“Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not.”
When Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw crafted those lines, he didn’t know they’d go on to make history in 1968 as part of Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Nor could Shaw have imagined just how relevant they’d be in 2023’s Philadelphia. But, as the team at The Philadelphia Citizen spent the last year researching candidates for our first-ever Citizen of the Year Awards, one trend continued to emerge that echoed Shaw and Kennedy:
Of the hundreds of nominations we received and reviewed from readers and leaders alike, the folks who rose to the top of our list consistently displayed one unique quality: an unwavering commitment to Philadelphia matched with an equally strong belief in seeing things differently, in innovating — in asking Why not?
This year’s winners include a kickass block captain, a college student devoted to community service, an inspiring educator, a passionate abolitionist, civic-minded business leaders, longtime Philadelphia heroes, and a physician who turned his five near-death experiences into saving the lives of people around the world.
We, along with MSNBC anchor (and Citizen board member) Ali Velshi and actor and civic activist George Takei, will honor all of them at a reception and dinner on January 30, 2024, at Fitler Club Ballroom. We’d love for you to join us.
For now, allow us to proudly introduce the 2023 Citizens of the Year:
Citizen of the Year
Dr. David Fajgenbaum
Fajgenbaum nearly died — five times — from Castleman disease. With resolve like no other, he set about finding a drug to (successfully) treat himself — then turned around and co-created the nonprofit Every Cure, with the goal of harnessing the world’s medical data to systematically repurpose the 3,000 approved medicines to treat 12,000 known diseases. We implore you to watch his presentation from the Clinton Global Initiative Meeting where, after being moved by Fajgenbaum’s memoir, Chasing My Cure, former President Bill Clinton personally invited him to speak. Up next: a movie based on his life, and the continued expansion of his transformative organization. Fajgenbaum is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Founding Director of the Center for Cytokine Storm Treatment & Laboratory (CSTL), Associate Director of Patient Impact at Penn’s Orphan Disease Center, and Co-Founder & President of Castleman Disease Collaborative Network (CDCN).
Ryan Boyer and Michael Forman
Boyer, business manager of the Philadelphia Building Trades Council, is the leader of the Laborers’ District Council. Forman is Chairman and CEO of FS Investments. Together, they co-chair The Philadelphia Equity Alliance to close the racial wealth and health gap by bringing together businesses, labor, clergy, civic organizations and government — a groundbreaking effort that is antithetical to the usual way of doing things in Philadelphia.
Their goals: grow minority-owned businesses, increase and improve minority employment and push for pay equity, achieve health equity, reduce gun violence, improve educational opportunities, promote the Black and Latinx arts and entertainment community and ensure government programs prioritize equity and inclusivity. “We need to understand that we can have a pro-business environment and still be pro worker and pro-neighborhood,” Boyer says.
A.Leon Higginbotham, Jr. Social Justice Champion
Robert Saleem Holbrook
Holbrook spent 27 years in prison — including 10 in solitary confinement — for a crime he committed when he was just 16 years old. He was released in 2018 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that life sentences for minors were unconstitutional. Since then, he’s become an advocate for human rights — he recently testified in Geneva before the United Nations Human Rights Committee — and a proponent of abolition, challenging our legal system and the many institutions that fail to serve citizens. He’s the Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center, an organization dedicated to ending race- and class-based discrimination in the criminal justice system. Holbrook also teaches Community Lawyering to Prevent Mass Incarceration at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.
The pervasive narrative about teens during Covid was predominantly negative, focused on their struggles and setbacks. Then there’s Franco-Morales, who used her time in lockdown to hand out at least 250 meals a day nearly every day during that first Covid summer, through her work with 215 People’s Alliance and World Central Kitchen.
That work led to her activism: As a bilingual daughter of Mexican immigrants, she began lending her translating skills to community members who’d otherwise be shut out of arenas where decisions are made, from City Hall to her own South Philly neighborhood. “Sarahi is someone who stands up not only for her community, but also for others experiencing injustices. She does so with deep humility, kindness and an unwavering commitment to making Philadelphia a better place,” says Hillary Do, founder and executive director of Philly BOLT.
