Week 9: Pennsylvania


PHOTO: Members of the City Year team at Mastery School – Shoemaker Campus pose with visiting City Year Inc. staff who are in town to launch the second year of the cyMentor initiative.



One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.[1]

The City of Philadelphia is built around its “Center City” where jobs, art and diversity abound and complement its historic pulse. In a giant ring around that area is the majority of residential Philly, where neighborhoods are often racially homogenous and poor. Outside that lies the Philly suburbs, a fortress of white flight, and links to the interstate highway and the rest of the Quaker State.

The City Year Greater Philadelphia office has a palpable vibrancy, perhaps in part because it’s rare to find individuals that seamlessly transition in and out of those bizarre, segregated worlds on a daily basis. The access given to teams of diverse young people – literally dressed in uniforms of good will – is such that few know the grim reality of Philly’s disparate zones better than they.

“One thing City Year has taught me is you have to be there,” says John Paul Fraites, who served in a school last year and now runs the CYGP Visitor’s Program.

For a week I climbed around the urban jungle with City Year members, from the sprawling university campuses to the corporate towers to the neighborhoods. In the areas where City Year works in middle and high schools, you’ll find litter, broken concrete, large areas of wasted land and abandoned storefronts.

And that’s not all.

“During (the preparation for) a beautification project we found a rifle and a handgun near a school,” says Fraites, adding that this past January the city had 30 murders. “Schools are the epicenter of meeting for ethnic groups, and sort of a ‘powder keg.’”

CYGP Executive Director Wyneshia Foxworth notes, “We just lost a (student) over the weekend. It’s a constant. It’s rampant. At the end of the summer there were murders at the rec center – that’s supposed to be a safe place.

“A few years ago we were in an elementary school that was the most dangerous school in the city,” she says. “It was an elementary school!”

Now the organization is focused on working with grades 6 through 9, and operates in 20 schools around the city. As positive role models aged 17 to 24 they are capable of changing the entire culture of a school: Foxworth said no fewer than eight City Year partner schools dropped off the “dangerous” list this year.

With 255 local corps members annually, the site is driven by the goal of getting tenth graders on track to graduate. Students who progress to tenth grade with their peers are four times more likely to graduate from high school than those who fall behind.

I visited Mastery Charter School – Shoemaker Campus, which when formerly known as Shoemaker School was the second most violent school in the city. Philly’s charter schools are still quasi-public, but the Mastery umbrella brings a lot more funding into the picture. Mastery brought in new leadership and with it City Year, and the school promptly dropped off the list of “dangerous” places to learn. I also got to experience the launch of the second year of a program called cyMentor, in which City Year partners with iMentor to provide three-year mentors to every sophomore student in the school. This way every child City Year has worked with until tenth grade continues to have guidance through their high school graduation.

Foxworth, a legend at City Year Greater Philadelphia where she served since its inception in 1997, relishes opportunities to create meaningful mentorships for young people.

“True mentorship is not to be taken lightly. It’s strategic and deliberate,” she says. City Year corps members forge relationships with the children at their schools and grow them through a full-time presence for an entire school year. “I think the consistency is the part that’s the best,” says Foxworth. “As a corps member you have distributed time to have a 1-on-1 or small group for ten months. The character building you can do in that time frame is amazing. It’s exciting.”

Doug Ammon, a corps member at Mastery, says he can already see the value of these relationships. “A mom sought me out and told me she appreciated me being a male role model,” he says. “I took a step back and saw we were making an impact. Sometimes we forget the bigger picture – that put it in perspective.”

When you ask corps members how they build trust, a refreshing humility emerges from these otherwise fearless idealists. A connection to their own apparent limitations breeds the desire to help children view life as limitless.

“Most children deemed ‘inadequate’ is not because they are but they don’t know how to interpret the dialect or slang, they have an auditory challenge,” says Christina Ferguson, a teammate of Ammon’s. “I’m an African-American female and learned in some contexts you have to speak ‘standard’ American English. But you can’t judge someone based on their neighborhood or what they hear.”

Julia Lipscomb, a corps member on another team I visited serving at Alcorn School, says, “I don’t tell students I have a speech impediment – I say people speak differently and come from different places. Everybody has an accent.

“I haven’t gone through these public schools in Philadelphia but I know what it feels like to not have a voice.”

Anna Moon, a corps member at Mastery, notes, “It’s important not to feel like you’re swooping in to save anyone; (instead,) letting the students know you are human – I apologize and students are surprised – it’s sort of bridging the gap. You’re showing them that even if you’re proud you have room to improve.”

While I was visiting two schools managed by Julian Thompson, he revealed to me that he had been randomly assigned as an “ubuntu partner” with Pawn Nitichan, the Executive Director of City Year New Hampshire. This is a yearly practice at City Year’s summer academy where hundreds of staff meet someone new and go for a walk.

Coincidentally, Nitichan wrote me an email the same hour I had this conversation, to send me the following quotation from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross[2]: “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness and a deep loving concern.”

That afternoon, I met Latosha “Ty” Belton, who is a teammate of Lipscomb’s at Alcorn. In a timely fashion, she presented her own Buddhist approach to her work and to ubuntu.

“Knowing self is the key. Once you know self you know … a child can’t know who he/she is at age 12, and you can’t help a kid if you don’t know self when you try to come into a community that’s already broken. It’s about finding the commonalities – in suffering,” she says. “To live is to suffer. In my experience community is when people can see you as a person.”

