When civic boosters promote the benefits of hosting a national political convention, they tout the economic benefits, the jobs it brings, the hotel stays, restaurant business, and other spending by delegates and the press. They talk about the exposure the city receives that boosts national and international trade and tourism. And all of this is true.
However, as one of the thousands of local volunteers who stepped up to represent Philadelphia and to assist visitors, I witnessed some unexpected social benefits for residents of the city and region when the Democratic National Convention was in town last week.
First, we volunteers made new friends and learned the stories of a diverse group of fellow citizens and some of the thousands of visitors we interacted with during our volunteer shifts. Even outside of our shifts, visiting Political Fest exhibits or just in our daily lives, decked out in our volunteer t-shirts or volunteer credentials, we experienced a camaraderie and a shared joy and pride in how well our city was performing during this highly visible national participatory event.
Crash course in America
The biggest social benefit residents across the region received was education. We learned, first hand and up close, how our political system — and its political theater — operates. The most inclusive part of that political theater was the countless forums, panels, and briefings organized by media outlets and advocacy groups, bringing nationally prominent, influential individuals to intimate gatherings of local citizens.
Last week I attended several of these organized events. Packed into the four days of the convention, I felt like I gained a semester’s worth of advanced-level education on topics of deep interest — gun violence, education reform, pre-school education readiness, job equity, economic development in urban and rural America, innovative small-city mayors, and even presidential campaign strategies.
Many of the speakers at these events were national figures, such as members of Congress and heads of national organizations. They’re the people usually only seen on television or at speaking events in auditoriums filled with hundreds of anonymous faces. But these events were much smaller in scale. With so much going on simultaneously, each audience ranged from a few dozen in attendance to just over 100.
And the audience had ample opportunity to engage the speakers.
Some attendees were in town for the DNC, but the audience mainly comprised locals who work in related fields, who are affected by the issues being discussed, or who are simply interested. At each event, I met local folks I didn’t know, and I heard their impressions of the discussion and how it related to their own experiences. And, we all got to hear perspectives from speakers from around the country, gaining a better perspective on how national policy influences the issues we care about locally.
Our duty is to take the next step
This intense level of civic dialogue and access to national thought leaders benefitted thousands of us local residents. The DNC has since moved on the national campaign to elect Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine. They have left behind some extra change in the pockets of local businesses, a glow of pride in how Philadelphia’s leaders, citizens, and law enforcement presented our great city to the nation and to the world.
Our “take-away,” as citizens, is to build upon the exchange of ideas and move forward, to energize and better inform the work already begun locally, to learn from models across the nation, and to continue to listen to each other.
One example of what this looks comes from two unrelated forums I attended on different days. The first, addressing gun violence, was organized by Ceasefire PA at the law offices of Reed Smith, and was addressed by Sen. Casey. We learned about gains and setbacks in the efforts to reduce gun violence on the streets, in domestic disputes, against police and in tragic suicides. It drew attorneys and business consultants, mostly white folks.
The other forum, convened by Pennsylvania Sen. Vincent Hughes at Arch Street Methodist, was around a “New Deal for a New Urban America.” It drew a mix of working folks, retirees, members of the clergy, and people involved in a range of social service agencies, and the audience was largely black.
During the Q&A, a member of the audience put forth a proposal to address straw purchases of guns that I wish he had been able to propose to the first event. It was a simple idea, to imbed a GPS chip in every gun manufactured, so every gun used in a crime could be traced, and so the illegal transfer of a gun could be tracked. I intend to let the organizers of the first event know of this creative idea I heard in the second event.
I expect I am just one of hundreds of local citizens who making connections like, all because we hosted the DNC. I hope this civic engagement is a social benefit that continues across our region now that the confetti is swept up and the banners are removed.
David W. Feldman is a native Philadelphian who serves as executive director of The Development Workshop, an advocacy organization promoting development and economic growth in the City of Philadelphia. He also teaches neighborhood revitalization and housing policy in Temple University’s Department of Architecture and Environmental Design.