Activist bureaucrat

An activist protester in the 1960s, Ira Harkavy has figured out how to do what every radical wanted to do to the system: Change it. From the inside out.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when Ira Harkavy was a student at Penn, its reputation with its neighbors was that of an 800-pound gorilla throwing its weight around West Philadelphia. The mistrust was so deep that even a laboratory high school proposed for the neighborhood met with strong objections.

Now, three decades later, Penn is still the 800-pound gorilla of West Philadelphia. But the mistrust has tempered, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Harkavy, director of the Center for Community Partnerships (CCP), which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. The center’s projects, by tying academic research to community problem-solving, are flourishing in a number of West Philadelphia schools, including nearby University City High School, the would-have-been lab school.

Harkavy’s efforts to weave community service into Penn’s academic fabric by making community service part of course work—an approach known as “service learning”—have been so successful that strengthening and expanding CCP is an explicit goal of the University’s next strategic plan. And his work has not gone unnoticed by his peers elsewhere: Campus Compact, the national organization that promotes service learning, just gave him its highest honor, the Thomas Ehrlich Award, which, by the way, was named for a former Penn provost and University Trustee who also promoted community service during his time here.

Q. What’s your reaction to receiving the Ehrlich Award?
I take the Ehrlich Award as not just a personal recognition but really a recognition of Penn’s leadership.

Ira Harkavey

The director of the Center for Community Partnerships has just won a national award for uniting town and gown to solve societal problems. His efforts, which began in West Philadelphia, are having an impact nationwide.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

I was also thrilled to receive an award named after Tom Ehrlich.

Q. You call your approach to service learning “academically based community service.” How does that differ from regular community service or service learning?
While service learning [just] has students reflect on the service experience, this work seeks to solve real community problems. It would be [like] the difference between doing work to build a home and trying to work with community groups to do a plan to help improve their community. You can build a home as a part of that, but there’s a larger purpose.

We think that in a great research university, all students should be producers and not consumers of knowledge. And that means they need to be engaged in active learning and problem solving. We conceive this as an approach that is problem-focused and works to improve the community.

Q. Could you give an example of how that approach works?
One of the great programs that has been developed is [Professor of Linguistics] Bill Labov’s work improving reading, his approach using the local culture and narratives to teach standard English to school children in West Philadelphia. That came about because undergraduates pressed Bill Labov and said, You know all about African-American language. What can you do to help solve the reading problems of the children of West Philadelphia, and how can that link to the theoretical interest you have in language development and linguistics?

He began in 1997. [One of the first schools] Bill focused on was Drew School [in Powelton Village]. And the reading scores of the Drew children in, I forget which grade level, improved more on the standard Pennsylvania test than any other school in the Commonwealth [in 1998]. As a result of the good results, Labov’s work has been expanded across the country. He’s received $3.3 million to have this program tried in other states.

Q. You’ve been working on implementing this vision since the 1980s. Were there any obstacles you faced in your effort?
First [there was earning] the trust of the community. Penn has tended to be seen as acting on the community rather than with the community. And then they were concerned about whether Penn would be there when the interest lagged or the grants ran out.

And then we were trying to help illustrate that this kind of work was valuable for students and for faculty. The resistance to that notion was also significant. And then [there was] trying to develop the infrastructure where we could do the work in increasingly organized ways [so] that we could become visible enough to get support from outside the University.

Q. Has your work changed since your days as a student activist?
As a Penn undergraduate and activist, I was very concerned with the issue of racism in American society and trying to work to make some contribution to fulfill the promise of American society. And that promise was particularly enunciated in the ’60s by Dr. King. I think those passionate concerns, the passion I had for changing the world for the better, still motivate me. But what’s different now is that now it’s part of the institution itself. It’s part of the core mission of the University.

Q. How well has CCP and its work filled your initial vision?
I’m an optimist. This has exceeded my most optimistic, utopian visions. The progress Penn has made, the support that the center has received from the leadership of the institution, from the faculty, from the students, the extraordinary work the community’s done, the staff that works at the center and their commitment, they’ve been incredible.

If I looked at the changes here, since 1992, the number of academically-based community service courses on the books has increased from 11 to 136, [taught by] 60 standing faculty in 11 schools. We’ve expanded our programs from two in 1992 to about 20, and our work is now having impacts not only at Penn and in the community but is widely replicated. If I thought all of those things would happen in 10 years when we began, I think I could have been accused of being delusionary. And yet we’ve made that progress.

Q. What would the commitment to strengthen and expand the center in the new strategic plan mean in practical terms?
We can always do the work better and more effectively and integrate our own efforts [with] communities of faith and nonprofits and arts organizations, finding new and creative ways to develop projects.

It also means increasing the number of faculty and students involved in academically-based community service. We could also expand our local, national and international networks in replication. We have a higher education consortium, the Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development, that’s based at the center. And we have a national replication project with 20 universities [the WEPIC Replication Project, which applies the community-school model developed at Penn to other cities].

And then we have international projects. We play a key role in the International Consortium on Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy. That’s a [group] that is housed at the University, and there’s a major research project [there] called Universities as Sites of Democracy, Citizenship and Social Responsibility. And that project is looking at ways higher education can make greater contributions to democracy on campus and in the community [worldwide]. We’ve finished the pilot phase of studies of 15 European universities, 15 in the United States and 15 in South Africa, and now we’ll be expanding this project to include about 300 universities all over the world.

One of the other areas we’ll be increasingly focusing on will be in health. The faculty in community medicine [in the School of Medicine are looking at] developing effective ways of improving health care in West Philadelphia and looking, for instance, at the development of a school-based community health center to serve the entire neighborhood and community.

On the cover: Harkavy in Saul Machless’ environmental science class at University City High School.
Above: Harkavy examines plants with (left to right) Shante Rutherford, Allisia Surmon and Lakeisha Alexander, UC High students involved in the Urban Nutrition Initiative, a CCP project.

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Originally published on April 25, 2002