What is integrity?
To the five local heroes we honored on Friday night as the first-ever Integrity Icons in Philadelphia—and the country—it means many things, all of them inspiring.
“Integrity is not something you do, it’s who you are,” said Richard Gordon IV, the principal at Paul Robeson High School. Gordon, who was also named Principal of the Year for 2020, shared that his earliest model of integrity was his mother, Cecilia Watkins. In the wake of Gordon’s father being incarcerated, she woke up at 5am every day to make sure Gordon and his younger brother arrived at their New Jersey school on time.
“She was committed to her children and willing to sacrifice for the greater good. So I learned about that integrity, that commitment, that sacrifice you’re willing to make for someone else to ensure that they are able to have a better life and have a better station. To be able to live with that example in my early formative years is something that I’ve always carried with me, and it’s always been the motivating factor for why I do the things I do when it comes to education,” he said.
Gordon was the top vote-getter in the contest—run by The Citizen and D.C.-based Accountability Lab—making him the people’s choice for the public servant in Philly who goes well above and beyond his job description to do what’s right.
“Integrity is not something you do, it’s who you are,” said Richard Gordon IV, the principal at Paul Robeson High School.
He was joined for the virtual event by his four fellow 2020 Integrity Icons: Dr. Ruth Abaya, CHOP pediatric E.R. doctor and public health manager; Carlos Aponte, high school history teacher and founder of We Love Philly; Thomas Quinn, high school social studies teacher and organizer of Philly Youth Vote; and Shaquita A. Smith, social studies curriculum specialist for the School District of Philadelphia.
The event was emceed by WURD Radio’s Syreeta Martin, with a rousing welcome song performed by the Garden State and PA State girlchoirs, and a special congratulatory message from Eagles center Jason Kelce.
The Citizen’s partners for the contest and Friday’s event included United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, SEAMAAC, WURD, Fitler Club and Harrison Foundation. Khadijah Ford, owner of Sugarluxe by Babycakes, provided celebratory cookie trophies for the winners.
The Citizen and Accountability Lab launched the country’s first Integrity Icon contest last February, with a citywide call for nominations of publicly paid workers who demonstrate the highest integrity in their professional and personal lives. (Accountability Lab currently operates Integrity Icon in 10 other countries, with three more sites scheduled to debut in the near future.)
The contest was put on hiatus for a few months after Covid hit, then relaunched in the fall. After sifting through dozens of nominations, a panel of judges narrowed the list to the four educators and one health hero. We made short videos about each and called for a public vote again to decide on the people’s choice.
The judges themselves were selected for their high integrity and deep commitment to Philadelphia: Ellen Kaplan, the recently retired chief integrity officer for the City of Philadelphia; Andy Toy, development, communications, and community development director at SEAMAAC; Michael O’Bryan, urban innovation fellow at the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation; and Martin, of WURD.
“We want to get away from naming and shaming our corrupt officials, and instead name and fame public workers who have really high integrity,” said Citizen Executive Editor Roxanne Patel Shepelavy, as she welcomed guests to the festivities.
Accountability Lab’s Katie Fuhs, added,“It’s a movement to celebrate, encourage and connect public servants, and hopefully inspire a new generation of young people to think about public service as a desirable and honorable career path.”
Throughout the evening, Martin drew from each winner answers that made clear why they are models of integrity—and that brought audience members to tears, of laughter, recognition, hope.
“I recognized integrity by seeing it modeled by the people around me, especially my parents,” said Dr. Abaya. “I recognized, as I was coming up through my education and all the other stages in my life, that you enter these crossroads a lot, where you have a decision to make about how you’re going to handle a particular problem, how you’re going to overcome a hurdle. And I think through a combination of good and bad decisions, I realized that when you make the decision that is the decision that requires integrity, you never come back to regret that. The benefits of integrity are sometimes delayed, but they’re always worthwhile.”
“When you make the decision that is the decision that requires integrity, you never come back to regret that. The benefits of integrity are sometimes delayed, but they’re always worthwhile,” said Abaya.
As the event wrapped, Martin asked each winner to think about who they’d nominate if given the chance.
Quinn singled out his neighbor, a committeeperson and block captain since the 1950s. Abaya shouted out a couple from her church. Smith and Gordon paid tribute to various teachers in the District. And Aponte thanked the founder of One Arts Community Center, who has welcomed him and his students so wholeheartedly.
It was a fitting note to end on, given that The Citizen and Accountability Lab will soon be announcing details for this year’s Integrity Icon contest. Stay tuned, and prepare to nominate the city workers you admire, those people who go above and beyond any job description to make Philadelphia a place we can all be proud of.
As for this year’s winners, well, in the spirited words of the Eagles’ Kelce: They’re all true MVPs.
If you missed the event, you can watch it in the three videos below:
Performance by Garden State and PA girlchoirs
Welcoming remarks by Jason Kelce
The discussion with the icons