Diversity’s Power to Change and Unite People
Diversity’s Power to Change and Unite People
This story is somewhat long- maybe a 30 minute read with many images to skim. I could have shortened it- watered it down. More than a year with two-three dozen visits to the Philadelphia community of Olney has greatly changed my outlook on many levels. I want to fully share both the experience and what I learned including a new understanding of diversity. So get a coffee or another beverage of choice, a sweet snack, and curl up to a story about amazing people doing good for others. Maybe read this instead of watching the evening news- you’ll feel better!
In the mid-1990’s I met a woman at a social. When I asked her out she said: “You won’t want to get involved with me because I live in a bad neighborhood.” Not living in Philadelphia I had never heard of Olney. During the two year relationship I was a constant visitor to Olney, but there was never a focus on the neighborhood so I never learned anything about it. After the relationship ended, I left Olney and never looked back. That changed in early 2017 when there was a call for photographers for the Olney spring cleanup hosted by the North 5th Street Revitalization Project. I was curious to see if Olney had changed in twenty years. Visually it looked the same- many buildings in disrepair and trash on the streets. But there was something very different- I met people who were passionate about Olney. A large group of motivated people turned out for the cleanup. They showed me something I hadn’t known existed in Olney…
People love this community and take pride in keeping it clean… My view of Olney was changed forever.
I met Stephanie Michel at the spring cleanup. She was Co-Director of the North 5th Street Revitalization Project. When I learned about her selfless work in support of Olney, I asked her to be part of a new photo essay series about amazing people who go above and beyond to do good for others. She agreed to be included, but the story expanded when I met her Advisory Board- a dozen people who are equally passionate about Olney. I couldn’t include everyone so I selected three who each have their own Olney programs along with their leadership on the Advisory Board. This photo essay focuses on three truly amazing and inspiring people:
- Stephanie Michel: Director, North 5th Street Revitalization Project
- Ambrose Liu: Project Director, Olney Culture Lab of CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia
- Amanda Irizarry: Advocacy Institute Program Coordinator- Health Promotion Council
In more than one year on this project, I’ve met many others who share the same passion- there are Olney Advocates everywhere. They are a model of the attribute that defines Olney- diversity. Before Olney I never understood diversity’s power to change and unite people. This is an extraordinary learning that I hope readers will take to heart.
Diversity is the music- the dance- the canvas of the Olney Advocates. It’s what brings them to Olney and keeps them there. Diversity is an art form that the Olney Advocates are committed to protect.
Olney is said to be the most linguistically diverse zip code in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with residents hailing from many countries. Olney is racially diverse with African Americans being the largest group followed by Hispanics, Asians, and Caucasians. “Olney is extremely special because it’s the 9th district United Nations!” (Olney cheerleader- Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, Philadelphia 9th District).
Much more than a distinction, diversity is Olney’s strength- that people who are so different can live together in a positive way. Yet socio-economic challenges threaten the stability of Olney. At the core of the Olney Advocates’ commitment is to ensure that Olney’s diversity will be maintained and not pushed out by forces that might take Olney upscale or forces that could take it into the depths of despair.
So, what is diversity and why is it important- particularly in Olney? Diversity is a simple word I thought I understood- something that applies to all aspects of life. When it comes to people, I thought it meant being exposed to different types of people based on a wide range of characteristics. This thinking falls short of the true value of diversity. Before Olney I never understood diversity’s power to bring people of difference closer together.
Definitions of diversity typically focus on variety which is true but not thought provoking. The definition that resonates with me came from my trusty Amazon Alexa: “Diversity is usually defined as the condition or result of being changeable or, alternatively, noticeable heterogeneity.”
When it comes to people, noticeable heterogeneity means any characteristic that can be perceived such as race, nationality, thoughts and beliefs… Regardless of how I might have verbalized diversity in the past, this has always been my definition. If I’m immersed in noticeable heterogeneity often enough, I’m leading a diverse life, or so I thought before my journey into diversity- Olney style!…. Simply noticing diversity is passive.
But the condition or result of being changeable- that’s the one that makes a difference. It’s the idea of experiencing something through the lens of someone with different beliefs and experiences- and from that experience, the possibility of being changed… Seeing the world through another person’s lens without the possibility of being changed is passive. Active diversity means incorporating something new through the experiences of others. Olney taught me that diversity is a way to expand people’s worlds.
For example, tasting the cuisine of another culture is an opportunity to expand one’s palate- that’s being changed. One of Olney’s greatest contributions to diversity is the vast range of international food options available on North 5th Street: “Where Global Meets Local!”
Three noticeably different hands come together during an Olney food tasting tour.
