Testing a poetic remedy for gun violence

by Pryce Jamison
Posted 11/1/23

The City of Philadelphia has been awarded a $1 million grant from New York-based Bloomberg Philanthropies for a public art project.

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Testing a poetic remedy for gun violence


The City of Philadelphia has been awarded a $1 million grant from New York-based Bloomberg Philanthropies for a public art project called Healing Verse Germantown: The Streets Are Talking. The initiative is part of the foundation’s Public Art Challenge, which aims to help cities use art to confront a crucial civic issue.

“Art isn’t often thought of as an intervention or a way to address issues, but through this program we are showing that it makes places beautiful and creates spaces that bring people into a conversation they haven't been a part of before,” said Stephanie Dockery, manager of Bloomberg’s Public Arts Challenge. 

In Philadelphia, that civic issue is gun violence. 

“By leading with the arts, we hope that this project can redefine the narrative around Germantown, so it’s perceived as a place of art and healing, not a place beset by violence,” said Marguerite Anglin, public art director of the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy.

Healing Verse Germantown will include poetry workshops led by professional poets and social workers, a weekly phone line featuring healing poems and mental health resources, a public art exhibition of poems from the workshops and phone line in areas affected by gun violence, and a book archiving the project, Anglin said.

“This project doesn’t pretend to have a single solution to address a complex issue such as gun violence, which requires multiple strategies and policies,” Anglin continued. “Rather, it invites Germantown’s stakeholders and bystanders, survivors and perpetrators, witnesses and observers, to tell their stories as a way to heal and deal with gun violence.”

They will be working in a variety of spaces such as historic homes, local businesses, school assemblies, community gardens, churches and block parties.

“We will be in the neighborhood, handing out flyers, knocking on doors, and making sure that Germantown residents are aware of the multiple ways to participate in and benefit from this project,” Anglin said.

The two-year project will be facilitated by the City of Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, in collaboration with artistic leads Trapeta Mayson and Yolanda Wisher, and public art coordinator Rob Blackson.

Wisher and Mayson are two of the most notable poets in the city and have a rich and influential background in the art. They have both served as the poet laureate of Philadelphia: Wisher in 2016 and 2017, and Mayson in 2020 and 2021.

According to Dockery, there were 150 project proposals from cities across 40 U.S. states and Philadelphia was one of eight recipient cities, alongside Boston, Honolulu, Atlanta, Baltimore, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Orlando and Houston.

“A city comes to us with a project; the mayors apply [with a city project team] and they already have their ideas in mind,” Dockery said. “Each project has a significant civic challenge that a city is trying to address.” 

A 57-block mapping study investigating which blocks experience the most gun violence, conducted by the city, informed the decision about which areas could benefit from the public art project, Dockery said. 

“Many of those spaces are in the Germantown neighborhood, so [the artistic leads and the Office of Arts] are going to the places where gun violence is happening and working with community members to develop poetry,” Dockery said. “Yolanda Wisher and Trapeta B. Mayson not only have incredible artistic vision, but they also have incredible partnerships within the community.”

Anglin said a website will be created to share all pertinent project information, including registration for events, workshops and tours of the public art exhibition. Project-specific social media feeds will also be created to spread the word digitally.

The intent is to elevate the voices and perspectives of local artists – and also to pay them for investing their talent and time in the project.

“We are really proud to be able to support the city in this way — our projects have created $100 million in economic impact and have helped people work more collaboratively,” Dockery said. 

“When we invest in our city’s culture makers, everyone wins,” Anglin said.

Bloomberg established the two-year public art challenge in 2014. This is the third time it has issued a grant. 

The Philadelphia project will begin with community poetry workshops in Germantown between March and August of 2024. Healing Verse Germantown’s 24-hour poetry hotline will launch September 2024.

An exhibition will launch with a kick-off celebration in September 2025, and be on view, with walking tours available, to November 2025.

“When people put their own stories and trauma on paper it can start the healing process,” Anglin said.” And when people see that the stories of their neighbors are very similar to their own, it can bring people together and create a sense of community.”