The Citizen Recommends…

Richardson Dilworth: Last of the Bare-Knuckled Aristocrats, by Peter Binzen and Jonathan Binzen (Camino Books, 2014)

by Larry Platt

(All-but) newly-elected mayor Jim Kenney would do well to sit down with last year’s biography of Richardson Dilworth, Philadelphia’s legendary reformer, who served as mayor from 1956 to 1962. It provides a lesson in big city leadership that still resonates today. For example, here are three takeaways that could inform a Kenney mayoralty:


* Let Your Passion Fly. Kenney just spent an entire primary campaign trying to shield voters from his temper and acerbic nature. Dilworth’s story suggests there might be another way to govern. He was a passionate crusader who relished a good fight in service of what he saw as the common good. He took on patronage, Frank Rizzo, and white flight—coining the phrase “white noose” to describe suburban zoning designed to keep blacks out.

Dilworth emerges as a complicated man, full of contradictions. But his pugnacious outspokenness endeared him to the city. “Yes, I am an emotional man,” he said, when opponents tried to bait him into losing his cool. “And a fighter—do you think there would be any cities if there were not men to fight for them?”

Today, high-priced political consultants will tell a modern-day politician to remain placid and removed above all else, as they no doubt just told Kenney. Our mayoral model of late runs from Ed Rendell—the consummate deal-maker—to Nutter, the prototypical technocrat. But Kenney’s natural persona seems more in line with the Dilworth example. Voters can discern when you’re not who you say you are. Richardson Dilworth would encourage Jim Kenney to slug away. Continue reading


Ideas We Should Steal: MathCorps

A local math teacher is trying to bring a successful Motor City tutoring program to Philly. The secret ingredient? Love

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

On a wintry Saturday morning in the basement of the Lillian Marrero branch of the Free Library in North Philly, what can best be described as a math love-in was having some surprising results. Seven math-challenged seventh graders huddled over worksheets with a high school tutor, accomplishing what none of them could have expected when they walked in: They were doing math. Willingly. Happily. And, in some cases, quite well.

mathcorps“As it turns out, all the kids at tutoring were bright—but you wouldn’t have known it looking at their math scores,” says David Shen, visionary/founder of MathCorps Philly, which ran the 10-week Saturday morning tutoring program last winter. “When they got some one on one attention, you could see it. They just needed the opportunity, that’s all.”

For the last 20 years, Shen has tutored and taught remedial math at Drexel, Temple and other area universities, where he says he routinely turned D students into B students. But he discovered his true passion six years ago, when he happened on a PBS documentary about MathCorps at Wayne State University in Detroit. Started in 1992, the tuition-free program pairs struggling middle schoolers with high school tutors, who in turn work with college students and university mathematicians, for a sort of mentorship chain letter with some amazing results. After their six-week summer camp, MathCorps Detroit’s 400 students on average raise their test scores from 30 percent in a pre-camp assessment to 90 percent at the end of camp. And they go on to succeed in school: MathCorps alums have a 90 percent high school graduation rate, far higher than the Detroit average.

For Shen, it was like discovering that a complicated string of numbers were all related. The methods MathCorps teachers used were similar to those he deployed in classrooms around Philly; the effort to make math fun and to engage students beyond the textbook—all were hallmarks of Shen’s teaching style. “By the end of the show, I was crying,” Shen recalls. “I knew this is what I was meant to do, as if all my previous 20 years was preparation for this.”

MathCorps pairs struggling middle schoolers with high school tutors, who in turn work with college students and university mathematicians, for a sort of mentorship chain letter with some amazing results. After their six-week summer camp, MathCorps Detroit’s 400 students on average raise their test scores from 30 percent to 90 percent. Its alums have a 90 percent high school graduation rate.

