This week, McKeesport native Brandi Cox discusses her observations of what happens in a community when teen gun violence becomes the norm. Listen to what she is prepared to change in her school and city to save kids’ lives.
Brandi Cox: I love YVAC. YVAC is like everything to me. I get along with everybody at YVAC really well. I laugh with them. We get work done. Like I love YVAC. I’m never going to leave YVAC, I don’t think. They threatened to fire me a couple of times, but they were just playing.
Jourdan Hicks: That’s this week’s guest, Brandi Cox. She’s an eighth-grade student at McKeesport’s Founders’ Hall Middle School, and a third-generation resident of McKeesport, but currently lives in Dravosburg.
Jourdan: Brandi comes to us nominated by her comrades in aid: Saint, Tae, and Emily, from YVAC. Young Voices Action Collective. YVAC ‘s mission is to elevate youth voices surrounding community needs, social justice issues and upcoming elections. while meeting the basic needs of the community through mutual aid. Brandi has worked with them since 2022.
Brandi: YVAC is a youth-led organization that feeds the homeless and helps house kids and young adults off the streets, we also build power in lower-income housing communities.
Jourdan: A chance encounter led Brandi to YVAC.
Brandi: I met Chris Ogburn, Organizing Consultant. I will, I won’t forget, I was in Valero’s and I was about to pay for my stuff and he gave me a paper. He was like, hey, you should come check out my free store, my aunt’s free store that we’re about to open up. And I was like, OK. So I stopped by and that’s when I met Tae and after I met Tae, I just kept stopping by and he would then, that’s when I just started getting to know him and then I just said, hey, I want to help out and work here. And Tae told me to fill out a paper and here I am.
Jourdan: YVAC has chapters in Detroit, Michigan, and Huntsville, Alabama. Brandi says the group has regular meetings over zoom and chapter meetings with their partners in different states a few times a year.
Brandi: We just one big, like, we were just one family. Like we always laughed, we always got business done. Like we, we had deep conversations, like we sat down and had deep conversations and like it just made me kind of, made me be a better person and just do like, I want to do this, I wanna do that. Like what made me see what I want to do with my life. And it taught me a lot. Like it taught me, it really taught me a lot of stuff.
Jourdan: When Brandi isn’t with her YVAC crew she spends time with her family. She lives with her mom and stepdad. Her grandma’s teaching her how to cook.
Brandi: She be still up, and up in our kitchen, busting it down. We help her cook and stuff. She’s like, she’s starting to teach me some things. Like this one time, I said I had really had a taste for her gravy and rice pork chops, and she told me like she just busted down, like told me how to make the gravy.
Jourdan: Brandi also spends a lot of time with her uncle, who is helping her expand her horizons… like eating chocolate-covered bugs.
Jourdan: When did you try chocolate-covered bugs? Like, take me, what? Where were you?
Brandi: I was out at Tanger Outlets with my uncle.
Brandi: We shop.
Brandi: We like to, he’s really into fashion and things like that, so like we’ll do that. Um, so we was just out there chilling and that’s when he was like, hey, Nums — they call me Nums. He was like, hey, Nums, do you want to go try this, these bugs with me? I was like, uh, I didn’t know about it when I seen it, I was like, I mean, they might not be that bad.
Jourdan: If they selling ’em.
Brandi: Yeah, and then I tried the chocolate-covered bugs and after I went to the chocolate-covered bugs, I tried the salt and vinegar.
Jourdan: Vinegar? Bugs? What bugs were they?
Brandi: Crickets. I ate a cricket and I think I ate a scorpion.
Jourdan: You adventurous.
Jourdan: Brandi’s adventurous spirit is often dampened by the violence in her hometown of McKeesport. Since the pandemic, she says she’s noticed a shift in her peers that’s reverberating throughout the city and affecting the way residents interact with one another.
Brandi: A lot of people know McKeesport is a very, very dangerous, a dangerous city … I hear gunshots all the time. It’s like I’m used to this kind of stuff. Like I hear gunshots all the time. I hear that someone died like, I look on my phone, another teenager died in McKeesport. Another kid got shot in McKeesport, another kid ran away. Another adult got shot, another store got robbed.
Jourdan: Brandi feels like violence has become so normalized that even the police don’t respond like they should. She thinks about the way the whole city practically shut down when a police officer was killed and another was injured in a shootout with a suspect.
Brandi: A few weeks back, like last month, there was just two teenage boys that got, just got shot.
Brandi: And there was another boy that got shot in Clairton and they, they didn’t do that either, so I’m just, it’s just like they should treat how they treat the police officers. How they got shot is the way, how they treat, should treat how other people who got shot. Especially young kids like that. Especially 13- or 14-year-olds and things like that. That’s what they really should do. They shouldn’t just have like 10 to 15 police cop cars and then a couple of detectives out. No, they should have everybody out searching and everything, just everything on lockdown.
