Grassroots Change
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Reimaging a New Future for Philadelphia’s Violent Neighborhoods

December 17, 2013

By Jana Melpolder, Grassroots Change

Nicknamed the “City of Brotherly Love”, Philadelphia is ironically well known for its gun and street violence. In 2012 the city recorded 334 homicides, with firearms causing more than 85 percent of those deaths. Additionally, the city’s aggravated assaults with a gun rose 15 percent in 2012 compared to 2011. To counter this, some advocates say making a positive impact in the community means reimagining a new beginning for the city.

In a central Philadelphia neighborhood called Kensington, one group is doing just that. Young and passionate advocates moved into the area and started The Simple Way, a faith-based organization committed to revitalizing the community by changing attitudes toward violence and promoting peace.

By building gardens, providing after school programs, protesting gun shops, and transforming firearms into garden tools, the organization’s members and the community have made tangible progress.

Spokesman Shane Claiborne said gun conversions are gaining more attention. At one conversion event, an owner donated his AK-47 after changing his mind about owning guns.

Christianity Today: New Monasticism. Camden House (Chris and Cassie Haw); and The Simple Way (Shane Claiborne).
Shane Claiborne, The Simple Way

“The weapon’s owner was just so tired of the recent massacres and gun violence,” recalled Claiborne. “He said ‘I want to donate my old weapon to be dismantled to become something that would give life instead of contribute to the patterns of gun violence.'”

The AK-47 was turned into garden trowels which Claiborne plans to use in their community garden.

The group even succeeded in closing down a problem gun shop that Claiborne said contributed to the violence in the city. Taking guidance from his Christian faith, Claiborne said, “what we see is the possibility of changing the patterns of violence.”

To deal with the lack of fresh produce around Kensington, Claiborne and his colleagues took small spaces in empty lots and alleys to start community gardens. Claiborne said the gardens allowed the neighborhood kids to learn and get involved in growing their own food.

“When we lose our connection to life and to the earth and creation, it allows us to assimilate more to a culture of death and destruction,” said Claiborne. “So when we garden, when kids connect to the wonder of life and creation, they value it more. It’s a very spiritual thing to us.”

He also converted a burned home into a greenhouse and fish farm, which included a 1,500 gallon-sized tank filled with 1,000 tilapia. The water for the fish is recycled to water plants in the greenhouse.

The landscape of Kensington is changing – there are rooftop gardens, a state-of-the-art greenhouse, and former vacant lots that are now mini-parks. Families have easy access to fruit, vegetables, and fresh fish – healthier food options that weren’t easily available before.

Claiborne said that by living within the neighborhood, the organization’s grassroots programs remain in neighbors’ hands where they belong. “We set out to start an intentional community and we ended up, really, [with] a village,” he said. “We’re doing it together [with] neighbors that are going to regular workshops [and] kids that are planting trees.”

With sustained community-driven partnerships, The Simple Way will continue to recreate a positive and healthy future for the residents of Kensington.