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It Matters to Philadelphia

John Fry

John Fry

Drexel University President

Everyone is talking about the idea of inclusive growth these days, but what does it mean? For me, it means that economic growth isn’t enough. The benefit of that growth has to reach deep into our communities, so no one is left behind, or pushed out. It is an imperative we feel in Philadelphia, and it is a core value at Drexel.

A mission of fairness

Philadelphia today is two cities: one Philadelphia is prospering, but the other is falling behind, and nowhere is that more evident than in University City. University City is one of the fastest-growing technology and innovation centers in the country, yet the set of West Philadelphia neighborhoods around it is a federally designated Promise Zone, a designation that recognizes the area’s high poverty and high potential and leverages the resources of federal agencies to support new solutions. 

University City is a vibrant jobs center, hosting 76,000 jobs across a dynamic cluster of universities, hospitals, research centers, and innovation firms. But unemployment in the Promise Zone is about 14% and poverty reaches close to 48% in some parts of the neighborhood. The Brookings Institution has called this area an Innovation District, but for too many long-time residents born here, the jobs in University City are out of reach. This isn’t fair and it isn’t sustainable. 

When we talk about inclusive growth, we usually focus on three areas that have to be addressed if everyone is to benefit from regional economic growth: jobs, housing, and education. Inclusive growth, though, is not simply a number or a milestone we have established. It is a culture change – an expectation that further needs to be shared by all the employers of a city. While the non-profit service sector drives many of the solutions to our city’s inequalities – it teaches and trains, it builds affordable housing and supports small businesses – it is the responsibility of government and the business community, as well as the “eds and meds” to set the expectation and fulfill the goals.  

Hiring, buying, and building local 

For this ambition of inclusive development to work, it has to be baked into institutional structures and business practices. And so what does that mean for Drexel? It isn’t easy or intuitive, and it does take sustained and intentional work to align the functions of a substantial institution to advance these goals.  

Drexel University is a champion for the potential of Schuylkill Yards, the innovation-district development that is beginning to rise alongside our campus. But we have also carefully reconsidered how to maximize our local economic impact to support families, and to build pathways that will enable today’s neighborhood children to become the scientists and engineers who will drive the innovation district tomorrow.  

We put jobs first: we routinely review employee data and see where we have problems with recruitment, turnover and employee performance. We work closely with our highly-respected job training partner, the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, to develop job training programs specifically tailored to our needs and to recruit local talent. It’s an intentional, thoughtful approach: Drexel identifies and holds the jobs, the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative trains, and local residents excel in their careers with us.

We look at all the angles for local job seekers, as well. Because completion of high school is a minimum requirement to work in any job at Drexel, we built a pathway for residents to get that diploma. The Helms Academy, a partnership with Goodwill Industries and Community College of Philadelphia, helps residents complete their Pennsylvania high school diploma and get Community College credits along the way. 

We also know that local businesses tend to hire locally, so when you buy local, you build local wealth and create local jobs. So we have aligned our procurement functions to look at all the goods and services that we routinely purchase, to identify how we can purchase them locally to support local vendors. We have redesigned our RFP process, instituting new policies that call for diversity goals in all major contracts, and we ask our vendors to hire and buy locally too. We think carefully when we bid major contracts so that local businesses have a realistic shot at getting the work.  

The importance of housing affordability

Ensuring housing affordability is a high-profile issue in Philadelphia right now, and we know that the innovation developments in University City are seen as a threat. Here, the Promise Zone partnership is key, and affordability is a pressing priority. 

While the City of Philadelphia and participating CDCs take the lead on housing issues, Drexel is also at the table with a set of practices. We expanded an existing housing benefit to support the growing number of employees who live in West Philadelphia. We started by offering a forgivable loan to employees purchasing homes in what is roughly the Promise Zone footprint, and we have added a home renovation grant that covers basic system repairs, to help employees who are also local homeowners preserve their home values. 

As part of a network of Promise Zone partnerships, our students volunteer with Rebuilding Together Philadelphia and Habitat for Humanity to repair the homes of long-time residents, while our law students address foreclosure and tangled title challenges with neighborhood homeowners who are in danger of losing their homes.  All of this helps protect against displacement, but we know there is more to be done and we continue to learn from the ways other cities address these issues. 

Inclusive growth turns on education access

In the end, a commitment to inclusive growth is fundamentally about education, and this is where we have placed our biggest bet. We’re an educational institution, after all. 

Drexel has been working hard for the past seven years to support a cradle-to-career pathway for children in the Promise Zone. We’re at the table with a group of committed partners, including local civic leaders and key community organizations. Our collective goal is to create experiences and opportunities for youth that will raise their ambitions and expose them to the jobs of the future. 

As a place-based institution, we have put our stake in the ground to lend our knowledge resources to improving our local neighborhood schools, these community institutions that enrich their neighborhoods and create opportunities for all the children who live there. We are hosting the new Science Leadership Academy Middle School, a neighborhood school housed temporarily at the Dornsife Center that offers dynamic hands-on education for its students. Our School of Education faculty and students support instruction at K-8 McMichael, and K-4 Powel schools, and we work to establish a university-assisted K-8 campus on the site of the former University City High School, in the heart of the Innovation District. 

In the complicated world of education reform, our commitment is simple: if we are to support residents living in the Promise Zone, then we will support the schools in the Promise Zone as well. Indeed, as the lead agency for a collaborative $30 million Promise Neighborhoods grant, we are really leaning into this one, enabled by the partnership of such leading civic institutions as the Philadelphia School Partnership, the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Foundation. We always work in partnership because we can’t do it alone.  For Drexel, this is what inclusive growth means. Schuylkill Yards and the Promise Zone may seem worlds apart, but for us, they are two sides of the same coin, and I would say that education is what holds that coin together. Both depend on good schools and educational opportunity to thrive. Philadelphia won’t continue to grow and prosper if we can’t provide a quality public education for all of our residents. If we don’t, those who can leave, will. Those who can’t, will suffer. Any plan for inclusive growth has to have public education at its core.   

I’ll end with a vision that we at Drexel keep foremost in our minds: imagine a little girl growing up in the Mantua neighborhood, at 39th and Parrish, near the 40th St bridge that takes you from Fairmount Park and the Centennial District into University City. She is four years old and lives on a block with few standing houses, in a home with a leaking roof and uncertain electricity, with no computer and no internet. Now imagine her in 20 years, when Schuylkill Yards is fully built. She’s a software engineer working in a company designing wearable technologies that monitor heart rates and blood pressure.

That is the vision that drives our work. It is a long path from that Mantua block to Market Street, and every step matters, from childcare to third grade, from high school to college, and beyond. The path to inclusivity means providing that little girl's parents with opportunities for family-sustaining wages, making sure her public school is equipped to deliver an inspiring and effective education, and supporting her family as homeowners to create a stable neighborhood foundation. 

Our job as a city and as a society is to be sure she gets there. 

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