Germantown’s Asia Adams was a brilliant, outgoing, 21-year-old West Chester University student with a bright future and an infectious smile when her boyfriend and another man murdered her on a weekend home from school in 2004.
The immediate aftermath of Adam’s death enveloped her mother, Shelah Harper, with the pain and overwhelming trauma that accompanies the loss of an only child from intimate partner violence. During the 10 days it took police to find her daughter’s killers, Harper, a nonviolent person by nature, sought different avenues to quell the rage burning inside her.
Then and there, Harper founded the Asia Adams Save Our Children Foundation, which, for the past 16 years, has used evidence-based tools, training, and advocacy to teach over 20,000 children about healthy relationships. The organization reaches out to middle schools, high schools, and universities to help students recognize the warning signs of intimate partner violence.
“I think it’s critically important,” Harper said when asked how organizations like hers can help with violence prevention in Philadelphia. “I think that’s the piece that’s been missing. Unless you’ve experienced certain things yourself it’s difficult to go into a community and say, well, this is what you should be doing.”
With gun violence on the rise and homicide rates reaching record highs in Philadelphia earlier this year, District Attorney Larry Krasner bet big that community and nonprofit groups like Asia Adams Foundation could be a genuine part of the solution. Since last May, Krasner’s Community Engagement Unit, led by Philadelphia County Detective and faith leader G. Lamar Stewart, has awarded over $700,000 to 29 grassroots organizations involved in drug and violence prevention activities. Despite a push to label the incumbent DA as soft on crime — which a recent study stated isn’t true — voters and community organizers overwhelmingly supported his efforts.
As of Sunday, the city has surpassed 400 homicides for the year, up 18% over the previous year, and over 1,600 shootings, with 340 of them fatal. A significant majority of victims are young, African American men, many of whom spent the past 18 months dealing with the trauma caused by social isolation and undue economic hardships of the ongoing pandemic. According to Stewart, the DA’s office invests in neighborhoods with extreme poverty through the Community Engagement Unit, which statistics show correlates with increased crime.
“There are grassroots organizations who have been on the ground attempting to engage and resolve beefs with groups, and individuals, and those communities,” Stewart said. “We often look at the number of shootings and homicides that we see in a city, but we don’t measure, and it’s hard to measure, the impact of community-based organizations who have prevented such shootings from happening in the first place.”
In August, Stewart spent the month on a late-night tour of the city speaking to people standing on corners, who he perceived doing hand-to-hand transactions. Along with community organizers, including former juvenile lifers Don Jones and Donnell Drinks of the organization G.R.O.W.N., Terry Jenkins, who lost her son to homicide, and other returning citizens and faith leaders, Stewart went to various neighborhoods asking people what they would need to change their lives. Many said housing, better paying jobs, or a chance to start somewhere new.
But almost everyone said “opportunity.”
And that’s what the DA’s Violence Prevention Grants program offers to the city, especially African American communities hit most hard by gun violence — opportunity. With help from the Philadelphia Foundation, which distributes and audits the grants, Stewart works with a committee of people dedicated to the project. The list includes First Assistant Robert Listenbee, Director of Administration Cecilia Madden, ADA Andrew Jenemann of the Public Nuisance Task Force, and Nancy Winkleman, chief of the law division. Together, they have distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to some of the city’s most essential nonprofits — a star-studded list of organizations such as Savage Sisters Recovery, Kensington Soccer Club, NOMO Foundation, Fathership Foundation, EYEKONZ Sports League, and the Asia Adams Foundation
“It’s always been important to bring the community into the conversation,” Stewart said. “When we talk about solutions to gun violence, it’s the community that understands the culture within community, but also the culture of gun violence.”
Right now, the DA funds the Violence Prevention Grant program through what he calls the “lawful and appropriate use of civil asset forfeiture,” but he wants the city, both public and private sector, to do their part. Krasner has challenged the one percent in corporate and academic circles to match a $100 million fundraising goal set earlier this year. “The clock is ticking,” Krasner said in a statement. “We can save lives.”
Every day, Harper thinks about her daughter, Asia Adams, and honors her by saving the next young woman’s life. She plans to use her Violence Prevention Grant to expand the staff at her foundation.
“I personally have a great respect and admiration for our District Attorney Krasner,” Harper said. I think his approach to dealing with violence is a lot different from many of his predecessors.”