Arms Are For Hugging

A heart-to-heart about gun violence in Germantown. 

According to figures released this October, shooting incidents in Philly are up by more than 57% over last year. Which itself broke a 9-year record for gun violence. About 3/4ths of all firearm deaths occur among Blacks – more than a third are under 30; of these, over 90% are male.

Gun violence is so bad that the City is suing Pennsylvania to release them from the state’s “Uniform Firearms Act” so that we (and other local municipalities) are free to pass our own gun safety laws. Officials made this announcement from Germantown, a location thought to highlight the issue due to “historical rates of gun violence,” said Patricia Gillett, speaking for Council President Darrell Clarke’s office.

It’s worth pointing out that Germantown’s reputation is a bit out of step with its crime stats – many parts of North and West Philly have far bigger issues. But still. Germantown is a centuries-old, close-knit community; every shooting here is a collective trauma. The pain reverberates through families and relationships. The loss affects generations.

We experienced this personally when a “rampage” (Channel 10’s word, not ours) in the streets around our office left two dead and kept the area closed to traffic all morning. Our Census volunteers Sheena Thompson and Lenora Gaillard had a hard time getting in, and then they got hit with the sad news. Catching up later that afternoon, we talked about how we’d all been affected personally by gun violence. And how much it hurts to see people suffering.

For more demographics, click for Philly’s Interactive Gun Violence map

“Let us be honest with ourselves – there’s only one reason to own a gun: FEAR,” Dr. Lorenzo Woodson explained to us in an earlier email. The problem, as the Local’s social justice columnist saw it, was a lack of purpose and empowerment within the Black community: “We can’t be running scared all the time, we need to value life more and uplift each other.”

Back at the office, Sheena and Lenora had their own insights as Support Staff for Tabor Services, a non-profit providing critical social support for children, youth and families. For them, changing attitudes about disciplining children has led to kids growing up without boundaries or direction. “These are the ones who wind up on the corner, the ones most at risk,” Sheena said.

With such informed perspectives, there was only one thing to do: fire up ZOOM for an honest discussion about gun violence in Germantown.

Dr. Woodson, Sheena and Lorena are all long-term residents with a wide variety of training and experience to draw on. None of them are polished media spokespersons – these are real neighbors sharing their true thoughts and feelings.

Comments have been edited for clarity/brevity, view the full video (presented here in two parts).


Dr. Lorenzo Woodson (Ph.D, MHS, CC, LBS) is a licensed behavior analyst specializing in clients on the autism spectrum. Germantown homeowner 25+ years.

Lenora Gaillard is a community engagement volunteer at Tabor Services. She bought a house on Stenton Ave (above Germantown Ave) in 1970.

Sheena Thomspon is a resource parent for Tabor Services. She lived in Germantown from 1989 – 1994; currently, her mother & stepfather still reside in the area.

Dr. Lorenzo Woodson (Ph.D, MHS, CC, LBS)

Dr. Woodson 

Good morning, everybody. Good morning!  You know, there have been several shootings in West Oak Lane, Germantown and on the lower parts of Logan. There’s been an increase in them lately. I’ve always thought when you have high crime and shootings and killings, it has to do with the economy. There’s no jobs, there’s no opportunities for this particular population of young Black man. When you don’t have money, when you don’t have family support. But people are under a lot of stress these days with COVID and everything.

When you’re low income, chances are your life was already stressful. Add to that a pandemic? And the economic fallout? Many of these people simply don’t have the coping capacity to be able to deal with these extreme changes. All the new pressures and challenges. People are afraid for their lives, and suffering separation anxiety from friends, family, community. No wonder violence is skyrocketing.

In addition, I know in my profession, a client can have the genetic blueprint for a major disorder like biopolar syndrome or schizophrenia that might never manifest – unless there’s a trigger. The year 2020 has been full of triggers! And I’m not saying that everybody who’s shooting and killing is having a mental health breakdown. But on the other hand, we can argue that wanting to take another human being’s life, is not a healthy impulse! Takes an unwell mind, to think that through and go, “Yeah!” Shooting and killing and racism – these are all mental health problems, that’s how I look at it.

Other Germantowners are seizing new opportunities this year. Riding down Chelten and Germantown avenues, I’m seeing more and more restaurants and stores, black-owned businesses. Despite COVID. What’s this say to the many who are struggling? When they look around, do they wonder “Where are my opportunities?” Who has failed to educate them on their potential and resilience? Why do we expect them to navigate countless trials and obstacles without the tools and knowledge to succeed?

Germantown has a lot of facilities that provide mental health services to individuals who have a medical diagnosis. These are not the folks we need to worry about, they are in treatment with good access to support. It’s the people who are walking around, hurting inside, with nowhere to go and no one who can help them. If we’re going to address gun violence, this is who we need to reach.

Lenora (l) and Sheena (r) with a teenage volunteer earlier this fall

Sheena Thompson 

It is trauma-related. Just look at the victims, look at who is committing the violence. It’s the same people, the younger community. I’ve raised two teenage sons and now my adopted son is a teenager, and this is his neighborhood. It is troublesome. A lot of kids out here they come from homes that are not stable. And this has nothing to do with being a two-parent home. A single parent can still provide a stable home. Which is key.

Kids crave stability! They seek consistency, that’s comfortable to them. They will gravitate toward what they know, even if it’s violence. Unfortunately that’s the norm for a lot of our teenagers now. And when you factor in how many of these moms are teenagers themselves? The only thing they know is how to give their life up to the streets. What can we do about it?

Bringing up my kids, it was obvious that I was in control. When my children acted out, I was the disciplinary in the home. The City could not come in and tell me, “You can’t put that child on punishment” or “Spanking is not allowed.” Depending on what they did, the child got punished accordingly. And there was trust among doctors, educators, social workers that parents had their children’s best interests in mind.

Now, we all know the difference between discipline and abuse – that’s not what I’m talking about. Some kids will push boundaries and challenge authority cause they’re looking for someone to check them. If my 17 year old son is disrespecting his teacher, and I have to come down to school and get at him — that’s not abuse. That is discipline!

When as a parent, you lose your rights to enforce discipline in the school, the kids can be like, “Hey, I’m not even gonna go to class!”? So now they’re hanging on the corner. We have no recourse.

Dr. Woodson 

I think we do have recourse. We just need to take a step back and look at the system that has brought us here, that keeps us here. Black families are moneymakers for a lot of government agencies and so-called non-profit corporations.

I grew up in the foster care system, and I’ve worked in it in the past. It’s a convoluted system, and it’s conflicted too. Pulling people up with one hand, then shaming them with the other. A lot of false narratives trying to explain away blatant injustices keeping folks down. One more instance where white supremacy capitalizes on the citizens it oppresses.

It’s just like targeting black people for crimes so private jails can cash in. This all starts in elementary schools, where low income kids are being groomed for prison. Destroy education and you will destroy the family unit and from there the entire community will crumble. That’s what they did to us in Germantown, they took our schools away. They’ve closed libraries. They’ve forced this Charter School business on us.

Oh we can have all the mental health facilities we want. But no one is funding services and resources to keep families together before there are serious medical issues. Where is the preventative support? We should be focusing on keeping people afloat, before they’re drowning.

A recent Billy Penn article used mapping data to demonstrate the link between poverty and violence in the City

Sheena Thompson 

In Germantown, we’ve got lots of drug rehabs and mental health facilities, but there are no community centers. There’s no PAL here in Germantown. There’s no community organization for kids who need a place to study, a computer to work on, a part time job.

There’s more profit in mental healthcare though, I think. Community centers don’t make money, they are an amenity like parks that require funds for upkeep. As neighbors, what can we do if the City doesn’t want to spend money for that in Germantown? The Census was so important, because every household brings us tax dollars.

Unfortunately, we have a society here that is distrustful of the state, the President, and the government in general. So how can we fight for our due, when so many of us are afraid to use the only tools we have to weaponize ourselves?

We’re here, Lenore and I, trying to sign people up for the Census, explaining how important it is to be counted. We have gotten so much feedback like “Oh, I’m not giving them my information. I can’t do that. They just want to track me. I don’t trust them.” No matter how reassuring we are — and we’re coming with facts! And we’re still getting pushback! “Money? Yeah, right. Our kids didn’t even get computers!”

Dr. Woodson 

Well, that’s for a reason. There are no accidents in my perspective.

Sheena Thompson 

But even when you legitimize it, we still need a solution.

Dr. Woodson 

Well let’s look at that for a moment. A lot of this stuff, a lot of Blacks have caused on themselves by being sleepy and passive. We have to become more interactive. It’s like what Marcus Garvey said about pulling ourselves from victimhood

Sheena Thompson 

I have to disagree with this view about victimization. Because, listen: they’re not passive, they just don’t have the information they need. That information is not coming to the community. Because in addition to pushback, we’ve also heard, “Oh, yes, please help me filling out these forms.” Some people just don’t know. Let’s be careful when we throw these labels around. Passive? Sleepy? No, we’re in the dark because the information is not here at the community level where it needs to be.

Dr. Woodson 

The information is there. We live in an Information Age!

Sheena Thompson 

Access, though! Many in low income households can’t access it. Not everyone is as fortunate as myself to have three cell phones, Wi Fi at home, and the knowledge to use it.

Think about the information that’s out there. How much is relevant and relatable for the people we’re talking about? How much is targeted for their education level? Not a lot. So let’s give the community a break and just agree that we need to put more effort into explaining and getting out there and not giving up.

Yes, you’re absolutely right. We are an information state. But when you look at the economically underprivileged community, the majority is simply not equipped to process that information as effectively as other segments of society. Please let’s not overlook the learning and educational challenges low-income individuals often face, too.

Dr. Woodson 

We can talk all day about problems and victimization and ineptitude. But there are two sides to the story, and any real solution must include both elements. In order to move forward thru any issue, we must recognize our role in its creation — what we did wrong or failed to do, that helped get us to this point.

An example: I once worked for the Philadelphia School District as an ombudsman, tasked with drawing parents in to help choose text books, define syllabuses, events, services, activities…  This was a real struggle for me, because a lot parents were grossly misinformed about the school system. You want to see change? Come to the parent-teacher conferences and I will show you what you can do. You want to complain? There’s the door.

It’s not easy. A school is not a closed system, a lot of a child’s education happens at home.  You want a better school? Get some books in your house! Not everyone sees that connection, not everyone wants to admit there are changes they could make to improve their situation, independent of any authority. But people must be willing to consider practically every aspect of their lives in a different way. How do we reach these people who have been systematically programmed into passivity and ignorance?

Sheena Thompson 

I’m gonna use the word compassion. We need more compassion for circumstances. Everything you said, I totally agree with. However, I guess it’s just in me because I too grew up in foster care. I was beat the hell out of as a kid growing up. But as an adult, I have the best relationship with my mother. She didn’t get it right then but she eventually did get it right. And my patience, my love, and my compassion is why we have relationship we have today. It’s the same way I feel about my community and the people in it.

Dr. Woodson 

What are you saying about providing empathy as a strategy against violence: yes. Let’s talk about validation. Every day, I face parents who want to reject mental health services for their child. “Oh, I’m not doing that, he don’t need no help, I got to do all this and nobody helped me…” First thing I do is validate their experience. I say, “You know what, it’s amazing the work that you do, and what you’ve done to provide for your children. All I want to do is come in and show you some ways to improve upon all you’ve been doing.” That drops the parents’ defenses.

So how do we use that in a broader way to address Germantown’s gun violence problems? Going back to your point that a stable home is key. What constitutes a good family? Support! A family needs external supports like work, neighborhood, relationships, etc. and also internal supports provided by core values. When the value systems that give our families structure and purpose break down, our whole community suffers. Kids raised without core values tend to lack respect for other people’s principles; they have a hard time understanding their place in the community, and have little concept of their own importance.

As the family system has broken down, a new generation has grown up to prioritize individuality over cooperation, and instant payoffs over long-term success. But we can change this. We can find a platform that helps build core African American values that have sustained African American communities in the past, and bring that forward today.

Now I’m 56 and grew up in a foster home – I remember some values. But I want to hear what Lenora has to say about the core values that have sustained Black families going back even farther.

Lenora Gaillard 

My mother and father were separated and divorced. But we lived with my grandparents. We learned what they had to tell. We went to church, like it or not. They knew who our friends were. We sat down and ate together regularly. My mother worked, when she came home, our homework better be on the table. That was the rule, the homework needed to be done before we went anywhere or we got in trouble. Parents didn’t play. My mother only had to call my father when we didn’t want to listen. He was right there: “You do what your mother tells you to do!” There’s so much more. I can’t explain it all.

Dr. Woodson 

But I’m glad you mentioned church as a traditional family core value. Today’s society, the Millennials — they’re not so much church-goers. They’re more about their ancestors and a universal, divine understanding as opposed to organized religious rituals and dogma.

So the challenge isn’t “How do we bring back church?” but instead  “What role was the church playing in the past that strengthened our community, and how do we fill that role now for this generation?”

I think the value of the church was fellowship and stability. A way for people to come together and get to know each other over years of shared songs, rituals, holidays, events, bake sales — things like that. Churches reinforced love, generosity and community pride. We don’t have that kind of thing now. We don’t even have community centers anymore.

So how do we use our resources now to replace that loss?

Lenora Gaillard 

I have a grandson who will be 27, Monday. About three months ago, he just tapped out. This was all too much for him. He had no hope. But thank God, his father found him, took him to the hospital. He stayed there a week, he got it together. Now he’s with my youngest daughter – they’ve always been buddies. He’s doing much better, and I’m keeping at him. My daughter said, “Mom, sometimes he thinks you don’t like him.”

So one day when he and I were out, I said, “Baby Boy, I understand that you think I don’t like you,”  and he said “Mom-mom, you fuss at me.” I said “That’s because I love you.” I said, “Let me tell you something. I don’t have to like none of y’all but I love all of you.”  And I told him, “You have to let love live lift you up.”

Dr. Woodson 

I’m glad you shared that because yesterday a senior woman walked into my center, and she shared some stuff with me in reference to almost what you’re saying about her grandson. And these are the same kids who could easily find access to a weapon and cause a crime or go like the boy did on Germantown Avenue. And I think this is important for us to identify that our youth need to feel part of a bigger community.

Like we were saying earlier, to reach people we must validate them and their experiences. This is true for our closest kin and our worst enemy. You don’t have to agree with someone to say “I understand where you’re coming from and you have every right to feel that way.” Indeed the only way to even start changing people’s views is to validate them first.

Bonding begins when we show someone we see them. We need to validate each other! Acknowledge our contributions as partners, parents, neighbors, citizens. Model this for our children, and also make sure they feel valued and heard as well. Validation should never be a judgement call. It’s about showing empathy and building trust.

The main thing we can do for people like your grandson is listen to them. Validate them. And provide a living example of love, faith and support. That’s the best thing we got. “I can’t change the world for you. But I can help you find a way to build a legacy.”  You know. Help him realize his full potential.

Lenora Gaillard  

I have to remind him of these things, and there’s a lot of humor there. We go back & forth. He’s mindful, he’s respectful. I’m hoping he’ll come around. When you’re alive there’s still hope. Once you’re gone there’s no hope.

Dr. Woodson 

Yeah. I’m gonna leave this with you. James Baldwin is one of my favorite authors. I think you should try to get some books of James Baldwin — there are even Youtube videos, you don’t have to buy the book or read it. Just watch some of his videos and share them with your grandson, they could start a really good discussion.

One drop of water in a still pond. It reverberates out. When you drop that one drop it reverberates. And this killing in Germantown. They do that. Having this discussion is a good thing. It’s reverberating hopefully, we can get some ideas for the next time we meet.

Going forward, we talked about validating each other. It changes people’s lives. Trust me when I tell you, it’s going to make Germantown a great place. Validate validate, validate. People are walking around Germantown, not feeling important, not feeling valid, not understanding their worth and potential. Let’s not be passive anymore. Let’s walk in light every day as if we have something to give.

For more information, please follow the source links in this article.

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