On a warm afternoon, two 16-year-old boys from North Philadelphia signed a contract. By etching their names onto a piece of paper, they made a promise to call a truce.
In the months leading up to this moment, the teens had been dueling. Messages darted back and forth between their phones, their social media inboxes crowded with threats. Eventually, the two encountered each other at a nearby Six Flags. There, one boy raised a hostile warning: Next time, he would bring a gun.
When Alisha Corley, one of the boys’ mothers, learned about the confrontation, she panicked. It had only been 16 years since she tragically lost her 5-year-old daughter to the bullet of a firearm.
For families like Corley’s in North Philly, gun violence is an everyday part of life. In a sense, the city serves as a microcosm of a larger-scale public health crisis. As of September, 14,516 people in the U.S. have lost their lives to guns this year, putting 2021 on track to be the deadliest in decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, young Black men and teens are 20 times more likely than their white counterparts to die by firearm.
Desperate to keep her son from becoming a statistic, Corley searched for a way to protect him. She landed on Philly Truce, an app for iOS and Android that allows Philadelphians in crisis to press a “get help” button. By doing so, users are connected to trained mediators who provide an array of services, including empathic listening, referral to wraparound services (such as mental health care), and conflict intervention. The app offers a trauma-informed alternative to contacting the police, which can in some cases intensify violence.
By connecting with the program, Corley gained access to free mediation services that ultimately allowed her son to come calmly face-to-face with the other boy. After hearing each other out, the teens realized they were more alike than different. Threats of intimidation and violence quickly gave way to open dialogue and understanding. By the end of the meeting, they agreed on a contract of peace: a Philly Truce.
The masterminds behind this exchange are Steven Pickens and Mazzie Casher, natives of North Philly, friends, and cofounders of the Philly Truce app. Pickens, a first responder for the local fire department, and Casher, a hip-hop artist, met in high school three decades ago. Today, the two men are in their 40s and have become central pillars of their local Black community.
“In parts of Philadelphia, people are prisoners in their own homes,” Pickens explains. “People have to be careful in certain neighborhoods just to sit on their own front steps.”
For most of their lives, Casher and Pickens felt like gun violence was an inevitability. “We became hopeless. We became numb, and we kind of accepted the narrative that this is the way it is in the city. This is the way it is between Black and Brown people, between poor people and the police,” Casher says. Like many folks that have experienced the reverberations of complex trauma, numbness felt like the only coping mechanism within reach.