On Friday night, when Connor Barwin takes the stage at Union Transfer, the most civic-minded of Eagles will not be there to tout his team’s Super Bowl prospects—something that, at least in a fleeting sense, would raise Philadelphia to new heights. Instead, he’ll be celebrating something that could (dare we say it?) benefit every Philadelphian even more than a Superbowl win: Parks.
“When I was growing up, the neighborhood playground was a sanctuary for me,” Barwin says. “Parks are the center of a community, a place that can really bring people together.”
With his Make The World Better Foundation, Barwin will have already spent nearly $200,000 to renovate two South Philly parks. On Friday, he’ll announce a third during the annual benefit concert for MTWB’s park restoration initiative, with local bands Hop Along and Waxahatchee. All of the show’s proceeds will go towards restoring another city park. Last year’s concert raised $85,000, matched by another $85,000 from Barwin. This year, he hopes to make $100,000 at the show (and will again match it).
The concert, every year, is the most visible manifestation of Barwin’s civic largesse, a public stage for what the Detroit-raised linebacker spends most of his private off-time doing: Looking for ways to improve his world. (During the season, Barwin writes a Citizen column comparing Philly’s civic life to that of the opposing team.) Barwin is an urbanist by nature, and by nurture. His father was a city manager, with a passion for public and green spaces, and his parents insisted their sons give back to their communities. As an adult, his bedside reading includes books about urban planning, and he’s spending part of this summer writing a senior thesis for his favorite urban studies professor, to finally get his degree from the University of Cincinnati, which he left before graduating.
Can Barwin create an army of civic do-gooders? Perhaps. But the power of his message is not dependent on it. As someone recently said to Laver: “Our city is so invested in our athletics and sports teams; it’s great to see an athlete so invested in our city.”
In his adopted city (though can we just call him a Philadelphian now?), Barwin bikes all over town from his home in Rittenhouse Square, not just taking in what he sees, but pondering it with that persistent question: What can I do to make it better? The answer, for many in his position, would be to give money. But that is not for Barwin, who spends much of his off-season folding his enormous frame into conference room chairs, meeting with city officials and parks department engineers, and community members, on how best to renovate parks.
“It’s not everyday that you see professional athletes involved on that ground level,” says Claire Laver, MTWB’s director of strategic partnerships and projects. “This isn’t just something that’s come up for him as a way to give back. It’s inherent to his upbringing and what he cares about: Civic engagement and getting involved in the community he lives in.”
Last September, MTWB dedicated its first park, Ralph Brooks, a series of lots in Point Breeze that include a basketball court, a rain garden, a tot lot and several community gardens, with Steve Powers murals peering down on them. This month, MTWB will open a renovated recreation center at Smith Playground, at 24th and Snyder, with a larger space for out of school programs, and a computer lab—opened with partners WHYY and the Tuttleman Foundation—for teens and adults. Next spring, the rest of the seven-acre park will reopen with a turf football field, a walking trail around and through the park, and a new playground.
The park renovations are funded by MTWB, but they are intentionally community projects, designed with the neighbors to benefit the most neighbors, often at those community gatherings that Connor attends—a model he says he took from Mural Arts Program.
“We’re not going in and doing anything that we think is a good idea,” he says. “We do what the community wants, and help them implement it. We want to create public spaces that are centers of the neighborhood, the community, where everyone has a place—not just teenage kids who play basketball, or young babies who play in a tot lot, but people over 60, and kids, somewhere that can really bring everyone together.”
Barwin bikes all over town from his home in Rittenhouse Square, not just taking in what he sees, but pondering it with that persistent question: What can I do to make it better?
In MTWB’s first few years, the foundation has focused mainly on parks—what Barwin considers a “macro” approach to making a better city for many. It was the logical first step for him. “It felt honest because sports are what I identify with more than anything,” he says. “And I like to see the impact, and feel the impact, and you can do that when you work with physical spaces and real people.”
This year, the foundation also started working with Penn educators on a service learning program at Benjamin B. Comegys Elementary School in West Philly, to teach children the importance of becoming engaged in their community. (A kid-by-kid, “micro” approach.) “We’re trying to empower individual children to ask themselves, ‘How do I make the world better, even in small ways?’” says Laver. “If I see a piece of trash on the sidewalk, do I walk away because it’s not my problem? Or do I pick it up?”
In its first year, MTWB worked with three fourth grade teachers to help students pick a topic that affects their community; they chose homelessness. They then spent several months learning about the issue, and about what they could do, as individuals and a group, to help the homeless in their neighborhood. Again, Barwin has immersed himself in the work—spending a few days this school year with the students, including one last week, when they presented their final projects to him. “It was an incredible day,” he notes, with some awe. Over the next few years, Laver says, MTWB hopes to tweak and expand the program within Comegys, and then take it throughout the School District.
Can Barwin create an army of civic do-gooders, one fourth grader at a time? Perhaps. But the power of his message is not dependent on it—or on his helping the Eagles win the Superbowl. It comes just from seeing him on stage Friday night, or in a playground with a shovel, or cleaning up a schoolyard with teammates. As someone recently said to Laver: “Our city is so invested in our athletics and sports teams; it’s great to see an athlete so invested in our city.”Connor Barwin at the Ralph Brooks Park dedication. Photo by Laura Storck