IT TAKES A VILLAGE! Philadelphia’s Youth Empowerment Human Values Awards by Elan Gepner

IT TAKES A VILLAGE! Philadelphia’s Youth Empowerment Human Values Awards by Elan Gepner

Six years ago I sat in the office of Dr. Dennis Creedon, the director of Creative and Performing Arts for the School District of Philadelphia, reading his essay on the effects of cortisol levels in our brain on our capacity to learn. The article showed explicitly how stress inhibits our growth, decreases our awareness, and undermines our health and productivity. His article looked at the environments in and out of school for the more than 150,000 students of the Philadelphia Public School System, and made a case for stress as the single greatest threat to the development of the students and success of the schools. The article went further to describe the unique ability of the arts, and similar creative and interactive environments to reduce cortisol levels in our brain. At the time, Philadelphia schools were losing visual arts, music, and other “enrichment” programs by the droves to  “No Child Left Behind” policies.

Today, with charter schools stepping in to provide alternatives, and districts toying with tax dollars for private schools, with teachers unions on the fence and education spending a constant contention, there is a continued rupture of the educational models of old, and search for the solutions that will determine the future of our nations most important, and most threatened citizens, our youth. At the time I first read Dr. Creedon’s powerful words on stress and education, I was working with his office to build partnerships between the school district and the numerous non-profits in Philadelphia that provided arts and empowerment training, potential partners to step in and subsidize the education students were losing in the classroom. These organizations represented more than merely a separate funding stream of arts education, rescue band-aids on a bleeding district; these civilian driven initiatives were the arms and hearts of the community coming together and reaching into our schools to take responsibility for the lives of the young men and women so often painted on the evening news as culprits of violence and sources of our collective shame.

It was an honor then, and remains today, to study the work of these passionate individuals, folks who battle the constant unknown of absent funding in order to join our school teachers on the front line in the war to provide our children with the opportunities they deserve, and help us all succeed in our charge as adults to pave the way for tomorrow’s leaders. In the years since, central passions in my life have been participating in and supporting school, community, and non-profit partnerships, and combating stress in youth’s lives. This past year has been a remarkable realization of this work as I’ve been able to witness first hand the amazing stress reduction techniques of the YES! for Schools program (the Youth Empowerment Seminar) in Philadelphia, and participate in the city’s first, “It Takes A Village,” Youth Empowerment Human Values Awards.

At a time when so much in society seems uncertain and unstable, where the obstacles and stressors continue to increase in the world our youth will inherit, it was a time for us as adults to come together and acknowledge the good work that is being done, and set an example for how we can communicate, collaborate, and carry the torch forward.

We gathered at the University of Pennsylvania on October 2nd, Gandhi’s birthday, with representatives of over 36 non-profit organizations that are changing the lives and landscape for youth in our city.  These organizations were nominated for the awards by parents, students, teachers, admirers, friends and colleagues, concerned citizens, from across our city. One of the largest groups of nominations came The Spruce Foundation, an incredible organization in its own right, supporters and friends of IAHV and YES!, who work to bring volunteers into youth service projects, and aid grassroots service organizations to accomplish their mission.  The organizations were nominated and evaluated in six categories, related to outstanding areas of impact on youth’s lives: Academics, Advocacy, Athletics, Arts, Environmentalism, and Health & Wellness.

The mere act of splitting these comprehensive organizations into such specific sub-categories is no minor disservice to the reality of their work, which any of them will tell you, is a holistic care for the child in all of his/her needs, often inseparable when one takes the time to care and get involved. What grew from the distinctions, however, instead of a divided field, was a picture of the village that it takes to raise a child, the theme of our awards, and purpose of our gathering.

The event was presided over by “the connector” himself, Philadelphia’s community engagement specialist, Michael Rice. Whether through his work with the Office of Truancy & Delinquency Prevention, or as the head of EPIC (Equal Partners in Community), Michael personifies personal commitment to the process of collaboration and seeing city services and resources make it to the people and organizations that are in place to do the work of raising our youth, and building our communities.

Our keynote speaker, author and professor, Charles Eisenstein, who opened by dedicating his remarks to, “the more beautiful world that our hearts tell us is possible”, picked up the spark. The author of “The Ascent of Humanity,” and “Sacred Economics” then proceeded to assure us all that, “we are not crazy,” for seeking to serve amidst a sea of commerce, and shared his opinion that from our post industrial habit of stealing natures gifts for profit and progress, we would soon evolve to embrace our true nature to give, to find that for which we would sacrifice; he heralded the arrival of the Age of the Gift, where our success would depend on what we give, instead of what we take. You can listen to his words here. It was in this spirit that we understood the importance of supporting each child to find their way to their uninhibited self, to discover what they wished to share with the world. It was in this space that we received the gift of our last speaker, and first youth voice, member of the 2011 Philadelphia Brave New Voices National Youth Poetry Slam Championship team, Jamar Hall.  He asks the question, “What is happening to our youth? “ and then rephrases, “what can happen to our youth?” He implores us to “stop telling them that the sky’s the limit as you build more roofs!”… and we heard him. You can hear him here.

For the rest of the evening we honored the organizations that our judges had selected, each personally responsible for one of the categories. Stephen Stumpf, professor of Education Management at Villanova School of Business, lead us of with the Athletics category, choosing Students Run Philly Style, for their breadth and the unique relationships they cultivate between students and teachers.  Next was the Mayor’s Advisor on Higher Education, Terri White, selecting the Wooden Boat Factory for the Environmentalism Category. The choice in the field of Advocacy went to Executive Life Coach, Dr Deepa Awal, who chose Communities is Schools. The Arts Award was selected by Philadelphia’s fashion and philanthropy mogul, Mary K Dougherty, who examined the largest field to acknowledge Leonard Reiser, Director of the Education Law, chose Philadelphia Fight’s Y-HEP (Youth Health Empowerment Project) for their support of the high risk and most vulnerable among us in the Health & Wellness category. The last category was Academics, and went to Summer Search Philadelphia, after an exhaustive analysis by UPenn Education Management Advisor, Surendra K  Gambhir. You can see all of the nominees in each category here.

Though some were not singled out, all were winners that afternoon, and each who accepted a trophy spoke of the honor of standing in that village, together as a collective in a joint mission for youth who need us all. A special “It Takes A Village Award” went to The Philadelphia Student Union, for exemplifying the process of listening to the very youth who have the most to gain, to lose, and to say about their dreams, and the environment in which they live and learn. With the remainder of our time we gathered, ate, and did maybe the most important work of all, connected with one another, strengthening the web of our services, and our love. We left that evening reassured in the paths we walked, and the gifts we gave, thankful for the opportunity to share them, and hopefully for the gifts of tomorrow, and the gifts of our youth!



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