June 16-22, 2005
They're young, bright and want to cure what ails Philly. Why can't we keep them?
On a quiet, cluttered street at the northern edge of Fairmount, in a skinny three-story row house, there live five recent college graduates who want to save the world. These kids are not quite hippies no gnarly hair here, no bong in plain view but rather highly evolved descendants of that '60s creature: They're the sort of contemporary liberal do-gooders who come out of college intent on spreading their privilege to the less fortunate. By day, they work low-paying jobs advocating for causes like affordable housing and immigrants' rights; by night they cram into their small square den to watch The O.C. and The Real World.
One recent Tuesday evening, the group sat around their dining room table and discussed their future prospects in Philadelphia. None of them grew up here; in 2004, they graduated together from Haverford College, a very small, very liberal school 10 miles west of the city, and stayed in Philly because of a school-sponsored program called "Haverford House," which provides housing and a stipend to recent grads who take internships with local nonprofits. In college, they had no relationship with the city; now, to their surprise, they've grown attached to it.
"I've found it's a really friendly and welcoming place," says JeAnne Reyes, a Northern California native who has just returned from the gym. "I have pride in Philadelphia."
"It has a very neighborhood-oriented feel," adds Sandy Craig, of Chicago, "but it's also a cultural center there's a lot going on here."
: Michael T. Regan
The others express similar sentiments. They say Philly is walkable, liveable, affordable, and all the other things that people who like Philly always say about it. Yet when asked whether they plan to stay here after their program ends, just one of the five raises her hand. She's going to do research at Penn. One hasn't decided yet, and the rest are going away.
Opinions on whether Philadelphia suffers from a "brain drain" talented young people with degrees leaving the region after graduation have bounced around the map like a nomadic twentysomething. For years, conventional wisdom held that Philly lost too many students. More recently, with Center City transforming into a veritable frat party and other neighborhoods gentrifying, a fashionable contrarian line that brain drain is a myth has emerged. The reality lies somewhere in between.
Philadelphia does a good job retaining its native graduates 86 percent of them, according to a 2004 study by the Knowledge Industry Partnership but has a harder time retaining non-natives. Only 29 percent of graduates who come to the region to attend school stay put. And of all the fields that those non-native graduates go into, the demographic Philly retains at the lowest rate is people entering nonprofit, civic and government work. The study found that only 24 percent of these do-gooders stick around after graduation.
It would be dangerous to make too much of this statistic. Twenty-four percent is just a handful of failed long-distance relationships away from 29, and the KIP study was a one-time affair. But it is fair to say that Philadelphia has not become a destination for young idealists the way cities like Boston and San Francisco, or even Seattle and Portland, have. And that seems counterintuitive. Philadelphia has social problems that need fixing; it has a long Quaker heritage of service; it is a liberal, program-happy city; and it is in a swing state. Yet it still somehow lacks that progressive pedigree.
In their one year in Philadelphia, the five residents of Haverford House say they've helped their respective organizations author the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness, move toward establishing an affordable-housing trust fund and tutor G.E.D. candidates in North Philly. Most brain-drain conversations focus on graduates entering the technology and business sectors, but the idealists who enter the nonprofit and social service sectors are a vital part of a city's fabric as well. Philly seems primed to become a hot spot for the liberal do-gooder crowd so why can't more people who want to save the world start doing it here?
Let's be clear: There are a lot of people out there whose work benefits society. "Young idealists" are a particular creature commonly found in certain American cities. They are idealists in the colloquial, not technical, sense, and they are the highly educated people who dedicate themselves directly to community service: your nonprofit workers, your social workers, your teachers, your activists and your organizers.
Like all young people, these idealists embrace or abandon a city for myriad reasons, including family, significant others and wanderlust. Some of them go home after school no matter what. But others whom KIP dubs "explorers" are looking for new places to go. In discussions with numerous idealists about why more of their peers choose against Philadelphia, a sort of hierarchy of concerns emerged. The most basic concern is the availability of jobs.
Ray Murphy has run head-on into that problem. Murphy, 26, is an established Philadelphia activist who headed up MoveOn's Eastern Pennsylvania campaign during the presidential election. More recently, he was the online manager for Seth Williams' campaign for district attorney. Right now, he doesn't have a full-time organizing job.
"I certainly feel there is a lack of jobs and potential for a young organizer. There is no doubt a problem," Murphy says. "Organizations and institutions either don't have the money or aren't hiring people like me."