In a city like Philadelphia, it can be hard to see beyond one’s own neighborhood, because there is so much tension around race and class division. Four years ago a war practically broke out at South Philadelphia High School between Asian-Americans and African-Americans, resulting in the school population dropping from 1500 to 700.

Meanwhile, Foxworth points out that the state distribution of funding is drastically skewed against the urban centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. “You can go five miles outside of town and the state spends $26,000 per student,” she says. In Philly, it’s “a very different formula – $11,000 per student.”

She notes there are a few public schools in Philadelphia that are well-funded, often due to direct giving from alumni. The presence of pockets of wealth in Center City hasn’t always yielded increased community and geographic expansion can make the us/them divide even stronger.

“People are looking for places to expand their reach for children, there is a leap to live in certain neighborhoods, but also gentrification – that’s not about building ‘us’ up, it’s about moving out. You want to see everyone thrive,” she says. (I ask, “How?”) “We haven’t answered that question yet – we’re still struggling with that as a city.”

There is thus a fierce adherence to one’s neighborhood, and one’s “own people” as opposed to “people.” Thompson, who grew up in North Philadelphia, wonders, “The differences are so small in the big picture. How do we make people shrink those differences?”

Part of the necessary transformation for a young person from any neighborhood is to understand the limitations of a localized mentality. Foxworth remembers years ago she managed an 18-year-old corps member who was a big hit in her CY-partner school but a “handful” for her team due to her attitude.

She felt (my attitude has) got me this far, I’ve been successful – until we broke down how far she really wanted to go. I asked her, ‘What’s success to you?’ She listed successful attributes – I had more checks than her. I said, ‘Where do you think you’re supposed to have checks?’ She came back the next day and said, ‘Something’s not right.’ I said, ‘You have to unlearn some bad habits.’ It was the first time I saw an emotion of sadness – it was the first time she had cried in years. And she said, ‘I need your help to figure that out.’ She said that what she had been learning at the neighborhood was all the neighborhood could teach her. Today she’s a successful businesswoman working for Comcast.

Darlene Hemerka, a corps member at another school I visited called Audenried High School, muses, “I think one of the biggest things is if we can try to deconstruct that concept – ‘we’re only from South Philly’ – (when actually) we have so many different identities and haven’t even fully formed them yet, it could decrease some of the tension in the school.”

Meanwhile, Thompson adds: “Even if you never leave South Philly there are many ways of being. It’s important to understand the range of humanity and the ways people exist. Becoming comfortable with the way they are can be really something we can do because we have a really diverse team with different dispositions.”

To be sure, dispositional diversity exists in every school and neighborhood. But actual physical space remains markedly separate, save the red jackets moving in and out of various zones of the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. In his book “A Prayer for the City,” Buzz Bissinger[3] writes about the “brink of bankruptcy” faced by Philadelphia at the beginning of the 1990s, stating, “Unless the trend somehow reversed, the middle-income would continue to leave a city that held no hope for them, beckoned by the suburbs and the most enduring American dream of all – private lot, private lawn, and private home.”

But this chapter is not written to heap judgment onto those beckoned by the suburbs. On the contrary, that’s the prerogative of any member of a capitalist society. Being furious at people for acting reasonably is never going to move our country forward.

People don’t need their minds changed, they need their hearts changed, if we are to strengthen society. We have an unsustainable, unhappy result if the reason to help someone is because someone is made to feel badly about themself for not helping. Who am I to tell you what you ought to be doing, or especially how you ought to be feeling?

Rather than being convinced, people need to be inspired. They have to want to help others. They have to want to alter social injustices. Of course that means educating each other about what’s going on – and admitting our own subjective agendas in any exchange of “information.” But passing judgment will always divide us, whether the mechanism is religion, food industry, volunteering or national political issues.

Contrary to what I argue in my undergraduate thesis[4], written on the moral obligation of privileged people to resist oppression, I don’t believe opportunity entails socially transferred obligation. My hope is that an individual would feel it is their obligation to help others, without external coercion to that end.

Besides, telling people they’re bad people simply doesn’t work. But inspiration does, and brings people real happiness. The happiest people are connected to their conscience and motivated by it. It seems like the result we need is when, whether the source of motivation is a humanist “self” or an external “God” or “universe,” people hold themselves accountable for being good people.

I believe if you can inspire one person to look at someone else and, in Nitichan’s words, “meet at a place of simply being human,” you begin to empower ubuntu. If we can inspire entire groups of people to strive to exchange love with others, oceans of segregation could shift.

My ubuntu philosophy so far, then, is that only love embodied can produce happiness to an individual; only love exchanged can bring happiness to a group. For an individual it is agape embodied as ahimsa and a “how can I help?” mentality; for a group it is undertaking the challenge to become great by defining themselves through service. At the micro level it is earning until greed; at the macro level it is pride until vanity.



[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. (1957) “Loving Your Enemies.” Delivered Dec 24 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Available here.

[2] According to Wikiquote, this popularly attributed quotation is unsourced. See here.

[3] Buzz Bissinger (1997) “A Prayer for the City.” Pp. 33, 43. Vintage Books: New York.

[4] Daniel Becton (2008) “Allies, Oppression and Dominance: The Moral Obligations of Privileged People to Resist Oppression”. BA Philosophy Honors Thesis defended 24 April 2008 at University of North Carolina. Unpublished manuscript.

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