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A Matter of Trust, continued

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T
he futures of Penn and West Philadelphia are intertwined, declares the center’s mission statement, and that recognition lies at the heart of what it does. Though CCP has had a hand in everything from job-training to promoting dialogue among community leaders, a major focus has been the development and coordination of 140 academically based community-service courses, which span many schools and disciplines at Penn. In a given year, 40 to 50 such classes, enrolling 1200 students, are offered. (Among the choices this fall are courses on mural arts as a tool for social change; the urban asthma epidemic; and the politics that shape the production, marketing, and consumption of food.) Through its partnerships the center also has transformed several of West Philadelphia’s public schools into community hubs that are open for extended hours and serve as sites of learning, services, and activities for the entire neighborhood. These “university-assisted community schools” link community problem-solving to their curriculums. It’s a concept that has deep roots in the University’s history.

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” University President Dr. Judith Rodin CW’66 was quoting the words of Benjamin Franklin in her keynote speech at the conference CCP held to celebrate its anniversary. “I love these words for many reasons,” Rodin told the assemblage of scholars and community leaders, some of whom had come from as far away as South Africa and Korea. “One, they capture the pedagogical wisdom of academic service-learning. Two, Franklin’s words really anticipate and crystallize the growth of Penn and so many other universities.”

As Franklin also seemed to indicate in his “Proposal for the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania,” there is “no inherent conflict or tension between doing well and doing good,” Rodin said. Service learning has been a catalyst for the fusion of these two scholarly missions, which, in their merger, “form a more perfect university.”

One CCP volunteer, Phillip Geheb C’04, had seen how hard it was for some West Philadelphia teachers to get their classrooms under control. So on his first day of teaching at a local high school, he asked students to talk about themselves. What he heard was sobering: One student was trying to come to terms with an abortion she had had. Another talked about being diagnosed with sickle-cell anemia.

Hearing their stories “really touched me on a personal level and made me want to do more for the kids,” Geheb says. Having a good listener made the students take his efforts more seriously, he believes. “A lot of times people don’t listen to them at all.”

For many years Penn’s reputation for listening to West Philadelphia residents was, frankly, not very good. In their eyes, the University was a lot better at deciding what it wanted to do—and then bulling ahead and doing it.

Shortly after he took office in 1980, former Penn President Sheldon Hackney Hon’93 went to a community meeting. “The first thing I heard was the stories of Penn being poised like a bulldozer ready to mow down the neighborhoods around it and expand for its own purposes,” he recalls.

So it was with very deep skepticism that community residents met Penn’s plans for neighborhood outreach. Harkavy, who grew up in the Bronx, knew something about the passions and nuances of urban turf wars, and he understood “how culture and history and neighborhoods matter.”

“The challenge of being a good neighbor in a community which doesn’t look like Stanford or Duke is a particularly tough one,” says Dr. Thomas Ehrlich, a former Penn provost and leading advocate for the service-learning movement. “I think the programs that Ira has sponsored [through CCP] have given Penn a way to turn what could have been a set of serious problems into real opportunities.”

Ehrlich, now a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a Penn trustee, says that in the field of service learning, “Ira’s been an extraordinary catalyst on campus and a beacon around the country—and internationally as well.” In fact, he is working with Harkavy on a comparative study involving scores of countries, looking at college campuses as sites for promoting democracy. What is particularly impressive about the work of Harkavy and the center, he adds, is their success in fusing theory with practice.

Consider the example of Dr. Francis Johnston. Now an emeritus professor of anthropology at Penn, Johnston had been doing research in Guatemala for years on the growth and nutritional status of children when he received an invitation to lunch at the Faculty Club with Harkavy and Dr. Lee Benson, now an emeritus professor of history and faculty fellow at CCP. They told him: “We want you in our village.”

Marie Bogle, who went on to teach at Turner Middle School, had pointed out the need there for a curriculum that would emphasize healthy lifestyles and nutrition. With his research background, Johnston got excited about the idea of exploring these issues with “real collaborators in the community” and developing “relations of trust” that he couldn’t do as easily in a faraway place, Harkavy recalls. “He said, ‘What I’d like to do is develop a process of working with the community in which they would not be researched on, but they would really learn and make a contribution.’”

“We had always talked about it, but what Frank Johnston did was figured˝out˝a way˝to do it,” says Harkavy, clapping his hands for emphasis. “To have his students who do research with him work with middle-school students and have those middle-school students teach others. To have those middle-school students develop projects with his students, and to have those teachers he worked with help shape what they were doing in West Philadelphia.”

As the course progressed, Johnston says, he found himself surrounded by “dedicated, committed, intelligent students” who wanted to get involved in the community. “Every time we were up against some kind of problem on how to do [something], more often than not, a student came forward with an idea.” Their collective work led to the Urban Nutrition Initiative, now used in several local schools, which promotes good health and active learning through after-school fruit-and-vegetable stands, school gardens, a farmer’s market, microbusiness development, and a community fitness program.

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ę 2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 04/28/03