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I’m in college now because my North Philly neighbors helped raise me | Chosen Family

For generations, Black people have been separated from their families of origin, and learned how to take care of each other to survive. That legacy lives on in North Philly.

Ryan Harris (left) and Nyjah Smith on North 10th Street, the block where Smith was raised with the help of her neighbors, who became family.
Ryan Harris (left) and Nyjah Smith on North 10th Street, the block where Smith was raised with the help of her neighbors, who became family.Read moreTHOMAS HENGGE / Staff Photographer

In my community, we don’t call ourselves a “chosen family.” We are a village.

My village consists of the neighbors living on or around North 10th Street in Hunting Park, who have been helping each other for years — for generations, even. Most of us aren’t related by blood, but we still call each other cousin, aunt, or uncle.

About this series
The old saying goes that you can't choose your family, but you can choose your friends. As the holiday season begins, The Inquirer Opinion Department asked Philadelphians to share stories of how they've gathered a "chosen family." 

My mother was a single mom who had me at 17. Our village stepped in to make sure she finished high school; my grandmother watched me until 2 p.m., then Miss Yolanda two doors down took over, looking after me with her granddaughter. So my mom got her degree.

The village kept watch over me all through my childhood. When you are a kid, home alone after school, and the woman on your block looks out for you because she knows your mom isn’t around, you don’t call that woman “Denise.” You call her “Aunt Denise.” And she isn’t just your neighbor — when you are walking home from school and you pass Aunt Denise’s house where she is selling water ice and pretzels, you’re getting water ice and pretzels.

Our roots run deep. My grandmother still lives in the house where she raised my mother, and my mother lives nearby. I used to see Aunt Denise every time I walked home from school. We’ve had the same neighbors for years and years, and we always look out for each other. We may not celebrate holidays together, but I know if Mr. Johnny next door has an extra turkey, he’ll knock on our door. If I’m hungry and the fridge is empty, I know I can always go up the street or two doors down to get some food. If someone is giving away canned goods and turkeys for people who can’t afford food, we let people know. I will push a shopping cart for three blocks to reach an older neighbor who can’t get things themselves. That is family — people take care of each other, and protect each other. When you’re able, you return the favor.

Our village comes out of necessity. Like many Black people, my grandfather migrated from the South, where he built hotels in Florida and was a sharecropper in South Carolina. Leaving behind their blood relatives, migrating Black people had no choice but to create new families of their own. Some of the people on 10th Street had relatives who were enslaved, who were ripped from their families and had to take care of each other to survive. That mentality — born from trauma — is encoded in our DNA. We still feel like we have to choose our own family to keep each other safe.

Now, we rely on our village to protect us from the threat and trauma of poverty and gun violence. There have been multiple shootings in our corner of the city this year alone, some fatal. When that happens, we don’t just stop by a house in mourning, or send condolences. We stick around. We cook. We grieve with you: Recently, my mom bought 100 balloons for the block to honor someone who had died. I’ve seen so many people packed on the street for these memorials that a bus can’t get through.

Even though our villages stem from trauma, by taking care of each other, we can turn that narrative of loss into something beautiful. When a member of my village, Ryan Harris (who many call “Cousin Ryan” or “Uncle Ryan”), started a mentorship program called As I Plant This Seed, I signed up the first year. At every event, at every venue, it was full to capacity, all with grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins wanting to support the project.

The mentorship program changed my life — it changed how I see the world, how I think. It helped me make plans for my future.

Now, I’m a freshman in college.

Nyjah Smith is a first-year student at Cheyney University.

Read more stories of chosen families