Murphy may not be alone in his predicament. Philadelphia does have a large nonprofit sector (there are more than 4,000 nonprofits in the city), but it's not clear how many opportunities it offers to young idealists. As of May 31, Idealist.org, a nonprofit job listing service, had 479 registered nonprofits with 112 available jobs in the Philadelphia area. It listed 932 organizations with 105 jobs in San Francisco, and 1,016 organizations with 346 jobs in Boston. This listing doesn't necessarily reflect how many jobs are available, but because Idealist is very popular with the young idealist demographic, it does suggest how many jobs those folks are aware of.
Those who believe Philly is lagging in employment opportunities say that most national charitable foundations would rather send their donations to groups in more visible cities.
"There is not money coming into Philadelphia to build up organizations that can provide young social justice activists with a living wage," says Christie Balka, the executive director of Bread and Roses, a public foundation that distributes funds to groups working in the Delaware Valley.
A 2005 study done by Charity Navigator, America's largest charity evaluator, found that of the 25 largest metropolitan markets in the country, Philly nonprofits reported the third lowest total contributions received. Some other cities that are considered liberal hot spots, such as Seattle and San Francisco, ranked only slightly higher. But Philly also has the highest concentration of arts nonprofits in the country, which means an even smaller proportion of local donation money goes to social service and social justice outfits.
Balka believes that philanthropists avoid giving in Philly because "they're convinced that change here is impossible."
Sherisse Laud-Hammond, a 26-year-old who recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work, says that this lack of funding translates into lower pay for people like her.
"Philadelphia doesn't pay social workers well," she says. Laud-Hammond is spurning the opportunity to stay in Philly and make between $28,000 and $36,000 to move to Washington D.C. and start out at $45,000. It's not that money is the most important thing to her she left a lucrative job at a for-profit firm because she didn't feel she was making enough of a difference there but, she says, "I'm coming from Penn. Do you know how much my loans are?"
It's impossible to pin down an average salary for a young nonprofit worker because they perform such a wide range of jobs (a report by the Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University containing average figures for a variety of job titles will be available soon). But for the young idealists consulted, neither pay grade nor job market were as pressing a concern as the working environment in Philadelphia.
A couple of weeks ago, three recent graduates of the Penn School of Social Work gathered for dinner at Fairmount's Tavern on Green. It was a warm night, and the women sat at an outdoor table discussing their experiences doing fieldwork in Philly.
"It's unbelievable how inefficient everything is," said Rachel Kahn, a 26-year-old from Central Jersey.
In Philly, they said, bureaucracy one described it as "mediocracy" because of the bureaucrats' indifference takes precedence over public service, and a social worker's primary responsibility is to make sure her client attends appointments, not to rehabilitate. Kahn drew this in stark contrast to Seattle, where she worked for two years.
"In Seattle," she said, "there's a social service mentality." Some of this she attributes to better resources more shelters, lower case loads but there was a less tangible issue of simply "more optimism," too. Laud-Hammond echoed this concern about Philadelphia. Word at the Penn School of Social Work is that young idealists in Philly lose their idealism quick.
Of the three graduates, one plans to stay in Philly as a social worker, one is going to Temple Law School and one is moving to Oregon. They looked glum as they picked at meals they would be able to afford only occasionally on a social worker's salary.
"Burnout in Philly is very high," Kahn said. "For a lot of people, going to a part of the country where the system allows them to get things done is the most important thing."
The same point could certainly be made about other idealist professions. It's no secret that many teachers avoid Philly (and other cities) because of the quality of its schools. And a number of Philly activists say that the political culture here discourages involvement.
"The Democratic Party is stuck in the old ways of doing things in Philadelphia," says Hilary Zwerdling, a 24-year-old online organizer for @dvocacy Inc., a political consulting firm. "The kind of Democrats who are already in office, who are already ward leaders, have been there for years," and don't face challenges from within the party. As a result, Zwerdling believes, Philly is less progressive than it should be it hasn't passed a living wage law, for instance, or witnessed same-sex matrimony on the steps of City Hall. Alienation of young progressives will persist, she says, "until the Democratic Party starts opening doors to new people and new ideas."
Philly's reputation among this young crowd is that public service work here pays poorly, and you can't get much done so it's a lot to ask them to stay here. On top of that, some say Philly doesn't provide the cultural experience they're looking for.
Erin Scott, 24, came to Philly the way a lot of young idealists do to participate in Americorps. Many join City Year; she joined the Philadelphia Health Corps. She will be leaving when her time is up, dissatisfied with what she found here. "I haven't experienced an activist culture, not the way I did [when I was in] D.C.," she says. "You can tell if it's an activisty type of place. I expected to meet more like-minded people."