Shen knew this was an idea he wanted to steal for Philadelphia. Soon after, he spent a week in Detroit, at Wayne State’s MathCorps summer camp. That’s when he says he saw that MathCorps was about more than math. He watched relationships form between high school tutors and their middle school students; the way college interns took the high schoolers under their wings; the way the students learned to understand each other in ways their adult teachers never could. He came home with MathCorps’ successful curriculum—the best he says he’s ever seen in his years of teaching—but also with an almost spiritual take on what he sees as the true mission of MathCorps. Continue reading


New Blood: The Empire Strikes Back

Will the new City Council represent a shift toward reform and problem-solving—or will the new boss be the same as the old boss?

by Larry Platt

Late last year, after the debacle that was the aborted PGW sale, we decided to start profiling the new voices that were looking to remake the legislative body that has long been the shame of our city. I laid out the reasons why Council was an embarrassment here and here. And I introduced you to the candidates we thought had the best chance to challenge the status quo here.

Well, the results are in, and, at first blush, it’s tempting to agree with the Inquirer’s verdict that Election Day gave us a “democratic disruption of Philadelphia’s legislature.” After all, three of the five Democrats nominated for, and virtually assured, at-large Council seats are newcomers—Derek Green, Allan Domb and Helen Gym; and two incumbents were jettisoned—Wilson Goode, Jr. and Ed Neilson. And Republican Terry Tracy stands a good chance in November of displacing one of the Republicans on Council, either David Oh or Dennis O’Brien.

Is this what change feels like? Is City Council reforming itself? Not so fast. There will be some new names on Council, but the jury is out as to whether there will be any new thinking. Political insiders have replaced political insiders and the status quo would seem to be as safe as ever.

The results this time around came on the heels of a similar reordering four years ago, when outrage over DROP was at its zenith. DROP, you’ll recall, is short for “Deferred Retirement Option Plan.” It’s a public employee retirement program, never intended for elected officials, that many Council members nonetheless availed themselves of, “retiring” for a day in order to collect a six-figure lump sum payment…only to come back to work the moment the big check had cleared. Conventional wisdom held that outrage over DROP had something to do with the 2011 turnover on Council that sent the likes of Frank Rizzo, Jr., Frank DiCicco and Joan Krajewski packing.

So, is this what change feels like? Is City Council reforming itself? Not so fast, grasshopper. Upon closer inspection, despite the new names on Council, the jury is out as to whether there will be any new thinking. Yes, Election Day provided a couple of hopeful developments, but political insiders have largely replaced political insiders. The status quo would seem to be as safe as ever. We may be experiencing change in name only. Continue reading


How To Speak American

With no formal training in phonetics or ESL, West Philly’s Rachel Smith has built a growing YouTube audience teaching foreign-born speakers how to talk like a native. The secret? Her friendliness and…opera

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

It was in Germany that Florida-born Rachel Smith first thought about what it means to speak like an American. An aspiring opera singer, Smith spent six months of 2008 in an intensive language program with fellow students from all over the world, including a young man from Turkey, who loved to talk with Smith about America and the English he grew up hearing in Hollywood movies. As they spoke, Smith started informally correcting his accent, in particular around sounds he didn’t have in his native Turkish, like the short A, as in bat: She opened her mouth wide, demonstrated the sound, and then told him to keep his tongue high in back and low in front.

“He made the sound perfectly after that,” Smith recalls. “And then he said, ‘Oh, you’re really good at that.’”

Smith, who graduated college with a triple major in music, computer science and applied math, had been looking for a reason to build herself a website while she was in Germany. Suddenly, she had one. In her apartment after class, Smith sat in front of her computer, turned on the camera and started filming herself pronouncing words in American-inflected English. Then she loaded the videos on to YouTube, where she explained (to a nonexistent audience) the mechanics of, for example, the short O, of dog: Tongue down all the way, like when a doctor is looking down your throat.

Rachel’s English is now a bustling YouTube business with 370 live videos, 280,000 subscribers and 100,000 Facebook fans. In addition to online seminars, Smith offers one on one online tutoring, and she has just published her first e-book, American English Pronunciation.

