What Should Being Black in Philly Look Like? It Should Provide Opportunity and Safety for Our Children

Keir Bradford-Grey on the need for more investment in public schools and on how the justice system limits possibilities for youth in the Black community.

Keir Bradford-Grey

The Defender Association of Philadelphia’s Keir Bradford-Grey. Photograph courtesy the Tribune

Keir Bradford-Grey, 46, of East Oak Lane, is chief defender/executive director at the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

When I was growing up in Boston, the wealth and racial disparity was so prevalent and entrenched that I came to accept it as a fact of life. I did not see Black people in positions of power, and I didn’t know many Black people from the neighborhoods that I could only dream of living in — the ones with the nice recreation centers, parks, libraries, schools and swimming pools.

While I realize today that these neighborhoods were largely made up of average middle-class white people, back then, I believed that for me to live in a similar community, I had to be in the elite.

I never imagined leaving Boston. I always intended to return north after finishing school, but I wanted to live in a place that wouldn’t limit my opportunities — a place where I could build on what I had achieved despite everyone’s expectations. I found that when I came to Philadelphia in 1999.

For the first time, I found myself living in a major city where Blacks not only were able to gain material wealth, but also held key elected and leadership positions. Philadelphia has provided me with the kinds of opportunities I had always dreamed of. But along with these opportunities are some very harsh realities that jeopardize the generational security I want for my children.

My husband and I are both professionals, living in an economically stable section of the city. Yet when our children were young, we didn’t feel we could send them to our neighborhood school. Even in our neighborhood, the lack of investment in public schools located outside of Center City was apparent. We, like many others, spent our savings to pay for our children’s primary education, pinning our hopes on them qualifying for admission to one of Philadelphia’s highly selective public high schools. I’d love to see Philadelphia take more ownership of its struggling Black communities. Our city’s Black leaders should be more engaged with our youth, providing mentoring and creating opportunities for them to learn about different careers. Our police need to show that they truly value young Black people not by simply “patrolling” their neighborhoods, but by talking to and getting to know them as people, not potential suspects.

We need to find better alternatives to the justice system’s involvement in the lives of Black children. Our justice system provides Black people with all the punishment but takes no responsibility for showing them a better way. As a Black community, we need to understand this and all the systems that are destroying the opportunities for youth in the Black community.

At the Defender Association of Philadelphia, we have expanded our mission to include community engagement and collaboration that will help us advance better, longer-lasting solutions for future generations. If we are willing to put in the energy and commitment it takes to dismantle the power structures that keep Black people marginalized and in poverty, more of us can experience the Philadelphia that I did in 1999: a model city where families can achieve their life goals.

Published as “It Should Look Like Families Thriving” in the What Should Being Black in Philly Look Like? feature in the August 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.