Men United For A Better Philadelphia has been able to bring focus and resources to many of the dire situations facing young black males. As it prepares for its fifth anniversary today, Men United co-chair Bilal Qayyum reflected on the grass-roots, anti-violence organization's start, its success and what it plans to accomplish.
Q. How did Men United come into existence?
A. On New Year's Day five years ago, Malik Aziz, Ray Jones and myself decided to meet and discuss homicides going up again. About 40 of us decided as a group to work together. People from Town Watch, anti-drug and anti-violence people and elected officials were part of that meeting. We decided we would work together to reduce violence in 2002.
Q. What did you do first?
A. Basically having a dialogue was our first mission. We looked at what other groups were doing, and none were really being proactive, going out on the street corners. We didn't want to duplicate the efforts of other groups. We said what could we do to get people involved, so we started street-corner campaigns, three, four days a week, hitting the corners and talking to young men.
When we started the initial efforts on the street corners, we started in the 22nd and 23rd police districts, because we found that those two districts had the highest homicide rates in the city.
Q. Would you consider that initiative a success?
A. We think and still believe to this day that we had a major impact in reducing crime in this city. If you look at 2002, that was the year the homicide rate went to its recent lowest, to 288. We were visible, going on the streets. We clearly think we were a part in reducing the violence.
Q. But Philadelphia's homicide rate has spiraled since then. Is the effort working?
A. Even though homicides have gone up, we believe strongly that if we weren't doing the work we're doing, homicides would be even higher. My position is, until you solve the fundamental problems, there will be violence. From the years 2000 to 2006, we have had 2,300-plus homicides. Of that 2,300-plus, 1,700-plus were black men. Until we address education and the jobs issue, we're going to see frustration and violence continue.
Q. Besides the effort to stem the violence, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
A. I think the biggest accomplishment is we have stayed together and stayed on our mission. We have grown to now have white and Latino men, and 700 members overall. All of our decisions are collective decisions, and that's not an easy task.
Q. What else?
A. We're the ones who put the issue of violence on the front burner, with policy issues and handgun legislation, and walking to Harrisburg for the need for employment. We had the 50 Cent billboard removed, removed the "Stop Snitchin' " T-shirts and had the gun ornaments removed, as well as the "Ghetto-opoly" game from stores. We also had a bus tour across the state to lobby for one-handgun-a-month legislation. Those are some successful accomplishments, and we feel good about the things we are doing.
Q. What further issues are of grave concern to Men United?
A. Every city has the same problems: high black unemployment, high black incarceration rates, blacks dropping out of school and only 30 percent of all black households having both a mother and father in the home. One of the biggest problems we have is addressing internally our family problems and getting them straightened out. We are no criminal class of people, so racism plays into it, and when you have 30 percent of Philadelphians living in poverty, it all boils in the pot that creates violence.
Q. What are some of the things you weren't able to do?
A. I would say we weren't able to - and we tried - to create a single, unified movement. That was our attempt when we started. There are a lot of groups in the city doing the same things, and I think we attempted to pull everyone together. On the flip side, a lot of the groups are now working together, with a unified theme that everybody buys into. Same thing with Dwight Evans and his blueprint.
Q. What does Men United hope to achieve in 2007 and beyond?
A. Clearly reducing the number of homicides is our mission. Are more kids staying in school? Is our movement creating solutions to the real problems? How do we solve the problems of the jobless rate among black males? How do we create opportunities and stop the flow of black men going to prison? As we move forward, we talk about black males because those are the ones dying. We are addressing those issues in 2007. *