Educator of the Year
Indrayudh (Indy) Shome
Born in India, raised in four countries and educated at Brown University, Shome moved to Philly in 2017 for its thriving social justice and environmental justice scenes. A musician, artist and filmmaker, he paved the way for students at Dobbins High School to create a groundbreaking “peace garden,” an interdisciplinary model of youth-led, school-based, urban regeneration. He recently left the District, but he’s still working as an educator. At the Philadelphia Orchard Project, Shome helps design educational programs across community gardens around the city.
Belser, who, by day, has worked in CHOP operations for nearly a quarter of a century, has been a Block Captain in her Melrose Park Gardens neighborhood for more than 15 years. She is so committed to making sure her neighbors are registered to vote — and that they get out there to do so — that her block and District have the highest voter turnout in the entire city.
Belser also recognizes the importance of making her block a place folks are proud to be part of and take care of. In 2021, she led her neighborhood to second place in the City’s Clean Block Competition. She’s a fierce safety advocate as well, insisting on safer streets via paving and traffic calming measures. For her work, she was honored by Council as a “Hero of the 9th Council District” in an official resolution last February. Really, she says, it’s all about action: “No one wants to hear their block captain — they want to see them doing the work.”
Lewis Katz Corporate Citizen
Most Philadelphians know Innocenzo as the President and CEO of PECO, the Philly-based energy company which brought in nearly $4 billion in revenue in 2022. Since 2022, Innocenzo has also served as Chairman of the Board of the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. But his game-changing move of the last couple years is as an organizer of the Civic Coalition to Save Lives, an initiative that has brought more than 90 business, philanthropic and civic organizations together to partner with the City to address gun violence.
“We believe that the solution to gun violence requires all of us to work together — government, civic leaders, businesses, and faith-based organizations – acting with a sense of urgency and resolute commitment,” Innocenzo says of the Civic Coalition. “While we may not have all the answers, we share the responsibility to elevate the quality of life for all who call Greater Philadelphia home.”
Lifetime Achievement Award
Levy is the founding chief executive and longtime President and CEO of Center City District, serving in that capacity since January 1991. CCD is the $30.5 million downtown management district that provides security, cleaning, place marketing and planning services, as well as streetscape and park improvements for the central business district of Philadelphia. But what the CCD really fosters is a sense of community pride and collaboration. “What I enjoy the most — what I’m most proud of about this organization — is that we got police and private security and designers and social media people and marketing people and people with a broad spectrum of opinions about the world to sit around the table, trying to figure out how to solve a problem,” Levy says. “That has really influenced so much of my thinking: Getting people out of silos, getting out of this world of either/or. It’s never either/or.”
Lifetime Achievement Award
Sister Mary Scullion and Joan Dawson McConnon
In 1989, Sister Mary Scullion and Joan Dawson McConnon co-founded the nationally recognized organization that provides supportive housing, employment, education and health care to enable chronically homeless and low-income people to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty. Under their leadership, Project HOME has grown from an emergency winter shelter to more than 1,000 units of housing, three social enterprises, the Honickman Learning Center Comcast Technology Labs, and the Steven Klein Wellness Center.
As former Project Home resident Wes Mitchell told the Inquirer earlier this year, “This organization that [Sister Mary] and Miss Joan built helps people like me feel like they’re people again — not just discarded.”
The Philadelphia Citizen will honor 11 Philadelphians on January 30 at the inaugural Citizen of the Year Awards, featuring MSNBC’s Ali Velshi in conversation with actor and activist George Takei. To buy individual tickets, click here. If your company or organization would like to sponsor the event or purchase seats for a full or half table, please contact [email protected].
MORE GOOD CITIZENS OF PHILADELPHIAThe Philadelphia Citizen's 2024 Citizens of the Year. Top left: Michelle Belser. Top row, left to right: Indrayudh (Indy) Shome, Sarahi Franco-Morales, Paul Levy. Center row, left to right: Joan Dawson McConnon, Mike Innocenzo, Robert Saleem Holbrook. Bottom left to right: Dr. David Fajgenbaum, Ryan Boyer, Michael Forman, Sister Mary Scullion. Select photos by Sabina Louise Pierce.