Jourdan: When you’re thinking about these things, do you typically keep it inside or do you talk to somebody about it?
Brandi: I talk to my mom about it sometimes because like yesterday I was telling my mom, this needs to be talked about because no one, no teachers, no principals, no one in school likes to talk about things like this. We have a police officer in our school that should just like have an assembly with each grade and be like, and talk about things like this. My mom, she, she’s from McKeesport and she knows, like she’s really like, my family’s really known in McKeesport. My mom knows a lot of people in McKeesport. So when she sees things like this, it makes her upset and sick to her stomach because like she grew up with some of these people and like see their kids have died.
Brandi: So a few years back she had I think it was a blackout meeting or something like that. She had it out Christy Park. Um, and she talked about, she talked about violence. And she wanted to do a kids one, but she never, like with one with kids, but she never got to it.
Brandi: And I’m thinking, I want to do that and talk to ’em. Like we all gotta stay together ‘cause tomorrow’s never promised. Next week’s never promised, next second’s never promised. The next year’s never promised. Anything can happen any second, any minute of the day, and you can be … just like that. so like, it’s like a lot of people, like a lot of gang activity and things like that, like teenagers being in gangs, doing gang activity and stuff like that. It doesn’t need to be like that. Like everybody in McKeesport needs to stick together because every one of those kids that’s out McKeesport, that’s from McKeesport, I guarantee all their parents grew up with each other and they never had a problem with each other. They all went to school together.
Jourdan: In the first episode of the season, we talked to two students, Jaia and Deahmi, they were talking about what ideas they had for reducing the amount of violence between young adults, teens. What they hoped to be involved in, in solving that issue, and things that other people can do, right? So one of the things that kind of came out of that discussion was like, it kind of was like up to teens to figure out how they were going to fix the problem, how they were going to get each other to stop killing each other and shooting each other. It was up to kids to be mature enough to figure it out, and really it wasn’t adults doing enough to help kids figure it out.
Brandi: Oh my, yes.
Jourdan: You feel that way, too?
Brandi: It’s to the point, I had kept myself safe. It’s just moving away. I live in Dravosburg, that’s still McKeesport district, but it’s like nobody really don’t know where that’s at.
Brandi: So like whenever people be like, where you from? I’ll be like, oh, I’m from McKeesport, but I stay in Dravosburg. They be like, where? Where is that at?
Brandi: I’m like, it’s really not that far. It’s like literally across the bridge from McKeesport like if you walk, it’s like an hour walk, like a 30-minute walk, and it’s just like, I seen a lot happen in McKeesport. I have done a lot of McKeesport. It was just for my safety. It was time for me to just, like, move, like go stay with my mom. ‘Cause I used to always stay with my grandma. There was always kids over there and things like that. Like kids my age and stuff like that. So it’s always over McKeesport or I was always, you know, with people, but it was no good for me. Like, it was really depressing in McKeesport. It was just time for me to just go.
Jourdan: What would reduce the violence in McKeesport amongst people your age?
Brandi: If more activities and programs was in McKeesport and more kids were more active.
Jourdan: So why aren’t there as many programs as there needs to be in McKeesport to keep kids on the straight and narrow, doing something with their time, motivated, stopping them or encouraging them not to be violent?
Brandi: McKeesport is not the same no more. Back then, there was all the kids wanted to go to the Boys and Girls Club. All the kids wanted to go to the rec. All the kids wanted to go to the after-school program. It’s not like that no more.
Jourdan: Why don’t they want to go?
Brandi: It’s just like kids don’t feel safe, like kids hardly feel safe at school, like kids don’t feel safe. Nowhere for kids don’t feel like a whole lot of people don’t feel safe. Nowhere in McKeesport, I know even adults don’t feel safe in McKeesport.
Jourdan: Why aren’t those people like, man, I’m done with this. I’m gonna go to the Boys and Girls Club?
Brandi: Because they don’t feel safe. They’re scared something’s gonna happen. After everything that happened in McKeesport, like shootings, kidnappings, it’s not the same in McKeesport no more. How it was like, people don’t feel safe in McKeesport no more.
Jourdan: So, in your opinion, how can adults learn how violence starts, exists, happens between teens? What should they do to understand it? Where could they go to understand it? What should they intake to understand it?
Brandi: Talk to teens. I feel like they should, um, talk to parents and talk to, like, actually talk to teens that’s actually involved with that, that kind of stuff. And then kids like know people that’s involved in that kind of stuff, but they’re pretty much sure everybody knows some, some, a couple of people involved with that stuff. Like they’re like, it’s just like these kids can be, it’s like they can actually sit down and talk about these things, but they choose not to because they feel like it’s not gonna change nothing. But you don’t know that. You don’t know that until you actually sit down and try.
Brandi: Me and my mom, I talk about my mom about this stuff all day, basically all day, every day. I talk about this to my grandma. My grandma, she’s the older person and she like, she even tells me like, some of this stuff isn’t the same from back then. Whenever she was our ages and stuff like that, my mom said the same thing.
