Ignacio Crespo C’11 | Capstone Project: “Community-Based Enterprises as an Alternative Model for Rural Sustainable Socioeconomic Development: The Case Study of Jasmine Growers of Coastal Karnataka”
Benjamin Franklin famously wrote that the “great Aim and End of all Learning” should be an “Inclination join’d with an Ability to serve.” Inclination is pretty fired up these days, at Penn and other Ability-packed institutions. But it hasn’t always been that way.
When Walter Licht arrived at Penn in the fall of 1977, he and his wife, Lois, moved into a brick rowhouse on leafy St. Mark’s Square, a few blocks west of campus. He assumed he would keep putting his shoulder to the community-service wheel—the tutoring and other projects that had proved so satisfying in his undergraduate days. [See opposite page.] But he quickly discovered that community service was a “highly decentralized but very marginalized activity” at Penn. Some of the grassroots groups were essentially homeless.
“I couldn’t even find out where they were,” he says. “There were a few groups that sort of found me, but they were petering out. It was pretty pitiful.” Which didn’t stop him from offering his services and office, and participating in whatever faculty boards he could find.
Although he was deeply involved in the life of the community and Penn’s civic-engagement efforts, it would take more than 20 years to find a real home for his civic energies and vision. Of course, he was also teaching and publishing at the university level, not normally a part-time job for someone who takes both parts of the equation as seriously as he does.
“I always felt that, if I was not just going to be a scholar and teacher, that I would be taking my love of history into the community as much as possible,” says Licht. That translated into, among other things, a summer “history camp” in which he worked with high-school teachers, many of them from Penn’s neck of the woods. It later led to the West Philadelphia Community History Center, which he undertook with Mark Frazier Lloyd, director of the University Archives and Records Center.
During much of that time, the fabric of the wildly diverse section of the city in which he lived and worked was unraveling. By the early 1990s, crime was spiking dangerously, and Penn’s relationship with its neighbors was marked by mutual distrust and smoldering resentment.
“When I first came here, it was Dump on Penn,” says Licht. “I didn’t really understand it. I had never heard such vitriol as at those community meetings. I began to study it myself, to understand what had happened here.”
Unlike a lot of people, he began to see the seeds of something promising in that anger.
“In the midst of what was a generalized urban crisis of the late ’80s and ’90s, it was really thrilling the extent to which the community began mobilizing itself, whether it was at Spruce Hill or the other organizations,” he says. “And that was having an impact on campus.”
Licht did have some visionary allies in this struggle. One was Ira Harkavy C’70 Gr’79, who had evolved from activist student leader to civically involved graduate student (who consulted with Licht on his doctoral dissertation) and has since become associate vice president and director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships, which he founded in 1992.
“Walter’s been involved in the Netter Center’s work since early on,” says Harkavy. “He wrote a very significant book called Getting Work, which talks about job networks, and he actually applied those ideas to work with University City High students and Penn students, to develop policy papers and strategies that were presented to the school district and other bodies.” That, he adds, “is what academically based community service is designed to do: integrate research, teaching, service, and learning.”
Licht is a fan of the Netter Center—and, since 1999, the Fox Leadership Program, which opened under Fox Leadership Professor John DiIulio C’80 G’80 and executive director Joe Tierney and has also done vitally important work, including serving as the home of Big Brothers/Big Sisters at Penn and leading Penn’s presence in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina [“Bridge to the Gulf,” Jul|Aug 2008]. And many of his students have done community-service work through their programs. But he still felt something was missing.
“I loved that Ira could bring together these outreach courses,” says Licht. “I taught some of the original ones. But they created an interesting center that left out all of the 30 or 40 student groups.
“The beauty of Civic House is that it’s a student-empowered place,” he adds. “An empowering place. There are upwards of four dozen of those groups at this point. And our best estimate is that at any time in a given semester, somewhere around 2,500 undergrads are engaged with groups that fall under the umbrella of Civic House.”
A genealogist would be helpful in describing the creation of Civic House, formerly the Community Service Learning Center, whose roots are in the Program for Student-Community Involvement, which was led by Grossman. After a group of students in the program petitioned for a space in late 1997, the University turned over the building at 3914 Locust Walk and christened it Civic House. Designated as an official hub of student activity, similar to Kelly Writers House, its mission was to “prepare students for their roles as citizens and leaders.” Its first faculty director was Peter Conn, the Vartan Gregorian Professor of English, who was also serving as deputy (then interim) provost; as the demands of that office grew, Civic House began casting about for a new faculty director. Licht, whose academic, civic, and University-citizen credentials were impeccable, “came up as someone who would be terrific,” recalls Grossman.
July | August 2011 contents