When Sarahi Franco-Morales would walk home from her South Philly preschool with her mother, it seemed to her toddler eyes that her mom was some kind of celebrity.
“She’s super social. She’d pick me up and say hi to 10 different people along our walk,” Franco-Morales says. “I’ve always tried to copy her a little bit in that way.”
Franco-Morales didn’t have the words for what her mom so naturally forged, but now she knows: It was a sense of community. She remembers much of her childhood with that sense of sparkle. “I grew up in a bubble. Everything seemed perfect,” she says. She was surrounded by other Spanish-speaking families and children whose parents had also immigrated to Philadelphia.
“Philly’s biggest challenge is how segregated it is. It’s one thing to read about it, but when you ride your bike everywhere, you see it.” — Sarahi Franco-Morales
It wasn’t until she began attending a charter school outside of her neighborhood in sixth grade that Franco-Morales realized how much more diverse — and wealthier — other pockets of the city were. Suddenly she had friends whose parents owned homes — large ones! Friends who had second homes at the beach. “It was such a far reality for my parents and me,” she says. “I felt like I was living in two different worlds.”
This awareness didn’t make Franco-Morales ashamed of her roots — far from it: She treasured her neighborhood, has always been fiercely proud of, close with, and grateful to her parents, who are both restaurant workers. But she recognized, as so many adolescents coming to understand status do for the first time, that her family was what others would call low-income, and that, all around Philadelphia, people’s wealth, or lack thereof, dictated their day-to-day lives.
The disparities came into sharper focus as Franco-Morales began, like her parents and most of their neighbors, to ride her bike everywhere. “I think Philly’s biggest challenge is how segregated it is. It’s one thing to read about it, but when you ride your bike everywhere, you see it,” she says. “I find it heartbreaking — not only the lack of resources in some neighborhoods, but how normalized it is to be surrounded by areas that are so badly taken care of.”
Awakening to the power of doing something
It was during the pandemic, after her freshman year at Science Leadership Academy, that Franco-Morales was presented with an opportunity to do something about that heartbreak. She and her mom were walking on 9th Street in South Philly when they saw people handing out meals. She approached the woman leading the effort, Erendira Solano, and told her she’d love to help with the work, which was being overseen by World Central Kitchen and 215 People’s Alliance.
Franco-Morales spent that summer handing out at least 250 meals a day, nearly every day. “Once I started, I just knew that this is what I wanted to spend my time doing,” she says. That’s because the work wasn’t just transactional. “I knew the names of everyone who came through, their kids and spouses, and their stories. I was able to provide the space and the time for them to share what they were going through. It was so meaningful to be able to do something I loved that supported my community,” she says.
When a community member would test positive for Covid, Franco-Morales would leave food on their doorstep. “That was only possible because I had a connection with people, I had their phone numbers and they had mine,” she says.
That summer, she says, was life-changing. From there, she got involved with 215 People’s Alliance’s campaign for paid sick leave for hourly workers — offering her translation services at meetings, like one with Councilmember Kendra Brooks at City Hall, and offering childcare for folks with kids. She became a youth organizer for Juntos, working at their community garden and creating a mural there. She was a student and tutor at Mighty Writers, and was both a trainee and coach with Philly Youth Voices and Community Rising, via Philly BOLT.
For her service to Philadelphia, Franco-Morales is being honored as our first-ever Youth Citizen of the Year. On January 30, she’ll be celebrated alongside this year’s additional Citizens of the Year at a reception featuring MSNBC host Ali Velshi in conversation with actor and social justice activist George Takei. (You can find tickets and sponsorship information here.)
“Sarahi exemplifies not just young leadership, but leadership itself. She is someone who stands up not only for her community, but also for others experiencing injustices. She does so with deep humility, kindness, and an unwavering commitment to making Philadelphia a better place,” says Hillary Do, founder and executive director of Philly BOLT. “She has been quietly supporting others in so many places behind the scenes: taking care of a community garden, registering voters, ensuring immigrant voices are heard, and so much more. Philadelphia is lucky to have a leader like Sarahi.”
Through PA Youth Vote, Franco-Morales registered students at her school to vote. She gave a speech to the 2023 Mayoral candidates about affordable housing, how it’s affected her and so many people in her community.
She’s now a freshman at Penn on a much-deserved full scholarship, deciding between three majors: political science, sociology, or communications with a concentration in either social policy or activism/advocacy. “I want to study something that will prepare me to go back to community work, to work with people and make an impact or feel like I`m carving a path for change,” she says.
And she wants to do that while being financially stable and caring for her parents — something she wants for all of the families she grew up around and the countless other ones like her. “We have to find a way to bridge the status gap, to have more people of color becoming homeowners, and to provide higher wages for workers,” she says.
So, of Franco-Morales’ long list of accomplishments, what is she most proud of? “One time, my mom got a call from someone neither of us had ever met before, asking for me. They’d heard that I could help them with translations. And that is the proudest thing I carry with me. It’s beautiful to reach people, to tell them that you’re available, and then to be there for them.”
Sarahi Franco-Morales is one of 11 Philadelphians who will be honored on January 30 at the inaugural Citizen of the Year Awards, featuring MSNBC’s Ali Velshi in conversation with actor and activist George Takei. To buy individual tickets, click here. If your company or organization would like to sponsor the event or purchase seats for a full or half table, please contact [email protected].
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