Over the last few years, as Philadelphians endured an increase in gun violence, Shameka Sawyer was contending with a loss of her own. Philly’s crisis claimed her younger brother Allen Taylor, a.k.a. Tanch, in 2020, just one week before his 35th birthday. So she took matters into her own hands, and set out to create an arts-centered program designed to deter the city’s youth from picking up guns.

“I felt like I had to do something. I also felt [like] the city, and the residents here in our communities needed to do something of their own,” said Sawyer, an award-winning film director. “I just took what I knew how to do, which is video production, and created a program that would teach kids that are directly impacted by gun violence how to use this visual freetime as a method to talk about what they’re going through. But then also to learn how to cope.”

The result was Bout Mine I Matter, a program and its resulting series of short documentaries memorializing the loved ones who participants lost to gun violence. In addition to teaching video production skills, the initiative aims to promote mental and emotional health and social skills by having participants engage in group learning, of de-escalation techniques, for example, and conversations about processing trauma, sometimes facilitated by a behavioral health counselor. 

The goal is to teach young people how to be creative with their storytelling while also learning how to manage their feelings positively, Sawyer said, “as opposed to resorting to violence, or negativity.”

With roots in Northwest Philadelphia, Sawyer, who is Bout Mine I Matter’s executive director, said she and her team were intentional about selecting students from the Northwest community because that area lacks extra-curricular activities. Seven students participated, and they released their first short documentary in October. It zooms in on how younger constituents feel about gun violence and the types of solutions they think could help curtail the spike in gun-related crimes.

In a conversation with The Trace, Nia Alexander, 16, her sister Ayanna, 11, and Carmelo Whitehead, 15, shared their thoughts and opinions about gun violence in Philadelphia and the Bout Mine I Matter project. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

What made you want to participate in the Bout Mine I Matter documentary?

Carmelo: My contribution to this project was inspired by my Uncle Eddie, whose life was lost to gun violence. I really wanted to be involved because I felt like, even though my uncle is no longer here, I’m giving his voice a platform. I’m also using my voice and platform to spread awareness that gun violence isn’t a joke and that people shouldn’t have to deal with losing loved ones to gun violence as often as they do.

Ayanna: I was interested in this project because the topic of gun violence is a really big problem, especially in Philadelphia. It seems like because people have guns, they feel as though they have to do something with them. I feel like that’s the mentality that a lot of people have and it needs to change.

Nia: To be honest, at first I wanted to participate for the money before I really knew what the program was about. But when I got into the program, it was really fun and it was a really great way to share my experience with people and get it off my chest.

Shameka Sawyer, the founder of Bout Mine I Matter. Courtesy Shameka Sawyer

Who needs to see this documentary, and what would you like for viewers to take away from the documentary?

Carmelo: Everyone needs to see it. I hope people start to understand that when they pull that trigger, they’re taking a life and they’re taking a piece of somebody else’s life. They’re taking someone who probably had people they were really close to and others depended on, and it’s like you’re really messing up somebody else’s life by doing this. You’re also putting your own life at risk, the chance of spending your life in jail. I just really wish people would think before pulling that trigger because it doesn’t end up good both ways.

Ayanna: Everyone needs to see this and see how this is such a big problem and how gun violence affects people often.

Nia: Everybody should see the documentary and what they should take away from it is a different mindset. Instead of thinking that this is normal. It is not normal at all. We really need help. 

How has this program changed your life?

Carmelo: It showed me that I’m not the only one. There are other kids also suffering and going through losing loved ones to gun violence. And I really felt as though this is an issue that needs to be projected and put out there, but also heard from younger voices. As kids, we don’t really get a chance to express how we feel because we’re kids. Sometimes, adults and parents belittle how we feel and so I was just really glad to finally be able to say how I feel.

Ayanna: I became more aware of the problem and seeing how big of a problem it is. And that it’s happening in so many places. 

Nia: Before, I never really talked about gun violence because it’s not a topic you bring up to make conversation. It will kill the mood. Having a talk with people who have been through my situation was really great help. 

In what ways has gun violence affected or changed the way that you view Philadelphia?

Carmelo: It really showed me how cruel people can be because I grew up as a young, naive kid. I had a really good childhood and a really amazing life but, once gun violence hit me, it really showed me how, you know, this is a part of real life. People have to go through this every day. After losing someone I loved, it really did make me uncomfortable to even just go to the store at night because it’s like, will this trip be your last? So I just really started to change the way I’ve moved around.

Ayanna: This is just like a normal thing. And it happens so many times in one day. That it just isn’t surprising to anyone.

The members of Bout Mine I Matter, including Carmelo Whitehead (first from left), Nia Alexander (second from right), and Ayanna Alexander (third from right), at the premiere of their documentary this fall. Courtesy Shameka Sawyer

In the documentary, a student says that he believes a lot of people in the city of Philadelphia have become “cold” to gun violence. Why do you think that’s so?

Carmelo: I can’t even go on social media without hearing something happened with guns. It’s what’s expected to be on the news this week. It’s what is expected to be spread around, so I can see why people are getting cold to the topic.

Nia: I feel like they don’t want to talk about it because it’s hurtful. And since people are dying every day, it’s like “another life lost, okay.”

Take a look at how gun violence is playing out in our culture, and hip-hop culture more specifically. The rapper Take Off and Philadelphia’s PNB Rock were recently shot and killed. How does that make you feel?

Carmelo: It really makes me feel uncomfortable. PNB Rock was at a breakfast store and had his life taken from him and it really shows me how, due to these guns, your life can end at any second, any minute. It also makes me grateful and I want to cherish every moment I have. Especially when I’m around people that I love because I don’t know when my life can come to an end. 

Ayanna: I feel like this can happen to anyone. If you’re living a good life or a bad life. If you’re living in a good neighborhood or bad neighborhood. It doesn’t depend on your classification or anything. It doesn’t depend on your community. I feel like gun violence depends on the people in your community or the people who come into the community.

Nia: I don’t get how you can take somebody’s life so easily and just go on with your day. I don’t get why someone would even have the urge to take someone’s life. You’re not just taking their life, you’re ruining your own life. You’re hurting other people. You’re hurting family members.

Some of you talked about choosing friends wisely. Why is that important?

Ayanna: Your friends could be abusing drugs, shoplifting or anything, and they could peer pressure you and cause you to throw your own life away as well.

How would you like to make a difference?

Carmelo: By using my voice as a platform to encourage people to put down guns.

Ayanna: Not make it so easy to get your hands on a gun.

Nia: There should be more laws and more security. I heard a couple of news stories about people shooting up places and, a lot of times, teens had guns in the house and they shouldn’t have easy access to guns.

How can adults help?

Carmelo: Adults should really check up on their kids. Make sure they’re growing up right. Try to keep them in check as best they can by encouraging them to stay away from the wrong people, stay away from guns, and violence. Overall, put them in a healthy mentality.

Ayanna: Make sure your child doesn’t have a gun. They could secretly be behind your back and you won’t know that it’s there. 

Nia: Pay attention to your child’s mental health. Mental health plays a part in what they’re thinking and what’s going on in their head. Adults should pay more attention to that.