Next time you have the chance, take a walk over to Independence Hall, to the square behind the old building, and pause for a minute to consider where you are: On that spot, nearly 250 years ago, Col. John Nixon first read aloud the Declaration of Independence to a crowd gathered together by the ringing of the Liberty Bell four days after it was ratified, on the 4th of July.
It is an awesome and inspiring piece of Philadelphia history that it behooves us all to remember every once in a while. Yes, this city—like the country it helped to found—is often frustrating, worrisome, inequitable, irascible and a mess. It is also the place where brilliant minds continue to solve problems (like, say, cancer), gather forces for good, create beautiful and moving art, build businesses and nonprofits that help people, innovate to save the planet—work to change the world, really.
Like that day in 1776, we have a long way to go to secure the freedoms we need. But we can start by being the best American city in the best America we can possibly have—an America worth fighting for now as much as 250 years ago. It’s been a hard year for America, but in many ways a hopeful one when you look at what our fellow Philadelphians have done:
- While the refugee catastrophe continues to unfold at America’s southern border, James Pittman and Jeremy Peskin’s three-year-old startup, Borderwise, makes it cheap and easy to fill out complex citizenship paperwork—and only charges many Dreamers $1. Groups like the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians and HIAS work to resettle refugees locally and to help immigrants with language, job and education access. Both groups, and other similar organizations in neighborhoods all over town, need volunteers to help new Americans find their way to making a new home in Philly.
- Abbe Stern of Fooding Forward, Evan Ehlers of Sharing Excess, and Megan Kulshreshtha of Food Connect all saw food being wasted in a city where one in four people goes hungry. So they stepped up to form nonprofits that work to connect excess food to those who need it. Go here, here and here to see how you can help their efforts. Or, see what Philabundance is doing in your community, and how you can help the region’s largest hunger-fighting organization.
- James Gaddy teaches yoga to students in Camden schools. Barbara Allen turns Philly school kids’ artwork into valuable collectibles. David Bradley at LiveConnections and Ezechial Thurman at Hill-Freedman World Academy worked with students to record an album inspired by the Sound of Philadelphia. You don’t have to be one of Philly’s amazing teachers to do for kids. Here are some ways you can get involved, too.
- Lisa Lord, Kelly Croce Sorg, and Erica Bleznak recognized that racial justice needed to start with people like them—white women. Along with Aurora Archer, they started 10,000 White Women: Doing the Work to start talking about racism in their communities and their lives. Fairness, equity, justice—all of it begins with each of us. You can start by reading the book that inspired 10,000 White Women, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism.
- Lorene Cary, Thomas Quinn and a whole host of Philadelphians spent the last year working to get 18-year-olds registered to vote—which helped to bring 7,000 new voters to the polls last November. And they’re gearing up to do it again. You can do your part by voting in November, and again next May; by making sure your neighbors and family are registered; or even by joining the movement to secure 16-year-olds the right to vote.
- Madeleine Dean, Chrissy Houlahan, Susan Wild, Mary Gay Scanlon. Those are the four women who upped—by four!—the number of women representing Pennsylvania in Congress when they won their elections last November. Helen Gym was the top vote getter in the primary this year, in a field awash with women candidates all up and down the ballot. Nearly 100 years after suffragette, women in Pennsylvania are finally—finally!—starting to hold political office in numbers that are not (as) shameful. You can do your part by running for office, supporting women who do, and by voting for policies that make it easier for more people to run, vote and lead.
- Businesses like Live Life Nice, rePurpose, Penji, Sapient, and so many others are proving there is a way to do good while doing well. You can do your part by looking for businesses that fit your values and then supporting them. Here’s a good place to start.
- Ben Block and Jason Sandman, a couple of local dads, found fatherhood made the most pressing issue of our time suddenly very real: Climate catastrophe. So they started Climate Dads to inform and gather people to confront the issue and make change. You can join their movement, or start one of your own. The earth is counting on you.
- Adam Kesselman set out to solve two problems with City Bright: Litter and homelessness. He pays homeless people to help clean the streets for a couple of hours a week in exchange for $20, and a letter of recommendation to help them get jobs. Andrew Freedman, president of the Seger Park Dog Owners Association, launched “dogplogging” to encourage pet owners to pick up trash while also picking up poop. Some fed-up Germantown residents bought their own street cleaning truck. What can you do keep the city clean? Simple: Don’t litter. Pick up in front of your house or business. And tell the City to do its part.
- Activists—from those urging the feds to close the camps, to those raising money to support reproductive rights or protesting Planned Parenthood, to those fighting for better gun laws—are doubtless planning some event right now. Pick an issue and get involved, not necessarily through protest, but with letters, calls, volunteering, and voting. Change doesn’t happen from the sidelines.
- Anthony Fedele joined—and now runs—the local chapter of Vets on a Mission as a way to funnel his military-honed sense of civic participation. Join them on their service projects, or support veterans as they return home.
- State Rep. Jared Solomon was the first—and one of the only—politicians to call for indicted City Councilman Bobby Henon to resign. He’s outraged about the corruption in City Hall—are you? Then follow his lead: Make noise, vote out those who don’t care, let your elected officials know that you want clean government.
- College freshman Hadley Ball helped organize a climate march on City Hall in March. Students from Parkway Center City Middle College led the effort to fill the Art Museum steps to draw attention to gun violence in Philly. Penn freshman Jay Falk spent her free time getting her peers to vote. Listen to young people. They care, and they should: The future is theirs.