Then there is diversity of thought- consider today’s politics: There is more and more “noticeable heterogeneity” in government as women, people of color, people of different faiths and sexual orientations/identities are being elected. But politics is so polarized that neither side is open to being changed by the other. What if a women’s rights activist looked at abortion through the lens of a pro-lifer, might they be at all open to the idea that abortion is a loss of life? What if a pro-lifer looked through the lens of a women’s rights activist, might they be at all open to the idea that an unwanted birth can be devastating to both the mother and the child? If both sides were willing to suspend their beliefs for just a moment and be honestly open to seeing the world through the other’s lens with the possibility of being changed, might they be open to some compromise that would end the unending abortion war? Today’s politics may look diverse, but behavior tells a very different story.
The common theme of the Olney Advocates is their zeal to look through the lenses of others and to be changed.
A diverse group of residents and supporters review options to enhance businesses in the North 5th Street commercial corridor. Active diversity requires listening in good faith.
It’s not just Olney Advocates, the people of Olney are a shining example of diversity’s power: “My best friend is Haitian and because of him I took my father and son to visit Haiti.” Olney Pharmacist Dan Tang (left) has been changed by the power of diversity. He’s pictured with his Tang Pharmacy family.
The Olney Advocates know that diversity changes and unites people. If active diversity (seeing the world through another’s lens with the possibility of being changed) were played on the world stage as it is in Olney, suspicion would be reduced and the world would be a more enjoyable and safer place. A banner on North 5th Street says it all: “Within Diversity There Is Unity”… The power of diversity to change and unite people is the story within the story- the hidden gem!
Olney is a Philadelphia community located about seven miles North of center city. It’s primarily residential but also contains the bustling commercial corridor of North 5th Street and the 23 acre Fisher Park. Olney's population is between 40,000-70,000 (depending on the information source and year) with an average household income of under $40,000.
To an outsider, Olney would be so easy to ignore, as I did twenty years ago. Taking a drive on North 5th Street one sees many buildings in disrepair, shuttered stores, and trash on the streets- often lots of trash. If one hears about Olney in the local news it would likely be about crime, not something positive. Given the most casual view, one would never see what’s going on behind the scenes to strengthen this community of hard working people just trying to make ends meet.
Sights of Olney
The North 5th Street commercial corridor is backbone of Olney with businesses of all types from many nationalities. The corridor is surrounded by neighborhood streets. Olney is not fancy by center city standards. This is a low to moderate income neighborhood/community with businesses and residents doing their best… The Olney Advocates always have their backs.
Olney features many notable landmarks including Fisher Park which offers an oasis for residents with its beautiful grounds, tennis and basketball courts, and community garden. The park is shepherded by the Fisher Park Community Alliance headed by Laurel Sweeney, another member of the Advisory Board.
St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church is the home for many programs of the Olney Advocates.
The Michael P. Marcase Educational Center, known as the Lowell Elementary School, features beautiful murals courtesy of the City of Philadelphia Arts Program (Flowering Friendship Plates, © 2007 Mural Arts Philadelphia / Diane Pieri, Lowell Elementary School, 450 W. Nedro Avenue, used by permission.)
But another section of the mural is an example of neglect that is also part of Olney’s reality.
North 5th Street has some extraordinary buildings that flourished in the past like this former theater which sadly today is a shuttered daycare.
The heart of Olney is said to be the intersection of North 5th Street and Olney Avenue.
The crossing of two great arteries.
A more challenging landmark is the railroad bridge that cuts across North 5th Street. It’s dark and dreary, and a dumping ground for trash.
North 5th Street is about business and shopping. The commercial corridor is lined with storefronts from one end to the other. Signs reveal Olney’s diversity.
Olney’s got fashion- from fancy to everyday to ethnic.
Olney has bakeries from many nationalities such as La Calenita- Columbian.
And there is the very diverse range of restaurants like Los Tacos- Mexican.
Gail’s- Caribbean… Where else would you find a Caribbean restaurant next to an African hair braiding shop- Only in Olney!
Hair and nail salons are a staple in Olney.
The Free Library is a major asset in Olney.
Its beautiful mosaic celebrates learning.
And so important to Olney is the arts.
Another reality of Olney is that businesses must be armored to protect from vandalism… And many businesses appear shuttered.
The commercial corridor is surrounded by neighborhoods.
Like many communities in Philadelphia, Olney struggles with trash both in the commercial corridor and on neighborhood streets.
The Olney Advocates
Now meet the amazing Olney Advocates. What makes them amazing is more than the work they do to protect and enhance Olney. It’s that they do it with little recognition or praise, and with progress that can at times seem infinitesimal. Most residents of Olney are focused on the basics: keeping a roof overhead, food on the table, kids in school. They often don’t have the time or energy to see what’s being done to support them and their community. But this doesn’t deter the Olney Advocates and that’s why they are amazing!
