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Your zip code is not your destiny

Numbers don’t have to determine future for poor Philly kids

Aisha Morales, a seventh-grader at Julia de Burgos School, talked about the stresses of life in Fairhill
in a report published on Monday.
Aisha Morales, a seventh-grader at Julia de Burgos School, talked about the stresses of life in Fairhill in a report published on Monday.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

THIS IS AN open letter to the young people of Philadelphia.

Specifically the kids growing up in the zip codes - 19132, 19121, 19133, and 19134 - with the lowest life expectancy, the kind normally seen in war zones.

But really, this letter is for all the young people who live in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods from which people have long ago disinvested and disengaged. Where poverty runs so deep that it probably seems there isn't a shovel big enough to dig yourself out, with crime that traps you in your homes and educations so substandard that even under the best circumstances, you'll probably always be playing catch-up.

Even with all this, none of it has to hold you back. I promise you. None of it.

There has been a streak of bleak news stories about life in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. I added to the mix recently with a story about a young generation of so-called crash-test dummies who throw their lives away on the streets. On Monday, my colleague Alfred Lubrano wrote about the life expectancy of kids in some of our neighborhoods, lower than kids in Iraq and Syria, lower also than some of their neighbors just miles away. (There's a 20-year gap between the North Strawberry Mansion/Swampoodle area, where a newborn isn't expected to live past 68, and Society Hill and Old City, life expectancy 88.)

"In a city of stunning inequality, neighborhood becomes destiny," Lubrano wrote.

The story and stats are legitimate, but all I kept thinking was: Can you imagine some kids in Fairhill or Strawberry Mansion or Swampoodle reading that and believing that's their destiny?

I know the power of words. Opening up newspapers as a kid growing up in New York City and not seeing people who looked or sounded like me was what drove me to become a journalist. It drives me still.

Being a columnist wasn't supposed to be my destiny, not if you looked at my background. I was one of those kids who could have been defined by her city, her neighborhood, and her skin color.

Don't let anyone underestimate you or count you out. I'm not going to lie. It is not going to be easy. There are going to be obstacles that I can name and even more that I can't - including people who will try to reduce you to a statistic.

The struggle, as they say, is real - there are physical, emotional, economic, and racial issues that people with the luxury to do so love to downplay.

"The pressures of life in North Philadelphia assail body and brain," Lubrano wrote, citing a study by Virginia Commonwealth University and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Even when you fight to get and stay on the right path, there are sinkholes. But you can usually dig yourself out - especially if you've found someone, just one person, who has your back.

And here's the thing with numbers: They can tell us a lot - mostly how adults have let you down - but they never tell the whole story, and they absolutely do not have to tell yours.

Consider the people who defied the same odds to be and do great things. Find them. They can make all the difference in your world. Trust me.

Just in the Fairhill area alone (where the life expectancy of a newborn is an average of 71, three years less than that of an infant born in Iraq or Syria), there's the PAL program, the Providence Center, and the Centro Nueva Creacion. At Centro, interim executive director Maribel Lozada-Arzuaga said, they spend way more time talking to their kids about possibilities than pitfalls. College. Careers. A destiny not written by gunshots or teenage pregnancy.

"Maybe it's not the right thing to do, but we want to show them what's possible," she said when I called her Tuesday.

Officer Marcus Allen, who has run the Fairhill PAL program for 11 years, said the difference between a kid's defying the statistics and becoming one boils down to options. PAL executive director Ted Qualli put it this way: "Kids in this city have equal potential. They just don't have equal opportunity."

I run way more cynical than I'm probably coming off in this column. Sugarcoating the stats or believing too much in resiliency gains nothing. But every once in a while, it is important for people who made it to the other side to tell those who are still making their way over that it is possible, that we are here for them, that we are rooting for them, that we will hold every person - parents, teachers, and public officials - accountable to make their journey less treacherous.

The stats do not define you. Let them motivate you and drive you.

215-854-5943 @NotesFromHel