As an observer of Penn as well as a member of the community, I think the University has never made a serious commitment of its considerable academic resources to West Philadelphia. There is considerable work being done through the school systems of West Philly due to the work of Ira Harkavy's office and a myriad number of individual faculty, to their credit, who feel compelled to involve Penn students in the real life issues surrounding the campus. Apparently the University has attempted to help local businesses by buying locally, yet, there has been no coordinated effort to encourage whole schools and departments to seriously apply their academic expertise to West Philadelphia.
As we know, President Rodin has made The Urban Agenda one of her six priorities in the Agenda for Excellence, but I believe it deserves to be at the top of the agenda. With the Deans, working with their faculties, we will show an institutional academic commitment to be good neighbors. Penn can not only help raise the standard of living in West Philadelphia, but seriously address the various urban issues including the rampant crime which face the cities across the country. Such an initiative would not only send the message that we take our neighbors seriously, but would clearly demonstrate the power of education to transform community.
For example, what would happen if the medical school along with psychological services set up a premiere drug treatment program which would employ social work interns as well?
What would happen if Wharton turned its talented entrepreneurial students loose with the assignment to design job training programs and new jobs for West Philadelphia residents?
What if folklore and anthropology students were required to collect stories on urban survival and the fine arts students were assigned the artistic task of portraying the paradox of urban hopefulness and cynicism?
What if all engineering students set about tackling the issue of ecologically sound housing or designed projects for abandoned buildings?
What if every Penn student were required to study the subtleties of racism and classism especially as it relates to Penn's interactions with its neighbors? Or, what if sociology students did a power analysis of each University action on the economic and social impact with West Philadelphia?
What if students in finance helped people living on a shrinking welfare check to budget their income, especially with the new cuts coming due to the 'welfare reform?' Talk about an eye-opening academic challenge!
While it is not an academic proposal, what would happen if Penn established a fund for low interest loans to improve and renovate dwellings and businesses within a twenty-block area of the University?
I believe in the power of the intellect to tackle and solve the social dilemmas we have created for ourselves. But it will require a collective commitment on our part to admit we are part of the problem and part of the solution. This is no time for paternalistic benevolence or an 'us versus them' wall-building mentality.
I do not believe this commitment will happen until we see that Penn's future security is ultimately linked to the health and fortunes of West Philadelphia particularly. "Without the human community, one single human being cannot survive." (Dalai Lama) Thus, without a coordinated broad community commitment to share our academic and problem-solving skills, as well as our financial dollars, Penn cannot survive in this environment. The guns will continue to blaze. I believe the answer posed to the biblical question, "Who is my neighbor?" is quite evident.
-- Rev. Beverly Dale, Executive Director, The Christian Association
Volume 43 Number 10
October 29, 1996
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