Row by row

8 Jun
Did you know that Philadelphia’s Chinatown has the greatest amount of paved-over surface area in the city? I didn’t.

Now a group of young activists from Asian Americans United is working to transform a small triangle of land in Chinatown into a green space. (See photo for its current appearance.)
AAU garden lot

From AAU’s recent announcement:

In 2008, when youth in AAU’s Community Action Class surveyed the area around their school in Chinatown North, they found neglected vacant lots, illegal dumping, and little green space.

After succeeding in getting a lot next to the school cleaned up, permission to use the lot, and the fence fixed by the absentee land owner, AAU youth (with the indispensable help of adults) are now working to transform this vacant lot into a garden.

Every year, children and youth in our AAU Summer Program help build the garden – little by little, inch by inch. Last summer they built raised beds, planted butterfly habitat, made bird feeders, and grew and cooked with herbs.

I’ve recently been listening to some lectures on environmental psychology, and the research on greening is pretty interesting. One study found that hospital patients who had a view of something green (such as a tree) healed more quickly than those whose windows just looked out onto other buildings.

The AAU announcement continues:

In the words of our garden theme song: “Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow.”

Through AAU’s Summer Program and our Inch by Inch Garden, we teach children that making positive change takes persistence and hard work. But, together, we can make a difference in the world.

That’s a pretty good message, I think. (Emphasis mine.)

You can make a donation to support AAU’s garden work.

Here are some options:

___ $12 buys a dozen spring bulbs

___ $60 buys one fig tree

___ $100 buys four blueberry bushes

___ $200 buys lumber and supplies for four more raised beds

Listen to AAU member Dao Tran talk about her experience of being taken seriously as a 12-year-old activist back in 1987.

People you should know (First in a series)

4 Jun
W. Rockland Street photo

W. Rockland Street

I think this will end up being a long series. Although the posts themselves will not end up being long, necessarily.

Here are two people to know: Emaleigh and Ainé Doley. I mentioned Emaleigh before in the context of her anti-litter work for Axis Philly.

These sisters are the driving force behind the W. Rockland Street blog, which chronicles neighborly connections and neighborhood beautification on one block in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.

(For you locals, W. Rockland is between Greene Street and the 4800-4900 block of Germantown Ave. And if you’re not local, here’s a little info on Germantown.)

I have a soft spot for people who are working for a better Philadelphia, as may be obvious. Ainé and Emaleigh definitely fall into that category.

Some people call what they are doing “tactical urbanism.” For my money, it’s less important what you call it than that you do it. They certainly are.

Photo credit: W. Rockland Street blog.

Cleaning up

2 Jun

One of the things I dislike most in the world is litter.

That makes it challenging to be in Philadelphia, a city with a serious litter problem.

Trash bag, broom and TrashStik

Today I spent about 30 minutes picking up trash in Germantown. I ended up with a pretty large bag full. In the photo you can see my TrashStik, but actually I used my hands and the broom the most. (I wore gloves.)

Some things I noticed:

  • Plastic, plastic, plastic. Almost everything I picked up was plastic. Thinking about how much plastic trash our culture produces reminded me of Nancy Farmer’s book The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. The book is set in a futuristic society where kidnapped children labor in the “plastic mines” of ancient trash.
  • Comfort. Most of the items I picked up were related to soda, fast food, cigarettes, or some kind of mood-altering substance  (cigarillo holder, beer bottle). I think this speaks to people’s need for comfort, especially in a poor neighborhood where the options that more affluent people use are less available.

(I credit Barbara Ehrenrich’s book Nickel and Dimed with helping me to grasp how taking a cigarette break could feel like important, nurturing “me time” for low-wage workers with little opportunity to meet their own needs.)

I don’t have a specific plan for how often I’m going to do this kind of cleanup, but I’ll get to it from time to time. I’m also on the lookout for more data on why people litter. Obviously some of it is blown trash from appropriate receptacles, but that’s clearly not all of it.

N.b. Needless to say, I don’t get any benefit from linking items for sale, such as the books above. I just do it because I like being able to click and learn more when I’m reading someone else’s post, and I figure others may be the same.)

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.

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.

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/NewsWorks.org article on “Men’s Day” at Germantown High School makes clear, there is a deep hunger for practical examples and models of achievement.