Meet Four of Philadelphia's Next-Generation Leaders
The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative highlighted the city's growing population of 20-34 year-olds in the last 10 years in its report, Philadelphia: The State of the City, a 2012 Update
. With at least 50,000 more young people in Philadelphia since 2000, there is great opportunity to harness this group's collective energy and spread it over initiatives across the city.
Among that group, leaders will arise and shape the city’s future. We've identified four of those potential next-generation leaders. Whether they're improving schools, using technology to transform the city, shifting the political conversation or boosting the quality of life for local communities, all of them are ones to watch.
Jamira Burley: Bringing Young People to the Table
"I like to tell people I'm a citizen of the city," says Jamira Burley
, speaking with a smile and a relentless pace. "I've lived in almost every part. I went to elementary in Cheltenham. I went to high school in West Philly, and I went to college in North Philadelphia. I live in Germantown now."
Burley just graduated from Temple this Spring, but she has been impacting the lives of Philadelphia youth for years. It all started in 2005 when her brother was murdered. She was a sophomore at Overbrook High School at the time. "That made be realize that life didn't involve around me and my family," says Burley. "There were other issues going. The principal at my high school gave me a challenge: You can either be really angry about what happened to your brother or you can do something about it."
That was the genesis of the Panther Peace Corps, an anti-violence and peer-mediation group Burley founded along with ten other students. "In my high school, we did over 300 peer mediation sessions," explains Burley. "I think young people are willing to talk it out -- sometimes they just need that third person there."
Eventually, Burley presented the idea to the school district, and got a grant from the state to implement the Panther Peace Corps in city's top ten most dangerous high schools. She eventually became president of citywide student government, and was then appointed to the mayor's Youth Commission
. That resulted in an appointment to the Governor's Commission on Children and Family, where she worked on similar issues at a national and state level.
By the time Burley started college, she was working full-time as the Philadelphia school district's student issues coordinator. Then, in 2011, she was hired by the Student Peace Alliance in Washington, D.C. to help implement legislation around youth violence and prevention. During her final year of school, she was commuting up and down the East Coast for work. (It took her five years to graduate. What a slacker.) Recently, she decided she wanted to be back home, and took job as executive director back at the Youth Commission, where she is focused on youth development, violence prevention and combatting teen pregnancy (West and Southwest Philadelphia have double the national rate of teen pregnancies and STIs).
With the help of Burley, the Mayor's Office is in the process of rebranding and rethinking the Youth Commission. One project Burley is particularly excited about is working with Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. on the creation of youth courts. They hope that by establishing these courts in high schools and providing a proactive approach to punishment, Philadelphia can reduce the number of young people being charged with crimes and felonies. "If someone got into an altercation at school -- something that was non-violent; let's say they brought weed to school or cussed out a teacher -- instead of calling the police and having them arrested, it can be an avenue to punish students while also getting more students involved in the process."
These days, every school in the Philadelphia school district has a peer meditation program. "A lot of it has to do with empowering young people," says Burley. "Saying, 'Even though this is happening to you, you can still succeed.'"
Chris Alfano: Hacking the Future
"I started as a laptop technician at the Science Leadership Academy
," explains computer programmer Chris Alfano. "I spent most of the first year fixing laptops, and but while I was there I trained the kids how to do it. The second year, the kids mostly handled that and I started teaching kids how to program. By the third year I had kids teaching kids how to program and how to fix laptops, and I just had to go in a couple times a week to teach my class and oversee everything."
Basically, Alfano had hacked his job, looking at the resources and designing a creative solution that led to a more efficient, beneficial outcome. Many former students are now regular participants in the hackathons he facilitates at the Northern Liberties co-working space Devnuts
he helped found. Here's how it goes: Get a bunch of programmers in a room, present them with an overarching theme, and see what they can come up with in 24 or 48 hours. Sponsors provide some prize money. There are snacks. A notable example involved a partnership with SEPTA to design a user interface for GPS-enabled live bus positioning. (Check out SEPTA.mobi for the results, and never wait again.)
Alfano has never really liked being inside the system. Since high school, he has been tackling freelance programming jobs and only went to college (at Drexel on a scholarship) to appease his mother. "I didn't understand what they could teach me when I could just go online where everything is free," says Alfano. "People I know who studied computer science in college seem so behind the times. We hire kids out of high school and kids out of college, and the only difference is that the kids out of college have wasted four years and have $1000 a month in student loans to pay back."
He enjoyed his time at Drexel, but eventually dropped out to do formalized web development, (originally Devnuts, now under the name Jarv.us Innovations). It was during this period that he took the job at the Science Leadership Academy. Though the formal route wasn't for him, education -- and making it more agile and functional -- remains a passion. Alfano is particularly enthusiastic about of potential for open source platforms. He has been working on a platform called Slate. The Science Leadership Academy has been running on it for the last three years. "There are a lot of strong new players in the school software market," explains Alfano. "They're all either commercial or, if they are open source, they're only tackling a small piece of the problem. We want to hit the market with something that can compete with all the commercial products, but it will be completely free and open source."
