DaBottom4: Meet the Kids Who Run West Philly
It's late summer and Drexel students are lofting Queen-sized beds into dorm rooms and condos seven floors above the pavement. The UPenn bookstore is flooded with new collegiates, arms weighed down with stacks of new issued texts, a heavy load that’s heavy on the wallet.
But blocks away from that hustle and bustle of a new school year for two of the city’s largest universities, a small group forms. Quintessa Boone and Vinte Clemons, both 24 years-old, lead me inside the doors of the West Philadelphia Community Center and around the corner to a stark conference room. We’ve got about 15 minutes to talk before the other members of their youth-lead community activist organization, Da Bottom 4
, come in for the group’s weekly meeting.
There are no expensive textbooks at this meeting. There is no professor. It’s just a group of kids, ages ranging from 18 to 24, who live in the Mantua neighborhood, who are visionaries.
They are Da Bottom 4. They are lead by Vinte Clemons, who started DB4 after an internship with Mt. Vernon Manor and Drexel University led him to recruiting a team of peers to act as a youth voice for the We Are Mantua! planning committee.
Of course, DB4 is not the only young activists group in the city, but, as Lucy Kerman
, PhD and Vice Provost of Drexel’s University and Community Partnerships, puts it, “there are not many with the same level of organized, strategic neighborhood planning.” For example, when Kerman and her team asked DB4 to help plan a middle school-based summer program, they got more than they expected.
“They had a phenomenal idea. The program was for middle school kids but [DB4] told us to make sure there were jobs for teens. The teens acted as junior coaches, and they knew how to talk to the kids so there was no behavioral problems.” The summer program helped younger kids learn everything from playwriting to long distance running, and taught junior coaches something even more invaluable: leadership skills and confidence.
If you walk through the Mantua neighborhood you’ll notice that many of its buildings are in ruins. There are no grocery stores and no sit-down restaurants, and parks are scarce. Things that are not scarce? Gun violence, burglary. Other things that are scarce? Job opportunities, youth outlets. But out of the ashes of violence and the absence and structural ruins comes something completely structured and opportunistic.
“If 12 people have an idea, it’s irrelevant,” says Clemons between nods and hello’s to the DB4 members entering the room, “but [DB4] is not just an idea, it’s a movement, and everyone in the community is involved in this movement.” The group goes door-to-door to recruit. It uses social media to promote events and participation. It’s most recent project and the focus of tonight’s meeting was the September 22 Anti-Violence and Pro-Voting Cookout held at the 39th Street Playground.
These are young adults that grew up around (some were even involved in) neighborhood gun violence and crime. The most important thing to remember about this group is that when they talk, their peers listen. They’ve been there, they’ve seen that, and they want it to stop. “You can’t let someone outside of your community come in and decide for you,” says Clemons. And who would listen, anyway? Sometimes, you can’t let someone outside of your peer group decide for you, either, and that’s why DB4 is succeeding in bridging the gap between the Mantua youth and the rest of the community.
I will be 25 in a week, only months before Clemons’ 25th birthday. I have never seen a gun under violent circumstance. My parents helped me buy expensive textbooks and lug a mattress up 10 flights of stairs to my college dorm room. I’ve had countless opportunities and endless resources. I would be more comfortable helping carry a stranger’s books to their Ivy-league class, lifting a bed corner or plugging in a lamp in some 18x10 living box, than sitting in on a meeting about violence in Mantua and how to change it. And while I sit in on a meeting about violence in Mantua and how to change it, I can’t stop thinking about how privilege shapes lives.
We all want to believe that under someone else’s circumstances, we’d be just as good. That’s not true. These young Mantua residents don’t need specific privileges to discover their position in the world. They don’t need expensive textbooks. They are visionaries, what they see in their minds is what they put on paper and execute. They are here to pick up pieces of a neighborhood that was broken long before they even existed. They are strong, confident, reliable, organized, careful, considerate, groundbreaking. They are the professors of their own community, teaching each other, living their lessons.
In Mantua, in the WPCC conference room, in the minds of all members of Da Bottom 4, there’s never a “new school year,” it’s cyclical. Class is always in-session.
NIKKI VOLPICELLI is a Fishtown-based freelance writer and founder of the Philadelphia Music Showcase. Send feedback here.