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Here follows the lamentable but true story of a pro
bono project gone awry. The project, which should have been
embraced by the City of Brotherly Love, resonated with followers,
supporters and members of the press, only
to be squashed in the end by a mid-level bureaucrat in City
Hall who had the power to reject it.
I had been following the story of rising violence in my hometown
since the last few months of 2006, when the total number of
homicides in Philadelphia exceeded 400. Of the 406 homicides that
year, an overwhelming majority (close to 85 percent) of them were
committed with handguns. Though I actually live just outside the
city limits, I still call Philadelphia my home. So when a national
retailer with headquarters based here offered a glittery
handgun-shaped Christmas tree ornament, my tolerance reached its
limits and I decided to turn my anger into a positive statement and
incite a different kind of call to arms.
A Philadelphia bus shelter with the anti-violence poster
temporarily taped to the outside. photo: Todd Vachon
Taking a cue from Milton Glaser and embracing the title Designer/Citizen, I designed
a public awareness poster as a plea to stop the senseless killing
that had been going on in our city. The poster design would
recognize the 2006 homicide victims—listing each name, age, race,
date and method of death—and draw attention to this preventable
I wanted the poster to be displayed in bus shelters around the
city. My interest in the bus shelter as a medium stems from two
simple reasons: a 4-by-6-foot poster is relatively large scale
compared to my usual work. Equally important, the bus shelter is
truly “out there” in public for all to see. I like the fact—and the
challenge—that whatever might end up on a bus shelter could be seen
by practically anyone, a distinct design challenge compared to the
one presented by knowing precisely who your audience will be.
I partnered with the Anti-Violence Partnership of
Philadelphia, a nonprofit agency that provides grief counseling
to the families of homicide victims and educational outreach in
inner-city schools. It is also a civic-minded institution just as
concerned as I am that something has to be done. However, with
absolutely no marketing budget, it became clear that we would need
to raise the money for the production of the posters.
Along the way, I contacted Monica Yant Kinney, a columnist for
the Philadelphia Inquirer who had been covering in her
columns the escalating violence. Yant Kinney was intrigued that a
suburban guy like me would even care—enough to try to do
something—about the city's problem and in July wrote
an article that addressed the matter.
The article generated additional interest and offers of
donations. Specifically, we received an offer of $1,000 as an
in-kind donation for the digital printing of the large-format
posters. We also received approximately $1,200 in anonymous cash
donations from concerned citizens (including $1,000 from a single
donor). This was enough to get the campaign started with several
Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia poster.
When we contacted CBS Outdoor, the media company that controls
the ad space on all the city's bus shelters, to make arrangements
for placement, an account executive informed us: “The City of
Philadelphia rejected your poster for the transit shelters.” After
several requests for more specific information as to why it was
rejected, I received vague references to “the gun being very
I acknowledge that looking down the barrel of a gun is
intimidating. That the poster has elicited this kind of response
tells me that it has been (partially) successful. The poster was
designed to grab attention—to stop the viewer in his or her tracks
if just for a moment—to pause and think about the violence. It was
intended to pay homage to the lives of 406 homicide victims, in the
hopes of preventing even more. It was meant to make the viewer
uneasy, as this is not pleasant subject matter—almost every day
people are dying in our streets for no good reason.
After running into this stone wall, I contacted Yant Kinney
again and she wrote
a follow-up article in August, which revealed that a bureaucrat
in City Hall had the power to ding good work even when it was being
offered for free. It's a sad social commentary when it is easier to
buy a gun off the street than to get an important, positive message
displayed (properly) in bus shelters on the streets.
This was meant to be pro bono work (as in pro bono
publico, for the public good). Despite thousands of dollars in
donated professional services on the part of the designer, the
photographer and the printer—as well as the offer of in-kind
donation for digital printing from the service bureau—we were still
not able to get this call to action out on the streets where it
needs to be seen. Curiously enough, all the donated services to
produce the poster have come from individuals and/or businesses
located in the suburbs—outside the city limits. But we all share a
common hope, desire and plea to stop the violence in our city of
Ironically, now that the project has been written about in the
newspaper and posted online, it has probably reached a wider
audience (although a different kind of one) than was originally
intended. More people have read about the project and have seen the
poster (albeit on a far smaller scale) than would have seen the
handful of posters that we tried to produce.
I'm not so naive as to think that some bad guys are going to put
down their guns and stop shooting each other just because they saw
my poster on their street corner. But what can the average citizen
do? Perhaps by raising awareness I could get people talking and
thinking, perhaps even force those in power to do something about
this urgent issue.
The saddest thing about this whole story is that it will
continue, as the number of homicides in Philadelphia in 2007 will
most likely exceed the previous year's.
Meanwhile, I have found glimpses of Brotherly Love in those who
stand with me on this cause, such as a local printer who has
generously donated the printing of smaller-sized posters that could
be more easily distributed. It may not stop the violence, but it's
a step in the right direction.
To receive a printed copy of our “Stop the Violence” poster,
contact the Anti-Violence Partnership of
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