When it comes down to it, open source is a deeply ideological distinction. "Technology like this is the only thing that can save society," says Alfano. "With all the in-fighting and all the political unrest, everyone is so worried about government now. I think we need to transform government with information technology.... Philadelphia is leading the way, like with SEPTA, opening up data and inviting the local tech industry to meet them in the middle to help make it useful to citizens."
Rudy Flesher: Merging Politics and Identity
When Brian Sims
won his hotly-contested primary for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, he earned the opportunity to become the first openly-gay legislator in the history of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Rudy Flesher worked on that campaign, and eventually hopes to follow in Sims footsteps as a leader in local politics and LBGT issues.
Flesher grew up in South Jersey, and went to college in Central Jersey. As he puts it, the first time he tried school, "I majored in being a rugby hooligan." Playing rudgy did bring him to Philadelphia for games, and when he left school he ended up working in the University of Pennsylvania health system. He started off in the filing room, but -- this would become a trend—moved up rapidly through the ranks, first to front desk clerk and eventually to surgical coordinator for a department of the hospital performing cutting edge out-patient radiation on brain tumors.
"That job made me realize that I don't ever want to work 40 hours a week in a cubicle," says Flesher. "My inclination has always been towards writing and towards politics, so for me it was just a decision to go back to school to get out of that. I didn't have a particular vision, other than going back to get the degree that I left unfinished."
He commuted up to school three days a week from Philadelphia, earning a degree in women's and gender studies. "Even in the best economy, it doesn't exactly launch you directly into a career," jokes Flesher. "But it did prepare me to think critically, and put those thoughts on paper or give them in a lecture."
He began working part-time for an LGBT talent agency, booking everyone from gender theorists to porn stars. "Getting to work regularly people with I cited for my thesis was awesome," says Flesher. "That plus freelancing left me with a really flexible schedule to be the person who can show up at the community center at 10 a.m. on a Thursday. I was doing a lot of volunteer work, and that's how I connected with Brian [Sims]."
At the time, Sims was still board president of Equality P
A, and he encouraged Flesher to enroll at the Center for Progressive Leadership
, a national civic training institute working to advance progressive political and policy change.
"That six months of training was as valuable as 5 years of college," explains Flesher. "Just meeting people who were all flying in the face of that kind of old Philadelphia energy: 'We're the underdog, and we're so into that narrative that we don't actually want to get better because that's threatening to how we view ourselves.' Now I think the energy of Philadelphia is really changing."
"I'm definitely at a crossroads," says Flesher. "I don't know if I'll run for office in five years or 15.... I don't want to do things just through my identity, but I think my identity informs my politics in a way that is valuable for everybody. Being a person who doesn't have full civil rights gives me a different perspective when I sit down and listen to someone else's story."
Amy Kiyota: Stengthening Communities
When Amy Kiyota graduated from Ursinus College she settled on a choice: move abroad or stay in Greater Philadelphia. Fortunately for our city, she chose the latter. Now she is spearheading innovative efforts to improve the lives of local Asian Americans while building coalitions between diverse communities and interests.
Kiyota began her local rise as a Philly Fellow
, a non-profit fellowship that places local grads with non-profits, taking a position at the Philadelphia Education Fund. She found the work deeply satisfying, and stayed on after her fellowship, developing metrics for studying education and getting a crash course in fundraising.
Kiyota then moved to working in development at the Asian Arts Initiative
, the Chinatown-based community arts center. Though she had no political background, that position led to a gig as executive director of the Governor's Advisory on Asian American Affairs.
"55 percent of the state's Asian community is in Philadelphia and the surrounding area," explains Kiyota. "The structure is that we have 17 volunteer commissioners, so it functions like a non-profit board. We thought it was most pressing to work on big picture issues: strengthening public-private partnerships and getting creative with funding. Also health issues. An example would be hepatitis B, which affects a lot of Chinese people."
Though Kiyota is originally from Baltimore, she has taken a shine to her new hometown. "I really love Philadelphia," she says. "I don't want to sound like a commercial, but I think it provides the perfect opportunity for young people. It's small enough where you can get around really easily and live in really cool neighborhoods with lots of other young people. Also, because of its size, there is a large chance for leadership opportunities."
She recently poured her efforts into a joint project with the Commotion Festival
, throwing a block party in Point Breeze complete with garden beds and temporary art installations built by neighborhood kids. "It's about living art and getting the kids from the neighborhood involved," she says. "In all of these neighborhoods, there's such talent that we haven't tapped."
LEE STABERT is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Send feedback here.
Photos by Mike Persico
J Rudy Flesher, Amy Kioyta, Chris Alfano, Jamira Burley