In West Philadelphia, Drexel Staff and Programs Help with Cleanup and Commerce
While walking her dog early on June 1, Una Massenburg spotted debris and merchandise scattered near the City Avenue Shopping Center in the Overbrook section of West Philadelphia, where stores had been damaged the day before following a weekend of protests against police killings and systemic racism. As she walked, she also saw people with brooms and garbage bags cleaning — and when she got home, she knew what she was going to do next.
Massenburg, who is Drexel University’s director of travel & P-Card, met up with a fellow Procurement Services colleague, Strategic Sourcing Specialist Charlene Rice, and they worked for four hours to remove shattered glass and trashed goods outside of impacted businesses. That same morning, other Drexel faculty and professional staff from the Office of University and Community Partnerships were offering their services to businesses along the 52nd Street corridor near Market Street, where on May 31 the scene was filled with tear gas and property damage. Less than two weeks later, Massenburg and Rice were joined by two more colleagues from Procurement Services — Director of Supplier Inclusion Allen Riddick and Director of Disbursements and Surplus Services Bo Solomon — at an event hosted by the Urban League of Philadelphia to help clean up the area around 52nd and Market streets.
The 52nd Street corridor is a busy commercial avenue in a predominantly Black neighborhood located west of Drexel’s campus. It is home to a mix of small, often minority-owned businesses as well as chains such as Foot Locker and McDonald’s, and it’s an area where local leaders have sought to beautify and revitalize street life. On May 31, it was one of the city’s neighborhoods hit by conflict in a series of mostly peaceful ongoing demonstrations, rallies and marches in protest of the May 25 death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis. In Philadelphia as in other cities, civic action related to George Floyd’s death has been a complicated mix of sometimes-peaceful and sometimes-confrontational actions by disparate members of the public and by police as the movement has grown into an international societal reckoning aimed at redressing systemic inequalities in which Black lives are devalued.
At the level of individual streets and shopkeepers, the movement has had collateral consequences, with locally owned businesses experiencing vandalism, looting or street closures on top of losses caused by the pandemic.
“I just felt like I had to help where help was needed,” Massenburg said. “Your heart goes out to the people who have been here for the community, and then even just thinking further back for the people who advocated for those types of businesses in the community. These are livelihoods that were impacted by people who just don’t realize how their actions impact the whole sum.”
Community clean-ups are just one of the ways that Massenburg and her colleagues in Procurement Services are demonstrating solidarity with the community and consideration for impacted neighborhood businesses. And Procurement Services is just one Drexel unit helping the West Philadelphia economy weather recent events.
“Drexel understands and embraces our critical role in supporting the local community and the local economy,” said Lucy Kerman, senior vice provost for University and Community Partnerships. For the past decade, Drexel has built and strengthened relationships and ties to its neighbors, creating numerous initiatives and civic engagement opportunities as well as a community-based resource center to connect faculty, professional staff, students and alumni with residents of the Mantua and Powelton Village neighborhoods adjacent to the University City Campus.
Drexel was already working with some local businesses that were suffering from stay-at-home closures or diminished sales as a result of the pandemic. Drexel’s involvement included building websites, supporting business plans, and assisting with marketing and branding. Recent events have increased the urgency of anchor institutions like Drexel stepping up with their resources and reputation to help.
“We didn’t just suddenly jump into action these last few weeks,” said Jennifer Britton, director for communications and special projects in the Office of University and Community Partnerships. “This is a set of business supports and relationships that we’ve been building and cultivating for almost 10 years.”
The University has built civic engagement into its volunteerism, academics, partnerships, strategic plans, social gatherings — fostering opportunities to meet up and connect with the neighborhoods and their residents. That positioned certain Drexel people and programs to immediately jump in to help.
