to see a giant reminder of their loss staring down at them from the highway.

Occasionally, I'd get a message from her that she was still at it, still reaching out to billboard companies and community organizations to see if they could help her.

"Because," she said, "we the victims, we remember our kids, but nobody else does."

And then on Tuesday, nearly a year after the idea came to her, on the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims, she and other families who had lost a loved one announced that a billboard would rise at the Girard Point Bridge. Weather permitting, this week.

The night before the announcement, I headed to the basement offices of Every Murder Is Real (EMIR) Healing Center.

Anderson and Chantay Love, a founder of EMIR, a nonprofit named after her brother who was shot and killed in 1997, had teamed up with Outfront Media, based in Philly.

The women decided that in addition to calling attention to gun violence, they specifically wanted to highlight the city's nearly 50 percent of murder cases that go unsolved. Their hope was that by highlighting those whose deaths were still unsolved, people would be moved to understand that speaking up was not snitching.

Across the billboard are those very words:

"Speak For The 26"

In the room sat more than a dozen family members who had waited years for someone to speak up, including Victoria Wylie, whose brother Donte was shot and killed in 2008, and Kathy Lees, whose son Justin Reyes was killed in 2011, and Felicia Wiley, whose sister Stephanie was killed in 2015.

Wiley wept softly in a corner of the room as other families remembered their loved ones, sons and daughters whose deaths left lasting impressions on their families and communities.

Their hope, like so many others in the room, was that by putting their loved ones' pictures on a billboard, it would shake someone's conscience, encourage someone to give the families justice.

"All these years later, I still have hope," Lees said. "I'll never stop having hope."

Some people are afraid, they said. But others, they think, might assume as the years pass that justice was served, that someone else spoke up.

This billboard, they hope, will be a reminder that there are hundreds of families in Philadelphia waiting for justice, waiting for someone to speak.

The hope is to raise money to have a new billboard up every month for a year; donations can be made through EMIR's website.

"If one, just one case, is solved, even if it's not Tyrese's, this will all be worth it," Anderson said.