Olney Advocate Stephanie Michel
Director, North 5th Street Revitalization Project
(aka North 5th Street)
Stephanie Michel (30) is a resident of Lawncrest, a community just East of Olney. She is the daughter of Haitian immigrants who came to the United States in the late 70’s settling in the Crown Heights Section of Brooklyn. As a young child she learned the value of living in a diverse community- this destined her role in Olney.
“Olney brought me comfort because of the diversity- I’ve always been around people who look different from me.” (Stephanie)
“I lived in Brooklyn until twelve; my parents moved to Philadelphia because of high living costs in New York and that was a time many Haitians were moving to Philadelphia… It was a hard move for me, but Olney brought me comfort because of the diversity- I’ve always been around people who look different from me; I’m more comfortable and I love learning different languages, learning about different food and cultures; growing up in Brooklyn that’s what you saw- there were Mexicans, Guatemalans and Africans all on the same block; I was used to that throughout my life… It was that background that brought me to North 5th Street.”
After earning a bachelors degree in Spanish and Sociology at Albright College in Reading PA, Stephanie worked in non-profits before becoming a kindergarten teacher. But wanting to help people one-on-one made her return to non-profits: “A position at North 5th Street was available and because I grew up in Olney I wanted to see if this would be for me; I was hired under AmeriCorps VISTA for a year of service; after a year I was hired as the Program Coordinator and then promoted to Assistant Director a year later; I became Co-Director and then Director in 2017.”
The North 5th Street Revitalization Project started in 2006 when business owner Barbara Bishop saw the community declining- North 5th Street was dirty and a lot of businesses were closing: “She gathered together business owners, stakeholders, and residents who lived in the community as a steering committee; this led to funding by Philadelphia’s Commerce Department to enhance the commercial corridor of Olney’s North 5th Street.”
Home of the North 5th Street Revitalization Project- the center of activities to strengthen Olney and the meeting place of the Advisory Board.
The North 5th Street Revitilization Project has four objectives:
1. Cleaning and Streetscape: “We have two awesome guys, Warren and Randall, who clean the streets and sidewalks of North 5th Street seven days a week, and that’s the bread and butter of what we do to enhance community pride- people want to live somewhere that looks clean... We’ve been cleaning for ten years and people are just starting to realize the impact and why it’s important; residents and business owners are now thanking us; parents can walk their kids to daycare without having to step over piles of trash.” (Stephanie)
Sanitation Specialist Warren is out on 5th Street everyday at 3:00am- such commitment: “Yesterday was my day off and I did 11hrs!”… He leans on his orange partner- an example of the Litter Critter BigBelly™ trash compactors on North 5th Street. These were wrapped by a program of the Philadelphia Streets Department and the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. North 5th Street played a key role in bringing these critters to Olney.
Warren explains that the trash problem has many causes: high concentration of homes and businesses that have to get their trash out and there’s nowhere to put it but on the street; municipal trash pickup that doesn’t always happen; people from outside the community dumping their trash in Olney… And yes, people throw trash on the street: “Trash builds up and on a windy day it can become a trash tornado!”
Warren is proud of his work but has to accept the reality: “I just cleaned this block but it won’t stay like this very long- that’s when I get depressed”… But many people in the community acknowledge the work: “People put a couple of dollars in my hand and give me water- they know what we’re doing; it’s those compliments that keep you going”… This is how North 5th Street is trying to elevate community pride- one block, one trash bag, and even one sweep at a time by Olney Advocates Warren and Randall.
2. Public Safety: “We work with the 35th Police District to keep North 5th street as safe as possible; we help business owners get security cameras and provide information about how business owners can keep their places safe.” (Stephanie)
3. Business Assistance: “We work one-on-one with owners to improve store fronts, to get new lights and windows, to provide help filling out business forms and paying bills, to explain how changes in laws might affect their business plans- we’re like social workers for businesses.” (Stephanie)
North 5th Street’s own Randall not only keeps the street clean, he is a gifted muralist. Through a storefront improvement program he transformed the wall of Peony Garden, a Chinese food takeout restaurant on North 5th Street. The owner credits the mural, which depicts Chinese culture, for bringing in a lot of business- a big success for the program. The mural was honored with a “Paint That Pops” award in the 2018 Storefront Challenge sponsored by The Community Design Collaborative and the Philadelphia Department of Commerce- way to go!
4. Community: “This is my favorite part- we’re trying to get residents to see the beauty of where they live and why diversity matters; we send that message though community events like the Olney Winter Festival, Open Mic Night and the Olney Youth Arts Festival.” (Stephanie)
The Olney Winter Festival is all about bringing joy to children.
Stephanie leads Christmas carols on a tram ride between festival locations… She can sing!
