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Calls to end violence from ex-convicts and mothers of children fallen to gun violence dominated the York City Peace & Opportunity Summit.

The Tuesday, June 26, summit brought in nearly 150 individuals and a mix of nine employers and educators to William Penn Senior High School in hopes of bringing those affiliated with violence into the local workforce.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich said the summit was "experimental" and will be further developed as future summits bring in more community members.

In a Monday, June 25, Facebook Live video, Helfrich emphasized that the meeting wasn't intended to focus on violence and added the event wasn't "a setup" for those with criminal records.

However, after the first hour, the displays set up by employers and educators came second to personal reflections of the city's violent history and calls to change it.

York City streets have been heavily exposed to gun violence in the first half of 2018.

There have been 22 shootings in the city since January, six of them fatal. That compares to 11 shootings, including four deaths, during the same time last year.

More: York City gym owner wants shooters to put down guns, lace up gloves

More: Police: Two shot in York City within 10 hours

"The violence and the deep-rooted problems in the city aren't going to be fixed by the government," Helfrich said. "They're going to be fixed by the community, nonprofit organizations and educational institutions. By coming together, we can start to fix this." 

Despite the focus on violence, event organizers and employers praised the initiative and noted its importance.

Jamiel Alexander, who co-organized the event, said he grew up in the juvenile justice system, which inspired him to help youth in a similar situation.

"When I was growing up, my excuse was that I didn't have a job so I started hustling," he said. "Now we have 10 employers out here, so what is the excuse for the kids now?"

Alexander is a fellow at The Aspen Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit think tank that brings together leaders, scholars and members of the public to address complex issues worldwide.

"It takes a village to raise a child," he said. "We need the kids to not only better their lives but better the lives of their families too."

Douglas Knight, a representative from York Exponential, a robotics company in York City, said he has noticed the effects of a criminal record on those seeking jobs.

"Barriers to employment are something that's very real," he said. "Checking that box that says you're a convicted felon can really affect somebody's drive if they want to do well for themselves and their families."

Knight added that punishment is needed for those who commit crimes but that offenders shouldn't continue to be punished after paying fines or serving jail time.

"Our belief is that if someone has an opportunity to pay their debt to society and then re-engage, it makes all the sense in the world for the community to create a pathway to employment that makes sense for them," he said. "It's important that we celebrate the dignity of work."

To add to the help of employers, Helfrich also announced a "trade school revolving fund" for young adults.

The city would create the fund and philanthropists would donate to it, with potential help from the state and federal government. The funds would then be used to put local individuals through trade school training to aid them in finding jobs.

The businesses that hired the individuals or the individuals themselves would then donate back to the fund and replenish the funds spent on their training.

As for the rest of the night, stories from ex-convicts stole the spotlight.

After the first hour, the nearly 150 attendees' eyes and ears focused on Jemell "Casper" Hill, an ex-felon.

Hill spent more than two decades in prison, with charges ranging from homicide to possession of large quantities of marijuana.

His father was in jail for homicide during his childhood, and his mother was addicted to crack. He began dealing when he was 12 years old.

"I remember opening the refrigerator and all I saw was baking soda and a light bulb," he said. "I began stealing drugs so I could feed me and my little brother. From there, I was all in."

Hill was in and out of prison for 25 years. He recalled a personal revelation after speaking with another prisoner serving a life sentence, who told him, "We're both doing life; you're just doing yours in increments."

"After I was released, I was working seven days a week, and it turned my life around," he said. "We need to teach our kids that they can make it, despite what they may see in the community. They can do this."

After several other speakers with criminal records approached the microphone, a free dinner was offered to attendees. 

The crowd thinned out to just more than 30 individuals following the meal. Those who left, however, missed the most emotional moment of the night: a mother who lost her son to gun violence.

Na'Gus Griggs was shot and killed in 2014. Natalie Brown, his mother, stood at the microphone and spoke about the pain of the experience, unable to hold back tears.

More: Grieving mother begs for gun violence to stop

"Waking up is the hardest thing to do every morning," she said. "I don't want another parent to wake up like I do."

Brown has begged to put a stop to gun violence since her son's murder. She called for unity and forgiveness, but those things don't come easily after losing a loved one, she said.

"I hurt, I hurt a whole lot," she said. "When you lose a child, parents have to come together. I want to move on, and in order to move on, you have to forgive. But I'm not there yet."

The theme of the night was summarized in four of her words: "This has to stop."

The next summit is expected to be held in August, Helfrich said. The date has not been set, and the location may change.

 

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