Dinner with Decision Makers: Pastor Carl Day and Reverend G. Lamar Stewart

As part of the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders’ Dinner with Decision Makers event series—a component of the Neubauer Fellowship in Educational Leadership—faith-based leaders Pastor Carl Day and Reverend G. Lamar Stewart shared their experiences on the front lines of the gun violence crisis in Philadelphia, speaking authentically about serving as first responders when violence occurs and imparting the lessons and paths forward that they’ve identified through their community service initiatives and outreach.

The May 11 dialogue was just one part of an ongoing conversation regarding the critical and timely need to address gun violence in the city of Philadelphia, as PASL serves to support educational leaders in addressing the challenges and barriers to learning that students face so that every student in Philadelphia has an educational experience that prepares them for success.

“The weight of this burden falls not only on the shoulders of our educators, but also on the fabric of our entire city,” said Latanya Simmons, PASL Program Director and 2019 Neubauer Fellow. “Gun violence has left an indelible mark on our children, our community, and those who dedicate themselves to shaping young minds.”

Moderated by Aliya Catanch-Bradley, Principal of Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School and 2019 Neubauer Fellow, the panel served to engage attendees in meaningful conversation surrounding how to make our community safer for students and each other.

“This is past a crisis,” said Catanch-Bradley. “We are at critical mass, and everyone in this room is part of the solution.”

Both Day and Stewart are deeply involved in the anti-violence initiatives, particularly in the violence prevention and violence interruption space, in addition to providing support to co-victims and families, not only in the immediate aftermath of an incident but in ongoing ways. Day and Stewart facilitate multiple programs that connect with young Black men and work with them to forge a path to success that doesn’t require them to engage in violence, addressing the root causes that lead people to commit acts of violence and identifying a clear vision of success in each individual’s life.

Day is the lead pastor of Culture Changing Christians Worship Center in North Philadelphia, leading the institution’s Castoffs to Conquerors and Beat the Block programs, among others. Castoffs to Conquerors is a youth mentorship program for male teens; Beat the Block is a transformative paid training program for high-risk men, ages 18 to 24, that supports participants in finding professional success in pursuing their passions.

Stewart is the senior pastor at Taylor Memorial Baptist Church and founder of Taylor MADE Opportunities, a nonprofit that works to prevent gun violence through mentoring, advocacy, development, and education. He facilitates numerous other programs, including Corners to Connections, in which a group of volunteers spends time on street corners, directly engaging youth at risk of committing violence and doing what they can to put them on a different path. At the end of each month that Corners to Connections is active—typically four months of the year occurring each quarter—they host an employment fair.

Philadelphia natives themselves, both of whom were teenage fathers, Day and Stewart see a lot of themselves in the young men they serve.

“I was once one of these young kids,” said Day. “I became a product of my environment. I had my first son at 18 years old, found my way into the criminal justice system, and had to fight my way through my own trials and tribulations. It took a great reverend in my life to really reach me. If God can change me, have me go from a place and space where people called me dangerous to having dialogue with U.S. presidents and being acknowledged at the White House and doing a ton of things, then I want to let the kids know, ‘You can change.’

“Those things continue to fuel me. I want to make sure I reach youth, I want to do what I need to do to make sure that these kids don’t make those same mistakes.”

Stewart grew up in Germantown, spending his weekdays with his mother and his weekends with his dad. “My mother was connected to the church, my father was connected to the streets,” said Stewart.

“I grew up looking for guidance from men,” said Stewart. “Very early in life, I understood the value of the male figure in the lives of young men and women, as mentors and as a paternal voice, a voice of love and affirmation. I would not be where I am without those men who came along and without a loving mother and a loving grandmother who was a part of my village. I am grateful to dedicate my life to helping young adults to find their path, as a brother/uncle figure/father figure helping to push them.”

Much of the violence interruption work that Day and Stewart do focuses on addressing the root causes that drive young people to make the decisions they make.