Soneyet Muhammad, the director of workforce and economic inclusion in the Office of University and Community Partnerships, connected volunteers from the Kline School of Law to staff an insurance pop-up clinic for business owners filing property claims, fulfilling a request from the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative, a local business association founded by 2016 Drexel alumnus Jabari Jones. She’s also built partnerships with faculty, staff and students of the LeBow College of Business and Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship to leverage their subject matter expertise to support entrepreneurs and small business owners who participate in the Office of University and Community Partnerships’ B. Smart small business development program (held at Drexel in partnership with the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative and the West Philadelphia Financial Services Institution), which shares expertise with small business owners looking to rebuild or start up.
“The damage done to several commercial corridors we represent is severe and many of our businesses are on the edge of closing permanently,” said Jones. “In these challenging times, I am thrilled that Drexel has made this commitment to boost support for local businesses and continues to support us in efforts to rebuild quickly.”
In June, the Office of University and Community Partnerships also contributed $5,000 to the Lancaster Avenue 21st Century Business Association’s fund to support businesses near or on Lancaster Avenue (from 34th to 44th streets) and Market Street (from 34th to 38th streets).
“This is an opportunity for us to show we mean it when we say, ‘We stand with you in solidarity,’” said Muhammad. “It means we recruit volunteers to help folks rebuild after disaster. We give money to help small businesses rebuild. We share our time, talent and treasure, and we’re doing all of these things to make sure that we work as a neighbor, as a partner and as an anchor institution to rebuild the communities we collectively value.”
In addition to providing external support, the University has also been working over the years to build its internal institutional investment in civic engagement — that means buying local, hiring local and building local not just at Drexel, but also with Drexel partners and vendors.
In 2018, Associate Vice President of Accounts Payable & Procurement Services Julie Jones was brought in to better align Drexel’s existing procurement functions and practices with the West Philadelphia economy and business ecosystem.
“Drexel takes its responsibility as an anchor institution in West Philadelphia very seriously, so our purchasing practices and policies should reflect that commitment,” said Jones. “It is important that we set the example and support community businesses and neighbors, both by purchasing directly from them or by offering mentorship and connecting them to other opportunities.”
When spending tightened due to the coronavirus, her team became even more strategic about what to buy and who to buy it from. Those purchasing decisions are now more critical as potential lifelines to damaged businesses on the 52nd Street corridor.
In a June 18 message, Procurement Services outlined how local, diverse businesses can work with Drexel during these times. For example, in June, Procurement Services accelerated the University’s payment terms to businesses in need of immediate payment for their services. And Drexel Surplus strategically aligned with the Enterprise Center, the People’s Emergency Center and other local nonprofits to donate Drexel’s gently used office supplies (like computers, AC units, chairs and desks) to businesses.
“With the most recent events within West Philadelphia, it’s been a complete acceleration in regards to the care, intent and even financial commitment as people are really beginning to open up to change,” said Procurement Services’ Director of Supplier Inclusion Allen Riddick, who oversees the University's Supplier Inclusion Initiative to develop partnerships and arrangements with diverse businesses (small businesses and businesses owned by minorities, women, veterans and service-disabled and LGBT entrepreneurs).
“We’re also reaching out to some of the larger suppliers that we work with to say, ‘Hey, how can you help out or what can you contribute to West Philadelphia? Our community is important to us and needs to be important to you, too,’” explained Riddick.
He’s also contacted colleagues and counterparts at other universities locally and across the country to share ideas to help local diverse businesses recover. At the start of the pandemic, he started a monthly call with peers at a few colleges and universities (now up to 15). He’s also been communicating with the Philadelphia Anchors for Growth and Equity (PAGE) initiative, of which Drexel is a founding member, on similar matters.
“We’re really looking to maximize and strategize the ways in which we can help local diverse businesses build to scale and capacity,” Riddick said. “We understand that all of our work alone isn’t enough to play a part in economic impact and economic equality, so we’re working together with other institutions to find and help navigate relationships with those businesses. A large part of what I do is really about connecting good people together.”
Though the property destruction that necessitated this response was more than a month ago, its aftermath will continue to be felt for a much longer time. And with no end in sight for the pandemic, no one can predict how many businesses will still be hurting months from now. Drexel is doing what it can to help the local business community heal.