An urban scholar takes civic action

Walter Licht

Raised on the streets of Brooklyn, Walter Licht has spent his life giving back to the community. Now, as Civic House's new faculty advisor, he's helping Penn students give back to West Philadelphia.

If there’s one thread running throughout Walter Licht’s life, it would be his commitment to the community. A self-described city kid from Brooklyn, N.Y., Licht has years of urban initiatives to his name. From his days as a college student tutoring in a Boston community, Licht has made it a point to link the ivory tower with the rest of the world: He spent several years as a teacher in Harlem; he has developed history curriculums for area public school teachers; and he helped form Penn Faculty and Staff for Neighborhood Issues.

The history professor and School of Arts and Sciences associate dean is an expert in urban labor history. He also knows a thing or two about how to give back to society. Recently tapped as the next faculty advisor of Civic House—Penn’s community service and learning collaborative—Licht talked with the Current about what it means to be a part of the community.

Q. How did your commitment to the community begin?
…I come from a family that was very politically active. My mother especially was very active in the community, so I guess I was born into such engagement.

Walter Licht

A new job lets the activist with a passion for history combine his love of scholarship with his concern for the community.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

But [as a Harvard student] even though I loved the organizing of protests, marches, sit-ins and things like that that went on during the 60s, I think my favorite part of the week was to get on a van and to go into Roxbury in Boston, sit in a school cafeteria one-on-one with a student and kind of gab a lot and then look at their homework and begin to point out ways in which a student can be learning better and give him some tips. It was the nicest moments in my week, and I still remember it.

Because of the tutoring I got very interested in issues of education and particularly urban education and the crises within public schools.

I think I had real pretensions at this time because I decided to be a student of this and entered a graduate program in sociology, with a concentration in the sociology of education, but got convinced quickly that...if I was ever going to play a role in urban education I really had to understand the school from the ground level and what happens on a daily basis in the classroom. It also coincided with my needing to escape the draft so I wound up working as a public school teacher in Harlem for four years and had a difficult but very important experience in my life.

I think, to this day, who I am was shaped by that experience. I’m a much better teacher because of that experience. It has kept me committed to issues of urban America.

Q. How did you end up at Penn?
I had academic interest. Certain things happened while I was in graduate school that convinced me that historical studies were very important. I imagined teaching at the college level and after four years, I ...pursued a Ph.D. in history…and then came to the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1977.

Q. How were you able to bridge the disconnect between yourself and the communities you were volunteering in?
When I became a public school teacher in Harlem, there was a conflict moment. It was 1968, in the midst of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike—a terrible moment when the union went on strike because of initiatives in community control of the schools.

I was a young idealist at the time [and] very much supported the whole notion [of community control].

Counter to everything I grew up with, I did not go on strike and even crossed the picket line. …Those who went to teach during the strike, we ran the schools. This community ran the school. I used to stay after school with the parents, cleaning the bathrooms; the whole custodial group stayed, the administrators as well. As a result, the teachers who stayed—it was over a three-month period—we were loved.

When the other teachers came back, it was all hell broke loose. Their tires were slashed; they [the teachers] were ripped off. I used to work with kids late after school hours, I would leave 5, 6, 7, 8 o’clock, sometimes dark. I would walk to a subway station in the middle of Harlem and no one ever touched me. I lived through an experience where there are obvious divides, and unavoidable divides, and here I walked into a situation where I almost became knighted.

I know there are disconnects between a community like the University of Pennsylvania and its surrounding neighborhoods. And it’s one of the things I think Civic House works at brilliantly, particularly the workshops [and] the training sessions.

...But there are a lot of disconnects. There’s the obvious racial disconnects, there are class disconnects, there are just experiential disconnects.

I think for many of our Penn students it will be even an eye-opener to even walk into schools in the community that look like and sound very different from the schools they come from. If they spend time there, they’re going to meet people who have dedicated their lives to making those schools work.

Q. What kind of role will you play at Civic House?
One of the things I can do is work with the staff and students who are engaged in Civic House and begin to plan [and] brainstorm where we go from here. …I think I can be a sounding board. I can be a facilitator of the planning process here.

I don’t want to walk in there in any overly aggressive way because a lot is going on that is impressive. There’s a terrific staff working there. There’s a real sense of student ownership of Civic House, and I want to keep that alive and thriving.

Number two, I feel I’m just there to raise the energy levels, give people pep talks. And if I can help out, I’ll be very, very happy.

There are some development issues I think I can help here. Monies do have to be raised, the building needs some improvement. …

Civic House can also be a place of discussion—it is already. Civic House runs some wonderful forums—but I think you could lift up the intellectual activity of the house as well. You could have more forums, maybe debates going on in the house, more regularized speakers, programs and I could be helpful here.

Q. Are there any unmet needs in the community which you would like to see Civic House address?
In terms of the kind of volunteer work, it’s really impressive, the array of it. I’m not even sure we have an accurate count of how many groups that are—either on an ad hoc basis or on a steady basis—running volunteer programs in the community. In the residential college systems, you will have one kind of drive or another to raise money [and collect] food and clothing. If I was to point out one [service] which may be lacking, I have to remind myself that there is probably an organization that’s looking out for it.

But there is no shortage of need in generalized tutoring. Student schedules often don’t permit steady working, so there’s turnover. There may be some audiences that we haven’t looked at. This is something that I would think about with the remarkable staff over at Civic House.

Originally published on October 3, 2002