From Left to Right: Dave Forde, Movita Johnson, Hassan Freeman, Joe Kramer,Tom Hickey, Najee Darby and Pat Haughney
In January 2008, Movita Johnson moved her family to Landsdowne in hopes of safeguarding her sons from the gun and drug culture running rampant in Philadelphia.
In 2011, three years later to the day, Johnson buried her 18-year-old son, Charles. He was shot to death in a case of mistaken identity. It was a Wednesday night, and he was picking up his pregnant sister in Germantown.
“He was sitting in the car waiting for her to come outside, when two young boys came out of the alley,” Johnson explained. The young men, Troy Thornton and Sean Jones, opened fire on Charles’ car. Thornton, 24 at the time, shot Charles four times. Charles somehow managed to crawl out of the car and into the street.
“I know my son,” said Johnson, choking back tears. “He was trying to get to his sister to make sure she was safe.”
Hassan Freeman has also been personally affected by gun violence. Except, in 1988, Freeman’s finger was on the trigger.
“I was an A and B student, but the times got so hard that as a young man, I got tired of seeing my mom in the living room crying because she didn’t know what we were going to eat,” said Freeman, who recalls sharing a single pair of jeans with his brother.
“I tried to take the easy way out, so I wound up selling drugs,” he explained. Freeman served 14 years of his 23-year prison sentence for shooting a man.
Despite their different backgrounds, Johnson and Freeman are both proponents of Focused Deterrence, an anti-gun violence strategy that targets persistent offenders and their social circles by using unmet legal obligations, such as overdue bills, unpaid child support and parole violations, to coerce offenders into cooperation. The strategy also combines coercion with community outreach efforts.
When city government and law enforcement commit to Focused Deterrence, gun crimes have the potential to drop exponentially: In 1990s Boston, for example, the program was called Operation Ceasefire. Its implementation resulted in a 63 percent drop in youth homicides, known as the “Boston Miracle.”
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The program has been implemented in South Philadelphia on a limited basis, and the impact is already clear. Between 2012 and 2013, shootings in the neighborhood declined by 43 percent, according to an Inquirer report from last year. It remains to be seen, however, if Philadelphia will take the strategy city-wide.
Enter the Be The Change campaign, a potentially potent advocacy arm of Focused Deterrence. The campaign is raising awareness and funds to present to the city in hopes of a real expansion and commitment to Focused Deterrence.
Dave Forde, Engagement Studios’ COO and former Councilwoman Reynolds Brown chief-of-staff, laid out a three-point plan for Be The Change:
- “Make sure the program in South Philly remains stable and continues to move forward.”
- “We want to see a continuing office set up in the city government that will coordinate with all the efforts of all the different agencies in the city, so that things don’t fall apart within the bureaucracy.”
- “Raise enough money or get enough money invested through the city so that the program isn’t just in South Philly, but spreads to other areas of the city where the data suggests it needs to go.”
The Engagement Studios team has tapped Johnson and Freeman to advocate for the Be the Change campaign. Both were involved in the community outreach aspects of the Focused Deterrence Strategy in South Philadelphia, speaking directly to the young men targeted by the strategy.
“We incorporated what I call ‘going out to fish,’ explained Freeman. “We don’t wait for the fish to jump at the boat – we cast a rod.”
Freeman, who describes himself as a “boots-on-the-ground type of guy,” travels to crime hot spots in the city and talks to young men about the consequences of a life led by gun violence. He also makes sure to emphasize the impact their actions have on their families.
Johnson, who has a degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania, spoke to targeted young men as a mother who has suffered due to gun violence.This approach is known to bring otherwise hardened gang members to tears, according to an article in the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal on Focused Deterrence, written by Bryan Lentz, one of the initial proponents of Be The Change in South Philly. Lentz is also Advisory Board Chair for Be The Change.
While community outreach is key, coordination across different agencies seems to be the greatest barrier to the strategy.
“Mayors change, police commissioners change,” he added. “Be The Change is about creating the continuity so that anybody who comes on-board is going to feel the need to continue the program.”
Building the campaign
Be the Change will be pursuing traditional nonprofit funding for its campaign, such as grants and private donations, but it is also setting up a unique fundraising program with the help of credit card processor BC Technologies.
“For every business that signs up, [the credit card processor] makes a significant contribution to Be The Change,” Forde explained. BC Technologies has worked out a system that will donate to the campaign while still saving money for customers.
“We’re going to keep on going until the city is flooded with this strategy so we can see numbers that reflect what a first-class city is supposed to be like,” he added.
Visit the Be the Change website for more information.
Photo by Tony Abraham