Anti-violence organizations rely heavily on city grants, but is funding moving the needle amid rising crime?

Shane Claiborne with RAWtools Philly
Shane Claiborne with RAWtools Philly Photo credit Shane Claiborne

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — As Philadelphia heads toward the spring and summer months, typically when gun violence increases, the city is once again looking to grassroots community organizations to help fight the issue by providing much needed funding.

In the heart of Kensington, Shane Claiborne leads RAWtools Philly, a group that works with at-risk people in the community to take surrendered guns and melt and pound them into gardening tools.

“10 years ago, we got our first gun, which is an AK-47, and we chopped it up and turned it into a shovel and a rake,” Claiborne said. “That was our first raw tool, and we've been doing it ever since. Now, we get guns donated all the time.”

RAWtools Philly’s goal is to move communities away from violence, not just by making tools from guns, but to help teach new ways to solve problems through relationship, dialogue and alternative means of justice. The group was inspired by the Bible, which talks about beating swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.

“When you see this, this transformation of a gun into a garden tool, it's also healing. It's honoring people's grief and trauma and giving them a channel to take it out on the barrel of an AR-15.”

Claiborne’s group is one of many in recent years to get grant funding from the city aimed at violence prevention. Such programs have attracted more scrutiny as the rate of violence keeps rising. The city has been criticized for throwing money at the problem, and not holding grant receivers accountable, and many question whether it’s moving the needle in the right direction.

In 2021, District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office started a program to fund community groups using assets seized mostly from drug dealers.

“If we have 12, or 13 different significant approaches going that are in the nature of prevention, that are in the nature of violence intervention, we can get somewhere,” Krasner said. “If we make the mistake of thinking a single approach is going to solve everything, then we're going to fail.”

The DA’s program is about 18 months old and in partnership with the Philadelphia Foundation. It has awarded close to $1 million to nonprofit organizations throughout the city. The foundation vets each application, and makes recommendations on who should receive funding. The DA’s office makes the final decision.

The city as a whole is spending more than $200 million on such efforts this year. Erica Atwood, the deputy managing director for criminal justice and public safety in Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, has heard the criticisms of the anti-violence spending, but defends it.

“When you invest in communities that are more vulnerable to gun violence, you find opportunities for people who are at a high risk of gun violence to be engaged in programs or organizations within their communities that they have, that they trust,” Atwood said. “You do have an impact in violence over time.”

She says the city is decolonizing philanthropy.

“That means we're investing specifically in organizations who have a trusted relationship in black and brown communities who have been generationally divested from.”

Tyrone Morris runs the group Committed Community Mentors, which received a $17,000 grant from DA’s program in summer 2021. It was used to expand their safe space program for the youth. Morris says the grant support is a lifeline, part of what can help the community fix its own problems.

“We have a thing where we rely so heavily on government,” Morris said. “What is the mayor going to do for us? What is the police commissioner going to do for us? What is DHS going to do for us? I think we need to get away from that and become a more empowered community.”

He says the community knows what it needs.

“We know the kids who are kind of led astray, we know where to kind of match interventions, you know, I think that approach is more culturally competent.”

During this round of funding, the foundation intends to award $250,000. The grants vary in range from as little as $5,000 to as much as $50,000.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Shane Claiborne