Standing as the first African-American YMCA to have its own building, the Christian Street YMCA has served as an epicenter of recreation and refuge since 1914.
Though the immediate Graduate Hospital neighborhood has been transitioning for more than the last decade, the structure at 18th and Christian streets never ceased to embrace the city’s youth as violence often afflicted the surrounding South Philly neighborhoods.
In a recently produced documentary, “AWAKEN: A Tale of Inner City Violence, Crime, and its Impact,” the YMCA serves as a physical and metaphorical backdrop of the informative film, which deconstructs the ongoing realities related to youth gun violence specifically throughout South Philadelphia.
Produced by a network of local advocates, filmmakers and children, “AWAKEN,” a project of the Philadelphia-based NKA Creations, was made possible by a $10,000 state grant received by the YMCA last year, which was intended to create a youth-led project.
As Lance Lee, the newly appointed executive director of the YMCA, and a group of YMCA children members developed visions for a film shedding light on violence, the team connected with Nazir K. Alston and Robert “Hershey” Alston of the award-winning NKA Creations.
“We try to do films that are thought-provoking, and it has to make sense,” said Point Breeze native Robert “Hershey” Alston, COO of NKA Creations. “…We really thought that this film project would definitely bring a message and bring it home basically due to all this high prevalence of gun violence going on, especially in South Philadelphia. This would be a good way to show individuals and people can really see how this is really affecting our community.”
Although professional filmmakers organized the project, the heart of the film was driven by 15 local children who are all members of the YMCA.
From conducting interviews to holding boom microphones, the team of more than a dozen South Philadelphian children channeled their experiences with gun violence into filmmaking skills.
“When it comes to gun violence, you can’t run from it, and you can’t escape it,” said 17-year-old Quamir King, who was both an interviewer and interviewee. “Because everywhere you go, you’re going to see it, and that’s just from any standpoint…Multiple people – anywhere you go – it comes out of fear…Anything you see in that film is straight fact. For 17 years of my life, I’ve seen gun violence. I don’t think I’ve went longer than a month without seeing gun violence.”
The film concurrently acted as a tribute to Naim “Lil Na” Dawan and Tyrese “Reesy” Johnson – two local young men who lost their lives to firearms not far from the YMCA in recent years.
Encompassing police to politicians to parents, the 30-minute cut features a scope of local individuals with ties to violence, including Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, state Rep. Jordan Harris, members of the Philadelphia Police Department’s homicide division and children from the Donte Wylie Foundation, a local anti-violence advocacy.
“There is a nice cross-section of those involved,” said film interviewee and Graduate Hosptial resident Akhenaton Mikell, executive director of nonprofit 501 Imani Star Development. “And that gives it many perspectives and various lenses to the same issue.”
Throughout the film, a multitude of notions arises around the roots and the resolutions connected to gun violence, creating an extensive narrative of how society arrived here and where the community can go from here.
As far as the causes of such crimes, some of the recurring themes among interviewees include parental presence, historical contexts, generational ideas, religion, self-love and, chiefly, access to weapons and the laws that allow it.
While the film explores social, societal and systematic concepts attributed to gun violence, the documentary aims to present answers, including legislation that limits gun access or simply reminding the youth that they are loved.
“We wanted to make sure the project wasn’t just filled with a bunch of problems,” Alston said. “It had to be solution-based….You have so many people who watch the news. They see what’s going on, and they’re not doing anything about it. That’s one of the main things that we wanted to do. We wanted this film to be solution-based because a suggestion without a solution is just another problem.”
Of course, the YMCA acts a solution by offering recreation, classes and other activities intended to keep children out of trouble.
“It’s also tying in the fact that you have the children,” Mikell said. “You have this violence, and then you have this YMCA. These are the three elements that we’re looking at. So, when you have the children involved in something like the YMCA or activities at the YMCA, then the violence that we see here is likely to come down. “
Just in the few months of producing “AWAKEN,” which started in January and concluded in the spring, even acted as an alternative to violence in and of itself.
As of May 1 when the film was being finalized, there were 106 reported homicides in Philadelphia during 2019, according to the documantary’s data from the Philadelphia Police Department.
“You can’t save the world, but we can account for 15 kids participating in this project.,” Alton said. “…I look at that as a good platform for just trying to save those who wanted to be a part of it.”
The documentary, which has close to 1,350 views since being uploaded on YouTube last month, was officially screened at the Christian Street YMCA in early May. The producers say the event was a testimony to the film, as local residents from all ages and backgrounds convened together for the release.
While “AWAKEN” has wrapped, its purpose pulsates every day throughout the streets of South Philadelphia.
Looking ahead, the Christian Street YMCA strives to resume the objective it was founded upon more than a century ago. By establishing more resources for local youth, ideally, this feeling of safety will spill past the gym of the Y.
“In my time here, I’ve heard a lot that the Y has changed,” said Lee, who was also a producer on the film. “…That the neighborhoods are changing along with that. And I think this population, that’s most affected by this gun violence, doesn’t look like the population that’s new to this community….We have a continued commitment to the traditional community of this community and with all the changes that we might need to make as a branch to do what we need to do to provide better services and higher-quality services.”
To watch the documentary, visit here.