Archive | May, 2013

Anna Deavere Smith

26 May

Anna Deavere Smith headshot

A recent announcement:

Philadelphia Theatre Company will host a residency for Anna Deavere Smith leading to the creation of [a] new work, The Pipeline Project, thanks to a generous gift from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation….

The Pipeline Project will address the increasing numbers of American youngsters – especially African-American males – being “shuttled” from school into the criminal justice system.

During her 2013-2015 residency at PTC, Smith will use elements of the theatre process that she has refined over the past three decades to create a compelling theatre piece that is also an opportunity to spark city-wide dialogue and public engagement about our education system and our civic responsibilities to children.

Emphasis mine. My initial response: Extremely ambitious, but intriguing.

Smith explains, “In The Pipeline Project I plan to use not only what I know about creating a drama, but also what I know about creating conversation, to make the process as well as the product useful to the cause of increasing awareness about what is happening to our young people. I also intend to create new audiences and spur advocacy while doing so.”

I get nervous when people talk about things like “the cause of increasing awareness,” in part because I’m not at all sure that the problem of young people and incarceration is one of awareness.

“Create new audiences” also sounds pretty ambitious. If I’m reading it right, the focus is on getting people who haven’t attended PTC’s productions in the past to attend them.

Not totally clear what the mechanism for that would be, except that human beings in general like to see their stories represented. Maybe ADS’s new story (play) will bring in some people who traditionally have felt under-represented in American theater.

She continued: “I am delighted to be returning to work with [Philadelphia Theatre Company] both because of their track record, which is unquestionable, and because this is a theatre which at its very root has compassion. The project that I am about to create requires an environment that can support it artistically, but also, has, in its own DNA, true civic empathy.”

Emphasis mine, again.

I like her phrase “civic empathy.” I have been a fan of Smith’s since her book Talk to Me, and I really loved seeing a workshop production of her play “Let Me Down Easy.”

Unfortunately, when I saw the full production of the latter a year later, it had become disturbingly celebrity-focused and seemed to be staggering under the weight of Trying to Say Something About the American Healthcare System.

I sincerely hope this new production is let alone by its funders/minders — so that ADS can do what she does best, eliciting and dramatizing extraordinary stories.

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How litter is born

7 May

Emaleigh Doley is a writer and civic activist in Philadelphia. This piece from her recent article on littering has me boggling:Emaleigh Doley headshot

How we put out our trash in Philadelphia is no doubt a major contributor to the city’s pervasive street litter problem.

Philadelphians are not required to use trashcans and city-issued recycling bins do not have lids. You can see the results of this on the streets of every neighborhood, on trash collection days.

(Emphasis mine.)

We’re a big city, we’re a poor city, and we’re a city with a lot of row homes. But sheesh, is it really the case that we can’t come up with a solution that prevents broken-open bags and windblown trash all over our streets?

As Emaleigh says, an ounce of prevention when it comes to litter would go a long way.

(You should follow her on Twitter. Smart, entertaining, and doing more than her share to make a better Philadelphia.)

Qualified kudos

7 May

When I first met a staffer from the GreenLight Fund, I was pretty skeptical of their stated approach. Assuming that there is no existing organization effectively solving your problem and parachuting in from out-of-town with a “replicable solution” sounds like a recipe for frustration to say the least.GreenLight Fund logo

This 2012 Generocity.org article articulates some of the skepticism.

In contrast, this Philadelphia Business Journal article summarizes GreenLight’s philosophy from their perspective:

 It focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families by taking the principles that VCs [venture capitalists] use to select companies to invest in and applying them to selecting nonprofits to fund.

Specifically, GreenLight works with people in a city to identify the city’s needs; does a national search to find the nonprofits that are best serving those needs in other places; makes grants to enable those nonprofits to bring their programs to the city; and provides them with support to help their programs succeed.

I was also bit put off by the tap-dancing response I got from their staffer to some very basic, nonthreatening questions, and even less delighted by their opaque website. Hard to trust someone’s agenda when you don’t know where they’re coming from.

(I’m glad to see they’ve now added a bit of info on their funders and their “Selection Advisory Council” — though there is a second, mostly similar list elsewhere on the site.)

