At Drexel University, our contribution to civic engagement goes beyond financial support. It's about building partnerships that enable us to use our time, energy, and expertise to make an impact in local neighborhoods and beyond.
This is why we forge strong partnerships with local residents, city agencies, organizations, and initiatives that are committed to improving the public good. To enhance the quality of life in the West Philadelphia community, we engage in collaborative opportunities that provide service to our students, our neighborhoods, our city, and our neighbors.
Examples of recent partnerships include:
Mantua Urban Peace Garden
Clean, safe and sustainable communities cannot exist without partnerships, collaboration and consensus. This is the foundation of the Mantua Urban Peace Garden, a formerly vacant two-and-a-half-acre site in West Philadelphia that has been transformed into a thriving community garden.
Drexel University is proud to be among the partners that brought the garden to life, following an expressed desire among neighborhood residents for more green space and healthy food access. Faculty, staff and students have worked alongside neighbors and partners like the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Mantua Civic Association to plant vegetables and herbs, plan a butterfly garden and develop educational programming for residents.
The Mantua Urban Peace Garden is an ongoing project to create safe, green space, and all partners and residents have a role in its future. Drexel will continue to partner to cultivate the garden, its programming and opportunities for all members of the community to contribute and learn.
Early Childhood Initiatives
Early childhood experiences are paramount in determining a person’s trajectory through life. This is the foundation of the West Philadelphia Early Childhood Education Initiative, a collaborative effort of Drexel University, social service and education agencies, and community stakeholders to support high-quality childcare in Mantua, Powelton Village, and Belmont, all of which are located in the West Philadelphia Promise Zone.
Of the 23 licensed childcare providers in the target area, 65 percent are low quality and 90 percent of the children attending these low-quality centers are from the community. Additionally, 22 percent of local children are not enrolled in any early childhood education, leaving them at a serious disadvantage when entering kindergarten. This initiative will support parents by improving local childcare centers, educating families about the importance of early childhood education, and aligning the programming in pre-K programs with the existing curriculum in Philadelphia public schools to support smoother kindergarten transitions.
Drexel has leveraged in-kind support along with funding from the William Penn Foundation, the Lenfest Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning for a total of nearly $4 million to strengthen local early childhood education and literacy efforts. True to Drexel’s commitment to civic engagement, the project builds on strong University-led education work already underway in the Promise Zone, particularly in the two local public schools.
“We have the best possible partners at the table to make this system a reality, including experts from around the city, local nonprofits and providers with deep roots in the community, and parents who are passionate about their children’s success,” said Lucy Kerman, vice provost for University and Community Partnerships at Drexel University.
Side-by-Side Culinary Courses at the Dornsife Center
American chef James Beard once said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” How fitting, then, that Drexel University’s new Local Culinary Traditions course pairs culinary arts faculty and students with area residents to explore food and what it means to the community.
The course, launched in summer 2014, celebrates the stories behind the foods we love, but offers a twist: insight into how to make these dishes healthier. Thanks to a $50,000 grant from GlaxoSmithKline, the side-by-side course allowed community members to register for the class and learn alongside Drexel students in the test kitchen at the University’s Paul Peck Problem Solving and Research Building and at the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships. There, each participant shared family recipes with the group and, together, prepared healthful, updated versions of their families’ favorites using revised cooking techniques and fresh ingredients from Drexel’s gardens.
Chef James Feustel, Director of the Department of Culinary Arts and Food Sciences, said, “Students come to Drexel from across the country and around the world, and are located here in West Philadelphia for four years. They come with a diverse range of food traditions, and the neighborhood has its own rich traditions. This class is a way to cross-pollinate in a way, to share with and learn from each other.”
Throughout the summer, the class prepared three buffet-style dinners for the Dornsife Center’s monthly Community Dinners, open to the public, to share what they had learned. The dinners were well-attended and drew welcome attention to Drexel’s interest in the health of its community.
“Health and wellness are priorities for us at the Dornsife Center, with offerings like health screenings, dance and movement classes and nutrition and health care information sessions,” said Dornsife Center Director Jennifer Britton. “This culinary course has sparked a great deal of interest in future food-related programming.”
