This profile is part of a series spotlighting the five winners of the 2023 Integrity Icon Award, a collaboration with Accountability Lab to “name and fame” City of Philadelphia employees who demonstrate the highest integrity in their work. Read all five profiles here, then vote for the “people’s choice” winner here.
Growing up, Kea R. Greene’s mother would often repeat this phrase: “Every life has its story, and you don’t know people’s story until they tell you.”
Her mother, Yvonne Williams, along with her father, Tyrone, both worked long hours as correctional officers in Philadelphia. They would often come back to the family’s West Philadelphia home and candidly talk with their eldest daughter about the inhumane and unjust practices they witnessed. And they would regularly join committees to advocate for incarcerated Philadelphians to be treated with dignity, no matter their situation or their charge.
As a child and teen, Greene joined her beloved aunt, Lynn Huff, a 35-year veteran teacher in the School District of Philadelphia, in her classrooms, working as her assistant during summer school — tutoring students, grading papers, organizing files.
“From my aunt I learned about the inadequacies in the Philadelphia school system, especially pertaining to Black and Brown students,” Greene says. It was through Huff that Greene learned the importance of education and that education goes beyond the classroom setting. “My aunt would take me to cultural events and to School Board meetings, and she was a major catalyst for my strong work ethic.”
By the time she was 12, Greene just knew she’d dedicate her life to making Philadelphia better, in the same way her role models did every day. And that’s exactly what she’s done in the various roles she’s held throughout the city — most recently as the Member Services Manager for the Mayor’s Office of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Services (MOCEVS) — and why she is being honored as one of five Integrity Icons for 2023. (Read about the other four winners here, then vote for a “reader’s choice” winner here.)
In her role at MOCEVS, Greene focused on supporting and training the city’s AmeriCorps volunteers. She provided them with the kind of tools that would enable them to go out and support the Philly residents they were assigned to serve. Her proudest achievement: arranging for Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) to train the AmeriCorps volunteers in record expungement — that is, legally helping folks remove criminal charges that may be on their public records and could be holding them back from opportunities like employment, housing, funding, and more.
It wasn’t enough for the volunteers to just have this knowledge, though, she says. “You can’t acquire knowledge and then keep it to yourself. That’s selfish.” So she reached out to community-based organizations, churches, and grassroots groups, advertising that AmeriCorps members were trained and ready to come out to them to do expungements, free of charge. In about a year they completed 140 expungements.
“The scenario that stands out in my mind the most was a gentleman who was 51,” she says. He’d been arrested for minor trouble at the age of 19, and that record followed him for decades. “The moment that they arrest and fingerprint you, you have a record. Even if you are found not guilty, that record does not disappear. The onus is on you to go and get all of that erased, and many people do not know that. So this man went from age 19 to 51 with this on his record — it held him back from employment opportunities and it was a cloud of shame that he carried around silently, until he stumbled across us.”
Greene’s team invited him to come to the Municipal Services Building, where they helped him expunge his record. “To have a 51-year-old man call you and cry, that was one of the highlights of my career,” she says.
“Figure out what’s important to you. Once you have identified that, then identify what you can do to make a difference in that area. Understand your value, your power, and your worth, and know that one person can make a difference.” — Kea R. Greene
For the transformative effect she’s had on Philadelphians’ lives, this year’s panel of Integrity Icon judges were proud to anoint Greene a winner. The Citizen has run its Integrity Icon contest in partnership with the Washington, D.C.-based Accountability Lab since 2021. The goal of the program: To hold up the city workers who model how we can all go above and beyond to make a positive impact in Philadelphia.
This past spring, the public nominated dozens of excellent city workers for the award, using the following criteria: They are a high-integrity public service employee who is respectful and caring; know their work makes a difference to people’s lives; act in a trustworthy and transparent way to solve problems the best they can; treat everyone equally, without regard to politics or influence; and go above and beyond to provide good service to Philadelphians.
A panel of high-integrity judges reviewed the candidates, and selected this year’s honorees. The judges included 2020 Integrity Icon Richard Gordon IV, assistant superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia who spent years as principal of Paul Robeson High School; 2022 Integrity Icon Rebecca Lopez Kriss, a deputy commissioner in the City’s Revenue Department; Angela Val, president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia; Amy Kurland, former Inspector General of the City of Philadelphia; and SEAMAAC Executive Director Thaoi Nguyen.
Treating people like…people
This summer, Greene was recruited to the Office of Criminal Justice to focus even more deeply on returning citizens. As the Communications and Community Engagement Manager in the Managing Director’s Office, she’ll take on a range of roles, including delivering trainings on racial equity, community inclusion, and network-building across the criminal justice system; providing education and training opportunities related to criminal justice reform to community members; coordinating Community Engagement Workgroups; developing relationships with community leaders, advocates, and neighborhood residents directly impacted by crime and incarceration; and much more.
“Kea treats people like people,” says her former colleague, Jasmine Oglesby, LSW, the Director of Trauma Informed Practice at PowerCorpsPHL. “It can be humiliating to share details of hardship and suffering, but Kea has a masterful way of creating an environment that feels safe, professional, and human-centered, while also helping those she serves to feel heard, comforted, and treated with honesty even in the most challenging of interactions. This is a skill that is innate and cannot be taught.”
Greene’s commitment is not confined to 9-to-5. As a block captain in West Philly, she oversees regular block and alleyway cleanings; saw to it that a “drug house” was shut down, rehabbed and resold; kept a neighboring auto body shop mindful of noise and traffic; makes sure neighbors get birthday cards and kids and grandkids get school supplies; runs a National Night Out featuring a food pantry, and has bedazzled the neighborhood trees with white lights. “The lights were meant to last through the holiday season in 2020,” she says, “but everyone liked them so much that they’ve been up for more than two years.”
It is lost on no one that the woman who has brought lights to her block is also lighting up her city with her dedication, passion, and heart. Greene believes that each of us can be a light on this city.
“Figure out what’s important to you,” she says. “Once you have identified that, then identify what you can do to make a difference in that area. Understand your value, your power, and your worth, and know that one person can make a difference: One person can inspire and motivate two people, which can turn into five people which can turn into 10 people. Have faith in yourself, but also don’t be afraid to fail, because that’s where the learning is gonna come in. That’s where the wisdom is gonna come in. Most of all, don’t allow someone else’s negativity to stop you — not everyone will think the way that you think, but bet on yourself.”
Integrity Icon Philadelphia is made possible in part thanks to the generous support of Thomas Skelton Harrison Foundation.
MEET OUR 2022 INTEGRITY ICON WINNERS