Archive | April, 2013

Am I my brother’s teacher?

29 Apr

That’s the title of a fascinating new article from researcher Dr. Shaun Harper.

Dr. Shaun Harper headshot

Dr. Shaun Harper

The focus: How young, successful black students mentor each other in the often-unwelcoming environment of predominantly white colleges.

Harper is well-positioned to study the issue: He heads the Center for the Study of Race & Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

From his article’s abstract:

Introduced in this article is the term “peer pedagogies,” which are methods students of color use to teach each other about the racial realities of predominantly white colleges and universities, as well as how to respond most effectively to racism, stereotypes, and racial microaggressions they are likely to encounter in classrooms and elsewhere on campus.

The article synthesizes an extensive body of research that focuses almost exclusively on racial problems Black students face at predominantly white institutions (PWIs), and provides insights into how they manage to productively navigate racist college and university environments.

As Harper notes: Hardly anything has been published about the latter. While there is an avalanche of material about deficits and difficulties faced by black students, there is far less on their assets and successful strategies for navigating those difficulties.

Harper’s research is particularly germane in Philadelphia, a city in which barely half of African-American students graduate from high school in four years.

I took particular note of Harper’s concept of “Onlyness,” in which a black student is the only representative of his or her race in a class or other setting.  This is not an uncommon experience for many students of color at predominantly white institutions; for example, at Penn just 7% of undergraduates (and 2.8% of faculty) are African-American.

Harper emphasizes that successful students nurture each other through formal and informal advising, often focused on how to handle being the “only.”

As I read, I kept thinking of young people (and parents) with whom I wanted to share Harper’s research. As this WHYY/ article on “Men’s Day” at Germantown High School makes clear, there is a deep hunger for practical examples and models of achievement.


A Tale of Two Vacant Lots

27 Apr

It’s probably overstating things to call this a tale. It’s more like two pictures.

These lots are almost directly across from each other on Germantown Avenue.

Germantown Avenue vacant lot -- overgrownGermantown Ave vacant lot - well-kept










I’m pretty curious about why they are in such different shape. The one on the left, as you can see, is wildly overgrown and littered with trash, not to mention a rather ugly chain-link fence.

The one on the right has an almost farm-like feel to it, with the low wooden fence.

How long have these lots been like this? How much work does it take to keep the nice-looking one in shape? What’s the story behind the overgrown one, and is there an owner who can be held responsible?

More questions than answers at this point. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please comment below.

Classical color

27 Apr

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the Haas & Hahn mural project in the 2500-2800 blocks of Germantown Avenue in North Philadelphia.

MetroPCS store signThere has been a lot of press on both the beauty and the challenges of the project. I am inclined to focus on the former.

I particularly like the way that the artists incorporated the businesses’ existing signs into their artwork. For example, there’s a MetroPCS store that uses purple and orange.

And this Gentle Dental, in blue and white. Gentle Dental sign and mural

The Hair of Elegance salon is definitely my favorite. Hair of Elegance sign and muralSo sunshiny!

People’s fears about gentrification are very real, and some of the media coverage has had a decidedly insulting tone (implying or straight out saying that the area is a “slum”).

But you don’t have to buy into an impoverished or stereotyped view of North Philadelphia in order to acknowledge that everyone deserves beauty in their lives.

A while back I had the privilege of hearing Bill Strickland speak about his work in Pittsburgh.

I won’t attempt to summarize his extraordinary accomplishments here, but I will quote him on the importance of making his educational center a beautiful place. (The context is Strickland seeing a Frank Lloyd Wright house for the first time, and being struck by the use of light.)

I thought, “If I could ever bring that light into my neighborhood — bring it to people who deserved it and would respond to it as wholeheartedly and creatively as anybody — then I was home free.”

People get killed

25 Apr

The 2013 State of the City report is out. It’s overflowing with charts and factoids, so I’ll probably be doing several posts on it. Many are interesting, some are surprisingly illustrative, and a few are fairly problematic.

The one I’m starting with is one of the latter.

The graphic in question is on page 24 of the pdf version of the report. I can’t embed it, so here’s what it looks like:

Philadelphia Homicide Victims: Who They Are and How They Died

88% male

82% gunshot

81% prior arrests

80% African American

74% killed outside

62% age 18-34

Do you get the feeling that one of these things is not like the others? Yes, me too.

