PHILADELPHIA, Penn. — In a North Philadelphia row house, something beautiful is growing. It's dubbed "The Tree House" and it is home to Ryan Harris' nonprofit, As I Plant This Seed.
"When you think about this neighborhood, think about the demographics, the economy, the education level, the violence, the drugs. You think about roots growing out, the concrete, you know, like how is that possible?" he said, explaining the organization's name.
As I Plant This Seed offers free programming, like Talk to Me, a weekly mentorship program for the youth of north Philadelphia, a neighborhood known for gun violence and where nearly half of residents live below the poverty line. Here, though, love and support overshadow what’s happening beyond its walls.
Harris says it’s by design, trying to attach violent crime from the roots, exposing kids to other options.
"Every day is an uphill battle to kind of be that gap in some of the youth's life that they're missing to kind of put them on the right path or change that trajectory of where they might be going," said Harris. "Violence is an incredibly complex phenomenon, so are the solutions to it," said Caterina Roman, a criminal justice professor from nearby Temple University.
She researches the causes behind violence and she said the reasons are deep-rooted.
"The years of, I think, oppression and not thinking about restoration and community healing has made it very difficult to do anything in the short term," she said.
Since the early ’90s, violent crime across the country has been going down significantly. However, the first year of the pandemic brought about a dramatic increase in gun violence and homicides, spiking 30% in 2020, according to FBI data.
"I think you had more this external shock to the system of the pandemic causing more potential drug sellers and users to come into the market, create competition, destabilize it, and violence just took off," said Roman.
Roman points out that we don’t have enough data since 2020 to establish a trend yet, but she believes that a perfect storm of pandemic stress, the rise in fentanyl and the shift it caused in drug markets, an increase in illegal guns, and histortic neighborhood segregation have all led to the uptick.
"It's a neighborhood issue and that we, Philadelphia, and other cities that have seen you that the violence is staying high since the pandemic, which is the case in Philadelphia. I believe it is because we are not appropriately targeting positive resources to those communities that need it most," she said.
While crime is often talked about in a broad sense, every neighborhood and every zip code has its own unique challenges. What groups like Harris' group do is target the unique needs of his immediate neighborhood by creating familiarity and trust—what he says are necessary to connect with youth to steer them from street influence.
Roman says these programs are effective, but more research and funding need to be allocated to these types of grassroots groups to make a bigger impact.
"A lot of these organizations don't have the capacity to be responding to grants, to be staffed to the level that they need, and then, that's a vicious cycle of not even being able to apply for the grants and partner with a researcher to have the data to show, 'Hey, we're effective,' but these community-based agencies can be really strong," said Roman.
Harris says he sees the impact every day. His staff roster is full of former mentees who come back to try and make a difference in the community. Other mentees have gone off the college and even run for local political positions. He relies on funding and agrees that more resources need to be allocated to groups like his. Regardless, he says he will continue the work that he deeply believes in – because he knows the cycle of violence can only be broken by people who continue to sow the seeds of opportunity.
"The most important part: just being able to be here. You know? Be open, be available to them when they do need you," he said.