The third installment of the Chancellor’s Symposium on Urban Poverty and Inequality was a sensitive and thought-provoking look at urban realities, as they exist today. A panel discussion focused on urban violence and youth that posed a troubling familiarity to Camden residents and students in attendance.
Dr. Heather Thompson, an associate professor of history and African American studies at Temple University, provided a chilling background to the widely unbeknownst reality of incarceration rates. “Mass incarceration [of today]is unprecedented in our history and in the world,” she said. The absence of a father, mother, or would-be student confiscates potential incomes and enables the cradle-to-prison pipeline.
Growingly powerful for-profit prisons cater to the capital interests of industry conglomerates, giving them workers who cost pennies per hour. When a prisoner is released, he or she is denied employment by the same companies who profited from their labor.
Sentences for drug-related crime have been inflated, but what has changed to make the crime more punishable? In the Q&A session, LEAP Academy students questioned the behavioral incentives behind crime. Dr. Thompson and the other panelists cited the economic desperation that compromises an urban community’s resistance to criminal markets is systematically positioned to continue the cycle.
Institutional change within a community improves the personal conviction of right and wrong. According to Dr. Thompson’s research, “there are places in America where the number of prisons built is determined by the number of Latino and African-American children that are born.”
Speakers Scott P. Charles and Dr. Amy Goldberg told their stories from Temple University Hospital’s Trauma unit, where they both work tirelessly to aid victims of gun violence physically and mentally. “No one wants to get shot,” Charles insisted to the audience. Survivors are channeled through Charles and Dr. Goldberg’s Cradle to Grave violence-prevention program. Both speakers have witnessed the common life-trajectory between patients having an undeniable connection to how they arrived at the hospital.
The most dangerous Philadelphia neighborhoods host the majority of violent crime, but the common denominator rests too comfortably in young black men predisposed to becoming victims. The program depends on survivors recounting their experiences to at-risk youths. Charles concluded with an apology from his generation to young people in urban communities today, regarding the misshapen state of Dr. Martin Luther King’s non-violent philosophy as it has been passed down to today’s civil rights movement. At some point his generation, he expressed, had neglected to hand down the tools needed to face institutionalized racial and economic oppression. This point was reiterated by featured panelist, Marian Wright Edelman, who said in her presentation, “until you confront your history, you’re at risk of repeating it.”
“The cradle to prison pipeline, in my view, is becoming the new American apartheid,” Edelman said in response to Dr. Thompson’s mass incarceration findings. Edelman is the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, an organization that has pushed for higher standards in improving the lives of children, especially those of poor families. She was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar after earning her law degree from Harvard and advised Dr. Martin Luther King for his Poor Peoples’ Campaign.
In her talk at the symposium, she acknowledged the disappointing state of advocacy for the poor and the statistics that drown impoverished communities into further levels of disadvantage and discrimination. “Gun violence is the second-leading cause of death among nineteen year olds and the number one cause of death among black children and teens.” She continued to encourage that urban communities not be subject to those making money from their disadvantage. The facts pose as a collective call to action. “We are in the fight of our lives in giving children hope and safety.”
LEAP Academy students processed the facts and figures into challenging requests for direction in changing their communities for the better. The audience’s participation transformed otherwise static crime data into a cooperative in reviving Camden and cities akin to it.