By: Madeline Ranum – University of Pennsylvania Civic House Intern
July 2012 – “If I can make a change, you can make a change,” Zaire McLaughlin, a rising high school junior, told her audience with conviction. Zaire and nine peers spent their summer vacation developing proposals for community renewal in Philadelphia.
For the second year in a row, Scenic Philadelphia, formerly known as SCRUB, and Philadelphia Futures partnered to create a summer enrichment program for local high school students. Taking place throughout July, the course, entitled Renewing Philadelphia’s Future: Exploring Urban Planning and Renewal, was four weeks of intensive hands-on learning, concluding in a research paper and public speaking competition based on student propositions for community development.
The partnership between Scenic Philadelphia and Philadelphia Futures provided the students with a unique set of resources. While Scenic Philadelphia is a non-profit focused on reducing blight in Philadelphia through advocacy, education and legal action, Philadelphia Futures is an intensive college preparation program designed to provide high-performing but economically disadvantaged students with the resources to pursue their goals. With supplemental academic courses, personal mentorship, college guidance, and financial programs, Philadelphia Futures boasts a 98% rate of college enrollment for the students in their program.
The students grappled with some of Philadelphia’s most difficult planning issues, including the persistent presence of vacant lots and abandoned factories which tarnish neighborhoods and communities, and the history of “redlining” and its dire effects. Jennifer Reed, a long-time teacher at Philadelphia Futures, led the program and developed this year’s curriculum. A team of two interns and a teacher’s assistant supported her efforts. The students did not focus exclusively on blight, however; they also highlighted and celebrated the beauty of their city. Through field trips and guest speakers, the students learned to consider Philadelphia with a fresh perspective.
Guest speakers included Mary Tracy, Executive Director of Scenic Philadelphia; Maria Gonzalez, Director of HACE (Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises); Stephanie Kindt, General Counsel for Scenic Philadelphia; Melissa Jest, Neighborhood Coordinator of the Preservation Alliance; Amy Hillier, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and Nic Esposito, writer and urban farmer. The students visited a thriving Community Development Corporation, learned how Philadelphia’s complex history can be used to revitalize the city, explored legal avenues to community development, and spoke with current community activists about ongoing projects. Exposure to a wide variety of Philadelphians working toward the revitalization of the city informed and inspired the students’ final project proposals.
The program culminated on July 25th with an event at the Philadelphia Bar Association. In a conference room with panoramic views of the city, filled with mentors, family, and contributors to the program, the students undertook what for many was their first public-speaking experience. Abdulaye Soumahoro, Samantha Walker, Wesley Zhao, and Zaire McLaughlin presented their proposals for community development before a panel of judges. From turning a vacant lot into a dance studio to converting an empty building into a place of worship to be shared by all religions in the community, the ideas were diverse, thoughtful and focused on community unification. Zaire McLaughlin won first prize and received a Nook Reader for her proposal to convert a vacant lot in her neighborhood into a community garden. Although only four students presented their proposals, all of the students participated in the event, some reading poetry about their communities and others sharing their reflections on the program.
Now that the second year of the program has come to a close, questions remain: what happens after the final presentations? Do the areas of blight that challenged the students remain unchanged? Brianna Zepp, participated in the Renewing Philadelphia’s Future program last summer and returned this year to work as a Teacher’s Assistant. Her proposal to turn a vacant lot in the Juniata neighborhood into a community center had won first prize before a panel of judges last summer but the vacant lot itself remained the same. With this year’s program wrapping up, Brianna chose to send her proposal to her local newspaper and to her government representative, City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez. During the last week of the program, a beaming Brianna arrived in the classroom holding up a copy of the Juniata News with her entire proposal published and a meeting scheduled to speak with Councilwoman Quiñones-Sanchez. Though the vacant lot still sits empty, for Brianna, this is an incredible start.
The Renewing Philadelphia’s Future summer program has left the students with improved writing, researching, and public speaking skills. Yet the positive outcomes go beyond academic achievements. The class teaches students to see the world around them—both the beauty and the blight—and to know that they have the power to alter it. As this year’s winner Zaire McLaughlin said to sum up her proposal, “We can all do it together, one lot at a time.”