Crystal Porter: A Powerful Voice Against Germantown Gun Violence

YWI Profile Series, Part 1

Feb. 11, 2019, 3:05 p.m.

Originally Published for WOMEN'S WAY.

In her 29 years living in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood, Crystal Porter has seen over 30 people she knew killed by gun violence. A chef at The Union League (Philadelphia’s premier private club) and mother of four, Crystal was born and raised in Germantown. She recently moved her family out of the neighborhood for the first time, down to Queen Village, in the hopes of escaping the cycle of poverty, drugs, and violence she grew up in.

“You can go through a yearbook and put an X over the faces that aren’t here anymore.”

Crystal’s family lived at the heart of Philadelphia’s gun violence epidemic, and what she and her neighbors have experienced is staggering:

“My brother has lost six or seven friends. My sister lost a best friend of hers on her birthday. I’ve lost friends the same way. It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost the norm because you hear it and you see it so much on just about every corner, every day.

“There are so many funerals you can’t decide which to go to. You can go through a yearbook and put an X over the faces that aren’t here anymore.”

There were only 21 days in 2018 without a shooting in Philadelphia.

Crystal considers herself blessed to have made it to 29 years old. One day she was walking down her street past La Salle when police cars started flying by her. She soon discovered that only five minutes after she had passed a corner a few blocks back, a shooting had broken out exactly where she had been standing.

“That was the same day they hit a little girl on her way to school.”

Crystal's children and their friends

Nowhere is being a mother easy, but trying to raise and protect children in the midst of flying bullets can be terrifying. While the schools have mostly remained a safe haven from the violence (at least the schools that have stayed open), getting kids to and from school is often the most dangerous part of their day. One father was killed by a stray bullet through his windshield while he was picking his daughter up from school. She was in the backseat.

“We have a lot of kids who don’t have fathers and mothers because of it. And it’s not always the person they intend to kill, they often end up killing innocent bystanders. You’re afraid to have your kids outside.”

The violence, she says, is due to a cycle of poverty and drugs which have devastated her community:

“They’re selling drugs to get fast money. Their father or mother may not be there, so they’re trying to make up a void to help their family. And in the process, some get lost. The young men and women who get involved with this are not stupid, there’s nothing wrong with them, they’re just trying to live. Sometimes making one wrong move can land you in a place you don’t want to be.

“In our communities, we almost have nothing. We don’t have any mentor programs any more, and what is around is so far away it’s hard for us to get to. Single parents can’t afford to bring their kids to after school programs or afford to have someone watch them, so a lot of kids get wrapped up in drugs because there’s nothing for them to do.”

In 2018 Philadelphia’s annual homicide rate reached the highest it’s been in over a decade. Of the 335 killings that took place last year, 120 of them have been linked to drugs, nearly double what it was last year. According to Crystal, people are fighting over drug territory. Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s District Attorney, agrees.

But according to Crystal, not enough is being done about it.

“We know of a lot of murders that are not solved. No one’s being prosecuted. In some cases the leading witness is killed, and there’s nothing left to get closure with. Sometimes people lose hope. The Germantown area of Philadelphia is forgotten.”

Yet, Crystal was quick to clarify that the Germantown community is not only what it may seem from the statistics,

“I don’t want to make it sound like it’s so dangerous you can’t walk down the street, because Germantown is still a good place. It’s just not a great place. Our community is actually very strong.”

“All these kids belong to me, every last one of them. That’s how I view it.”

This strong community is thanks to the tireless efforts of the neighborhood’s women, who Crystal describes as having developed a sort of communal child rearing system:

“When we were growing up we had kids in and out of our house, and we do even still. On a good day we could have all eight of the grandkids in the house, plus eight more. Everyone looks out for each other, and tries to make sure the kids stay out of trouble. That’s the only thing we have, we have to make sure every child is safe.

“We have birthday parties where we’ll pile all these children in the car with three women.[People ask] whose kids are whose and I just say, “All these kids belong to me, every last one of them”. That’s how I view it. We all look out for each other.”

Crystal and her Daughter at the Flower Show

In Crystal’s experience, the struggle of Germantown women to take care of their children is intricately connected to the violence that is plaguing the neighborhood. Many of these mothers are on their own, with fathers in jail, dead, or otherwise gone. Trying to keep the lights on and feed hungry mouths while making minimum wage (which has lost about 10% of its purchasing power in the last 10 years) is a Sisyphean task. Families are relying more and more on multiple generations of mothers, grandmothers, and aunts for support. With tears in her eyes, Crystal describes what it was like growing up for her:

“My mom was a single mother with the three of us, but she had a huge support system of her mother, my great grandmother, and my great aunt. So I was raised in a house of very strong women…

“My grandmother meant so much to me. Just to have someone who would hold your whole family together, who you knew you could always run to when something went wrong, or who will always be there for you. That’s a lot of what the women and grandparents are in our families.

“People say African-American women are so tough, but we’re not always tough. We’re trying to keep it together for the children so they might not know that we don’t have enough. No one else can see the hurt and pain you have. And you pass that on, it’s almost like a generational curse that we’re always trying to break.”

The generational curse Crystal describes seems to invade nearly every aspect of life for the women who grow up with poverty, violence, and hiding their pain as default setting. When parents are so busy just trying to keep everything together, teaching doesn’t happen.

“No one else can see the hurt and pain you have. And you pass that on, it’s almost like a generational curse that we’re always trying to break.”

But Crystal is determined to break the curse for her own children, and she sees WOMEN’S WAY and the Young Women’s Initiative (YWI) as an integral part of that.

“I try to bring my daughter to YWI events so she can see how WOMEN’S WAY unites women. It’s amazing to me. I want my children to be able to say, “My mom did something to help us.” I feel WOMEN’S WAY is doing a great job helping women.”

In June, Crystal traveled to Harrisburg with the Mastery Parent Action Team to lobby for common sense gun reform in the wake of 10 Mastery school students who lost their lives to gun violence. In Harrisburg, Crystal had the chance to meet with the supporters and opponents of the bills for which she was advocating, an experience she described as “amazing”, despite the repeated roadblocks the bills still face.

But Crystal is a fighter, and she does not intend to let the people of Germantown remain forgotten. Getting out of her neighborhood to make sure the stories of her friends are told, through their own voices, is important to her. And she intends to make sure those voices are heard. She’s developed a personal motto to inspire her to get out of her comfort zone and advocate for change:

“I can’t be counted if I don’t show up.”

And Crystal intends to show up and be counted everywhere she can.

*Some quotes have been edited for clarity