Stewart recalled one young man he encountered as part of Corners to Connections who reached out to Stewart after the group’s initial contact. “I’ve been thinking about what you and the group mentioned to me, how you affirmed me. You made me think about my choices,” the man said, and then admitted that he had been actively looking for someone to rob when he encountered the group. He was recently released from jail and was unable to find ways to support his family. “I have a baby mama at home, two young kids, my refrigerator is empty,” he said to Stewart.

“He was about to commit an act of violence because of food insecurity,” said Stewart. “Sometimes it’s basic needs that need to be met in someone’s life, be that housing insecurity, food insecurity, emotional instability, a desire to feel like they’re a part of something—young people who just want to belong to a family because their village is not there.”

Both panelists emphasized the power of connection in the anti-violence fight.

“The moment we can provide these kids love, the results speak for themselves,” said Day. “Everybody that we get to pour into, and we see the transformation—that gives me hope. We can scale it up, we can do different things, we can help train others, we can pour into others, and they’ll do the same thing in their community. … Peer-to-peer influence is the strongest measure of influence we have today. Identify the people with the most influence. Reach that one, really connect with them. People will follow their lead, and that peer-to-peer pipeline stays authentic.”

“With Corners to Connections, my interactions with young men are really the same interactions I have with my children,” said Stewart. “Most of them are looking for consistency, for love. I’m committed to saying things like, ‘I’m proud of you,’ ‘How’s your family?’ ‘How are you holding up today?’ and ‘I believe in you,’ and encouraging them to affirm themselves. In many cases, particularly with our men, they have not heard that coming from a father figure. … They’re looking for affirmation, but you have ‘uncs’  putting a package (drugs) or a gun in their hand, telling them their rite of passage for this family is going out and doing a carjacking, or shooting, or holding.

“A lot of the work we’re doing is creating a space where we’re filling that same void through consistency, through compassion, through love, and in a way that’s going to lead to a path of positivity and wholeness and productivity,” said Stewart.

“One thing that we have to teach young people, young men, is that there is strength in expressing your emotions,” said Day. “Without expressing your emotions, you will struggle with self-awareness, figuring out who you are. When you struggle with your own identity, you’re easily influenced.

“We literally opened the door for people to be themselves. That’s the key to being accepted, to family—that people know that you love them for who they are,” Day continued. “Embrace how you really feel. Embrace who you’re working to become. We teach them that winning is different for every single person. If you’re being who you are, if you’re working toward who you want to become, that’s a win for you. Your wins don’t have to look like everyone else’s. The moment we realize that, it kills the spirit of comparison. The only way you really win is if you’re being yourself. Who do you want to be? My mission is to help you become that, not anybody else.”

Throughout the night, Day and Stewart spoke of the opportunities they see to expand their efforts through collaboration and communication—among peers, parents, schools, grassroots organizations, and community leaders.

“I think we build those bridges, and we share each other’s hearts and we share each other’s vision, because, ultimately, the goal is to keep the children safe and healthy, in school and out of school,” said Day. “We can build some type of community or collective to where we have regular, meaningful gatherings, and we can find out what’s going on, what help is needed, and we can connect and plug our resources together.”

“At a grassroots level, community-based organizations, faith-based partners need to sit down and prioritize safe corridors and safe spaces in the schools for our young people,” said Stewart. “City leaders are not creating a model for healing and collaboration. We can create the model, and tell government, ‘We want you to fund this, support this, come along side of this.’”

Day and Stewart’s message of hope, and their sharing of the transformation they are seeing through positive connection, resonated with Fellows.

“In order for us to really help our kids, we really need to understand our kids, we need to be change agents for our kids,” said Brian Meadows, Principal of Thurgood Marshall School and 2022 Fellow. “My challenge to everyone in this room: What are we doing to be preventionists and interventionists? How are we getting ahead of the curve to interject ourselves to push our kids to get on the right trajectory to being successful citizens of our society?”