To many local activists, this would sound strange. When asked whether Philly has a progressive culture, they register a resounding yes, and cite the availability of vegetarian restaurants, organic food, independent films and art. People interested in queer issues can volunteer at the Attic or the William Way Center. For those into democracy, there are blogs like youngphillypolitics.com; if anarchy is more their cup of tea, there's the A-space in West Philly. There are problems with the scene, too. Several idealists complain that for a city as diverse as Philly, the activist scene is very racially segregated. But things are sufficiently progressive, some activists say, that an influx of Republican National Convention protesters, forced to return to the city multiple times for court dates, have decided to just stay put.
Still, if you don't know Philly, as Scott did not, you wouldn't know this. And this, some people believe, is why Philly has failed to become an idealist hot spot: its image. Philly is believed to be liberal, but in an old-fashioned, party-machine way; the city's name conjures up visions of iron-fisted union bosses. Boston, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco these places are understood to be progressive. Image-wise, they're the Boca Burger to our cheesesteak.
"A lot of people think about things at face value," says Page Widick, a Minnesota native and the one member of Haverford House who's staying. "If you tell someone from another country, 'I live in New York,' they're like, oh, OK, New York. 'I live in San Francisco,' I know where that is. 'I live in Philly '"
Her housemate Amalie chimes in, "Philly they like cheesesteaks, right?"
Matthew Joyce and Tim Ifill are fighting brain drain twice over. First, they decided to stay here. Now, they're founding a program aimed at keeping young idealists in town.
The two graduated together from Haverford in 2003, after rooming together for four years. Joyce could be mistaken for a recent graduate of business school: a highly amiable guy, he has sloping shoulders and blond hair cropped conservatively close to his scalp. Joyce grew up in Maine and never would have considered staying in Philly after graduation, but lacking a clear plan, he applied to Haverford House and got accepted. During his year working for the Philadelphia Commission to End Homelessness (PCEH), he fell in love with the city and decided he wanted other young idealists to experience it the same way. Ifill, who, with a scraggly beard and sandals, looks more like a nonprofit type, couldn't have agreed more. He grew up in Abington and calls himself a "Philadelphia partisan." They set out to design a program to keep more people like themselves here.
Some say this isn't the best way to help Philadelphia that it's folly to focus on attracting recent college grads when middle-class parents, frustrated by the quality of schools, refuse to raise their children here. In fact, the writers Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin have been conducting this debate in a public forum for several years now: Florida, who argues that "the New Economy" is driven by a young, creative class, believes cities should build a bohemia to attract recent graduates [Cover Story, "I Can Fix Your City," Daniel Brook, Sept. 12, 2002]. Kotkin replied recently in The New Republic that "the idea that Cleveland and Oklahoma City can out-compete New York, San Francisco, London or Paris on a hipness scale is simply bizarre." He recommends rebuilding infrastructure.
Can a city rebuild infrastructure without expanding its tax base? Does gentrification help anyone besides folks who were already doing OK? Joyce and Ifill admit that this is a "hairy question."
Right now, many cities are coming down squarely on the side of attracting youth. Philly in particular has developed something of an obsession with brain drain, and numerous articles and reports have been written on the topic. One of the most prominent, KIP's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" argues that if Philly just held onto the same percentage of non-native graduates as Boston does, it would retain an additional 2,400 talented young workers each year. Philly could use them: Its population continues to decline, albeit more slowly, and the city recently finished 92nd out of 100 communities ranked in terms of percentage of population with a college degree. But the KIP study encourages the city to focus on retaining graduates who enter information technology, health sciences, and visual and performing arts there's no mention of improving retention of nonprofit, civic and government workers.
Joyce says he suspects this demographic is not a recruitment focus because it isn't very lucrative and it's true that young idealists don't work in the sort of high-growth industries that expand tax bases. But they do tend to be middle-class and educated the kind of people Philly wants to attract. They do hard, valuable work. And they tend to work in low-paying jobs for a couple of years before moving on to something more profitable. The people leading the fight against brain drain acknowledge this.
"A lot of folks will start out [in the nonprofit sector] then go to grad school, or maybe the private sector," says David Thornburgh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League and one of KIP's leaders. "I can't figure out if there's a gap between the potential and the reality there. It does seem to me like there's some opportunity."
In the brain-drain discussion, young idealists are not so much a shunned demographic as a forgotten one. They do constitute a smart investment in the city's future and, perhaps more importantly, they are a demographic with whom Philly would seem to have some untapped potential. But how do you convince them to stay, with activist hot spots like San Francisco calling their names?
