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Kendra Van de Water and James Aye: Founders of YEAH Philly

YEAH Philly is all about providing safe spaces and fun experiences to Philadelphia youth. Their hangout spaces are an oasis for young people to learn about healthy communication, share a meal with their peers, and simply relax with some TV. YEAH is a Black-led organization that encourages vulnerable youth to rise above violence and reach their goals, no matter how high they are.

For people who aren’t familiar with the Philly landscape, can you tell me about the need for your services?


Kendra: Philly is a great place to be but historically it has been one of the poorest cities in the country. We have 2 million people living here, many below the poverty line. There’s increased gun violence, violent crimes, and people are desperate to get money. We’re dealing with limited resources in this city, and even when we get resources, they aren’t allocated towards the right things. Gun violence and young people in crisis are ignored.


James: We’re seeing a huge housing crisis here, there isn’t enough inventory for lower class families. In some cases, young people are incarcerated because they are in between houses. People are angry, frustrated, and don’t have many options. People from ages 16-24 have experienced increased violence as a result.


If I walk into a YEAH hangout space, what can I expect to see and do?


James: It’s warm, welcoming and use-driven. You can walk in wearing your ski mask if that’s what you want to do— we accept you for who you are. We built components that young people genuinely want to use. There’s a music studio, kitchen, meeting spaces, TVs, video games, and just chill spaces. Some young people need a space to kick their feet up and relax, some want to record their life story in music, and some want to escape the food desert and learn to cook for themselves. We have it all. We offer a safe space for people to work out their issues with other people in the community so that it doesn’t escalate into violence. It’s a training facility for communication where we talk about everything openly.


Kendra: Our spaces are open from 2-10 PM because that’s when most of the violence occurs in the city. Building a space for young people is not rocket science, but it’s hard to achieve. It takes a long time to build trust and relationships with young people. Once you do, they bring their siblings, cousins, friends, and help us expand our reach. If we can’t help you with a certain problem, we find someone to help. We look at the community we serve and take all aspects into account so that we can maximize our impact.


How do your programs teach youth about healthy conflict resolution instead of violence?


Kendra: We are certified in mediation and created our model to be relevant to the population we serve: young Black people. Our program is a two-day event that is 8-10 hours of training. The first day is focused on conflict— how you identify it, types of conflict, and differences between conflicts. The second day is focused on mediation— opening statements, how to interact with someone you’re in a conflict with, and how to move forward peacefully. Young people are paid $150 for completing the training as incentive to participate. We want to shift the narrative around conflict and teach as many people as possible how to mediate with their friends and deal with internal conflict.


James: The training helps people build their confidence and brings people out of their shell. We put it out there for people in the community to be part of and bring it to schools. It helps them to learn about us and us to learn about them.


Can you tell me about some of the long-term skills you hope to instill in youth?


Kendra: The long term skills are what we are intentional about. We help with getting access to food and housing to create long term, sustainable change. It’s building self sufficiency, and it takes baby steps to get there. People come to us without any vital documents, like a birth certificate or social security number. You can’t do anything without those, so we help people get access to those documents. Some people come in who are anti-Black and against their own race because that’s what white people have taught them to believe. We teach them to be proud of being Black. We’re also big on peer accountability— you need to get support from other people your age and want to provide a space for that.


James: We show people how to open their own bank accounts and learn how to budget. It’s a reality check for some people to realize what they need financially to reach their goals. There are young people who come to us in survival mode. They are trying to figure out how to stay alive. When they come to us, they can be a kid. They laugh, make jokes, play hide and seek. It’s such an important part of life.

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