Simon "One Punch" Carr is no stranger to the brutality of youth poverty. His father died the day he was born; his mother, when he was five.
The Point Breeze native began boxing at twelve and quickly rose through the ranks. But, just as he was about to sign a professional contract at 19, he was convicted of third-degree murder and sent to prison.
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Carr emerged eight years later, earned a degree in business administration and set out on a new mission.
"Tomorrow is my 35th birthday," Carr said Friday at the Youth Empowerment Conference he organized with Bishop Alden Gaines of New Consolation Church.
"I didn't want to
just have a celebration, but do something with meaning," he said. "A birthday is a
celebration of life, but there's so much death and violence in my
community that I had to have a party with a purpose."
"The same community I helped destroy and damage, I wanted to come back and repair."
The conference, entitled "Shut Up and Listen!" aimed to achieve what
many politicians, teachers and parents have failed: incite young
people to explain their sometimes senseless-seeming destructive behavior
firsthand and respond with community-based solutions.
Unlike Carr, Gaines was initially reluctant to reenter the youth activism arena. The bishop was well-known in the late 80s for organizing drug marches, publicly outing dealers and protesting in front of known hotspots as the leader of the Direct Truth Anti-Drug Coalition.
"I had three contracts put out on my life and I feared for my family," said Gaines, now nearly 70. "I became known by the people in the community – and that included dealers."
Though Gaines was forced to move for his family's safety, he continues to operate his church on the same corner of 25th and Wharton streets. "I don't regret [my activism]," he said. "Protest is such an important thing, but the community gets too scared sometimes. People don't want to be visible. I feel this Youth Conference is a step in the right direction."
Panelists David Ross, reentry specialist at Connection Training Services, Andre Norman, President of the National Gang Council, and mayoral candidate Diop Olugbala took to the stage Friday to discuss positive steps teens and parents can take towards building a stronger community.
"These kids are coming from backgrounds that are troubled, filled with anger and stress," Ross said. "There is a high rate of fatality and incarceration in huge brackets of the population."'
"When you start accepting that as the norm - your friends going to jail, teddy bears on your corner - your entire psyche changes. It changes the way you live. Every time you step out of your house, you never know when the teddy bears might be for you."
Norman, who spent half his life in a penitentiary, then moved on to policy adviser, motivational speaker and Harvard lecturer, encouraged community members to focus on realistic, proactive solutions. "Communities that are suffering are often waiting on a savior, someone else to fix the problem," he told Friday's crowd.
"If you want to fix the problem, you have
to ask what generates the problem. You need to talk about the stress
that generates the problem. But complaining doesn't make anything better. There's a difference between a complainer and someone who wants to find a solution."
Olugbala's bottom line echoed the thoughts of many: "The real solution is economic development," he said, adding that his campaign is forming a Youth Commission to oversee programs implementing this and other initiatives. "We have the opportunity to unite the city under the banner of economic development and social justice, making Philly a safe place," he said.
Lingering Fears of Youth Mob Violence
One issue still weighing heavy on many minds Friday night was the spate of violent mob attacks that occurred over the summer.
"When I was growing up, we had gangs more than mobs," said Gaines, a South Philadelphia resident for over 60 years. "Our mentality didn't tell us to form mobs and go into stores. Technology has so much to do with it, for communication, like meet me on such-and-such corner," he said.
"And for the spreading of ideas," he continued. "Young kids don't seek out positive role models through technology. They look for what mirrors the streets. They have their own language and they talk to people who understand them. All it takes is one leader who knows how to communicate."
"Mob violence is more specific to Philadelphia," said Norman, who travels the country implementing programs for at-risk youth. "It's a take on what's happening in cultures around the world like Egypt and Libya. Kids are seeing change take place and taking to the streets is becoming a cool thing."
Norman said that mob violence is often emphasized to the exclusion of other types of street crime because it inspires more fear in more people. "350 murders a year are okay, but flash mobs are a problem? Flash mobs are defined as a problem because they're affecting people who are not from here."
"You know if you stay away from certain neighborhoods or streets, you probably won't get shot," he said. "But flash mobs are all over the place. The fact that they're unpredictable is the scary part – and they're affecting a population that the police is mandated to protect."
Ross recalls that, growing up in West Philadelphia, they called such attacks "wolf packs" in the late 80s and early 90s.
"A bunch of people would get together and go to UPenn, Drexel, Temple, LaSalle, even St. Joe's and smash and grab jewelry," he said. "They'd do it on SEPTA, too, rushing a bus and snatching people's earrings. It's like a prototype of what's happening now."
"The main difference with 'flash mobs' now is a bunch of social networking - Twitter, texting, whatever. A bunch of 16-year-old who think they're grown gather. They don't know what their intentions are," he said.
Observer Lindo Jones, 19, agreed that mob violence predates the term "flash mob" in Philadelphia. "At the Franklin Learning Center, we used to get jumped by groups of Ben Franklin High School students before they called them 'flash mobs,'" he said. "It's not something new."
"But we got together and had a conference with the principal and parents. The next day, the school changed its policies," he continued.
"The power you have now is organizing your friends," he said. "The same way flash mobs are organized on Twitter or whatever, you can organize with nothing but a Tweet or a Facebook post."
"Just the fact that everyone is speaking is making us more powerful."
The next Youth Empowerment Conference is scheduled for October 7th.