Stephanie is Chair of the Advisory Board, formerly the steering committee: “In 2015 we developed a ten year strategic plan with stakeholders from the community”… The underpinning of their effort in Olney is to preserve diversity: “Diversity is our strongest asset- we use it as the flag we wave because Olney is so linguistically diverse with more than thirty languages spoken in the local schools- we have Sub-Saharan African, Vietnamese, Chinese, Haitian, Korean.”
But the current political winds are saying if you don’t look like me, get out of here- Make America White Again: “Olney is the antidote to racist thinking; people from outside should come visit Olney and maybe they would see things differently- we have different cultures that all get along; if you speak to most Olney residents, they’re proud of the diversity… A man who lived in the neighborhood for thirty years stopped into the office to share stories about how his kids had friends from so many cultures, and he thought that’s what made his kids successful… In the Advisory Board when Trump became President, we knew we had to maintain this safe place where cultures can mix and it’s ok; we accept everyone and we love everybody- this IS how America should look… Olney is portrayed in the news as a negative place, but as far as the intrinsic makeup of the community, it’s a welcoming feel-good place where not everyone is the same and that’s the strength of diversity."
“One thing I say to myself every day is that Olney deserves the very best, the best that I have to offer.” (Stephanie)
What do you get personally from doing this work? “I know in my heart of hearts that this is a beautiful community; my personal goal is to maintain the identity of the community because there are a lot of outside factors that we can’t control- gentrification has already started to take place in other parts of the city… I go back to Brooklyn and it’s not the same place as when I grew up there in the 90’s- it’s a completely different neighborhood- house prices have skyrocketed- I don’t want to see that happen here… One thing I say to myself every day is that Olney deserves the very best, the best that I have to offer.”… With the likes of Stephanie and the other Olney Advocates, Olney IS getting the very best!
You are a very capable person who could easily get a fancier job- are you giving anything up to do this work in Olney? “I give up free time mostly and definitely income; I work between 60-70 hours- even when I take a vacation I’m still working; but I don’t see this as a sacrifice because it comes with the job… I can say that this job makes me feel whole- it makes me happy that we’re doing things to make Olney a better place… When I walk down the street and talk to residents who appreciate the clean streets, that feels good.”
If the dream of Olney is diversity, what’s the nightmare? “Rich people coming in and just capitalizing on the assets that are here in a malicious way- that’s what happened in other parts of the city like building expensive condos; so we need to support the people who are here and maintain our identity, and we must maintain community pride- these are our main goals.”
“Olney can seem discouraging if people only focus on the negative, but we choose to celebrate the mini wins and that's what gives us hope and inspires us to keep going!” (Stephanie)
Does the community understand what you’re trying to do? “Some people do but not everyone or even enough… We work in a community that is low-moderate income and people are just trying to survive which makes our job a little bit harder; people aren’t worried about the grand scheme of economics, community development, community pride… People see our events and it excites them, but after that moment they’re just worried about making dinner for their kids or how they’re gong to pay their next bill- this initiative is being done for them without them being aware; it’s going to take time- hopefully ten years from now people WILL get it!”…
But what keeps YOU going? “Olney can seem discouraging if people only focus on the negative, but we choose to celebrate the mini wins and that's what gives us hope and inspires us to keep going!”
Community engagement is constant for the Olney Advocates. A small but dedicated group of residents came out for “Only in Olney” where Stephanie spoke about the diverse businesses and historic buildings on North 5th Street… It’s rare to see Stephanie without an Olney shirt.
Open Mic Night: Olney’s Got Talent
North 5th Street, in collaboration with Olney Culture Lab, hosts what is a crowning achievement of the Olney Advocates: Open Mic Night. Every second Friday community members are given an opportunity to show their artistic talents- to express themselves. The stage is open for people to sing a song, play an instrument, recite a poem, tell a story, perform a dance, and even whistle- this is a showcase of cultural diversity. While performers don’t compete for prizes, they all win a boost to their self esteem. Open Mic Night has become so popular that people come from outside Olney to perform. And they even have a house band- New Era Collective.
Open Mic Night is supported by two elected officials who are surely Olney Advocates: City Councilwomen Cherelle Parker and Pennsylvania State Representative Jason Dawkins.
A selection of performers from Open Mic Night:
Poets and storytellers, including Stephanie.
Dancers: this young man gave a spellbinding performance.
Dancers: this young man gave a spellbinding performance.
And yes- a whistler!… Open Mic Night is a moving and inspiring experience.
Olney Advocate Ambrose Liu
Olney Culture Lab of CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia
Ambrose Liu (46) is a resident of Abington, PA- ten miles from Olney. Of Asian heritage, he grew up in a middle class diverse New Jersey neighborhood. His love for the arts and children’s education, combined with an admiration for diversity, causes this stay-at-home dad to donate his time as an Olney Advocate… Baby Aaron was not impressed by the interview.
