Sunday, June 19, 2005

Keeping the Liberal-Do-Gooders

The City Paper cover story this week is titled: "They're young, bright and want to cure what ails Philly. Why can't we keep them?" Essentially, the article asks, how come Philly cannot attract and keep liberal-do-gooders, be they teachers, social workers, non-profits, etc.

The article first discusses the ever-posed question of how much of a brain drain Philly has. (Answer: unclear). But, more specifically, why isn't Philly a place that liberal, social justice types necessarily see as a place to settle, and put down long-term roots?

"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 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.


"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."

OK, so, these are mainly interviews with young, middle-class kids who Philly needs to keep. But, doesn't this sound pretty similar to this:
All they want is that feeling of empowerment in their own communities. People will do anything for that.
That is from Charles' post on Friday about empowering Philly communities. To me though, that is what this is all about, and the way we can make the biggest changes. It is not sexy to call for good government or responsive government, and maybe empowerment is a much better word to us, but fundamentally, that is the issue that can unite all Philadelphians, from the Far Northeast, the far Southwest.

Why does a family decide to leave Philly for a suburb? Or, even for a safer neighborhood? Given that they many times move to suburbs with unimaginable property taxes, it is not a pocketbook thing. Fundamentally, it because they want what is best for their family, and they don't think they can see real change in Philly; that their efforts will simply be washed away in a sea of bureaucracy, patronage and waste.

Whether it is a parent deciding whether to cross the City line, a social worker deciding between Philly or somewhere else, or simply a long-term resident of Philly deciding whether to fight for change, one side of the equation always stays the same: can I make a difference by staying? Too many times, the answer is no. That is where we can unite, at a point where we all say, no matter what ideological beliefs are, the way our City fundamentally operates is wrong, and, if we can fix that, as Charles also said, then everything else falls into place.


As an aside, the article talks about something else, and it really, really irritates me: The Philly is such a great City cause it is so "gritty" argument. As a life long resident of the City, I hear that and I want to pull my hair out. (The passage includes a quote from Ray, though what he says isn't what really bothers me):
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."

I am born and raised here, and I love Philly, and how generally unpretentious your average resident is. But that "Gritty" shit? It makes me want to throw up. Why? Because I suspect if you asked an average, non-hipster Philadelphia resident, they wouldn't say jack about the “gritiness" of Philly. They would want the same things everyone else wants: clean streets, safe schools for their kids, good paying jobs, things to do. I don't think they would say, a City that still looks like it is out of Rocky. Honestly, I cannot quite type how awful I think this statement is. Maybe it isn't meant this way, but it is like we are some goddamned residents of a zoo, to be preserved as "gritty" because that seems to have a lot more cache than drinking a coffee at Starbucks on 42nd St in Manhattan.

Nah. Fundamentally, people in Philly want to see their City grow and prosper. They want their homes to be worth money. They want their kids to go to good schools. Now, of course, they want to experience this without feeling like they are being kicked out of the place they have lived in, but, still: there is something about middle-class kids romanticizing things like this that makes me ill. Sort of like, if they don't like it, they can always move away in the future, as our little "gritty" exhibition is here for them to visit once in a while.

Rant over. But, check out the article, because, aside from that little part that irritates the living hell out of me, it is pretty interesting.


At 5:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Poverty pimps, plain and simple.

At 6:11 PM, Blogger Charles said...

Yeah Dan. I didn’t like the “gritty” comment either. It seems to imply that we are a B city who only needs a way to attract more white liberal independently wealthy activists to ride in on their white horses and save our dear city.

Ray’s quote, however, was on the money. Being around young idealistic liberals is fun and exciting, but it can be like a bubble. I mean if you are interested in helping normal people, then how can you help them empower their own communities if you live a 5 minute walk away from Rittenhouse Square? I’m not dissing living in center city. But I do find it interesting that there are a lot of people who want to do “do gooder” stuff but seem to avoid the very people whom they need to help. Or they will go into North Philly during the day and then go right home to their nice little apartment near the park and not really understand the dynamics of the community.