One of the most common suggestions for retention is to offer a financial incentive to your target group in this case, say, a wage tax break to anyone working a public service job in the first two years out of college. However, explains Jon Gravelle-Herrmann, the general manager of Campus Philly and another leader in the brain-drain fight, if you offer such an incentive, you have to give it to everyone, including the people who would have stayed anyway. People who would leave Philly for San Francisco probably aren't too worried about money the city could end up losing a lot of revenue for something that might not work.
Another popular approach is for a city to market itself as a hip hot spot Michigan has a "cool cities" initiative to attract graduates but, as Kotkin has pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, "if you have to have a campaign to prove you're cool, you're not."
The only solid strategy for attracting young people (aside from just being New York or San Francisco) is to encourage students to start building networks in the city while you've got them: KIP's study found that non-native students who interned locally were twice as likely to remain in the area after graduation than those who did not. To that end, Philly supports programs aimed at establishing internships. One city-backed group, Innovation Philadelphia, runs careerphilly.com, a Web site connecting students to local opportunities. The site lists internships in all fields, but Innovation Philadelphia is geared toward developing the city's high-tech industry. Again, young nonprofit workers are not a recruitment focus.
Joyce and Ifill will try to pay them some attention. The "Philly Fellows" program, which will be modeled after Haverford House, would place 12 to 15 recent grads in two houses one in West Philly, one in Northern Liberties and pay them a stipend for working at local nonprofits (which will be asked to pitch in between $5,000 and $10,000 for a full-time employee). The program will also expand on Haverford House by working to integrate the Fellows into Philadelphia: It will provide complementary tickets to museums and sporting events, as well as arranging meetings with city luminaries.
The program has received a $10,000 start-up grant from the realtor and philanthropist Chip Roach, of Prudential Fox & Roach, who was a board member at PCEH when Joyce interned there. The founders continue to seek funding from other sources, but feel confident that they will kick off the program in the fall of 2006.
"The program is a win-win situation," Joyce says. "The Fellows get this year of great experience great chances to network and a great transition from college. The nonprofits are obviously getting a talented, motivated employee for not a lot of money."
They say they don't mind if their Fellows move on from the nonprofit sector after a few years, as long as they can keep a good bunch of them in Philly.
"If they're working for Comcast 10 years down the line, that's fine," Joyce says. "The key thing is developing civic leaders. Ten years down the road, we'd like to see a lot of Philly's leaders be former Fellows."
Will it work? The Fellows program makes sense as an extension of KIP's internship model, and the Haverford House program has worked well in the past last year, four of five residents stayed in Philly. But this year's Haverford House gang, who are leaving for family, a boyfriend, curiosity and to recuperate after an ankle surgery make clear that, even with all the right tools in place, keeping kids in Philly can be a hard sell. There's still something standing in the city's way.
One of the most distinct activist neighborhoods in Philly sits among some of the city's starkest inequities: where University City and West Philly sidle awkwardly up against each other. The community is anchored by Clark Park (which recently hosted the "People's Flea Market") and by Mariposa, a hole-in-the-wall food co-op where organic is the standard and other foods are specially labeled "conventional."
On a hot and still Sunday afternoon, Laura Smoot, dressed mostly in black, pulled up to Mariposa on her bike, purchased a loaf of tofu, and sat down on a bench in the community garden behind the cooperative. Smoot, who grew up in Stratford, N.J., graduated with the Haverford House gang in 2004. After school, she moved to West Philly and now works as a youth organizer with the Southeast Philadelphia Collaborative, a youth organizing and advocacy group. She has no intention of leaving anytime soon.
"Anywhere I went, I'd be trying to recreate what I've found here," she says. As flies buzz about the earth-friendly vegetation, she recites the things she likes about Philly: It is bikeable, it has the mural arts program and many of the people in her neighborhood "don't make assumptions about your gender, sexuality or pronoun preference."
In fact, she says, she wouldn't want Philadelphia to be more appealing to people like her.
"Trying to make Philadelphia into some sort of white liberal happy-land would be creepy and fucked up," she says. "That's not a city I want to live in."
This sentiment comes up time and again among Philadelphia activists. Ray Murphy warns, "A scene that is defined by young people can be revolutionary and fun, but might not get much done There's an argument to be made that Philadelphia is not Portland or Seattle. A lot of us are thankful for that."