Ambrose has been involved in the arts all of his life. He went Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he majored in visual arts: “I spent most of my career in non-profit arts management doing anything from events production to arts education program management; I was in New Jersey for many years until an opportunity in Philadelphia opened up.”
“I arrived in Philly in 2010 as part of an art education initiative called Arts Rising, under the Philadelphia Education Fund where I was employed; it was conceived to increase access to meaningful arts education for children in the city and Olney happened to be one of the neighborhoods picked; after a year in the program I started initiating conversations with stakeholders in Olney.”
“My relationships and affection for Olney continued to develop; I grew up with the belief that we are a multicultural society and as a student of art and music, I’ve been fascinated by different forms of music from other parts of the world; so as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural place Olney immediately appealed to me and I wanted to celebrate the community through its diversity and cultural expressions.”
How did the Olney Culture Lab come about? “There was so much positive energy during those initial years that by the time Arts Rising went away at the end of 2013, the stakeholder group we built decided to continue, but we weren’t an official non-profit entity.”
“I said to the stakeholder group: ‘There’s no money- the money went away, but we’ve started something; I don’t want to relinquish what we started and if you are all with me, I would like to see how we can continue this.’ … CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia, a non-profit arts and culture organization just unveiled a new program called CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia to provide fiscal sponsorship for organizations and projects that needed support- they didn’t have money for us, but they could provide support services; in 2014 we became the Olney Culture Lab, a project of CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia; I leveraged the relationships made during the previous three years for fundraising in the community; North 5th Street has been instrumental- Stephanie Michel is on my advisory committee.”
“It’s deeply meaningful to help the community by organizing these events- it’s enjoyable, both professionally and spiritually.” (Ambrose)
What is the objective of the Olney Culture Lab? “We celebrate all of the cultural diversity that exists in Olney including the arts as well as the variety of eateries- that’s why we’re called the Olney Culture Lab to experiment with programs of all cultures”… Ambrose is a great believer in using the arts to expand people’s thinking and to bring different people together. Olney Culture Lab runs many events throughout the year.
What do you get personally from doing this work? “It’s deeply meaningful to help the community by organizing these events- it’s enjoyable, both professionally and spiritually; this is an opportunity for me to be a connector of the cultures that are already here; I’m so happy to be in a place where I can commit close to 100% of my fiber to build relationships, develop activities and programs that will help the community achieve the mission that we’re here to achieve; I’ve spent four years voluntarily doing Olney Culture Lab because of the energy, momentum, joy, and camaraderie that Olney offers.”
You are a stay-at-home dad, are you giving anything up to do this work in Olney? “If you’re asking me if there is something else I could be doing where I could make more money- I don’t ever think of things like: ‘If I do this I’m going to have to give up that?’… To be honest, when I was working I was giving up my precious time that I could have spent doing more in Olney; I’m fortunate that I have the resources to give up a job to do something potentially riskier… People might say I’ve spent four years building this thing, wasn’t I getting impatient- it’s been incremental but I’m someone who feels that things need time to build.”
Ambrose attends a North 5th Street meeting with baby Aaron in tow… Advocacy training starts early.
“If ultimately I were to move on, it would be because we have firmly established something.” (Ambrose)
Where will you be in ten years- what’s your long term personal plan? “I could see myself still doing work in Olney in ten years, definitely five years; what’s been really exciting about this work after almost seven years is that I feel like it’s just starting and there is still so much to do; if ultimately I were to move on, it would be because we have firmly established something, there are people drawn to it and there will be other people who will be willing to pick up the baton and run with it- that would be the time where I might say: ‘I’ve done my job!’”
Olney Youth Arts Festival
Olney Culture Lab’s major event of the year is the Olney Youth Arts Festival. The goal is to expose both the community at large as well as local performers to the diverse arts that live within and around the community: “My interest is bringing together performers who would rarely if ever see each other because everyone is busy doing their own things- so it seemed natural to say: ‘Why don’t we come together to celebrate our love of the arts in all the diverse ways we do it and to celebrate our passion for young people.’… We do it in the heart of North 5th Street so that people who attend may also buy something from a local eatery which supports the commercial corridor; events like this bring people together where they can build new relationships.”
Wearing a T-shirt that acknowledges his large group of sponsors, Ambrose watches with pride as performers take the stage.
Sometimes there aren’t many people in the audience- after all the hard work, does that bother you? “It’s hard to count heads because people filter in and out.”
