Donavan West, a candidate for Philadelphia City Council at-large, has his nickname embroidered into all of his suits. The name dates back 20 years to when a colleague realized West, like a certain X-Man character, not only looked — but also thought — big.
“‘Beast’ is stitched into 99 percent of what I wear,” says the candidate.
The monogram is a message: Strangers may notice his linebacker physique. The public may know him for his business acumen. He wants Philadelphia to remember him for service. “My real power is not in my arms, but in my intelligent contributions to whatever the crisis may be,” says West. The Democrat wants to become the “critical case manager” on Council.
“I’ve been touted as the business candidate,” West says. “I’m not that. I’m the economic development candidate.”
West grew up in North Philadelphia. His family moved around: Logan, Ogontz, Olney, and, like so many in Philly, experienced poverty. When they were homeless, West’s grandfather came from Jamaica to get them back onto their feet. On Thursdays, a young Donavan would help his mom clean houses and get a glimpse of middle class life. “I got to try this thing called a TV dinner,” he recalls.
The Northeast High School grad earned his bachelors in administration of justice and minority studies from Penn State. During his senior year, West learned a close friend was murdered. “He had just become a father of twins,” he says, “College was our way of breaking the generational cycle of poverty … These twins were starting over.” This wasn’t West’s first crisis, but it was career-changing.
A business, man
“Instead of going to law school, I got my series 6 and series 63,” he says. (These licenses qualify the holder to sell financial products such as securities, mutual funds, and, important to West, life insurance.) “I insured as many people as I could — friends from my neighborhood, and some of their parents.” Later he got his Master’s in organizational leadership from Eastern University, and founded a company called Multimedia MD (Marketing Diversity), now Culturally Congruent Solutions, a business consulting firm that did projects at Johnson & Johnson and Boeing, among others.
Sulaiman Rahman, president and CEO of DiverseForce, has known West for 20 years. (West went through DiverseForce’s board training program.) Rahman and West worked side by side at the start of the pandemic, when West was president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware (AACC).
During West’s nine months on the job, he developed partnerships with DiverseForce and Lendistry while supporting Black-owned businesses in applying for PPP loans, instituting Covid vaccination programs, and setting up business-based food distributions. “He was able to step into the gap and look for solutions and be a voice, if you will, during that time,” says Rahman. “He’s got an entrepreneurial mindset and is a great communicator, great at building his own networks.”
West says one of the biggest influences in honing his voice and his approach to service was the late Herb Lusk. Lusk, a former Eagle who was famously first in the NFL to kneel to pray in the end zone, was after the NFL, the leader and reviver of Greater Exodus Baptist Church. As Lusk rebuilt the congregation, he developed a vision of a North Philly location to serve as a center for a way out of poverty.
People for People offered educational, economic, financial, workforce and spiritual development. For 16 years, West, a longtime parishioner at Greater Exodus, served as the organization’s COO, overseeing a preschool, charter school, pregnancy center (Lusk was strongly pro-life), credit union, college partnership, banquet space, and developable parcels of land.
“That combination of things allowed me to explore in ways that I could actually do the work,” says West. He says he became fluent in helping families through all manner of challenges and crises. So, when he’s on the campaign trail, “I’m not talking conceptually about welfare-to-work programs or diversion or intervention. I’m talking from experience. Go to my journal. Check my receipts.”
Solving other forms of poverty
Sixteen years is a long time in any role. Nonetheless, because of his other professional successes — and those sharp suits — West has become known as the business candidate for Council, drawing comparisons to former Councilmember and mayoral candidate Derek Green (who has endorsed him). But, in true Beast fashion, West feels “business” is too small a description of his expertise.
“I’ve been touted as the business candidate,” he says. “I’m not that. I’m the economic development candidate. Under economic development, you have a whole list of other things: workforce development, education and training, a pipeline to employment that helps build our middle class … I’m also for tackling a couple of issues that are off the beaten path.”
Among West’s issues: “We don’t talk about the other forms of poverty: poverty of vision, which leads to people making really bad decisions, which increases our crime rate.” West points to his time teaching entrepreneurship at the State Correctional Institute in Chester, and the times he hired 100 people living in shelters to work cleaning shifts at Lincoln Financial Field.
“He was able to step into the gap and look for solutions and be a voice, if you will, during that time,” says Rahman. “He’s got an entrepreneurial mindset and is a great communicator, great at building his own networks.”
Then, there’s “Asset poverty. We know that owning a home is the number one way that we break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Yet Black and Brown people are the victims of systemic racism, of redlining, of the devaluation of our assets, and segregation due to redlining. [These issues] are all interconnected, and they fall under my umbrella of expertise.”
He believes alleviating Philadelphia’s dearth of affordable housing starts with “fully acknowledging that [this scarcity] exists, and that we’re at capacity.” From there, the City should allocate more money to the Housing Trust Fund, he says, in order to meet demand. Rehab vacant homes and abandoned lots that belong to the Land Bank — and make them accessible, so they’re “at the top of the menu.”
It’s also vital to “streamline the development process for attainable housing,” says West. Not just for large developers, whom the City should incentivize to develop financially accessible units in their projects, but also for one-off developers, even individual homeowners. “Licenses and Inspections and all these other systems we have are so antiquated … All the bureaucracy, all the red tape: It’s embarrassing.” In the meantime, he advocates hiring enough people to offer real, in person help for potential home buyers, home fixer-uppers, and property owners who need counseling and financial assistance — and to let people know that help exists.
Other ideas: Faith-based community development: growing religious institutions into community institutions. (A lot like People for People.)
Compassionate aging: Helping older Philadelphians live longer and better by finding them work that keeps them active and engaged. He recently promised a group of seniors in the Northeast he’d be their “son” on City Council, helping them with paperwork, keeping them safe, like he’s done for his own mom.
Also: financial education for youth … “and application and discipline and partnerships with financial institutes.”
It’s a lot, for sure. But, as in other times in his life, West feels he’s in the right place at the right time. “What keeps me in this space as energetic and optimistic is: I’m here on purpose.” He adds, “People should know: I’m a lot.”
The Citizen is writing about Philadelphia City Council candidates who are doing what for a long time was the unthinkable: Bucking the system by running for office with ideas and experience — not just by dint of being the usual suspects. Because if there’s one thing we need more of, it’s this: More people paying more attention to our local politics, running for office, offering solutions and prepping to bring about much-needed change.
Lead support for Every Voice, Every Vote is provided by the William Penn Foundation, with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others.
MORE ON CITY COUNCIL ELECTIONS FROM THE CITIZEN