This was before social media was the giant it is, and Smith at first had no viewers at all. Slowly, though, an audience built up through people searching for pronunciation help on YouTube. Now Rachel’s English is a bustling YouTube business with 370 live videos, 280,000 subscribers and 100,000 Facebook fans. Smith, who moved to West Philly in early 2014, earns enough from Rachel’s English to live on (modestly). And now, she’s branching out. In addition to online seminars, Smith offers one on one online tutoring with her or a colleague, and she has just published her first e-book, American English Pronunciation, which she plans to launch on her site this month. She has several other books, on specific topics, planned out. And she is busy developing more and varied content to draw in even more viewers in the coming months. Continue reading


The Wisdom Of Workshops

At The Workshop School, students spend their school days solving real-world problems—and learn to be better citizens along the way

As an after school coordinator at West Philly High in the late 90s, Matthew Riggan became increasingly frustrated by what he saw as the basic inability for the school to meet his students’ needs. Year after year, he saw students from broken down neighborhoods try to learn in classroom settings that were not designed for the world we live in today. And he saw that it wasn’t working.

What did work? One after school program, Philly Hybrid X, run by electrical engineer-turned-teacher Simon Hauger, who consistently led his group of West Philly students to the top tier of hybrid car competitions nationwide. Hauger and Riggan—along with teachers Michael Clapper and C. Aiden Downey—saw the students transformed by the experience.

In 2013, Riggan and the others took the lessons of that program and formed the Workshop School, which this year has 91 students in grades 9 to 12. The school’s project-based curriculum splits the day in two: Traditional English and math classes make up about one-third of the day; the rest is spent working on projects that solve real-world problems. Hauger’s Hybrid X team is at the school, along with other automotive instructors. Other students have designed easily-transportable emergency housing kits, pedestrian-friendly lighting for 52nd Street and a music studio.

The Workshop School is like others in the city that focus on project-based learning—most notably, Science Leadership Academy, a city magnet school. But it is a lottery-based general admission high school, open to everyone, whose focus is not just on getting kids into college—indeed not all will attend college—but in teaching them to succeed in life.

“It produces the kind of citizens, the kind of human beings, and the kind of scholars we want for the rest of the world,” says Clapper.

Watch this video from documentary filmmaker Lauren Flick to learn more about the Workshop School.


When Racial Math No Longer Adds Up

The lesson of yesterdays election is less about Jim Kenneys victory than it is about Anthony Williams defeat.

 by Jeremy Nowak



The conventional wisdom made sense: When one high profile African-American (Tony Williams) runs against two well-known white candidates (Jim Kenney and Lynne Abraham), the African American candidate wins. How could it not be?

In 2015, conventional racial math had two things going against it: the candidates and the campaigns. Most surprisingly, those that counted on the old racial math missed the meaning of Michael Nutters 2007 primary victory.

In 2007, Nutter won out in a crowded field that could have divided the African American vote three ways to deliver the election to one of the two white candidates. Instead, Nutter put together a strong multi-racial coalition and squeaked by.

Nutter ran as an urban reformer wanting to take on entrenched politics. Whatever you think of his accomplishments since, he ran a successful campaign that spoke to the city as a whole. It harkened back to Rendell’s 1991 financial crisis campaign. Nutter won because he ran against the system more than the other candidates, black or white.

The African American electorate in 2007 rejected lackluster campaigning by Chakah Fattah and Dwight Evans, two well-known African American candidates who had strongly delivered for their constituents as legislators.

But neither was viewed as particularly mayoral. Neither worked the growth areas of downtown neighborhoods, University City, or gentrifying sections of South and lower North Philadelphia. They stayed in their lanes, and those lanes led to marginal numbers.