Elizabeth Sarah Lindsey, a 25-year-old Swarthmore graduate who works for the nonprofit Maternity Care Coalition, thinks that the brain-drain conversation is "coming from a pretty middle-class perspective. Having people come in who don't know this city, people with class or race privilege I don't necessarily know if that's a good thing."
Forget that these people are themselves educated and belong to the middle class they raise an important question, one that rarely comes up in discussions of how Philadelphia should grow: Does Philadelphia want to? Idealists in Philly refer repeatedly to Philadelphia's "grit" as a positive thing. They like what one calls the city's "blue-collar flavor." Social workers who choose to stay here take pride that they're in the trenches; political organizers draw satisfaction from knowing that they're in a swing state, fighting for key votes. The city isn't just known for our cheesesteaks we actually like cheesesteaks.
Whether Philly should become more progressive is a matter of political opinion, but most people would likely agree that mixing some new blood into the city's entrenched Democratic Party would be a good thing. As for the tangible things that drive idealists away things like mediocracy and political culture well, those things can stand to be fixed. More people in the civic job market means more competition for service jobs and, in the end, less mediocracy. More idealists means, by definition, less cynicism.
It's also important not to fetishize the things that contribute to Philly's "gritty" image: things like unclean streets, mediocracy, an anemic public transit system. These things may, over time, inspire a sort of pride, but nobody actually likes them. Idealists recognize this they're working to change them, after all but want the city to find a balance between attracting new residents and remaining a good home to its old ones.
The middle ground lies in the gap between Philly's image and its reality. The city already has many of the amenities that young people look for those people just aren't aware of it. If Philly can communicate a realistic image, it might be able to attract exactly what it wants: the young idealists who want to work in the trenches, but not the ones who want to live in an echo chamber.
As Smoot says, sitting in an organic garden in the middle of a neighborhood with a "gritty" reputation, "It's not New York. And thank God."
First recorded anti-slavery protest in New World held by Quakers in Germantown.
Benjamin Franklin organizes the debating society Junto, which opposes slavery.
Franklin writes letter defying Stamp Act.
At town meeting, 8,000 Philadelphians pledge armed defense of their "property, liberty & lives." Eight weeks later, they turn back a ship carrying imports from Liverpool.
Thomas Paine publishes Common Sense around the same time dudes in wigs gather at 5th & Chestnut and declare independence from England.
Benjamin Rush publishes Thoughts Upon Female Education.
Shoemakers in Philadelphia organize into the first craft union used for collective bargaining. It is disbanded within a year.
Freed Pennsylvania blacks petition U.S. Congress to ban slavery. They lose 85-1.
Skilled workers from across the different trades form the Mechanics Union of Trade Associations, the first citywide labor organization.
The first black political convention meets.
The American Anti-Slavery Society founded.
Local businessmen organize the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania.
Equal Rights Convention rails against streetcar segregation.
W.E.B. Dubois' The Philadelphia Negro published.
Discrimination in public accommodations banned by commonwealth.
The Rev. Leon H. Sullivan becomes pastor of Zion Baptist Church, organizes boycott of companies that wouldn't hire African-Americans. He soon launches the Opportunities Industrialization Center, which trains 6,000 people for employment.
The nation's first gay and lesbian rights protest held at Independence Mall.
Thousands head to Fairmount Park for first Earth Day celebration. Ira Einhorn annoys every last one of them.
Ever-stylish Mayor Frank Rizzo dons billy club in cummerbund, tells hippies to stay away from Bicentennial celebrations. They do.
Sullivan takes on South African apartheid with his Sullivan Principles, which urge Americans not to work with businesses in that nation. Later, his Global Sullivan Principles challenge injustices across the globe.
Veteran-turned-peacenik Philip Berrigan breaks into General Electric defense plant, smashes warhead cones & douses blueprints with blood. The Plowshares movement begins.
Radio host Mumia Abu-Jamal murders police officer Daniel Faulkner. A cause celebre is born.
Mayor Goode drops bomb on MOVE compound. Decimates an entire city block, political career.
Live Aid held at JFK Stadium to raise funds for starvation in Africa; The Hooters show the world how Philly rolls.
After 5-year-old Marcus Yates is killed in drug-dealing crossfire, residents unite and march against senseless violence. Their fight continues today.
Former stripper Cheri Honkala founds Kensington Welfare Rights Union.
A group of local youths go to D.C. Their anti-violence portraits are displayed at Russell Senate Office Building.
American Friends Service Committee founds Religious Organizing Against the Death Penalty project.
Bike thrown at Police Commissioner John Timoney during Republican National Convention protests. Police arrest 381 people.