Michelle Freeman radiates B.S.E.: Big Sister Energy.
Which may not be surprising given that she is, quite literally, the first of three daughters born to and raised by her Irish-Catholic father and Japanese immigrant mother in Northeast Philly.
Friends say you can tell she’s the firstborn just by having a restaurant meal with her: Freeman instinctively takes everyone else’s order and relays it to servers, naturally makes sure everyone is taken care of and tended to wherever she goes.
“I just like to be around people. I like to help. I like to pitch in and I like to make things happen,” she says.
So it makes sense that her North Philly-based events and engagement firm, Witty Gritty, focuses largely on supporting and promoting the groups that make our city great: nonprofits and other civic-minded and city agencies.
“The gritty part is that we will do the hard, sweaty work,” Freeman says. “I always say that nobody is above picking up trash. And then we are also creative and come up with sharp, smart ideas—that’s the witty.”
But, let’s be honest: Philly is teeming with small “agencies” whose services run the gamut from social media to events and marketing. What sets Freeman’s work apart is that she isn’t just bouncing the same press release around to the same usual Philly suspects, or out to amass the biggest or glitziest client roster; rather, she is intentional about curating projects for brands and people who are trying to, well, do right by and for our city.
She’s also spreading her love for Philly to a national stage, notably through her work with REC Philly to run Amplify Philly, an initiative to promote Philly at SXSW (South By Southwest, or “South By”), the annual Austin-based festival celebrating music, media, tech and innovation. Because more eyes on Philly means more talent, more money, more innovation—more diversity.
Getting exposure early in life
Growing up, Freeman had an early exposure to the power of diversity within communities. “It sounds a little bit ironic because Northeast Philly can be a little segregated, but I feel really fortunate that I grew up in a really diverse neighborhood, so I have friends who are from all types of backgrounds,” she says. Whereas at school she was one of just a handful of Asian-American students, around the block she felt like she fit right in. “Given that my mother is an immigrant, I felt connected to the neighborhood. I could see more of myself in the people in my neighborhood.”
And while, yes, Freeman dutifully attended Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade, she says the importance of service, of community, was instilled in her by the example her father set: “My parents would go to church every Sunday and my dad was just this super-volunteer, getting involved in everything,” she says.
Freeman followed that path: joining every club at school, getting straight As…while admittedly being a bit of a party girl. “I was that teenager who thought that as long as I got good grades, I could do whatever I want. Like ‘I’m getting straight A’s, mom, I’m gonna stay out tonight!’ I was a bit of an asshole.”
In particular, Freeman was passionate about Philly’s music scene. “I was finding all of the clubs on Delaware Avenue that had under-18 nights,” she says. One night she saw a listing for a job that would go on to change her life: “It was to be a promoter, and it said Do you want to meet people and get free concert tickets and give out flyers? And at the time I thought Oh my god, this is my dream job!’”
She took the subway for an interview with Jon Herrmann, who subsequently helped create Campus Philly, the organization that connects Philly college students—a notoriously transient demographic—to the city at-large—to events, sure, but also to internships and jobs that encourage them to plant roots and stay here. So after going on to, and graduating from, Drexel University, Freeman convinced Herrmann to hire her full-time at Campus Philly, where she worked her way up from promotions coordinator to senior manager of events and media.
She stayed there for about eight years, then decided to follow her nose for juggling lots of projects at once. “I thought about taking a 9-to-5 job, but I like working on 20 different things at once. I don’t have a problem working,” she says.
Witty and Gritty
In 2008, Freeman started taking on projects for clients like the Philadelphia Marathon. During a QuickBooks training at The Enterprise Center one day, she came up with a business name: Witty Gritty. And in 2010, she officially launched her small business with that name. “The gritty part is that we will do the hard, sweaty work,” Freeman says. “I always say that nobody is above picking up trash. And then we are also creative and come up with sharp, smart ideas—that’s the witty.”
The Philly Marathon, she says, is a great example of Witty Gritty’s core work: On the one hand, her team is tasked with promoting Philly to out-of-towners who descend upon the city for race day, encouraging them to stick around a while, check out our restaurants and entertainment and hotels. On the other, it’s about pounding the pavement to tell neighbors to move their cars so that they don’t end up towed, and so that the city doesn’t end up flooded with irate calls. (So Philly, right?)
