Before the world imploded, back on March 2nd, The Citizen announced the launch of Integrity Icon, a contest in partnership SEAMAAC, WURD Radio, United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, and D.C.-based Accountability Lab to name the publicly-paid workers in Philly who show the highest amount of integrity in their jobs. We called for citizens to submit their nominations. Then, we asked a panel of judges to review them, and narrow down the candidates to just five.
The judges were appointed based on their own levels of integrity. There was Michael O’Bryan, an expert in community development, organizational culture, and human well-being who works with underserved populations; Syreeta Martin, the WURD radio host, entrepreneur, and motivational speaker; Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, the retired Chief Integrity Officer for the City of Philadelphia; and Andy Toy, the Development and Communications Director at SEAMAAC.
And in a year like no other, it may surprise no one to see who rose to the top, after the judges reviewed nearly 60 entries and conducted additional research and rigorous background checks: a whopping four educators, and one physician whose work centers on gun violence and youth.
Those finalists are:
- Dr. Ruth Abaya, an attending physician in the Emergency Department at CHOP, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and the program manager for the Injury Prevention Program at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health
- Mr. Carlos Aponte, a history teacher and the president of We Love Philly, an educational organization that forges relationships with nonprofits and businesses through volunteer work
- Principal Richard M. Gordon IV, of Paul Robeson High School For Human Services, who was named the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) 2021 National Principal of the Year
- Mr. Thomas Quinn, Central High School teacher and founder of Philly Youth Vote
- Ms. Shaquita Smith, Philadelphia School District’s social studies curriculum specialist
“It isn’t a coincidence that educators floated to the top, but I think it’s also telling that that system is under such duress and these folks are still floating to the top. What could happen if they got proper investment and support, from the municipality and from the state government? What would that mean for the young people who are being legitimately punished right now for having to be inside of a system that is arguably 20 years behind on [accessing] cutting-edge methodologies in educating, and using digital technology that is culturally appropriate for youth?” says O’Bryan.
As for the selection of the one person who’s not employed by the School District of Philadelphia, Dr. Ruth Abaya? “Highlighting her work, I think, was a no-brainer,” O’Bryan says. “We’re at a point where, and I say this with love, there’s just no real coordinated strategy on how to address not just gun violence but all of the root causes that are making gun violence an emergent outcome.”
He sees Abaya’s work at CHOP, Penn, and the City as presenting the possibility of real systemic change. “I think about somebody like Ruth being at the Health Department, being at CHOP, being a Stoneleigh Fellow; she brings the potential of being a bridge, to make sense of all that and move forward with some other ways of thinking and doing this work.”
Accountability Lab founder and Executive Director Blair Glencorse launched Integrity Icon (formerly “Idol” until American Idol threatened to sue) in Nepal in 2014 when he was looking for a way to popularize the idea of reform in a country often rife with corruption. That first year, Accountability Lab got 300 nominations, and tens of thousands of Nepali picked the winner: Gyan Mani, a district education officer in a poor region of the country, who routed out corruption in (among other places) the local schools. Since then, Integrity Icon has spread to nine countries, including South Africa, Liberia, Pakistan, and last year Ukraine, Morocco and Mexico City.
And it’s fitting that Philly is the first U.S. city to participate: In a place where public servants are so often shamed for corruption and failure to deliver to the people, it can be easy to forget that there are countless public servants doing meaningful work every day, beyond their job description and long before and after 9 to 5.
Which brings us back to educators. Martin says that it was a unanimous decision to highlight so many of them. “Our teachers have gone above and beyond to meet our students,” she says. “I personally feel that educators really haven’t been given the flowers they are due—and by flowers, I mean coin, the payment. For them to have to do a pivot like that in the midst of a pandemic, for me it just did not make sense to not have a teacher be a part of the list. And we have such amazing teachers in this city that I also wasn’t surprised to see so many of them on the final list.”
Martin was also especially moved by Abaya’s work, particularly after reading the doctor’s powerful op-ed about looking at gun violence through the lens of the fundamental right to life. “With her background in injury prevention and in caring for some of our most vulnerable members of the community—children—and knowing that here in Philadelphia we’ve had far too many children—and by far too many I mean one is too many children—that have been affected by gun violence, Dr. Abaya’s work definitely struck a chord,” Martin says.
After narrowing down the contenders, Accountability Lab filmed videos about each of the five finalists. We invite you to watch the videos below, listed in alphabetical order, then cast your vote.
All of these incredible Philadelphians are already winners. But the one with the most votes will receive the honor of being named the inaugural Philadelphia Integrity Icon—and, with it, we hope, more momentum and support for the issues and communities they work so hard to champion.
Dr. Ruth Abaya
Mr. Carlos Aponte
Principal Richard M. Gordon IV
Mr. Thomas Quinn
Ms. Shaquita Smith