In 2015, Williams could have learned from Nutter’s 2007 coalition, comprised of new urbanites (attracted by amenities in core neighborhoods), good government types (tired of ethics scandals), and the African American middle class, particularly in sections of West and Northwest Philadelphia. But Williams didn’t follow the road map Nutter left him. Instead, despite his one city mantra, his campaign focused on the African American community to the exclusion of a broader coalition.

Nutter voters spent much of the past year looking for a candidate to support. In the end, they decided Jim Kenney represented the closest thing to a third Nutter administration. They made the decision with some trepidation (was it the new Kenney or the old Kenney?) but neither Tony Williams nor Lynne Abraham gave them a reason to vote otherwise.

Kenney ran a nearly flawless campaign, managed by skilled campaign and media professionals. He kept one foot solidly in old Philadelphia, and the other foot in the new urbane Philadelphia of arts, bike lanes, LGBT rights, energy sustainability, government ethics and citizen engagement.

Note to future candidates: The new urbanites are also multi-racial.

A 23-year Councilman at large, this was not Jim Kenney’s first citywide campaign; it was his seventh. He knows every part of the city. The Irish Catholic Councilman from South Philly has learned to add new constituencies to his repertoire, while holding on to the supporters who first brought him to Council.

Williams ran a campaign managed by close-in loyalists without substantial citywide campaign experience. They were immune to contrary voices regarding tactics and strategy, even as it became clear they were moving in the wrong direction. Continue reading


Meet The Disruptor: Molly Hayward

The 27-year-old Fishtown entrepreneur hopes to jumpstart a movement by getting women to think about their periods in a new way—while helping girls across the globe

by Larry Platt

You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but Molly Hayward is conducting a social experiment. She’s at the bar in Washington Square’s Talula’s Garden, sipping a drink and looking a little pensive. “I think I need to check,” she says, excusing herself to the ladies room.

Hayward, you see, is much more than a much-ballyhooed 27-year-old entrepreneur. She’s the quiet but driven leader of a burgeoning movement, and today’s social experiment is one she’s hoping to entice her customers into following: She has her period and is not using any feminine product.

Molly and SikinanWhen she returns from the ladies room, she flashes the thumbs-up sign. All’s good; the folded-over cotton Sari she’s using—the same cloth a girl in India might use, due to the lack of feminine hygiene products—hasn’t soaked through yet. “It’s a light flow so far,” she says. “Even so, walking over here, I was terrified I was going to bleed through my clothes. I’m going to be refolding and worrying about it all day.”

Huh? What kind of movement might this be? It is, as Hayward envisions it, a movement of female empowerment. A couple of years ago, during a trip to Kenya, Hayward noticed a young girl staying behind while others went to school. When she asked the girl why, Hayward was struck by the response: “I have my period.”

“I think business can be the catalyst for social change,” says Hayward. “Our value proposition is to get women to think about the products they’re using, but also to change the way we think about menstruation—as something dirty—when it’s the most natural thing in the world.”

That sent Hayward researching. She found that there is no such thing as safe feminine hygiene products; that the products most Americans buy are sprayed with pesticides and made with bleach, and can harm the environment and, in some cases, lead to toxic-shock and cancer. Then, laying on her parents sofa in Swarthmore, she read a Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times that detailed how, in many developing countries, girls don’t even have access to such products. They miss one out of every four weeks of school, either due to the lack of sanitary pads—in India, newspapers or animal dung are often used—or because menstruation is stigmatized as dirty and shameful, subjecting young girls to a perpetual opportunity and achievement gap.

So what did Hayward do? A self-described capitalist who believes in the power of markets to solve social problems because “we can’t ask non-profits to do it all,” Hayward came up with a business plan. Cora, and its slogan “Woman for Woman, Month for Month,” was born. Cora is a subscription service that, each month, sends its members in the United States a customizable package of safe, organic sanitary pads, tampons, chocolate and tea, ranging from $15 to $35 a month. Borrowing from the one-for-one business model popularized by TOMS shoes and Warby Parker eyewear, for each customized package bought in the United States, the equivalent number of sanitary napkins is sent to girls in India. Continue reading


GO VOTE! Even If You’re Uninformed Or Uninterested.