I am even more pleased to say that their first two grants appear to be promising: $1.33 million to Year Up and $1 million to Single Stop  USA.

From the Business Journal article:

  • “Year Up is a Boston-based nonprofit helps disconnected, 18-to-24-year-old urban residents get the skills and experience necessary for professional careers.”
  • “Single Stop is a New York-based nonprofit that helps low-income community-college students stay in school by connecting them and their families with financial resources and other support.”

What I know of Year Up is very positive. (I don’t know anything about Single Stop, though it seems similar to the Benefit Bank here in Philadelphia. It is interesting that apparently it is the same program that GreenLight funded in Boston. What are the odds?)

Here’s hoping this project works out well for Philadelphia! I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

Philadelphia wins EPA grant to clean up Frankford Creek

6 May

This falls into the category: Things I don’t know much about, but sound intriguing.

Philadelphia 2035 logo

The city of Philadelphia has just won a $200,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to cleanup an industrial brownfield in the Frankford Creek area.

From the announcement:

Gary Jastrzab, Executive Director of the City Planning Commission said, “The revitalization of this area was the focus of the recently adopted Philadelphia2035: Lower Northeast District Plan. This grant is the first step toward reusing formerly industrial properties along Frankford Creek in new and exciting ways.”

Emphasis is mine.

Learn more about Philadelphia2035 and how you can be involved in neighborhood planning.

Telling the story of Latino Philadelphia

4 May

The newspaper Al Día has long been a leader in improving our city, often by spotlighting people who are doing good work, and by stubbornly advocating for change when needed.200 Years of Latino History in Philadelphia - book cover

Erika Almiron headshot

Erika Almiron, Juntos

Recently the paper published a beautiful coffee table book with photos showing the history of Latinos in Philadelphia. It is available for $39.95 from Temple University Press (and less from Amazon).

See photos from the book in this slideshow.

Then check out this fascinating WHYY Radio Times interview featuring:

  • Erika Almiron, executive director of the South Philadelphia immigrant advocacy group Juntos (“Together”).

Here are some things I learned from the interview:

  • Latin American revolutionary leaders embraced Philadelphia during the 18th and 19th centuries due to the city’s Quakerly tolerance of religious and political diversity.
  • During World War II, Mexican “braceros*” came to Philadelphia on a guest worker program to work for the railroads. After the war, they returned to Mexico.
  • The church La Miligrosa, in the Spring Garden section of the city, is affectionately known as “the Plymouth Rock of Latino Catholics in Philadelphia.”
  • Voting-rights advocacy by Latino Philadelphians has had national implications for other groups working to get full access to the polls.

Listen to the WHYY radio show.

*Bracero translates approximately as “strong arms,” and is the informal name for a US government program to bring manual laborers and other workers from Mexico to the United States on temporary visas. The program lasted from the 1940s to the 1960s.

Getting outside your neighborhood

1 May

Boys’ Latin Charter School in West Philadelphia is encouraging teenage boys to get outside their comfort zones and explore the city through ethnography.

Boys' Latin school logo

As the school’s co-founder and CEO explains:

Philadelphia is broken up into a bunch of small, ten-block radius towns, where nobody ventures beyond that area,” he said. “All these insular communities create opportunities for conflict whenever someone comes into that community. So we want to dispel the myth that it has to be that way, and we sent kids all over the place.”

In my experience, this is absolutely right — including among wealthy Philadelphians who may zip from Rittenhouse to the sports stadiums or to faraway cities, but rarely venture into the city’s other neighborhoods.

Kudos to the school and teacher for facilitating this intriguing learning experience.

Like any good social scientist, Marcus Smalls came away from his research with a better understanding of his own environment.

[Teacher Carly] Ackerman also urged her students to observe what goes on in their own homes. Smalls set up shop at the dining room table. […]

During his observations, said Smalls, he noticed for the first time just how busy his mom really is.

“She just loves to do work,” he said. “It made me look up to her. She inspired me, because she doesn’t let anything distract her.”

Overall, this is a lovely article. Check out the photos and audio at the NewsWorks site.

Quibbles: I wish the article didn’t typecast boys with its assumptions about quiet observation and Victoria’s Secret. And I have deep reservations about charter models that rely on young Teach for America grads, often with high turnover.