On a warm afternoon, two 16-year-old boys from North Philadelphia signed a contract. By etching their names onto a piece of paper, they made a promise to call a truce.
In the months leading up to this moment, the teens had been dueling. Messages darted back and forth between their phones, their social media inboxes crowded with threats. Eventually, the two encountered each other at a nearby Six Flags. There, one boy raised a hostile warning: Next time, he would bring a gun.
When Alisha Corley, one of the boys' mothers, learned about the confrontation, she panicked. It had only been 16 years since she tragically lost her 5-year-old daughter to the bullet of a firearm.
For families like Corley’s in North Philly, gun violence is an everyday part of life. In a sense, the city serves as a microcosm of a larger-scale public health crisis. As of September, 14,516 people in the U.S. have lost their lives to guns this year, putting 2021 on track to be the deadliest in decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, young Black men and teens are 20 times more likely than their white counterparts to die by firearm.
Desperate to keep her son from becoming a statistic, Corley searched for a way to protect him. She landed on Philly Truce, an app for iOS and Android that allows Philadelphians in crisis to press a “get help” button. By doing so, users are connected to trained mediators who provide an array of services, including empathic listening, referral to wraparound services (such as mental health care), and conflict intervention. The app offers a trauma-informed alternative to contacting the police, which can in some cases intensify violence.
By connecting with the program, Corley gained access to free mediation services that ultimately allowed her son to come calmly face-to-face with the other boy. After hearing each other out, the teens realized they were more alike than different. Threats of intimidation and violence quickly gave way to open dialogue and understanding. By the end of the meeting, they agreed on a contract of peace: a Philly Truce.
The masterminds behind this exchange are Steven Pickens and Mazzie Casher, natives of North Philly, friends, and cofounders of the Philly Truce app. Pickens, a first responder for the local fire department, and Casher, a hip-hop artist, met in high school three decades ago. Today, the two men are in their 40s and have become central pillars of their local Black community.
“In parts of Philadelphia, people are prisoners in their own homes,” Pickens explains. “People have to be careful in certain neighborhoods just to sit on their own front steps.”
For most of their lives, Casher and Pickens felt like gun violence was an inevitability. “We became hopeless. We became numb, and we kind of accepted the narrative that this is the way it is in the city. This is the way it is between Black and Brown people, between poor people and the police,” Casher says. Like many folks that have experienced the reverberations of complex trauma, numbness felt like the only coping mechanism within reach.
But in the fall of 2020, something shifted. It had been a hard year. With the murder of George Floyd over the summer, followed by the local killing of Walter Wallace Jr., the Philadelphia community felt heavy-hearted. To make matters worse, gunshots continued to fire across the neighborhoods of North Philly, taking the lives of hundreds. “I noticed that interracial shootings [at] the hands of cops were getting a lot of national attention,” says Pickens. “But the everyday shootings happening in our neighborhoods, among low-income communities, weren’t getting any attention at all.”
Motivated to create change, the two men decided to take action. Not only did they want to increase public awareness of the gun violence epidemic, they wanted to develop a mechanism to make it stop. After countless conversations and weeks of brainstorming, they landed on the idea of creating an app. “We wanted to design a product with the thought in mind that we, as the community, need to help ourselves,” Casher explains.
With an ambitious vision and a grassroots budget, they turned to Weapplinse, a software development company based in India. The Philly Truce app, which launched at the beginning of May this year, was developed to offer users two choices: “get help” and “mediator.” Someone looking to de-escalate a conflict or avoid violence can provide their contact information and details to be connected to a conflict mediator. Similarly, people interested in helping their community can sign up to become mediators.
Mediators—which, for the time being, are all volunteers—are required to undergo a multi-part training where they learn skills to effectively moderate discord. Once trained, they are “on call” and gain access to real-time alerts and a queue of community members seeking help.
“We have to ask for the help, and we have to be the help,” says Casher. “We don't have to become bystanders or be relegated to being bystanders in resolving the issues that we live through on a day-to-day basis.”
Since the app launched, hundreds of Philadelphians have either received help or gotten involved to stop violence in the community. And while the app is still in development, its vision remains clear. “We want to bring violence prevention into the realm of Uber and DoorDash and Amazon—these large-scale ways of reaching people,” Pickens says.
In the next five years, Pickens and Casher hope to see their program launch in other cities, like St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit. “We see Truce as a national movement,” Casher says. By proving that their model for community-led violence prevention can work in Philadelphia, they hope to expand it nationally.
Behind the story of Philly Truce exists a larger lesson. When used correctly, technology can empower individuals that have been underserved—pushed to the margins—to become active agents within their own realities. When used correctly, technology possesses the potential to propel social justice forward.
By creating an app, Pickens and Casher were able to step into positions of influence. No longer were they dependent on the actions of outside policymakers and police officers. Now they could take their decades of lived experience and harness their pain into an effective tool for change.
To that point, building an app isn’t a complicated feat reserved for the Silicon Valley elite. The truth is, it’s actually surprisingly accessible. Neither Pickens nor Casher had a background in technology. Neither of them had created an app before. And while the two are seeking funding to grow the app and service, they financed their invention with a budget of $5,000.
Creating change within a community often feels overwhelming, but it can start small. It can begin with an idea, a conversation, a limited sum of money, and even an app. It can be catalyzed by frustration and realized through empathy.