Green Block Builds
Homeownership is the key to strong neighborhoods. To help its neighbors achieve and sustain homeownership, Drexel University has proudly partnered with Rebuilding Together Philadelphia (RTP) to participate in Green Block Builds. The initiative provides low-income households with the products, services and education needed to preserve their homes for years to come.
In recent years, University students have joined hundreds of volunteers in Green Block Builds to offer repair assistance to low-income homeowners in Mantua. Homeowners have received critical repairs, landscape improvements, budget counseling and education on healthy homes, energy efficiency and home maintenance. Volunteers have also helped install eco-friendly “cool” roofs and stormwater management planters on each home.
“Drexel students are part of the reason we can make $5 of repair services for every dollar raised,” said Carrie Rathmann, executive director of RTP. “They’ve done so much both with hands-on repair that is so meaningful to families where homes have been in their families for years and years, and with behind-the-scenes work like packing and moving the RTP warehouse.”
The Green Block Builds also included home repair projects specifically tailored to the needs of each homeowner. One such homeowner, Charles Clemens, received repairs that made his backyard as well as several rooms more handicap-accessible.
“Financially, I would have never been able to do these repairs,” Clemens said. “These old houses are hard to keep up. This will help me get around. But the biggest benefit is bringing the value of the property up.”
Revitalization Through the Arts
The arts can open minds, create vibrant communities, encourage critical thinking, and spur self-expression. But can they reduce crime, poverty, and unemployment in a neighborhood? Drexel University thinks so, particularly following a study completed by a team of faculty and students entitled A Fragile Ecosystem: The Role of Arts and Culture in Philadelphia's Mantua, Powelton Village, and West Powelton Neighborhoods.
The study, released in August 2014 after five months of research and stakeholder interviews, found that the neighborhoods surrounding Drexel are rich with artists committed to social change and the improvement of their communities. In turn, residents are actively seeking a way to expand arts and culture programming into revitalization efforts. Making the connection between residents and artists is the missing link.
“We wanted to explore arts participation and arts access in the neighborhoods surrounding Drexel, with the goal of encouraging and supporting efforts to advance these neighborhoods through the further development and use of their cultural assets,” said Professor Julie Hawkins, a member of the research team. “The arts have the potential to play a transformative role in building social, economic and community capital.”
Based on its research, the team has made recommendations to develop arts and culture opportunities to benefit residents of West Philadelphia. Specifically, the study calls for increased public and private funding for targeted cultural clusters, collaboration between local arts groups and the School District of Philadelphia, and shared communications in the local arts community.
“The neighborhoods are here in Drexel University’s backyard,” said Professor Neville Vakharia, another member of the research team. “Drexel has an interest in ensuring the health and sustainability of the neighborhoods.”
In the digital age, it seems impossible to get by without access to a computer and the Internet, and the know-how to use both tools. But over 40 percent of Philadelphians lack both access and digital literacy, putting them at a distinct disadvantage when seeking employment and education.
Formed to remedy this problem, KEYSPOT started out as a federally funded investment in digital access and literacy in Philadelphia. Drexel University was at the table from the very beginning, overseeing more than 40,000 hours of computer literacy training for over 5,000 Philadelphia Housing Authority residents.
Today, KEYSPOT has numerous sites across the city where Philadelphians can use computers and take classes on digital literacy. Drexel continues to be a lead partner for the program—alongside the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, and the Office of Innovation and Technology—as well as home to one of the most popular KEYSPOT sites, the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships.
At the Dornsife Center, visitors can use computers independently and participate in numerous educational programs. Drexel human resources staff offer assistance to those seeking employment advice and job skills training. Other programs include technology training for seniors, and Bring Your Own Device, a program where visitors can bring in their personal devices and receive lessons from Drexel students on how to best utilize them.
Sherra Dunn, whose family has lived in Mantua for more than sixty years, considers the Dornsife KEYSPOT program a positive addition to the neighborhood. Dunn has used KEYSPOT to revise her resume, increase her computer skills, and apply for jobs.
“To have something positive for the community is good,” she said. “[KEYSPOT] creates a lot of opportunities.”