Ashley Wilkerson, who lost her brother to gun violence, led the group in a call-and-response tribute to victims and their families

Story by Kristin Marguerite Doidge | Photos by Sofia Koyama

Brave. Loved. Articulate. Dynamic. Precious. Safe. Beautiful.

These were the words called out by community members after three young people touched by gun violence shared their stories on a recent Saturday morning at the Inglewood City Hall Community Center.

“You could be anywhere in the world on a Saturday,” said emcee Ashley Wilkerson, “but you chose to come here.”

A poet and activist, Wilkerson believes that words have power. And at this second annual “Youth Survivors Speak Out!” event organized by Mothers in Charge Los Angeles, those words have the power to heal.

Wilkerson’s new poem, “Reverence,” when read aloud, calls on us to respond:

Emani McAllister, a youth panelist impacted by gun violence, hugs moderator Eyvonne Burgin after sharing her story

Egungun*

Egungun

AyeJohnJohn

With these brown hands

I touched the earth

and scrubbed

my brother’s blood.

It was like red lipstick on cement.

A bloody kiss

after schizophrenic bullets

took a piece of his heart…

“Call out the name of your loved one,” she said.

“Alicia. Tony. John John.”

Wilkerson continued:

…Black Man Dead

at the hands of another

black boy almost dead

doesn’t warrant a protest…

Indeed, Paula Henderson-Dix noted, “violence numbers are down in the area, and opioid use is up.”

The silence is deafening.

“We can’t sit and be quiet,” she said. “I know it can be uncomfortable. But this is healing.”

Henderson-Dix speaks from a place of raw truth. Her son, Leeban Adan, was murdered the day before his 21st birthday in 2010.

It remains an unsolved crime.

“He was in the U.S. Navy and wasn’t even home a year before he was killed,” Henderson-Dix said. In 2013, she founded Mothers In Charge Los Angeles, the local chapter of a national nonprofit that aims to reduce violent crime through prevention, education and intervention, and to guide and support the families of victims.

Families, not unlike her own, she said, who are reeling from the pain of a loss that didn’t have to happen. Henderson-Dix connected with Wilkerson at a Survivors Speak event in Sacramento two years ago. Wilkerson was moved to participate having lost her brother, John, to gun violence 12 years ago.

“It’s really important to center the stories around survivors and their healing journey,” Wilkerson said. “We don’t often get a chance to hear how the youth are affected by it all.”

Aye, JohnJohn.

Gun violence survivor Melvin Farmer III (left) and other participants gather around Paula Henderson-Dix and her granddaughter

John Wilkerson was 28 years old when he was shot dead on Sept. 22, 2007. Ashley Wilkerson was 24. “It took us 10 long years to go to court. His killer was sentenced on Sept. 13, 2017,” she said.

Ultimately, it wasn’t the sentencing of her brother’s killer so much as the work she’s done in John’s honor — with reverence – that has provided the healing she so badly needed.

Aside from her work as an artist and poet, Wilkerson leads trauma-informed mindfulness meditation workshops for black boys and men seeking peace, called “Brother Breathe.”

“It’s symbolic,” she told the assembled youth, parents and community members in Inglewood. “Always go back to your breath.”

Melvin Farmer III is only 18 years old, but he’s already experienced more loss than any teenager — or adult, for that matter — should have to. In a single week, he witnessed three of his friends get killed one summer. He too was shot in the arm.

Brave. Loved. Articulate.

“That same night, I wrote a song,” Farmer said. A soft-spoken, warm, talented musician and entrepreneur, he may be brave — but that doesn’t mean he’s not afraid. Asked what the community could do to support young people like him, his answer was simple and profound.

“You never know what a smile could do for a young black man’s life,” he said. “And prayer.”

And while California Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D- Marina del Rey) was on hand to recognize the organization’s important work in the community and to promise more support from legislators in creating change, her response was — likewise — simple, yet profoundly powerful: “To the young people in the room: I see you.”

Aye, JohnJohn.

His killers did not know his story

or the language of his stroll.

He loved to wear the color red,

but his aura was indigo.

If they knew how much his spirit weighed

they would have prayed

for strength like his

instead of making him prey.

“My brother,” Wilkerson added, “was funny and courageous.”

She continued,

They

called him over to a car

Aye

John John!

Surprised him with a gun.

He was shot

and shot

and shot

and shot

and shot

and shot

and shot

like they were looking for gold through bullet holes.

Gold they’d never find.

The only time they feel powerful

is when someone else is dead

on the ground.

Egungun

Egungun

AyeJohnJohn

Remember: these words are powerful. Events like “Youth Survivors Speak Out!” give youth and families opportunities to connect to resources and services to help them heal — and, importantly, a chance to speak.

Brave. Loved. Articulate. Dynamic. Precious. Safe. Beautiful.

And yet, it still stings. It stings every time. “But if you can try to turn that pain into purpose — poetry, dance,” Wilkerson explained, “You can say, ‘How can I use this pain to transform myself inside and the world outside?’”

Contact the organizers at mothersinchargela.org.


*“Egungun” (Eggoon-Goon) in West African refers to the Yoruba masquerades connected with ancestor reverence, or to the ancestors themselves as a collective force.

Excerpts from the poem “Reverence (AyeJohnJohn)” were used with permission from Ashley Wilkerson.

Share