Like everybody, basically, a lot of people got along and if they didn’t like that person, they never talked to that person.
Jourdan: I think you said something that’s really unique, like what I don’t hear very often when we talk about violence in teens is that yes, teens and parents should be talking, but the parents should be talking with parents. The parents should be having connections with one another. You said your mom grew up with a whole bunch of people. It’s people who are beefing, teens who are beefing, and their parents have grown up with one another. Parents need to be talking to each other about stuff. What do you think they should be talking about?
Brandi: They should talk about the violence. They should talk about what happened. These, the kids, they should just talk about how they’re acting. Like get it all out there.
Brandi: Just get it out there. Because I feel like nobody do either way. No kids or no parents. No one never talks about this kind of stuff. Like I don’t see nobody talking, I don’t hear nobody talking about this stuff. Like I just posted on my story. Nobody don’t like to talk about things like this. It’s like sometimes there’s kids that actually want to talk about these things.
Brandi: There’s actually kids that go through depression because of things like this. Like, it’s like ‘cause they can’t, they don’t feel safe going out. They wanna go out, but they can’t feel safe. Every day. I’m just, I’m sitting around like, anything can happen any second, any minute, anything can happen. Just throughout the day.
Jourdan: If you’re in that environment where things can just happen randomly, I guess my question is like, how much control do you have over your safety?
Brandi: I feel like I don’t have that much control because I feel like if something happens to me, I wouldn’t know what to do. I would just be shocked. I would be scared. I don’t, I wouldn’t know if to run, to stay, I wouldn’t know what to do.
Jourdan: Which is normal in scary situations like that, that you haven’t been prepared for. You know, if nobody’s saying like, you know how like there’s a fire drill at school and you know what to do when there’s a fire. Is there like a drill when it comes to like violence in your neighborhood?
Brandi: No, there’s not.
Jourdan: Should there be?
Brandi: Yes, there should be.
Brandi: We have a school social worker and they, I’m not gonna lie, like if something does happen like that, they say like there’s counseling for all week… But no, they shouldn’t do that. They should go to kids, sit down in the cafeteria every lunch period while the kids are eating, sit down every lunch period, and talk.
Jourdan: So you’re saying that the people who are in school, instead of saying our doors are open, you could come to us, they should go to the kids and start the conversation. Go to the students?
Jourdan: OK. So what else would be a part of that drill?
Brandi: I feel like they can have more police officers involved.
Brandi: The police officers that are already in school, but there needs to be more police officers in school to deal with the stuff that the teachers are dealing with.
Jourdan: What else do you feel? Should y’all spend more time outside so y’all can like process y’all feelings?
Brandi: There should be one class to talk about violence, one class to talk about drugs and things like, stuff like that. They avoid all of that. But that’s one class they really need. In every school, not even McKeesport, every school.
Jourdan: Is there a best way or best ways or something that you could do that would keep kids from either getting hurt or hurting other people outside of like after-school programs? Like, I know for in my neighborhood, it’s like at a certain age nobody had no confidence. So like nobody, everybody wanted to be hard.
Brandi: I think that’s how it is now. They say they’re not scared, but in their heart and in their head, they’re terrified. Like, they’re like, this is about to happen to me. This is about to happen to me. Like, they’re scared for dear life, but they’re just not trying to show it, you know?
Jourdan: What do you hope will happen from you talking about violence and your experiences living in McKeesport and trying to do good in McKeesport? What do you want to happen after talking to us about that on this podcast?
Brandi: I think that I want the school to listen to this. I want parents to listen to this. I wanna see if people actually start talking about these types of things. But if not, then I’m gonna bring it up. Like I’m gonna plan something and have parents and children meet up and say, y’all can’t leave this alone. You gotta talk about, you gotta talk to your kids about this every day. You don’t give up talking to them about this kind of stuff because like even ‘cause there’s some kids that actually don’t have parents also. And like they’re terrified in things like this, too, and that’s why they’re doing violence and stuff like that. And that’s why I also want to get a whole bunch of McKeesport kids together and talk about this and do this ‘cause things ain’t going to get better in McKeesport if this kind of stuff keeps happening. So I really want people to actually sit down, listen to what we’re saying and actually talk.
Thanks for listening. Season four of From the Source podcast is produced, reported and hosted by me, Jourdan Hicks. Halle Stockton is our editor-in-chief. Story editing, sound design and mixing by Liz Reid of Jeweltone Production. We continue to interview young people for the podcast as we speak. If you’re curious to learn about how you can share your story with us or nominate a young person ages 13 to 18 to appear on an episode of From the Source, you can get in touch with me by sending me an email to email@example.com. PublicSource is an independent nonprofit newsroom in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can find all of our storytelling and reporting at PublicSource.org. I’m Jourdan Hicks. Stay safe. Be well.
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