“I love planning, I love bringing people together and creating space for people. That’s just in my nature. I love connecting people and trying to connect people to resources. I think that’s a common thread to some of the things I’m passionate about,” says Freeman.
She never intended to start a small business, per se, but as more projects landed on her plate, Freeman had to hire people to help. Today, her firm employs 13 people, including nine full-time staffers, with a focus on clients in those nonprofit, higher ed, city government and neighborhoods sectors.
And then there’s her partnership with her colleagues at REC Philly to coordinate Amplify Philly, the 501c3 initiative that makes sure Philly’s music, arts, and business scenes are represented at the annual SXSW Festival. Since 2018, Amplify has set up a “house” for several days at SXSW to host daytime panels, fireside chats, meetups, and in the evening, happy hours with entertainment and concerts. “We bring together cross-sector partners, sponsors, and leaders from the Philadelphia region,” she says. (Check out the 2019 recap here.)
Freeman says the effort has brought more awareness, attention, and buzz about Philadelphia, and has led to sponsors and partners connecting with more business leads and customers. “They credit Amplify Philly efforts for creating a space and backdrop for them to make the case about Philly while they are at SXSW networking and connecting,” she says.
Freeman’s passion for all things Philly, and determination to better the city of her birth, makes her a natural fit for Generation Change Philly, The Citizen’s partnership with Keepers of the Commons to highlight and uplift Philadelphians who are committed to making a difference in our city.
“I love planning, I love bringing people together and creating space for people. That’s just in my nature. I love connecting people and trying to connect people to resources. I think that’s a common thread through the things I’m passionate about,” she says.
“Can we make some change a little quicker?”
Freeman has previously served and currently serves on numerous boards, and is involved with countless regional groups—from Young Involved Philly and the Philadelphia Global Identity Partnership to Skate Philly and Girls Rock Philly. She’s also a singer-songwriter and amateur bass player in a punk band, Thee Glitterbombs, and an unofficial ambassador for her beloved South Philly neighborhood.
Jen Devor, another Generation Change Philly leader, has known Freeman for more than a decade, and just recently signed on to work for Witty Gritty full time as the firm’s client service lead. She believes Freeman’s power lies largely in living what she preaches. “The thing about Michelle is that she’s so goddamn cool. She’s Philly, right? The thing that keeps drawing people to Philly and the thing that keeps on retaining people is just how cool and special and unique and artistic and creative it is. And Michelle is such a reflection of that, just the physical embodiment of Philadelphia.”
She’s got the cool cred, for sure. But more than coolness or cred, what might set Freeman apart most distinctly is that she’s got the commitment, too. “When I was younger, I was like ‘Maybe I should move away and have different experiences.’ But there’s so much to unpack and learn in Philly, every day.”
“The thing about Michelle is that she’s so goddamn cool. She’s Philly, right?” says Devor.
She believes the secret to unlocking Philly’s full potential hinges on more collaboration. “During the pandemic, as crappy as it was, if you look at what the restaurant and hospitality industry did to rally together, it’s so cool to see all these different collaborations. There’s just a lot of camaraderie, and I think when given the call, people come together. I just want more of that to happen without something awful having to happen for people to be reactive to.”
Some of the collabs she’s most proud to be involved with include Urban Consulate, which brings people from across the city together to share ideas for building more just and equitable communities, and Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange (GPLEX), The Economy League’s annual conference that connects cross-sector leaders regionally.
She’d love to see the corporate and nonprofit sectors collaborate more frequently, and more productively. Money doesn’t solve everything, she knows, but it also doesn’t hurt. And she’s eager to keep making change now.
“Why wait years to make something happen? Let’s start chipping away at it now,” she says. “I’m always thinking: Can we make some change a little quicker?”
The Philadelphia Citizen is partnering with the nonprofit Keepers of the Commons on the “Generation Change Philly” series to provide educational and networking opportunities to the city’s most dynamic change-makers.
Header photo by Sabina Louise Pierce