Vote for anyone. Literally, anyone. You’ll be better off for it.

by Stephen St. Vincent

Voter turnout in Philadelphia, especially during city elections, is depressingly low. In May of 2013, only 11.4 percent of registered voters actually bothered to vote. There are a ton of reasons why. Sometimes, there aren’t any interesting races (looking at you, 2013!). Often, people have no idea who the candidates are or how to tell them apart. You can just forget about the judicial elections, with scores of anonymous candidates running for dozens of positions with little future public accountability. And for many people, especially the cynical among us (guilty as charged), we feel like politicians just don’t care about us, and so choosing between one candidate who doesn’t care and another who doesn’t care feels like an exercise in futility.

If you’ve ever found yourself not voting for any of these reasons, I have one thing to say: I hear you, and I don’t blame you. This is not about whether or not voting is the right thing to do. I’m interested in something much more sinister: subverting the system.

I’ll give it to you straight. Politicians care about two things: money, and money. They need money to help them get re-elected so that they can keep making money. Money helps buy votes. Money builds political machines that get voters to turn out for them. And for the most part, politicians don’t really care who gets screwed along the way.

I don’t care who you vote for or why. Neither do politicians. A completely uninformed vote counts just as much as the vote of someone who follows Philadelphia politics so closely that it borders on masochism. And politicians can’t tell the difference!

When it comes to elections, politicians care about counting to a number higher than their opponent. They want to use their money—the thing they hold most dear—as efficiently and effectively as possible. That means that they need to target their money into TV ads, mailers, phone banks, and sample ballots that will turn out the largest number of supporters.

Supporters, of course, are voters. When politicians decide where to target their efforts, they look for large chunks of the population that are likely to vote. Racial, ethnic, religious, and age-based groups are all great examples. The larger the group, and the larger the voter turnout within that group, the more attention politicians will pay to them. Unions, for example, contain enormous groups of voters who make themselves heard with their money and their votes. Small groups, and groups with low turnout, get little to no attention.

Unfortunately for politicians, they have to actually do some governing between elections. And they know that whatever decisions they make while “doing” their actual “jobs” will go a long way to determining which chunks of voters they can count on in the next election. So, where do they target their policies? To the large chunks of voters who turn out in high numbers. Who do they ignore? Small groups and groups that don’t vote. Continue reading


The Job Interview

Something’s been missing from this mayor’s race: The questions an employer would ask a job applicant

by Larry Platt

Last month, at the “Mayoral MilenniaLab” we hosted along with Committee of 70, Young Involved Philadelphia and the Pattison Leader Group, I said something that unintentionally drew some knowing guffaws from the mayoral candidates in attendance. “I’ve been frustrated by the questions being put to the candidates this election season,” I said, prompting Jim Kenney to practically snort: “You’ve been frustrated!”

Since then, I’ve spoken to many of the candidates, and the one sentiment all seem to share is this sense that, for one reason or another, this campaign never really broke through the pop culture ambient noise that so often distorts our public narrative. Just this week, Mustafa Rashad, campaign chair for Doug Oliver, penned a piece for Al Dia critiquing the media coverage of the race. Now, every campaign in political history has criticized the media covering it—even Obama in ’08, and that was as close to a lovefest as ever had been. It’s part of the job description. So some of the candidate frustration is to be expected.

But I think there’s something else going on, because I’ve felt it, too. I’ve attended a couple of forums, watched a couple of the debates. Each candidate has done his or her homework. Yet, more often than not, they’re asked to respond to inanities—did Nelson Diaz steal Tony Williams’ community bank idea?—or they’re queried about their political strategy, ie, the “horserace,” or they’re forced to respond to sweeping policy questions in 45 seconds. I think that’s what Kenney and the others were sighing about: You try solving poverty in 45 seconds.

