In a changing city, Germantown still has men who careApril 7, 2021 Category: Featured, Long, Purpose
Clayton Justice recalled the moment at Men Who Care’s annual scholarship banquet when two young boys stepped forward to receive their award.
At one of the Germantown-based organization’s “Real Talk” sessions, a space where boys at area schools can have open and honest conversations without interference from teachers, Justice spoke about the value of education. Many of the high school seniors with whom he works don’t know what they want to do after graduation.
And many urban kids are let down by unkept promises, Justice explained to Generocity. So he made a deal with the two high school seniors who remained unsure as they prepared to step out into the world. Apply to college, he told them, and Men Who Care would give both a scholarship upon their acceptance.
“Both boys got up at the same time, and they had already pre-rehearsed what they wanted to say, and they looked at us, and they spoke to us all by our first and last name with Mr. in front of it, said Justice. “They said ‘we just wanted to say thank you for keeping your word.’”
“That was another very emotional moment and another reminder of the good work that we do and what we want to continue to do,” he continued.
In 2021, Men Who Care of Germantown celebrates 10 years as the education, youth mentoring, community outreach, and crime prevention nonprofit in the region, having built a legacy of connecting people, from young men to neighbors of all ages.
What began life as a neighborhood cleanup initiative in 2011 soon blossomed into an all-inclusive community care effort that has since caught the attention of some of the area’s most significant political players, including Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, City Councilperson Cindy Bass, and State Sen. Sharif Street.
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Today, Men Who Care facilitates anti-violence programs with the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, maintains a partnership with the School District of Philadelphia, runs virtual learning pods for students during COVID, and works with Philabundance to hold a weekly food pantry, among many other activities.
A lot of change occurred over the past decade since Men Who Care attempted its first cleanup effort, and as Justice noted, not all of it is for the better.
Justice, who began his service with the organization as a volunteer before holding roles as vice president, president, and now, executive director, told Generocity that gentrification continues to displace residents in the neighborhood. The closing of Robert Fulton Elementary and Germantown High Schoolnot only hurt students but placed a financial burden on the entire Germantown corridor.
And like many neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Germantown struggles with rising gun violence and homicides.
Over the past 10 years, the men of Men Who Care worked diligently to bridge the gap, bringing the community resources and places to go where they can gather and have some fun. One event that Justice takes real pride in is the end-of-summer Community Festival. The organization invites neighbors from all over to enjoy amusements, face painting, live music, and more, while also using it as an opportunity to bring in health services to screen people for ailments such as diabetes.
“Some of the things were planned but some of the things happened organically, just out of looking at what the community needs and trying to fill some of those voids where we can,” Justice said.
Men Who Care runs a robust peer mentoring program that gives African American boys a voice in a world that would otherwise try to silence them. According to Justice, young kids can fall through the cracks, and if they’re not reading and performing math at grade level by age 14, the risk of dropping out of high school is that much more significant. He went on to say that from there, boys who drop out of high school more often than not end up in the penal system.
The organization adopted three schools — Roosevelt Elementary, Emlen Elementary, and Martin Luther King High School— creating a safe haven within the building where students can talk about their hopes, dreams, and future accomplishments.
But then COVID hit, upending everyone’s plans.
“When COVID hit, we knew that there was going to be an immense disparity switching from in-school to a hybrid education,” said Justice. “It’s been highly publicized that kids in urban communities perform poorly doing this virtual learning.”
Once again, Men Who Care sprung into action. Justice and his group created an educational pod with one of their community partners, the Germantown Mennonite Church. They made a place where kids could learn, have a meal, and have some supervision during the day. According to Justice, around 12 to 15 kids from Roosevelt and Martin Luther King are in the pod.
Because of Men Who Care’s all-encompassing community-minded nature, politicians from across the city and state continue to seek out the group, both to work with them and for praise. “Men Who Care have been a vital resource in my District in engaging communities and providing critical social services,” Street told Generocity. “I’ve been glad to partner with them in serving the families in Germantown. These are the lifelines of our community that we must continue to invest in.”
COVID-19 brought out the best in Men Who Care this year and last. Along with their virtual learning pods, the Germantown nonprofit set up free testing with State Reps. Stephen Kinsey and Isabella Fitzgerald, holding the event on January 15 in honor of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. They also partnered with Philabundance to set up a weekly food pantry, which serves upward of 300 people each week.
But the pandemic also took a toll on some of the organization’s most significant initiatives, including efforts aimed at curbing violence in the community.
Last year, Men Who Care received a Targeted Community Investment Grant from Philadelphia’s Office of Violence Prevention, and the group geared up to run with an innovative new program. Playing off their “Real Talk” platform, the group decided to host basketball tournaments for kids throughout Germantown in the Northwest.
The program fell victim to COVID, like much of the city’s grant efforts aimed at ending violence.
But Justice isn’t deterred.
Earlier this year, Men Who Care stood with Krasner at a news conference where the progressive D.A. discussed the city’s violence issues. Krasner noted at the time that the cash bail system, lax gun laws, and the ongoing pandemic were to blame for Philadelphia’s rising homicides.
Asked about Men Who Care, the District Attorney heaped praise on the organization, calling them one of the most important and impactful groups working in the city today.
“As our communities continue to grapple with seemingly intractable social problems heightened by the pandemic, leaders like Men Who Care are living proof that the most impactful solutions are right here among us — they are our faith leaders, neighbors, mentors, and elders,” Krasner told Generocity. “What Men Who Care have to offer is deep, lived experience in communities where political leaders have broken promise after promise over decades.”
“I’m grateful for the many ways they have stepped up to serve our most vulnerable neighbors during this traumatic and stressful past year,” he continued. “Government has much to learn from Men Who Care; my office will continue to partner with them on youth supports and group violence interventions to stop the senseless destruction of lives and to give our most disinvested neighborhoods a chance to be free from poverty and violence, and truly thrive.”
For now, Justice has his sights focused on the future. He’s hoping that as the pandemic begins to wane, Men Who Care can start to tackle the violence prevention question once again because, as he noted, it’s something that has to be figured out for the whole community. But he also has faith the organization will grow all of its initiatives over the next few years.
“My hope is that in ten years, there’ll be some members of our community to have gone through our program, that have attended our “Real Talk,” that have gone on to college, that have made successful choices for themselves, and become productive stewards [who] come back and replace me, replace all of our members,” he said.
“And [they will] be the next bloodline for the organization that I hope permeates forever,” Justice added.