"We design this event to have many performers so that there are a lot of people in the seats either as performers or friends of performers; as to the audience, they tend to come in waves during the afternoon, but sitting for four hours takes a lot of endurance; if people stick around for half hour they get to see these kids doing excellent things… There’s a lot of energy derived from people in this space and they feel each other.”
That’s what this story is about- the Olney Advocates keep going even when the steps are small: “I’ve been to events when there’s nobody there; we did Open Mic Night for years when there was hardly anyone there until about a year ago and now we have a good twenty five people which is great; I feel really good about today considering the gloomy weather.”… As Ambrose has said- if only one or two people are inspired, it’s worth it.
A selection of featured performers from the 2018 Olney Youth Arts Festival:
The Philadelphia Suns, Inc.: “… provides a broad spectrum of educational, cultural, and athletic programs for Asian teens and youth in the Philadelphia area.”
Gibson School of Music and Arts: “… family-run, one-stop-shop for performing arts instruction is located in the heart of North 5th Street in Olney.”
Cinqcopation: “… an all African-American string quartet based in Philadelphia.” ... It was as if The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts had come to Olney!
Zamar International School of Dance: “… dedicated to the art-form of praise dance and providing students with the tools needed to effectively communicate the Christian Gospel through the arts.”
Wes Matthews: Youth Poet Laureate of Philadelphia.
Esperanza Acedemy Charter School: “… provides high-quality dance training in technique and performance.”… Dancers prepare for their spirited performance by becoming a human pretzel!
Esperanza launches into action.
More than a dozen Esperanza performers come together as one.
After the featured performers, volunteers took the stage- actually the pavement.
Cherelle Parker, Philadelphia City Councilwoman and event sponsor: “I want to thank everyone for being here today- people from all walks of life, all races, all ethnicities- speaking different languages, coming together for fellowship as a community… This is so very important because if you look at what’s happening on television you see people doing their best to show what divides us instead of focusing on our humanity because that’s what unites us and let’s us know we are one- Olney comes together today as one… My thanks to all the people who made the Olney Youth Arts Festival possible- everything you do to help keep this community intact, to preserve it, and to enhance it- this is what makes Olney one of the greatest neighborhoods in the city of Philadelphia.”… She defined what it means to be an Olney Advocate.
“Every year I’m inspired by the young people we bring onto our stage.” (Ambrose)
Ambrose closes the event: “This is our 6th Olney Youth Arts Festival; every year I’m inspired by the young people we bring onto our stage; I’m inspired by the teachers and instructors who work with these young people; I just want to give an opportunity for all these people to be seen, to see each other and to bring energy to this community; when you have so many wonderful cultures living amongst each other, we have to take the time to appreciate each other… I want to thank all the people who helped make it come together: the volunteers, sponsors, and city operations crew.”… Olney Advocates are everywhere- amazing!
Olney Advocate Amanda Irizarry
Advocacy Institute Program Coordinator
Health Promotion Council
Amanda Irizarry (28) is a daughter of Puerto Rican descent. She has lived on the same street as Stephanie Michel since childhood: “I had seen Stephanie in a play and then saw her riding her bike- I really wanted to be her friend.” At just ten years old, Amanda was already building her skills as a connector of people which is evident from the moment one meets her today.
“We recruit young people from all over the city for the purpose of training them to be young advocates to create change in their communities.” (Amanda)
Amanda went to Albright College, one year behind Stephanie, majoring in Music Business and Communications: “When I graduated I didn’t want to do what I went to school for- I felt like I was being pulled to work with youth”… Like Stephanie, Amanda joined AmeriCorps as a way to find out what she wanted to do: “I did after school programing with Education Works but after three years I decided I had to make a move- my faith is what guides me and I felt like God was telling me to take a risk- I was twenty five at that time.”
Amanda met someone from the Health Promotion Council who had started the Advocacy Institute, a program involving youth advocacy, policy advocacy, community development. A job opened at the parent organization, Public Health Management Corporation, and Amanda ultimately got a job in the Advocacy Institute where she became Program Coordinator: “We recruit young people from all over the city for the purpose of training them to be young advocates to create change in their communities; we have a twelve week training program; once they complete their training, they create a capstone project- an intervention they want to implement that will be sustainable in their community.”… The Young City Planners Initiative, YCPI, is a program Amanda brought into the Advocacy Institute.
“I created YCPI at the Health Promotion Council, but the concept was birthed in Olney; we took thirteen-eighteen year old kids out everyday to do cleanups and talk to residents and soon residents started to help- they would bring bottles of water and snacks for the kids… This was a different level of engagement by residents because over the years community pride had drifted- people who live in Olney started to believe the negative narrative about Olney: ‘We don’t live in a good community; Olney isn’t what it used to be!’”