As far as the flight from the city of people in general. It all comes down to jobs, but more importantly, education. My Mom said that early on, when they had me, they had a choice. Move to the Burbs or stay here and send me to private school. I’ve talked to many people who have said the same thing. What does that say about our city?

At 9:10 AM, Blogger Ben Waxman said...

Dan, I'm still confused about what part annoys you. Is it a specific quote?

I actually find the entire article sort of annoying. I spent a little time on the phone with the reporter and he seemed to spend most of the time trying to get me to say that the working-class cultural of Philadelphia makes it a non-progressive place.

At 9:46 AM, Blogger DanielUA said...

It annoys me when people say they are moving into Philly cause it is gritty, and so, they hope it doesnt go and get all messed up from its perfect "gritty" state.

What the hell does being gritty mean? Does anyone think that lifelong residents of Philly want to live in a "gritty" City? Unpretentious? Sure. Gritty? I dont think so.

It just seems like this idea fed by kids who want to say they lived in a slightly dangerous, risky place, that scary Philadelphia! To me, I say, screw that. I am born and raised here, and lived in a neighborhood that in the 80's and 90's got plenty "gritty," and I don't think anyone in my neighborhood liked it at all. So, if you are a young, progressive person, I welcome you to Philly with open arms. But, if you are coming because you think our problems are "cool," I would like to point you to the nearest entrance to 76 or 95.

At 2:02 PM, Blogger ERL said...

This is my first time visiting this site, and I CANNOT express my agreement more with your statement that "Gritty" shit? It makes me want to throw up.

I absolutely agree with you - I believe that this city is in danger of being overtaken by a "hipster" community that wants to erase any sembelance of a true socially activism because they think that being "gritty" or "edgy" is "cooler" than truely working towards a common goal.

At 4:08 PM, Blogger DanielUA said...

ERL- Thanks, and, yeah, I agree.

A few people have written me privately to say that they think I am being harsh. And, I just want to make clear, as I said in the first part of my post, that I think middle-class, liberal-do-gooders are great for Philadelphia. Come do great work in Philadelphia. Hell, when I think about it, that is really how my dad came to live in Philly after college, about 30 years ago. Hell, he even went to Haverford, just like some of the kids interviewed.

And, if you want to come to Philly, because it is sensibly priced, because people are not stuck up, etc, that is great. Truly. The more people who want to live here, especially those who are socially conscious, the better.

But, and maybe it is just word choice of "gritty" or whatever, do not make assumptions about what people in Philadelphia want forthe future of their City, and assume it is different from most everyone else in the world, because I doubt it is.

We all have to work together to make Philly better, and I love that people seem to be grasping all that Philly has to offer and are potentially moving in. But, if you are coming because you think we are "edgy" or something, then I am not sure you and I have the same long term goals for our City's success.

At 9:08 AM, Blogger raider.adam said...

I have to agree as well. Philly doesn't need more people that think it is cool to be able to throw trash on the street and keep walking.

At 3:14 PM, Blogger s.mcgee said...

have you all actually really met people who moved here because the city is "gritty"? Socially conscious young people ready to work in social services/organizing/education (the people the article is talking about)? i mean, do they exist? and more importantly, are they, as you all seem to fear, so attatched to the "grit" that they want it to stay? have you ever met a young teacher who is so psyched to be working with at-risk kids that she doesn't want their test scores to go up? or a young organizer who doesn't want a neighborhood to get safer because he's overwhelmed by the glamour of working in the ghetto?

At 3:26 PM, Blogger DanielUA said...

Well, as I say, as someone who is the product of a 1960's lib-do-gooder who put roots down in Philly to fight the good fight, I welcome people with socially conscious attitudes to settle in Philadelphia.

Do I think that comes from the teacher working long hours, spending his or her own money, and doing whatever to make his/her class succeed? Of course not. Those teachers want things improved, etc.

I do think though, that among some, there is the perpetuation of the "so gritty its cool" Philadelphia bs, which I hate. I have no idea how many people take part in it, but it is there, and I hate it.


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