When TA Williams was trying to motivate young people, there was a point he made over and over.
“He liked to tell people,” his colleague Romeeka Williams recalled, “that if he didn’t turn his life around, he was going to be in jail for a long time, or he was going to be dead.”
He did turn his life around. At 17, the North Philadelphia youth was locked up for an armed robbery; by 20, he was a well-known anti-incarceration activist, a leader in the Youth Art and Self-empowerment Project (YASP), the No215Jail Coalition, and efforts to launch a community bail fund in the city.
Nonetheless, at 22 years old, TA Williams is dead.
Williams, whose given name was Terrance, was shot twice Dec. 10 at Rorer and Westmoreland Streets in Kensington, and later pronounced dead at Temple University Hospital.
Police said an investigation is ongoing.
Sarah Morris, a YASP founder, said that although Williams spent his days speaking to students and lobbying officials in City Hall and the state Capitol, danger was closer than it appeared. Over the last few years, he lost at least a dozen friends to violent deaths.
“Part of what it shows us is that the city is not safe for young black men, and that even someone like TA — who is doing everything that he can to better himself and the world, that didn’t make him any safer. He still lived in a city where young black men are gunned down every day. And it’s not going to stop until we take seriously that this is an epidemic and until we recognize — and this is what TA fought for and lived for — that putting people in cages is not going to stop this.”
She said Williams believed the answer was to address the root causes: the trauma, victimization, lack of opportunity and role models, that led many into the streets.
He experienced those firsthand, and landed in the juvenile block of the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center at 17, a juvenile charged as an adult with a long list of offenses. Friends attributed that to peer influences and a bleak home life to counter them.
“It was hard for him as a young child,” Romeeka Williams said.
YASP runs weekly arts workshops for kids held in Philadelphia’s adult jails, drawing and writing poetry. Williams started attending because he’d heard they played the rapper Yo Gotti.
“He was excited about the music. Then he really got into writing poetry and sharing what was going on with him,” Morris said. Before he turned 18 and was transferred off the juvenile block, she gave him a YASP brochure.
He ended up getting a sentence of placement in a juvenile facility — along with adult probation and a felony charge that proved an indelible mark on his record.
When he returned home from juvenile placement in 2014, he applied for dozens of jobs.
“One lady, I went to the interview, and she said, ‘You’re perfect for the job,’ ” he told the Inquirer and Daily News last year. When he followed up later, she told him, “I wasn’t going to call you back at all. Do you know what your record looks like?”
Then he remembered that YASP brochure. Morris and Romeeka Williams invited him in for an interview.
“As soon as he left the office, we looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve got to hire him,’ ” Morris said. “He was such a powerful storyteller. A lot of people make notes or prepare what they’re going to say. TA would show up, speak from the heart, and he connected with people instantly. He reached people because he was so genuine and real in who he was and what he shared with the world.”
Among the causes closest to his heart was repealing Act 33 of 1996, the state law that allows prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults for a number of serious offenses.
Leola Hardy of the Defender Association worked with him on a work group aiming to highlight the plight of kids in the city’s adult jails. He had a special way of humanizing the issue. “He took what happened to him, and was able to change it into something positive and use his experience to try to make it better for other kids.”
His other passion was convincing the kids on the block where he grew up, at Croskey and Berks Streets, to choose a better path.
At a Tuesday night vigil, hundreds of those friends and relatives flooded the intersection he had known so well, holding black and gray balloons and recalling stories of TA — a source of inspiration, encouragement, and wisdom.
“A rainy day, he’d make it sunny,” said Tynesha Robinson, 23, who grew up with Williams.
They also urged those who know who killed him to speak up, and those engaging in risky behavior to take Williams’ death as a wake-up call.
“If you want to honor my nephew, put the guns down,” an uncle, Tyrone Williams, told the crowd. “We’re losing too many. … Don’t let another family go through this.”
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With YASP, Williams tried to warn young people in schools around the city about how easy it is to get involved with the system, how difficult to escape it. One workshop, scheduled for Wednesday, had to be canceled.
Nadirah Sulayman, a teacher at Mastery Charter Shoemaker, said that after Williams came in to speak with her male students, she asked him to take aside a boy who had been struggling. “When TA spoke,” she said, “he listened.”
Among friends, “he was the most energetic person ever, always laughing, smiling, making the bad times great times,” said David Harrington, 20, who worked with him at YASP. He was never short on enthusiasm. After they led a recent workshop together at the Logan branch library, Harrington cautiously suggested they get library cards, something neither had since he was a child.
“He was like, ‘Yeah! I wanted to stay anyways. Let’s do it!’ ” They stayed for more than an hour, browsing, checking out books and DVDs — a “hood” novel and the animated film Sausage Party for Williams.
The father of a 2-year-old girl and caretaker for his disabled father, Williams was also a joker, a hugger — the kind of person, Harrington said, “who never turned his back on anyone.”
That’s how Williams was ever since he was a teen, said Movita Johnson-Harrell, a YASP board member and a family friend of Williams’. She lost her own son to gun violence in 2011, and started the CHARLES Foundation to advocate in his memory.
“We’re losing a generation to gun violence, and it makes no sense,” she said. “We have a huge problem with the value of life in this country, because most of the homicides that happen are because of illegal guns. These young people with no conflict-resolution skills can access weapons, and these are the kind of things that happen as a result.”
But to her, Williams’ death was especially senseless. “He had turned his life around. He was working in the community, he was empowering other young people, and he had a wonderfully bright future ahead of him.”