“Through an innovation initiative at the Public Health Management Corporation I proposed the Young City Planners Initiative and OMG- I was awarded $20K for a pilot… I took YCPI to Olney because that’s where we started… We launched the Young City Planners Initiative, Olney Cohort 2017.”
Dig deeper about why Olney was where you wanted to launch YCPI: “I want residents in Olney be proud of their community and show that it doesn’t take an outside force to build community in a neighborhood; when you see stories like Northern Liberties, Point Breeze and South Philly, communities that are being overtaken by gentrification which is a huge issue and we don’t talk about the negative consequences of it, people just focus on economic development, not the people who are pushed out.”… Are you trying to save Olney? "Yeah, that’s how I feel; Olney is my community- growing up there and being a part of it; it’s about these young kids who are from Olney- our YCPI kids either work, play, volunteer, or go to school in Olney.”
“I’m blessed because I work with and empower young people to make the world a better place.” (Amanda)
Why is diversity important- doesn’t it often tear people apart? “The idea of diversity is that our differences are what we should celebrate, because our differences are the bridges that keep us together… I went to Central High School, one of the most diverse high schools in the city where you see Indian kids, Asian kids, black kids, white kids, Latino kids… One of the biggest days at Central is called International Day- we have a day dedicated to decorating the hallways with themes about different cultures; people dress in garb from their cultural heritage; the gym is full of hundreds of dishes from every culture; for me growing up with diversity was the norm- I loved it.”
What do you get personally from doing this work? “I’m blessed because I work with and empower young people to make the world a better place, as cheesy as that sounds; to create change makers who will change the world- that is my life; I spend my free time with my young people to make sure they have something to do and know that someone is investing in them; I take them to Walmart or the movies and ask them if they’re OK.”
Global Youth Service Day:
The YCPI Bridge Project
The Little Blue Fence That Could
One of YCPI’s projects was to enhance the railroad bridge that crosses North 5th Street.
Stephanie: “We see the bridge as a connector of the upper and lower commercial corridor- we include the bridge’s three arches in our logo; but residents see it as dark and dirty- more of a divider… The bridge is jointly owned by Conrail and SEPTA- neither takes responsibility for the upkeep of the property and the underpasses and sides of the bridge are used for dumping trash; North 5th Street wanted to pressure wash and paint the bridge but we were told because of the nature of the stone, there cannot be any treatments applied- but we can do something about the trash and that’s where Amanda’s YCPI kids came in.”
An all too common scene under the bridge.
April 21, 2018: Global Youth Service Day… Amanda speaks to the YCPI kids, most wearing their hoodies in Olney blue: “Today we’re launching the Young City Planners Project on 5th Street (wooo-hooos and cheers); you started almost a year ago to learn about advocacy and public health; we tried to figure out what makes Olney beautiful and how we can help people in the community believe in it again; you guys chose to restore pride in Olney, so we’re going to launch the bridge project today; you’re going to do an incredible job cleaning up the bridge and building a fence that will prevent trash dumping; I hope that you’re excited and proud of the work you’ve done so far coming out on Saturdays for a year to change our neighborhood; I’m proud of you guys- I love you guys; I hope that you’re excited and proud of the work you’re doing.”
The YCPI kids:
Amanda and Stephanie motivate the kids for their project: “Engage, Empower, Activate… Engage, Empower, Activate!!”
What is the meaning of Global Youth Service Day? “I can take a stab at it... It’s when young people all over the world take action in their communities, to serve underserved communities, to clean up and bring recognition to the community- I think that’s what it means… You should take pride in where you live and you should feel safe; when you see broken bottles and cigarette packs on the ground, you don’t feel safe- there is no reason that our community should look like this; more privileged communities are very clean because they have the money to hire people to clean up, so we’re taking action ourselves to make positive change.”
Heading to the bridge- tools in hand.
Into the brush to retrieve bags of trash- this is the area to be protected by the new fence.
Pennsylvania State Representative Jason Dawkins (aka “State Rep” ) arrives for his role as mentor for the construction project.
Establishing a line.
Construction materials arrive.
Putting a stake in the ground- she hopes State Rep’s aim is good… No, that’s not blood on her hands.
State Rep sets the design in place.
The YCPI kids start nailing.
Soon the fence takes shape.
The proud construction crew- fencing trash out and fencing State Rep in!
The fence gets a good coat of Olney blue.
Success… But there’s much more to this story.
The YCPI kids and this fence are a metaphor for the Olney Advocates. Advocating for Olney means accepting two-steps-forward and one-step-back, and having the commitment to keep going no matter what.
Within the first week, the fence was defaced with spray paint- the YCPI kids got out the Olney blue and painted it again… Within a month the fence had been pulled off its mounting- the YCPI kids returned with their hammers.
