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In what seems like another life, Colwin Williams committed a series of crimes that landed him in prison for almost 19 years. Now, he is an outreach coordinator for Philadelphia Ceasefire, working with high-risk youth in Philadelphia to prevent them from making his same mistakes.

“It’s so instrumental to be part of the plan when you were once a part of the problem,” Williams said. “It gives people like myself a chance to heal.”

Encircled by a captivated audience of Penn students, Williams relayed his experiences Saturday night at a photo gallery and open mic night hosted by Where’s the Love Philadelphia, a gun violence awareness project at Penn.

Since the fall of 2014, WTL has been interviewing and photographing Philadelphians who have been affected by gun violence. In partnership with local gun violence prevention groups, including Philadelphia Ceasefire and Mothers in Charge, they identified members of the community who have personal experience with gun violence. Then they recorded their stories and posted them on the WTL website.

WTL is a project of ENGAGE Philadelphia, a student-run “think and action tank” at Penn that conducts research around issues facing the city and unites stakeholders around community change.

ENGAGE was co-founded by College seniors Dan Kurland and Neil Cholli. Kurland became interested in the issue of gun violence after going to the emergency room at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for heat exhaustion and watching a young man die of gunshot wounds.

“I remember it being a traumatic and horrifying experience,” Kurland said. “It really opened my eyes to the suffering that some Philadelphians are faced with on a daily basis.”

College junior Tia Yang, the creative director for WTL, said that they started interviewing those affected by gun violence for community-level research.

“We knew we wanted to start a project to address gun violence and raise awareness of it, and once we interviewed these people we found that the best way to do that is to just get these stories out there,” she said. “They’re just really really powerful.”

The gallery, which featured several dozen photographs of community members displayed next to an iPad or printed page with their personal narrative, emphasized the cultural and social context surrounding gun violence.

“I expected to hear some of the rhetoric you hear about how guns are sort of problematic on their own,” said College senior Aidan McConnell, one of about 50 attendees at the event. “This is much more about a community reformation process. How do you get them to put down a weapon and sort of see the person you otherwise would’ve shot as a fellow human?”

Williams, the outreach coordinator, encouraged Penn students to get involved in this issue by engaging with children and young adults in the Philadelphia community beyond Penn.

“Find out where the community centers are,” he said. “Listen to them, read a book or how about just giving them a hug?”

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