Should he become Philadelphia’s 100th Mayor, Oh hopes to help those traumatized by gun violence by sharing his own experiences – and listening

This story is part of a collaboration between MindSite News and Resolve Philly focused on mental health, community safety and violence prevention in Philadelphia that is supported by the van Ameringen Foundation. Resolve Philly is a nonprofit news collaborative serving Philadelphia that challenges the news industry to be more equitable, collaborative and based in community voices and solutions.

One thing that you’ll notice when talking to David Oh is that he’s a natural storyteller.

Seated in a booth at the Empire Diner in Yeadon, a town a short distance from his home in Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood, Oh, the Republican candidate for mayor of Philadelphia, shares stories that he hopes will help him connect with voters and lead to his becoming the first Republican to occupy the Mayor’s office since 1952.

Most of his stories are of experiences he’s had throughout his life. His time in the military. The ways that violence has touched his family. His time in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office. His time as a Philadelphia City Councilman.

Understanding what it’s like to be “the Other” and how the Christianity his father taught him shapes his life.

But because he’s aiming to become the mayor of a city dealing with a gun violence problem, Oh is hoping that his ability to not only tell his story, but to hear the stories of others, will help those counting on him to solve this problem.

“Unfortunately, some of the most powerful statements have come from people who have made tremendous mistakes,” Oh said. “It has changed their lives, and they have been able to make other people’s lives better. They have done some very positive things from that they would never have done it without that experience.”

Republican candidate David Oh has widespread bipartisan support. Photo credit: Twitter feed

Oh is a native Philadelphian who has lived in West Philadelphia most of his life. His father, Ki Hang, was a minister who stayed in the area despite the gang wars going on there at the time. In 2011, Oh became the first Asian American elected to Philadelphia City Council and served three terms in Council before resigning to run for Mayor in 2023. In addition to his Council service, Oh is a lawyer in private practice, and a Second Lieutenant in the Army National Guard.

Oh has thought a lot about both sides of the crime paradigm as someone who has not only legislated the city’s position on crime, but has also seen both him and his family become victims of it.

In 1958, Oh’s cousin, In Ho, had come from Korea to study in Philadelphia. While walking to a post office box to mail a letter, he was beaten to death by 11 boys. When asked what justice looked like for them, the family asked for lenient treatment for the boys, going so far as to raise $500 to put toward their education.

How his family handled that trauma influenced Oh when he was personally impacted by violence. In May 2017, he was stabbed while unloading his car. The man accused of the stabbing, Shawn Yarbray, was tried in 2018 and found not guilty of the crime. Shortly after the trial was over, Yarbray’s stepfather and two of his friends visited Oh’s office.

Instead of engaging in an argument with the three men, Oh sat them down to talk. While he still believes he identified the right man when it came to this crime, the evidence wasn’t enough to convict. So, Oh made a video asking people to respect the decision, treat Yarbray like an innocent man, and also offered assistance to help him find a job.

Although the man never took him up on the offer, Oh felt it was one that he had to make. While he could understand that some might wonder why that was, he believed that his faith, the lack of a permanent injury, and the attempt at justice for what was done to him made it easier, he said.

Besides, he’s seen people forgive much worse.

David Oh visiting a meeting of the meeting of the officers of the Korean American Senior Citizens Association.

“I understand that people are all different,” Oh said. “I’m not a stronger or better person. It’s that I have a set of beliefs. And I have seen people extend the most healthy, most forgiving manifestation of what it is to be a Christian. And so, at a very young age, I said, ‘Wow, if people can do something like this…’ If I didn’t see with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

By combining the experiences of Philadelphians themselves and the city’s available resources, Oh believes that he can address the problem of gun violence in a way that addresses all of the factors that have led to it.

One of those factors is disinvestment. According to a report issued by Philadelphia’s City Controller’s office in 2021 entitled “Mapping The Legacy of Structural Racism In Philadelphia,” the places in the city most affected by gun violence are also the places that have faced redlining, poverty and other forms of resource denial.

What I would do as a mayor is start by showing these groups of people that we have neglected and abandoned and treated like crap that this is a new day. Your health and safety does matter to us.

Philadelphia Mayoral candidate david Oh

Oh equated it to a dysfunctional family with four children, two of whom are being mistreated. If only two of the children are getting fantastic gifts and awesome parties while the other two get nothing, that’s a recipe for resentment, he said.

In a city that possesses both luxury homes and high-end restaurants and the highest poverty rate among cities its size, the analogy of the dysfunctional family fits, Oh said. And it’s something that can be fixed by putting the city’s money where its mouth is, the mayoral candidate says.

The mistreated places need to know that we’re going to do right by them by improving the educational system, cleaning up neighborhoods, and stopping violence before it starts, he has told voters.

“What I would do as a mayor is start by showing these groups of people that we have neglected and abandoned and treated like crap that this is a new day,” Oh said. “Your library will have stuff you want in it. You won’t have a bunch of dusty books. You will have the things you could never purchase. You will have a recreation center. And your health and safety does matter to us. A lot of the things that were proposed on the campaign trail were Band-Aids. How about if we don’t let people get cut in the first place?”

He also hopes to reinstitute a program that he created while on Council. PHL Live was an American Idol-esque arts competition that allowed artists in genres ranging from rock and roll to gospel to perform in concert at various venues for a $1,000 prize in each genre.

While it was a musical competition that gave artists exposure, it was also gave young people a haven at a time when havens were in short supply, Oh said.

“It is uplifting,” he said. “When people are in a dark space or a blank room or somewhere where there is no inspiration, they have no hope. It’s not just what we give you, it’s what’s created all around you.”

Oh supporters via Twitter

Another thing that Oh is hoping to do should he become the mayor is to make sure that the city’s approach to trauma-informed care is more holistic. In late 2021, Philadelphia City Council gave community groups that had been working in the neighborhoods most impacted by gun violence money to provide this kind of care, along with the educational, and employment programs these organizations provide.

But while money has been applied to the gun violence prevention side, victims haven’t been given enough care. That has to change, Oh said.

“When I was in the DA’s office, I was in the juvenile unit for a while,” he said. “I dealt with kids who are hurt. Kids who hurt kids are usually kids that were hurt. And then they would get group therapy, no expense spared. Because rehabilitation is in the best interest of the child. But who got left out? The victims. And they’re children, too.

“There’s no money for them. There’s no program for them. There’s no group therapy for them. There’s nothing for them, and they hurt, too.”

There’s also no way to help families that have been victimized by gun violence and might want to leave their neighborhoods. Prior to leaving Council, several families who had lost loved ones to gun violence and were being harassed by those suspected of the crime had come to Oh to try and find help in leaving. While $500,000 was appropriated to help these families, he believes it wasn’t enough and says he plans to do something more substantial if elected mayor.. The city must act accordingly when it comes to making sure that these people are given the help they need when it comes to recovering from violence, Oh said.

“What I learned when I was with the DA’s office is that everyone is different,” he said. “You don’t want to treat them all the same. People are very fragile, and it just takes a little bit to break them. It’s hard to make damaged people whole, and it takes a very, very long time. I think that there’s no perfect answer to this, but you do the best that you can.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the van Ameringen Foundation.

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Denise Clay-Murray is a regular contributor to MindSite News and an editor/reporter for the Philadelphia Sunday Sun. Her work also appears in a variety of publications, including Philadelphia Magazine,...