When we think about change in Philly, and contemplate all the things that need changing—the trash, the gun violence, the unemployment, the inequity, the myriad ways we’re failing our kids, still more trash, and so on, and so forth—it’s easy to focus on the bold names. You know: the politicians, the titans of industry, the very rich. Fair enough. These are, to some degree, The People Who Have Power to Fix Things.
Sometimes, when we’re lucky and vigilant and the stars line up just right, they do.
Much of the time, though, as we know, change comes through less flashy, less obvious channels. In increments. In ideas. In neighborhoods and communities and the unsung, underfunded hard work of individuals, in a million different tiny ripples of hope, to borrow from RFK. Ripples that eventually create a current.
Who is positively impacting this city, shaking up the status quo, disrupting the predictable old ways of doing things? Whose ideas are giving you new hope for Philly?
It’s that sort of change that The Citizen is focusing on with a new ongoing project, Generation Change Philly. GCP will identify the people in our city who are bringing fresh perspectives, new energy and innovative ideas to various arenas of Philly life, from biotech to business to civics to social justice to the way we eat … and more.
For the past several months, we’ve been working on building a list of these changemakers. The reporting began simply by asking people—business, nonprofit and community leaders, disruptor types, founders and funders and regular old citizens across the city—the same questions:
Who has good ideas we could learn from? Who is tackling our problems in new ways? Who is positively impacting this city, shaking up the status quo, disrupting the predictable old ways of doing things? Whose ideas are giving you new hope for Philly?
What we got by way of response is great news for believers in the tiny-ripple theory: There were more than 100 names offered up, more than 100 stories to tell about the people whose perspectives and work are changing this city for the better.
We could have easily continued on, adding to the roster for months to come; instead, we set about the difficult task of whittling that list down to the 30 people who best represent the focus, creativity and ingenuity that this particular moment in Philadelphia cries out for.
Over the next several months, we’re going to spotlight each of these changemakers, the members of Generation Change Philly, one by one, one ripple at a time.
But wait, there’s more.
We’re not alone in our mission to recognize these citizens; we’ve partnered with the Keepers of the Commons, an organization whose mission is to identify and connect “often overlooked community leaders” to well-established policy and ideas events, in hopes of cultivating local talent and growing their impact.
The Keepers is the brainchild of Philadelphian Richard G. Phillips, Jr. (who sits on the Citizen’s board). He partnered in 2016 with co-founder and friend Maia Comeau; the pair both boast deeply impressive public affairs backgrounds. The idea for the Keepers came not from his time in public policy, Phillips says, but when he left that world to run his family business, Pilot Freight Services.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. What he quickly learned, though, was that there were about a billion different leadership conferences, training seminars and idea networks—“all these things designed to help for-profit CEOs lead, think differently about their organizations’ futures, see themselves differently and just generally run organizations better.”
He signed up to attend everything he could. By the end of this 12-year stint running Pilot, he’d shaved his conferences down to the three or four a year that he still found truly helpful as a leader. “Then I sold the company,” he says, and spent the next bit of time contemplating how he might mesh his love for public policy with all that he’d learned in business over the past decade or so. He started to reengage with people doing community work again … but in the meantime, kept getting invited to the same high-level seminars and conferences.
This is when it struck him: “If we think this stuff is valuable, these Nantucket or Brussels or Halifax forums, and we truly believe they help people and connect people, then the private sector is vastly overserved, and the public policy sector and public servants are wildly underserved,” Phillips says. “These people don’t get invited to any of these events. And they can’t afford to go if they do get invited, and it’s harder for them to get the time away.”
Lo, the idea for the Keepers of the Commons was born. With Comeau on board, Phillips approached the organizers of many of these ideas-focused gatherings, and asked to bring a cohort of community leaders—not just people who were “doing great things, but who we also felt had greater potential to do even more great things,” Phillips says. It was about expanding access to people doing great work within communities, not just corporations.
“They’re as smart as everyone else invited,” Phillips says. “Their organizations are just as complicated, and they face many of the same issues. The only difference is that if my organization, my business, isn’t run well, it affects my organization. If theirs isn’t, it affects everyone. The difference is that we are all invested in these people being good at their work.”
The organizations he approached were into it, and it was a go: In 2016-2017, the Keepers selected 12 community leaders from a few different cities to attend the Nantucket Project. The goal was to expand the ideas and concepts talked about within the conference (indeed, the Keepers have definitely “elevated the conversation” within the meeting, Phillips says), and to expand the world of ideas that then get taken back in the work and the networks of the Keepers. There are regular check-ins amongst the Keepers at the conference and throughout the year, Phillips says; after that, the group stays connected of its own volition.
“If my organization, my business, isn’t run well, it affects my organization. If theirs isn’t, it affects everyone,” says Phillips. “The difference is that we are all invested in these people being good at their work.”
What’s notable, too, offers Lindsay Morris, the organization’s executive director, is the diversity among the 50 or so Keepers they’ve worked with thus far, a group that’s included members of the tribal council of the Flathead Reservation in Montana, police officers from New Hampshire, nonprofit leaders from Philly, veterans-turned-entrepreneurs from the Midwest, and teachers from Nantucket. “As part of the program,” she says, “Keepers have gone on to collaborate with each other across geography.”
The last cohort of Keepers included 23 leaders from Pennsylvania and Connecticut, including a few familiar Philly names (United Way’s Bill Golderer, for example; also Otis Bullock of Diversified Community Services and Garces Foundation’s Robin Morris, to name a few.) “We try to pick people who have some sort of thematic connection with the others,” Phillips says. The hope is to build “connective tissues” around an issue, like, say, poverty, or policing or suicide prevention.
You can see, maybe, why the Generation Change Philly project—highlighting our change-making citizens—felt like a fit for a Keepers of the Commons collaboration. Our reporting and storytelling at the Citizen is the starting point; the Keepers will create opportunities throughout the year for the changemakers to connect with one another, with other changemakers in the city and with a broader audience.
If you ask Phillips why he and Comeau felt compelled to partner up with The Citizen, or even why they started the Keepers in the first place, he’ll tell you that, yes, it’s about their roots in public policy and belief in and respect for the work done in public service. But it’s also about efficiency. “It seemed to be a broad way to be effective across a lot of different spheres,” he says. Boosting 30 committed people in their work? “That feels way more effective than anything I could do on any one of these issues.”
And hey, he adds, it also really strikes him that the world doesn’t need another “white guy who did well in business thinking he has the answer for nonprofits. We’re good there. So maybe it’s about helping out the folks who already do have the answers.”Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash