Greetings! This week marks the start of Hannukah, an eight-day Jewish holiday filled with a lot of jellied donuts and other fried foods. I suspect, given the tragedies that are continuously unfolding in Israel and Gaza, that this year’s holiday celebrations will be different. Perhaps more somber. Or reflective. I hope that the lights of our menorahs illuminate paths to peace.
One of the many hats that I wear is as the Evaluation Director for a federally funded youth and family initiative designed to address the trauma resulting from violence and reduce gun violence and other conflict in designated Philadelphia neighborhoods. The grant’s home is the city’s Behavioral Health department, which has partnered with Temple University to assist with various engagement, assessment, administrative, and evaluations tasks (hence my involvement). We’ve just started year three, and it’s been a very interesting ride.
I joined the grant team after the start of the initiative when the original evaluator had to step aside. So, I wasn’t involved in the design of the project, the selection of service partners, or the initial involvement of community members. I remember, however, being struck by how top-down the approach was – that the city essentially was going to provide what it thought neighborhoods devasted by violence would need in terms of mental health programs. All trauma-informed and evidence-based, of course.
Imagine my delight when, at a meeting with community representatives, there was push back from residents regarding the city’s assumptions regarding the problems and solutions. They questioned what was meant by “evidence-based”. They questioned why none of the formal human service partners had any real presence in their neighborhoods. They questioned why youth hadn’t been involved from the start in the design of the project. They questioned why everything was based on what community’s lacked, rather than what they had. It was quite the “taken to the woodshed” moment.
It was also a watershed moment, as some of us were able to help the city department reframe its approach by having more authentically inclusive opportunities created so that community members where not just recipients of services, but also active participants in guiding the grant. This necessary pivot wasn’t without the bumps that one might expect when dealing with an entrenched institutional bureaucracy, but slowly it has happened.
Fast forward to the Saturday before Thanksgiving 2023. I’m in a room filled with about 80 community members – adults and youth. Some are involved in one of our initiative committees. Most, though, were recipients of our mini-grant awards; seed money for grassroots projects aimed at helping youth and young adults turn away from violence and engage in their communities. These mini-grant projects, about 46 to date, ranged from building greenhouses and creating community gardens, to theater workshops, basketball and soccer clinics, film production, yoga and meditation, and more. None of these were “traditional” mental health offerings. Few if any met the “evidence-based” bar. Yet they all had a positive impact on the adults, youth, and families of their respective communities.
We spend that Saturday sharing ideas, networking, and celebrating their work. A number of youth attendees provided personal testimonies; one offered a poem that brought tears to everyone’s eyes. They did not sugar coat the challenges of their communities – so much needs to be done. But the clear message was that of commitment and hope and pride. These grassroots groups with shoestring budgets were and are doing amazing work.
Later, I couldn’t help thinking that the individuals in that room, and the efforts they represent, were the true Philadelphia. If only those who trash our city could have witnessed what we did that day. If only city council members and the mayor could have heard the stories. If only funders would work with these under-resourced groups. As with most cities that face the litany of crime and grime problems, there are community members who devote almost every waking moment trying to make their corner of the world safer, more supportive, more viable. They believe, and I agree, that their communities deserve investment not dismissal or derision.
Russell Conwell, the founder of Temple University, gave an inspirational speech called “Acres of Diamonds.” He observed that in the communities surrounding Temple were individuals with untapped promise and capabilities. They were unpolished diamonds. He was focused specifically on the working-class men that would populate the first university night classes. Conwell saw their potential and sought to create opportunity pathways in “their own backyard.”
That Saturday, I was reminded of the diamonds scattered throughout Philadelphia’s backyards. It is such a privilege to work alongside these community residents. It is humbling to be tasked with helping them tell their stories because beyond the funder’s required metrics and “measurable” outcomes is a very different kind of impact. One that lives in the acres of diamonds that comprise the real Philadelphia.