Enrichment Education

One man’s 30-year mission to empower Philadelphia youth in the face of violence

“Even at the worst moment, we’ve got to be positive with our young people. They're looking for leadership. They're looking for guidance.”
Philadelphia skyline
The Philadelphia skyline is seen from across the Delaware River in Camden, New Jersey. The Associated Press/ Tom Mihalek

Story at a glance

  • S. Archye Leacock immigrated to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago in 1972, seeking treatment for an eye injury which ultimately led to permanent blindness.

  • When he got here, he was surprised to find just as many endemic problems in this seemingly model nation compared with the developing country he left. 

  • Reflecting on all the support he received growing up, Leacock decided to channel his determination into providing better opportunities for underserved youth in Philadelphia.

The gun violence epidemic in the United States has been described as a uniquely American problem, and after each highly publicized mass shooting rocks the country, calls for increased gun control or common sense legislation abound. 

But despite the irrefutable tragedy of mass shootings, the majority of gun violence in America occurs as isolated incidents and disproportionately impacts racial and ethnic minorities. 

These facts are borne out in the data: non-Hispanic Black adolescent boys were 21 times more likely to die from a gun homicide compared with their white counterparts in 2020. On average, guns kill 30 Black Americans each day and injure over 100 more, while rates are exacerbated in large cities

For Philadelphians, these trends are all too familiar, and spurred some to take matters into their own hands.

Since 1991, the Institute for the Development of African American Youth (IDAAY) has helped young, underserved members of the community exit the violence and crime cycle through education and employment opportunities. 

The organization is run by S. Archye Leacock and is headquartered in Northwest Philadelphia– one of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the city.

Leacock immigrated to the United States in 1972 from Trinidad and Tobago and has dedicated his life’s work to helping at-risk youth. He also happens to be blind. 

A graduate of Overbrook School for the Blind and Temple University in Philadelphia, Leacock began his career in public service at the North Philly institution. While getting his PhD in public administration, Leacock taught a few classes at the university, where a lack of minority students caught his attention. 

“Temple was an interesting place because it’s in the middle of the ghetto. It’s in the middle of North Philly,” Leacock explained in an interview with Changing America. But in each class, he only had a few minority students.

I figured I needed to do something, and that something was tutoring on Saturdays, he said. Leacock began recruiting students with a friend, Steven T. Robinson. “We just wanted to help out some more young people, minorities, and help them get into college.” 

In May of 1990, tutoring halted for the summer, but Leacock told the seven regular students to come back in September, and to each bring along one friend. When Leacock and Robinson returned to Temple that fall, they were met with 200 young people. 

“It told me one thing, there is a need,” Leacock said of that first reunion. 

As these needs grew, Leacock decided to set up a non-profit organization to meet demand and establish IDAAY.

Leacock’s mother initially brought him to the United States to seek treatment for an eye injury sustained during a cricket match back in Trinidad. 

“You come to America from a third world country, you are coming to heaven,” he recalled. But Leacock was surprised to find much of the same problems that plagued his native island were present in the United States. 

“I was fascinated that a place that I dreamed of every night to come to, and get my sight back and live the perfect life had just as many endemic, entrenched problems,” Leacock said. 

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Reflecting on the opportunities and support he received from the blind community and his mother growing up, Leacock stressed the importance of providing similar resources to other vulnerable youth.

IDAAY runs numerous programs aimed at addressing the root causes of youth crime and violence. Studies have shown employment opportunities, community engagement, and youth programs have positive effects on crime rates by fostering a sense of belonging and establishing structure for free time. 

The institute focuses on four main development areas: education, juvenile justice reform, parenting, and creating opportunities. 

IDAAY’s College Bound program combines higher education preparation with life skills mentoring. “Education is the road out of the hood,” Leacock explained. “I would never be here if it were not for education.” 

The Don’t Fall Down In The Hood program includes trauma-informed therapy and aggression replacement training. 

In 2021, Philadelphia saw the highest homicide rate since 1990 which was the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, local media reported. As of this past fall, the city averaged around 11 homicides a week.

Philadelphia’s gun violence epidemic  is “worse than ever before,” Leacock said. But transforming juvenile justice from a system that is strictly punitive to a more reform-focused process is among IDAAY’s top priorities. 

Reforming the system does not mean bad actions go unpunished. “But you don’t have to, at 16, get a criminal record and then it lasts with you for the rest of your life so you can’t get a job and get an apartment,” Leacock said. “Gosh, you’re dooming these young people for life.”

Conflict resolution, dealing with trauma via therapy and practicing effective decision making are among the skills taught at Don’t Fall Down, while the Institute also provides support services for youth waiting adjudication through its Intensive In-Home Supervision program. 

A parenting program, Young Fathers United, offers career exploration and mentoring, along with weekly parenting workshops. According to Leacock, parental guidance is “vitally important” for encouraging young people. 

“When I felt discouraged my mother was there to say ‘You can do it, give it a try. I’m here. If you fall, I’ll help you.’ We need to say this to our young people every day. ‘We are here to help you.’”

The Clean and Green Project is focused on public work opportunities. The Philadelphia Gaming Initiative incorporates competitive gaming and e-sports as a diversionary strategy for at-risk youth. 

“At [it’s] core, the mission of IDAAY is to serve and empower minority youth” to make change within their own community, Leacock said, though youth of all races are welcome to take part in programs. “We’re here for everybody.” 

As with nearly all non-profit organizations, funding remains a challenge for IDAAY. Poverty and crime throughout the region complicate efforts to improve the lives for these youth, and a lack of resources and support means IDAAY is not as effective as it could be. 

To enter into IDAAY, individuals must be searched with a metal detecting wand. Shootings on the Institute’s block are not uncommon and in these instances, the building goes on lockdown. Mentees are afraid to exit the building and ride public transportation to and from programs, Leacock said. 

And looking back over 30 years, he feels the number of opportunities for at-risk youth has greatly reduced. 

“But I above all believe we can fix it,” Leacock said. Successful alumni have gone on to open stores, join the armed forces, and go to college. 

Reshaping the public’s negative perception of minority youth must also take place for any sizable change to happen, he stressed. “Even at the worst moment, we’ve got to be positive with our young people. They’re looking for leadership. They’re looking for guidance. When they don’t get it on the block, on the street, what’s open to them is this toughness, this roughness, this violence.”

Leacock turned 68 this year and when asked about any plans for retirement, conceded it will happen sooner than later. 

In the end, he hopes to have inspired enough individuals to follow in IDAAY’s footsteps, and replicate and tailor similar programs to their own environments. 

“Above all, I want to leave with you: it can be done,” he said. “But we need someone beyond me doing this.”