A little more than a decade ago, I moved to Philadelphia. If you had told me then that I would still be here now, I can’t say that I would have believed you.
Coming from Houston, I had incredibly low expectations for what Philly had to offer. When I told my high school guidance counselor that Penn was one of my top choices for college, she didn’t give me the typical advice – what to buy in advance, how to pick my courses, etc.
Rather, she told me to clutch my bag at all times, to avoid mugging, and strongly advised that I buy Mace. Not only did many people at my high school believe that anyone north of the Mason-Dixon Line was questionable (to many, leaving Texas was questionable enough), but Philly really was the pits.
So needless to say, I came to Penn in spite of Philadelphia, not because of it. As with many college students here, for my first years, I rarely left what has commonly come to be known as the “Penn bubble”. With the exception of the occasional downtown frat party or Phillies game, my Philadelphia was 30th to 40th and Spruce to Chestnut.
But my senior year, through an internship with Young Involved Philadelphia (YIP), which was in its early stages of increasing civic engagement among the younger demographic, I saw a completely different side of the City.
I watched Ed Bacon skateboard across a stage outside City Hall in an effort to open Love Park up to skateboarders, met then mayoral candidate Sam Katz, and attended an event on the history of the Mummer’s Parade. In those first few months, I was introduced to a Philadelphia that I don’t think many outsiders ever get to know. And I was then – still am, for that matter – sold on the belief that this is the best city in the country in which to be a young professional.
Not only is Philly affordable, accessible and lively, it’s a big city that feels like a small town; it offers opportunities for young professionals to engage in meaningful ways.
Ten years later, I now chair the board of YIP, which is still working to increase civic engagement and build relationships to both empower and connect young Philadelphians.
But the Philadelphia I moved to 10 years ago is very different from the Philadelphia today. Back then, YIP was one of few like-minded organizations; contrast that with today, when it’s virtually impossible to map the landscape of “young friends groups” doing good work in the City.
The issue now isn’t lack of civic engagement; rather, it’s that as young professionals, we aren’t thinking strategically about how to work together to leverage the voice of young Philadelphia.
To respond to this need, from September 20 through October 1, YIP hosted its first annual State of Young Philly series. In line with this year’s theme, Imagining Philly’s Future, we brought together hundreds of young professionals, more than 30y partnering organizations, and key city leaders to imagine a better future for Philadelphia.
There was no shortage of ideas discussed over the course of the two weeks, but a few overarching themes stood out:
Collaborate. Whether the focus was on arts and culture or business and entrepreneurship, collaboration was the buzz word of the night. We all know we need to do it, but the challenge is thinking through exactly how.
Leverage Assets. Philadelphia may never be New York City but we shouldn’t continue to sell ourselves short. We should focus on what we do have to offer and think about how to better market these assets to young professionals.
Build Capacity. Nothing in Philadelphia improves in the long-term if we fail to address the problems plaguing our education system in the short-term. To create a sustainable future for the City, we must offer real opportunities for our school- and college-aged youth.
These ideas don’t come with a 10-step action plan (at least not yet) and some young people remain frustrated by how daunting it seems to break into Philadelphia’s power structure.
While they may be right, we’re also getting tired of the “No, Philly can’t do that.. and I’ll explain why” attitude that has tarnished the past.
If we’re going to bring about real change, I think it’s up to us as young citizens to be organizing, demonstrating our ability to contribute to the conversation, and doing more to ensure our voices are heard.
Claire Robertson-Kraft is a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania and is chair of Young Involved Philadelphia.