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July 2007
Volume 2, Number 7

Community College of Philadelphia Event Seeks to Reach At-Risk Youth

Anthony S. Twyman

Community College of Philadelphia has organized and hosted several unique community-centered events in an effort help stop the violence that has claimed the lives of more than 200 people in the city this year.

One of the events featured inmates serving life sentences at Graterford prison. More than 1,500 people from across the city came to Community College of Philadelphia’s gym in Center City Philadelphia on January 15, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, to hear the inmates serving life terms at Graterford Prison deliver a powerful, heartfelt message, live and via satellite, to at-risk young men.

Their message was “man up,” respect the communities in which you live and stop the senseless violence in Philadelphia that last year claimed 406 lives. “It’s so crazy out here now, you have inmates and killers saying, ‘Stop the violence,’” said one inmate, adding that it is time to dispel the street corner notion that there is something embarrassing or unmanly about young men taking pride in going to school.

The inmates’ unusual public plea, called Old School/New School Call Out, was beamed from Graterford prison to the gym. The college arranged for the satellite feed, which allowed the inmates to see and speak to the at-risk youth in the gym.

Lynette M. Brown-Sow, vice president for Marketing and Government Relations for the college, who was instrumental in coordinating this event, called on each of those in attendance to be “a catalyst for change.” State Representative Ronald G. Waters, the lead organizer of the event, urged the young people in attendance to respect their communities and vowed that Call Out was just the beginning of an ongoing movement to address the violence in Philadelphia.

Aside from the inmates, more than a dozen people and organizations, including Sam Staten, Jr., the head of the Local 332 Laborers Union, Minister Rodney Muhammad from the Nation of Islam, Pastor Dicie Carroll from the group Mothers in Charge, and Loraine Ballard Morrill, director of news and community affairs for a variety of local Clear Channel radio stations, also helped organize Call Out, which was the culmination of a series of service activities at the college that paid tribute to the nonviolent, community-oriented legacy of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hundreds of residents, most of them young men, filed into the gym for Old School/New School Call Out. “Put down the guns. Stop the madness,” said one of the Graterford inmates by satellite. “We played it. We lived it, and now we’re here to tell you: You don’t want to be here,” said another inmate. “Respect your elders. Respect the game. Killing babies and killing old folks is not part of the game.”

Rashaan Lawrence, 27, of West Oak Lane, brought his son, Malachai, 2, and his 17-year-old nephew, to hear the inmates. “What they’re saying is right on point,” Lawrence said. “It should happen more often.” Gino McCoy, 17, of West Philadelphia, said the message the inmates delivered meant a lot to him especially because one of the inmates who spoke is a friend of his family. Rhythm and blues music legend Kenny Gamble, who attended, commended the men from Graterford for “trying to encourage the young people not to take the path they’ve taken.”

Call Out was well covered by the local media. Both of the city’s major newspapers, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, and many local television stations provided coverage.

Representative Waters said to the best of his knowledge it was the first event of its kind in the state of Pennsylvania, and possibly in the country.

To plan for Call Out, organizers held a number of meetings chaired by Waters and Brown-Sow, which included discussions via teleconference with the inmates at Graterford prison. A few days before the event, with the help of Ballard Morrill of Clear Channel, Waters and several Graterford inmates were interviewed live on the radio by Morrill and two of Philadelphia’s most popular disc jockeys from Power 99 FM, a Clear Channel station that has an extensive youth audience.

The college’s Marketing and Government Relations department was instrumental in bringing the inmates’ idea for Call Out to fruition. The college donated the use of its gym, its security, and its staff; hosted meetings for event organizers in the college’s Center for Business and Industry building; and distributed information about its educational programs to dozens of people who stopped by an information table set up for the event.

In addition, Marketing and Government Relations crafted a postcard, using artwork created by the inmates, which was used to advertise Call Out. The postcard depicts the palm of a man’s hand, inside of which are the faces of four African-American men and youth, lined up one beneath the other. The card says: “Return Of The Missing Men,” “Old School New School” and “We all had a hand in causing the problem. Now give us a hand in solving it.”

Hundreds of these postcards were distributed throughout Philadelphia by organizers. A press conference also was held at the union hall of the Local 332 Laborers Union to announce the event.

“Traditional law enforcement measures and community efforts to restore stability to the streets of Philadelphia, though laudable, have nevertheless failed to stop the violence,” State Representative Waters said at the press conference. “More needs to be done. Efforts must be made to gather concerned members of the community who want to end the crisis, and we’ve formulated a plan to do just that.”

“The inmates,” he said, “firmly believe that they have the credibility to reach many young people in the city’s neighborhoods that others have been unable to reach through traditional means.” Inmates have said that everyone wants to put an end to the violence in Philadelphia, even the lifers at Graterford, many of whom have family members and friends who have been victims of the violence.

“I have been working and visiting the men at Graterford State Correction Facility for over a year now. I believe in their sincerity and have been faithful in helping these people accomplish the movement to help bring peace back into our community,” Waters stated.

The majority of the men in Lifers United Community Action Network, the Graterford inmates’ group, were also former members of the street crime culture. They said Old School/New School Call Out was their way of taking responsibility for the role they played in helping to create the problem the city is experiencing.

“The men of the Lifers United Community Action Network … believe that we can effectively intervene in this matter by our appeals to those believed to be most connected to those responsible for the violence and bloodshed,” states a flier created by the Graterford inmates’ group. “It’s time to man up! These are our streets, our homes and our children, our call out.”

Since Old School/New School Call Out, members of the college’s Marketing and Government Relations department have accompanied State Representative Waters and other community leaders to Graterford prison to meet with the inmates and talk about follow-up events and programs.

The college plans to continue to work with Waters, community leaders, and the inmates to find ways to stem the tide of violence in Philadelphia that this year has already claimed more than 200 lives.

Photographs provided by Community College of Philadelphia

Anthony S. Twyman works in Media Relations at Community College of Philadelphia.

Cynthia Wilson, Editor