"He was always a peacemaker."
Dr. Dorothy Johnson-Speight smiles every day when she thinks of her son, Khaaliq Jabbar Johnson. Khaaliq was a social worker at Pickett Middle School in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, supporting children with mental health diagnoses and behavioral issues.
The two of them were going to earn their master's degrees together and "hang a shingle," as Dorothy says, meaning that they planned to start their own practice working with families on the issue of mental health, violence prevention, and conflict resolution. It was December 2001. Khaaliq was accepted to the master's program at Lincoln University. He was scheduled to start at the beginning of the new year.
Khaaliq didn't live to see the dream become a reality.
On December 6, 2001, Khaaliq was murdered by his neighbor, shot seven times over a parking dispute with Khaaliq's roommate from days earlier that he tried to resolve peacefully.
Seven times. Over a parking dispute. Khaaliq Jabbar Johnson was dead at the age of 24.
"He was a better part of me. He was my cheerleader," Dorothy says. "He was the glue with so many different peers. He brought groups of people together. He was that guy, very compassionate, very caring. His goal and his love were children, to help children. Just really a fine young man. I was so proud of him."
Dorothy never got to "hang a shingle" with her son, but his memory lives through Mothers In Charge, an organization that supports families impacted by violence and does prevention, intervention, and education on the issue surrounding violence and how it affects families.
"I know he would be on the front lines working side by side with me. And because he was such a peaceful guy, I know this would be one of the initiatives that he would take on, finding ways to address the issue of gun violence," Dorothy says.
Gun violence has increased nationally during the past year. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, 2021 was one of the deadliest years on record in the United States, with an estimated 20,700 people killed in gun homicides or non-suicide-related shootings – a 6% increase from 2020. In Philadelphia, there were 562 homicides in 2021 – a 13% increase from 2020 – surpassing a city record for annual homicides dating back to at least 1960. Deaths by gun violence made up for 88% of the total homicides in Philadelphia last year.
"Our hearts break for those who suffer through the trauma of losing a loved one to gun violence," says Eagles Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie. "These unspeakable tragedies wreak havoc in our communities and continue to occur with alarming frequency. As we search for ways to effect positive change in our society, we pray for those grieving in Philadelphia and around our country.
"These senseless acts of violence will not cease to occur without a concerted effort from those who govern our nation and make public policy. As a country, we need to call upon our lawmakers to enact tangible change and address this public crisis through appropriate gun safety legislation. These horrific disasters continue to occur across the United States. That is completely unacceptable and disheartening. We are faced with an epidemic plaguing our communities, and my hope is that we can influence our elected officials to create and pass legislation so the people in this country can feel safe when they leave their homes.
"Enough is enough! Assault weapons loaded with high-capacity magazines are a clear threat to public safety and should be banned. Furthermore, research shows that if a federal ban was still in place for assault weapons, there would be 70 percent fewer mass shooting deaths. Additionally, a mandatory universal background check could have a significant impact on mass shootings by ensuring that these dangerous firearms are not getting into the wrong hands."
On January 29, 2013, Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed on a Chicago playground. One week earlier, the 15-year-old high school student marched in President Barack Obama's second inaugural parade. Following this tragedy, Hadiya's friends chose to celebrate her life by wearing orange – the color hunters wear in the woods to protect themselves and others. Friday marks National Gun Violence Awareness Day. The Eagles will wear orange-themed practice shirts that will be listed on NFL Auction, and proceeds will benefit Mothers In Charge and Frontline Dads. Both organizations have previously received grant funding through the Eagles Social Justice Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation.
On Monday, the Philadelphia Police Department will hold a gun buyback event at Lincoln Financial Field from 2-6 PM. Each individual who turns in an unloaded firearm to a police officer onsite will receive a $100 gift card funded by the Eagles and the Center for Violence Prevention at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. No questions will be asked, and no appointment is needed.
"No single organization has all of the answers," said Reuben Jones, who founded Frontline Dads in 2001 to provide a support system for at-risk youth through mentorship, entrepreneurship training, violence prevention, and leadership development. "We are all just trying to do what we can. It takes initiative, it takes boldness, it takes imagination to really come up with whatever you can envision to lend some support to stop this bleeding."
"Doing nothing is not an option for me," Dorothy says. "I lost my child, so I don't ever want his death to be in vain. I've got to do this work and I think what gives me hope is my faith. We have a group of courageous women who are part of Mothers In Charge who are on the front lines wanting to help, wanting to help heal, wanting to prevent, and wanting to offer intervention and prevention. I thank God for them, but I know how hard it is for us because we know firsthand."
Mothers In Charge receives a list of people whose lives have been stolen by homicide from the City of Philadelphia each week. Peer support specialists, women who have walked in the shoes of those who lost loved ones, perform wellness checks by contacting the families to aid with the grieving process. Down the road, those surviving family members typically come back to Mothers In Charge to lend a helping hand.
Reuben points out that mental health services like the ones provided by Mothers In Charge could help stem the tide of this gun violence epidemic.
"I think we got to work hard to get people the help they need. I'm talking specifically about mental health treatment, identifying some of the behaviors at an early stage, and then support them. The Black community has not embraced mental health the way we should," he says. "Meanwhile, you're struggling with all these demons; you're struggling with self-esteem issues; you're suffering from all these psychological impacts of the trauma you've dealt with since childhood. If you aren't getting help for that, it's going to boil over at some point and land on someone else's lap."
Frontline Dads works directly with several schools in Philadelphia. At a recent visit to Science Leadership Academy based in Center City, Reuben surveyed the students and learned that nearly 90 percent knew someone who perished due to gun violence. The survivors are often victims without physical scarring.
"I think we have to stand collectively as a community and as a city and really think-tank this out and figure out what will work in this neighborhood, what will work for this demographic, and really be laser-focused and strategic and address this issue because it isn't a new phenomenon for Philadelphia," he says.
Dorothy and Reuben are optimistic that change is on the horizon despite the recent trends.
"The one thing that gives me hope is that many organizations are out here doing the work," Reuben says. "I don't know what the city would look like if those organizations weren't doing this kind of work."