Shortly after President Trump’s 2016 election, Kyle Shenandoah, a Forgotten Bottom resident, had a life-altering realization. A tax specialist at H&R Block, the 29-year-old had never been politically active; he didn’t have a background in law or policy, and figured that disqualified him from really getting involved.
Then, at a meeting in early 2017, Shenandoah first heard the term “community organizer”—and something clicked. All the stuff he was previously too intimidated to do, he could figure out. But the alternative, not getting involved, meant nothing would change in his community. So Shenandoah opted to jump in—hard.
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He started by knocking on people’s doors to canvas for Larry Krasner during his District Attorney’s race. One woman he met offered to give Krasner her vote—with a catch. In exchange, Krasner would have to find a job for her grandson. That moment struck a nerve with Shenandoah, not so much because of the ethical quandary it raised, but because of the underlying message: Poverty was the overwhelming concern for his neighbors.
“Make sure people have stability,” Shenandoah realized. “Then you can ask for votes.”
Forgotten Bottom is a pocket of Gray’s Ferry in South Philly between I-76 and the Schuylkill River that is—like its name—a mostly-dismissed slice of Philadelphia. According to a 2014 Census Bureau report, it has a poverty rate of 39.8 percent—well above the city’s average. And it is stuck: Forgotten Bottom has a clear view of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, less than a mile away. But getting there requires crossing a dangerous highway or taking two buses, which makes access to health care and job opportunities difficult.
“I don’t expect every citizen to put themselves through the gauntlet like I am,” Shenandoah notes. “I just happen to have a more extreme personality where if I’m passionate about something, I just put everything into it.”
A lifelong resident of Forgotten Bottom, Shenandoah went to Allegheny College before returning home and working as a behavioral health case manager for three years. He now manages an office of tax preparers for H&R Block. His social work and financial backgrounds gave him the tools to help individuals work through the problems they face everyday. But helping a whole neighborhood is something different.
So Shenandoah in 2017 signed up for the Citizens Planning Institute, a 7-week course run by the Planning Commission to provide residents the tools to help shape their neighborhoods. After graduating, he helped form the Tasker-Morris Neighbors Association, a Registered Community Organization covering a small gap between two different Grays Ferry neighborhood groups. TMNA holds monthly town halls to give community members a platform to voice concerns—and help shape their neighborhood—as developers move in.
Listen to Kyle on WURD’s Reality Check with Charles D. Ellison below:
He also joined the Gray’s Ferry Civic Association, and is a board member on six nonprofits, including Keep Philadelphia Beautiful, the Mayor’s Millennial Advisory Committee and SEPTA Citizen Advisory Committee. “I don’t expect every citizen to put themselves through the gauntlet like I am,” Shenandoah notes. “I just happen to have a more extreme personality where if I’m passionate about something, I just put everything into it.”
Since his days canvassing, Shenandoah has posted hundreds of job opportunities on his twitter and instagram accounts. But he also realized many of his neighbors didn’t have access to computers or the Internet. So last November, he set up the first in a planned series of neighborhood job fairs that brought in 30 employers and around 125 job seekers. Shenandoah called each and every one of them in the following weeks, to check in; 27 of them were able to find job leads. He’s hosting another in June.
“I predict in the future you’re going to see a lot of big changes” Shenandoah says. “You’re going to see a big progressive movement happening. It’s already on the ground, but it’s going to get even bigger.”
Now, Shenandoah is pushing SEPTA to launch its proposed new bus route 49, which would connect his neighborhood to the jobs and medical services in University City. And he’s working with Friends of Stinger Square Park to bring Indego Bike Share to the park in Gray’s Ferry, one of few neighborhoods still not serviced by the program.
These are small steps, towards a larger goal, made clear again last fall, when he helped local group Tasker Elite host their annual Thanksgiving dinner at Universal Audenried Charter High School. They served nearly 2,000 meals on site and to senior citizens in their homes. “When you see 1,500 people in a room, oh my God,” Shenandoah says. “That’s how you know the need is so great here.”
Still, the young community organizer is just getting started—as, he says, is Forgotten Bottom. “I predict in the future you’re going to see a lot of big changes” Shenandoah says. “You’re going to see a big progressive movement happening. It’s already on the ground, but it’s going to get even bigger.”