For most Penn undergrads, four years in “Philly” means four years of the “Penn Bubble,” never venturing far from Locust Walk, or crossing the river, or engaging with the city beyond Penn’s borders. It’s like living in an ivy oasis in the middle of an urban desert.
But for a group of 20 students, four years at Penn has meant four years of studying the real Philadelphia—and working to make it better through ENGAGE Philadelphia, a student group-turned nonprofit that addresses some of the most pertinent issues facing Philadelphians: joblessness, violence, civic disengagement. Just 20 months old, and 20 students deep, the group has already made its mark.
Since its founding in 2014, ENGAGE has forged relationships with 15 other city non-profits, including the Committee of Seventy and Philadelphia Ceasefire. Last year, it received an award from Philadelphia Ceasefire for the work it did in documenting gun violence. It’s in the process of creating a central database that compiles all the necessary information on job-service organizations in Philadelphia to help residents find work. It expects to pilot a new civics curriculum in the spring for West Philadelphia high school students. And, it publishes comprehensive status reports to outline the group’s progress and help raise awareness about some of the challenges confronting Philadelphia’s socially and economically disadvantaged. In the most recent edition, it included long-form pieces on the school-to-prison pipeline and on the opportunity gap low-income students face in Philly public schools.
Co-founders Dan Kurland, Neil Cholli and Daniel Esposito formed ENGAGE after each experienced a glimpse into urban life that pierced their academic bubble. For Cholli, it was recognizing the socioeconomic divide between him and the poor students he tutored during the summer after his freshman year, while in Miami.
“Most other nonprofits are single issue based,” says Esposito. “They choose an issue that’s important to them. They build a nonprofit around it, and they take that issue to the community. We understand that the socioeconomic issues don’t operate in silos, that they are all interconnected.”
For Kurland, it was witnessing a young man die from a gunshot wound just 30 feet away from him in the ER. “It was a harrowing experience,” he recalls. Soon after, he learned about the history of the neighborhood just north of Penn’s campus called Black Bottom, where Philadelphia families lived for decades… until Penn expanded into it.
“We go to school on a place where children used to play, where families used to live, and this land was taken away from this community,” Kurland says. The students formed ENGAGE Philadelphia soon after, with a two-pronged approach: Research and action. (Hence, think-and-action tank.)
There’s research at the front end that, as Cholli says, “involves having partnerships or collaborations or connections with different non-profits, community-based organizations, or individuals.” Cholli contends ENGAGE makes the most impact when it best understands what the communities needs are, and when the community sets ENGAGE’s priorities.
ENGAGE’s three major projects—Engage for Change, Job Access Initiative, and Where’s the Love, Philadelphia?—were born from that bottom-up collaboration. Engage for Change, which came from research into low voter turnouts in Mantua, is a civic syllabus designed for high schools to galvanize civic engagement. The Job Access Initiative project seeks to help community-job-service organizations (CJOs) better service unemployed communities; its objectives were set after a focus group meeting ENGAGE held with CJOs in the city. Where’s the Love, Philadelphia?, a project that documents the rampant gun violence in Philadelphia, stems from a series of fragmented conversations the ENGAGE team had with Philly residents who’ve been most tragically affected by guns.
“Most other nonprofits are single issue based,” says Esposito. “They choose an issue that’s important to them. They build a nonprofit around it, and they take that issue to the community. We understand that the socioeconomic issues don’t operate in silos, that they are all interconnected.” This, Esposito believes, separates ENGAGE from the many other student-run non-profit groups around the country that focus on a single issue or challenge.
The students of ENGAGE are of many backgrounds and fields of study, from as far as Argentina and Singapore, Boston and Arizona. What they have in common is a passion for doing social good that will surpass their time at Penn.
While Kurland and Cholli finish college this spring, ENGAGE has ambitions that extend well beyond their impending graduation. The group this year filed for 501c3 status, and is now part of the Resources for Human Development’s New Beginnings Nonprofit Incubator, a fund that supports startup nonprofits in the Philadelphia area. They intend to build ENGAGE chapters at other universities, and hope the group’s project models could be replicated throughout Philadelphia and other cities. Where’s the love, Philadelphia?, for example, could inspire a Where’s the love, Camden? The civic education program in Engage for Change, could become part of a citywide curriculum.
“ENGAGE hopes to become a sustainable, long-standing member of Philadelphia’s rich nonprofit community,” says Esposito.
And it is with that rich community of disruptors that ENGAGE believes it can be a force for change in the city.
“We are part of a much bigger team that will make a huge difference in this city in the next 10 to 20 years,” says Kurland.
Header Photo: Patrick Clark