Not the Beginning and Not the End: A Letter from Julia Hillengas, PowerCorpsPHL

Julia Hillengas is the Executive Director and co-founder of PowerCorpsPHL, a Service and Conservation Corps in Philadelphia, PA. During this unprecedented year of grief, division, and uncertainty, the PowerCorpsPHL community has lost five young people to gun violence or inadequate access to healthcare. Over the summer, in response to an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer about the city’s rise in gun violence, Julia wrote this open letter to PowerCorpsPHL’s stakeholders about the need to reframe gun violence as a public health issue. We invite you to read Julia’s powerful letter below, and to read our interview with her, where we discuss addressing gun violence, building more equitable non-profits, and authentically supporting Corpsmembers and Corps staff during these trying times.

Photo in banner: Young men from the PowerCorpsPHL community who passed away over this last year.
Rest in Power


July 2020

“But that is not the beginning or the end. There was more to all of their lives. They were sons, brothers and friends. They were loved. They were here,” writes Helen Urbiñas in her recent op-ed about the life lost in Philadelphia from gun violence this year.

In it she has included a list of names. When I looked over the list, I knew which three to look to out for. I knew they would be there, but I wanted to see them for myself, see if there was other information already linked to their names before we sent over our photos and tributes. I read over the whole list, intensely hoping that there wouldn’t be a surprise we hadn’t known about in a week already heavy with the loss of two beautiful lives.

While no other alumni were listed, a few more names stood out. People I hadn’t met, young people who, in that moment, despite sitting fresh with grief, I wished I had met. They were young people whose names I recognized from their applications to join PowerCorpsPHL.

As the tragedies that have hit our community show, we don’t make people bulletproof. In fact, I don’t believe our work saves anyone. Our approach is firmly rooted in creating spaces and supportive networks for young people to do that for themselves. And yet, the thought creeped in: What if they had joined PowerCorpsPHL? Would it have made a difference?

As I wrestled with the potential answers, I also found myself wrestling with the premise itself. Selfishly, I feared what it meant about the value of our work if, in reality, the answer was “no.” But I also feared, and was disappointed in myself, for reverting so quickly to the savior premise to begin with. It’s a cognitive trap, rooted in white-dominant culture, that has long contaminated the waters of the nonprofit world and how people think about social problems.

Say this aloud with me: Gun violence is a public health issue. The disparities in outcomes are tied to the structural inequities caused by systemic racism over generations in our city.

We can’t save anyone, and few people can save themselves, if we’re all still stuck using the same tools that got us here. We need to change how we think and we need to build better tools and systems that align to a richer, more complex understanding of the problems.

The question is really, “What kind of difference would it have made?” Even if the events remained the same, would we collectively have been better if more young people impacted by gun violence, both the victims and the shooters, had experienced more opportunities to see their value for themselves, be recognized by others, feel love, and contribute to a nurturing community? Would this have made our future richer?

Having spent the past two weeks mourning the loss of two alumni – one from gun violence and one from health disparities – and the past six months processing the loss of three more young people lost to gun violence, I don’t even have to think. I already know the answer is yes. I wrote the tributes, I listened to family members, colleagues, and other young people recount the impact and love each person shared with their community, and I know that despite their mistakes or missteps or past harms done, they also brought life and shared the best of themselves with the world. That is their legacy and their gift to us. Let us recognize it, hold it sacred, and allow it to enrich our collective future together.

In love and sadness,

Executive Director, PowerCorpsPHL