Philly teens say safety concerns are hampering city recreation centers

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To gain admission to a downtown meeting space called The Hive on Saturday morning, visitors had to first say the password: “I’m here to be the change in my community.”

Two dozen budding changemakers arrived to take part in “Youth Jawn” – as the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation called it – an event designed to inspire young people, ages 14 to 24, to discover how to bring the city’s leisure centers to life. .

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Jaidyn Williams, 15, an Olney resident who runs on the track but would love the opportunity to train in on-court events – and compete for scholarships that might make it accessible – had a simple question: “After quarantine , I feel like a lot of funding for the sport got taken away. I want to know, what can we do to get this back? »

Although the city has embarked on a five-year, $400 million overhaul of city recreation centers under the banner of Rebuild, Mayor Jim Kenney’s flagship initiative, they are failing to appeal to teens and young adults. in significant numbers, park officials said.

So now the department is looking to reimagine youth programming in the centers, bringing in young leaders from across the city to become the architects of this effort.

“We’re seeing a pretty dramatic decline in the number of young people going to recreation centers past college age,” said Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell. “It’s so important to hear why they don’t go to recreation centers. Knowing why they don’t leave, what would make them leave – that’s been a mystery to us.

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What the teenagers had to say was not altogether surprising: they are concerned about safety, both in the centers and in the surrounding blocks. Police have counted more than 700 shootings within 400 feet of city recreation centers since 2020, The Inquirer previously reported – including the fatal shooting of 41-year-old Tiffany Fletcher while working at Mill Creek rec in September.

But they said they would be more likely to participate in relevant programs and job opportunities, or even just hang out if the centers were cleaner, less boring and more welcoming.

They mentioned dance and yoga classes, properly funded sports leagues, and programs featuring music, art, and chess.

Thirteen-year-old Tyler Hamilton, a regular at the Joseph E. Mander Rec Center at 33rd and Diamond Streets, said he would like “to have them come and do art with us, come and teach us new languages ​​- to help us express ourselves.

The day-long brainstorming and networking session was led by Creative Praxis, a Philadelphia-based training organization that has previously held “freedom day” events for area schools and worked with Kensington youth to develop a community safety plan for the neighborhood.

“We’re talking about reimagining Parks and Rec, and reimagining our system and how we work together,” said Nia Eubanks-Dixon, founder of Creative Praxis, who began working with Philly youth teaching dance classes. at the leisure center. “We know that gun violence has increased in our community. To be able to speak and express oneself, one must be able to feel safe.

Recreation officials across the city said they have already found ways to bring in children. Curtis “CJ” Johnson, who works at the Tustin Recreation Center, mentioned the esports lounge that opened about two months ago, with 10 computers and gaming chairs that are full most nights. It is one of two installed in the city’s leisure centers this year.

What Johnson appreciated was the opportunity for the teenagers to network with like-minded peers: “It was to bridge the gap between the communities – the kids in West Philly, the kids in North Philly – so that they can learn from each other.”

City Council members Helen Gym and Isaiah Thomas stopped by to impress on teens what they felt was the most important takeaway: that if teens stand up for themselves, they can effect change.

“What we lack in government and in our budget process is any level of humanity,” Gym said. “What we need to do is not make it a matter of…budgets. We have to see it through your eyes.

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