Then one side of the fence was pulled away so that trash could be hidden behind- it’s like Olney was fighting back… State Rep: “It IS a struggle but here’s the plus side- that’s only about two bags of trash; before the fence we probably had twenty bags of trash!”… Said like a true Olney Advocate.
Not to be deterred, the YCPI kids wired the fence in place. This is what Olney Advocates do- they never give up no matter how much their efforts are challenged. Now the bridge is a little brighter, a little bluer, and a little cleaner because of Amanda’s YCPI kids and “The Little Blue Fence That Could!”… amazing!!
Words of Commitment and Pride
Stephanie Michel: “There are a couple of girls I’ve watched grow up; I do this for people like them so they can be proud of where they live… Not only do their mom’s have businesses here but this is where they live- this is their world- they don’t get outside of Olney… When all you hear on the news is people getting shot and all things negative, I’m working to give them hope- to give them light- to give them a place to be proud of.”
Ambrose Liu: “Olney Youth Arts Festival reminds me of special moments in my upbringing that I would deposit in my memory bank as something golden for the future; this festival is a moment in time for a young person to get up on that stage to have an experience that will hopefully steer them to a better future… Probably half of these kids have never performed on stage till today.”
Amanda Irizarry: “When YCPI kids design their projects they have to get community feedback… We were doing a panel presentation and a particularly shy kid said that he had hated living in Olney because he didn’t feel safe, he was home-schooled and had no friends, but then he found out about YCPI: ‘I realized that I DO have a voice and I can find other young people who care about the same things I care about; I do have friends and I can be brave to go outside and make my community better- and I’m going back to school.’… I’m like balling at this point because I had no clue that his experience with our group had such impact on him- this is such an example of change!!”
The two elected officials who are so present in their support of the people of Olney:
Pennsylvania State Representative Jason Dawkins: He was an at-risk youth who could have easily been lost, but there were people who helped guide him- his mother who saw his potential and Councilwoman Maria Sanchez who gave him his first job in government: “It’s not about me any longer- my mission in life now is to get my son through school, and get other kids who look like me, not about color but about experiences of heartache and trauma, who can go either way, and those who have already been pushed to the side- to bring them back.”
Councilwoman Cherelle Parker: “There’s a fire that burns inside of me to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots; I learned at a very early age that depending on what zip code you were born into or what family you were born into, it has an impact on your personal trajectory and that seems so unfair to me… I’ve hated bullies all of my life: poverty, lack of access, inequality in education- they’re bullies to me; I was committed at a very early age to use organizing, government and politics as a tool to fight those bullies.”
The Councilwoman and State Rep are serenaded by the YCPI kids at the Olney Winter Festival… Amanda overflows with pride and the Councilwoman gets touched in her soul by these young leaders!
It would be so easy to write off Olney as I did twenty years ago. As an outsider Olney didn’t look very good- not beautiful like center city Philadelphia.
What is beauty- is it only something that qualifies for the cover of a fancy magazine? That’s often true and by that definition Olney will not seem beautiful to some eyes- 5th Street bears little outward resemblance to 5th Avenue. And Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa wouldn’t pass that beauty test either. But real beauty is what’s underneath.
The beauty of Olney is:
- The people who struggle every day to keep a roof overhead, food on the table, and kids in school- Olney is their home.
- The Olney advocates, those profiled here and many others who work so hard to build pride in this community.
- Diversity whose power can change and unite people.
These are the lenses through which Olney shows its awesome beauty.
Maintaining the beauty of Olney takes commitment every day. Maybe it’s two-steps-forward and one-step-back, but at least there’s a step in the right direction. Without the people who work so hard for this community... Olney would hurt… a little bit more… every day!
Poet Aleasha Watson-Mitchel grew up and developed her love for the arts in Olney. Her poem “That Jawn” (Philly slang for a person, place, or thing) is an ode to the beauty of Olney.
Poet Aleasha Watson-Mitchel grew up and developed her love for the arts in Olney. Her poem “That Jawn” (Philly slang for a person, place, or thing) is an ode to the beauty of Olney.
In part she writes: (Excerpt used with permission)
“This neighborhood was my first stage
Street lights were spotlights
Turning abandon ground into mural backgrounds
Hoodies fixed on heads like crowns
Bodies tatted up like subways
Melanin colored houses
Buildings wear graffiti like The Medal of Honor
My city makes me a social stigma
Peel back the dirt and you will see a diamond
This hood is my home”
The most important point of all about diversity is made by Frank Ape, a happy character who speaks out for equality: "Everyone's Different and Everyone's the Same”; Frank Ape by Brandon Sines; @frank_ape… (This wonderful mural, which speaks to the beauty of diversity, is installed at the World Trade Center in New York City. Image used with permission).
And One More Thing
Published January 1, 2019