“A leader has to lead,” says Abraham, “and I am, and always will be, a strong leader who makes the ultimate tough decisions after being informed of all the issues and facts.”

My sense is that, as happened eight years ago, we’ve failed to ask the questions that are the best predictor of mayoral job performance. We haven’t treated this campaign as a city-wide job interview in which we’re the employer.

In retrospect, that’s where we came up short back in 2007, the last time we had a contested mayoral election. Only a couple of months before the Democratic primary, you’ll remember, it had been a foregone conclusion: Chaka Fattah was going to be the next mayor of Philadelphia. At least, that’s what all the self-appointed smart people said.

“Voting against DROP lost me the support of all three municipal unions, including my father,” says Kenney. “And I nearly lost my seat that year, coming in fifth place in the Council at-large race.”

But then Michael Nutter, at one point running a distant fifth in the polls, showed an acumen for policy in the debates. And when he ran a commercial starring his daughter that pulled at the electorate’s heartstrings, Nutter surged; running as a reformer and promising a “New Day,” he won.

For those of us who supported him but ended up vaguely disappointed by Nutter, we now wish we’d asked some important questions. Foreshadowing the presidential election that would take place the following year, we covered Nutter’s campaign more like a social movement phenomenon. He spoke stirringly of turning the page on how the city had been operating; we just forgot to inspect his operational chops.

“I stood up to the trial lawyers who supported me in my campaign and voted against them on Tort Reform,” says Williams.

Had we covered that campaign with an eye toward predicting job performance, there would have been in-depth pieces and conversation about Nutter’s relationship with his brethren on City Council, none of whom supported him. Was that a harbinger of the gridlock that was to come? Did Nutter have the political skills to get things done? It’s a question that wasn’t asked enough in 2007, and should have been. But many of us, yours truly included, were more taken by the fact that he had a daughter in public school, knew the lyrics to “Rapper’s Delight” and was committed to ethics reform. We didn’t stop to think: We’re hiring a Chief Executive Officer. So what’s this legislator ever run?

It kinda feels like déjà vu all over again. So I reached out to Kenney, Williams and Abraham and asked the questions I don’t think have been asked frequently enough. Let’s compare and contrast their responses. (All questions and responses came via email).

The Citizen: Can you provide one specific example where you’ve used political skill to solve a problem, i.e. where you’ve brought warring factions together or somehow managed to bridge a divide in service of the common good?

Kenney: Both the Police Commissioner and Mayor Nutter were initially opposed to marijuana decriminalization, but through compromise, we were able to enact a law that drastically reduced the number of small amount of marijuana possession arrests and, in turn, prevented many young people from being saddled with a criminal record, which cuts off employment and educational opportunities.

Williams: The cigarette tax that finally created a source of funding for the Philly schools. I brought a bipartisan vote together to get it done over two years. It’s something Governor Rendell couldn’t get done.

Abraham: I fought a very long and contentious battle to change the Constitution of Pennsylvania so very young children witnesses of tender years would no longer have to testify ‘eyeball to eyeball’ with someone they had, for example, seen murder a parent…Children would stop testifying while the accused was glaring at them…After many years, we passed an amendment so that now the trial judge makes a determination after a hearing if the child witness has to testify face to face or can testify via closed circuit TV with counsel present, but the accused watching from a remote location. Continue reading


Jeremy Nowak on solutions, journalism and civic engagement

Last week, Citizen chairman and columnist Jeremy Nowak was the featured guest on the Knight Cities Podcast, an ongoing conversation about civic innovation hosted by the Knight Foundation. In it, Nowak described the mission of The Citizen to create a new type of journalism that sparks civic engagement for Philadelphia. As Nowak put it: “We’re using The Citizen as a platform to help people become… more active citizens who understand issues and who can be given the tools to participate in the solutions to problems in the city. It’s a kind of journalism that views the story as the beginning of an event, and not the end of an event.”

To hear Nowak discuss The Citizen, listen to the podcast here.