In a city of 1.5 million residents, 300,000 of whom are ex-offenders (no, that’s not a typo), flagging homicide victims as having a “prior arrest” isn’t particularly useful as a descriptor.

It is, however, a fairly transparent way to signal don’t worry folks, you’re not really at risk.

I don’t know how many people got mailed a copy of Pew’s report, but I’d be willing to bet that their demographics are pretty different from those of the homicide victims cited above.

So why does this matter? Well, Pew is the multi-billion-dollar gorilla in our city. The data they choose to highlight, and the way they choose to illustrate it, have strong ripple effects.

Suggesting — even obliquely — that one of the six most relevant facts about people who were killed in our city is their arrest record is a pretty remarkable decision. And conscious or not, it was a decision: You could just as well ask how many of them had struggled to find work, for example.

I went looking for a photo to put with this post, but couldn’t find anything non-copyrighted and suitable. I may come back and add one later.

What on earth is “folk arts and social change”?

17 Apr

PFP home pageThat’s what I first asked when I ran across the Philadelphia Folklore Project. A tiny organization tucked into a space off of Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia, PFP has been ticking away for a quarter-century now. I wouldn’t presume to try to summarize their accomplishments, so I’ll just say:

Our city is lucky to have an organization that recognizes and celebrates art that doesn’t necessarily look or sound like what you’d find in a fancy museum. Among many other reasons: Because it frees young people from the trap of thinking that there’s only one way to make art.

So come on out this Friday night and celebrate African dance and drumming traditions with PFP. Event details below.

Exhibition Opening Party
April 19, 2013, 6-8 p.m.

This exhibit honors people, places and social and political movements important in the establishment of African dance and drumming traditions among African Americans in Philadelphia.

It shares decades of people’s stories, images and memorabilia of teaching, learning, performing and community-building. Curated in partnership the Community Education Center and Philadelphia-based African dancers and drummers

Celebrate the opening of this new exhibition. All welcome. Free.

RSVP: 215.726.1106 or

Philadelphia Folklore Project
735 S. 50th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19143


What do parents want?

15 Apr

Daycare photo #1

Seeing this sign in North Philadelphia reminded me that poor parents want the same thing as richer parents: To know that their children are safe while they are away from them.

After all, isn’t this web cam more or less the same thing as a nanny cam? The difference in this case is that the employees know that the parents may be watching.

Daycare photo #2Of course, monitoring is a fairly crude way to try to ensure high-quality care (and potentially prone to backfiring). The more sophisticated ways tend to require investments of time, money, professional development, and so on.

Which brings me to an interesting development on the horizon. The World Class Greater Philadelphia initiative recently announced a major new effort in Philadelphia to develop an assessment of kindergarten readiness. The effort is funded via a $200,000 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant to the United Way.

From the announcement (emphasis is mine):

[H]igh-quality preschool education is the exception, not the rule, in Greater Philadelphia. In a region with 250,000 children under five, only 11 percent of registered childcare providers earned a Keystone STARS 3 or 4 rating [in Pennsylvania’s voluntary child-care rating system], generally considered to be the standard of “high quality.”

[…] Getting standardized kindergarten readiness assessments in place could have a particularly strong impact in the low-income communities where quality preschool education is needed most, empowering parents to “vote with their feet” and demand high-quality early learning options.

My bias is that poor families don’t really need help demanding high-quality early learning options. They already want them. Rather, they may need help discerning which of the options open to them is the best.*

But that’s a quibble. All in all, I was glad to hear about the RWJ grant and hope that the project comes to fruition as anticipated.

*Of course, it would also be nice if the childcare subsidies that poor families are eligible for were better tied to quality of care. But that’s a topic for another post.

Hello, City

14 Apr

Maple treeLike most Pennsylvanians, I’ve lived here all my life. There’s a lot to love about our city (and region).

Deciduous trees are high on my list, maybe because I grew up with a 200-year-old maple in my backyard. In the months to come I’m sure I will be sharing more about my Philadelphia favorites.

At the same time, I’m not blind to my city’s flaws. There is a lot that we can improve. Note the pronoun there. This is a can-do blog about people who are actively working to support the city. If I draw attention to something I think is lousy or even outrageous, it’s because I think it needs and deserves fixing.

I’m not interested in tearing things down for the sake of it. I can be a harsh critic, but in service to a goal that is dear to my heart: a better Philadelphia.

I hope you’ll join me.

Photo credit: Flickr user mmwm. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.