Dr. David C. Fajgenbaum closed out The Citizen’s inaugural Citizen of the Year Awards Tuesday night with a sentiment echoed by every one of his fellow honorees, by many of the 250 guests in attendance, and by the feeling of inspiration and celebration in the ballroom at Fitler Club:
“None of this would happen anywhere in the world except Philadelphia.”
Fagjenbaum was one of 11 Citizen of the Year awardees in nine categories who are as diverse and beautiful as the city itself, from a Northeast Philly block captain with boundless energy (and a stellar voting record), to a nun and her partner who together transformed the plight of people living in homelessness, to a teacher, young person and abolitionist jumping in to create better futures for their fellow Philadelphians. Young and old, Black, Indian, Asian, Latina, White, corporate and nonprofit — these Philadelphia Citizens of the Year had one thing in common: a deep love of Philly — and a boundless commitment to overcoming obstacles and implementing transformational change.
The idea for the awards belongs to Citizen Co-founder Larry Platt, who realized Philly deserved its own ESPY Awards — not for athletic performance, but for residents who work tirelessly, often without recognition and against tides, to better our city and world. The Citizen selected the winners after a rigorous process that involved a call for nominations and extensive interviews with residents.
Before the awards presentation, MSNBC anchor and Philadelphia Citizen board member Ali Velshi interviewed actor and activist George Takei who shared highlights of his lifetime — 86 years — of American citizenship. He’s lived through the incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent, the civil and gay rights movements, a television show that showed the absolute strength of diversity — and coming out and getting married to his husband Brad, at 70. His story, as Velshi noted, is proof that “you are never too old or too young to be a good citizen.”
Here, our winners, and some highlights of the evening:
Lewis Katz Corporate Citizen: Mike Innocenzo, presented by Drew Katz
The CEO of the Philadelphia energy company PECO, a $3.9 billion arm of Chicago-based Exelon, leads support for the Civic Coalition to Save Lives, a coordination among government, philanthropy, business and civic organizations to fight gun violence in Philadelphia. Mike Innocenzo’s move represents an expansion of the company’s work in workforce development, environmental issues, energy efficiency, and STEM and career education.
“We couldn’t sit on the sidelines,” said Innocenzo. “We had to join the fight.” So far, PECO has contributed $1 million to the Coalition.
Youth Leader: Sarahi Franco-Morales, presented by Jemille Q. Duncan
During her less than 20 years, Sarahi Franco-Morales has become increasingly aware of income disparities in Philadelphia. During the pandemic, the now-college freshman put her concerns into action, helping to distribute 250 meals a day in her neighborhood, tutoring at Mighty Writers, volunteering at PA Youth Vote, and training and coaching with Philly Youth Voices and Community Rising through Philly BOLT.
Franco-Morales describes the satisfaction she gets from her volunteer work: “I was able to connect to my roots, my passion, and the love I have for my community.”
Block Captain: Michelle Belser, presented by former Mayor Michael Nutter
“The most important elected role in the city is block captain,” said former Mayor Mike Nutter in his introduction to Melrose Park Gardens resident Michelle Belser. Belser, a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia employee, has led her block — and neighborhood — to have the highest voter turnout in the city. She’s the force behind beautification, feeding the hungry or shut in, and making sure the folks in City Hall are aware and working on her neighbors’ concerns.
Dedicating her award to the “100 block of East Colonial Street,” Belser stressed that civic engagement “starts with me and everyone in this room.”
Leon Higgonbotham Jr. Social Justice Champion: Saleem Holbrook, presented by Osagie Imasogie
Robert Saleem Holbrook’s path to teaching at the Penn Carey School of Law and directing the Abolitionist Law Center was both unimaginably unlikely — and entirely fitting. At age 17, Holbrook began serving a life sentence for a crime he’d committed at age 16. He remained in prison for 27 years, including 10 years in solitary confinement, until 2018, when the Supreme Court ruled incarcerating minors for life was unconstitutional. Both in prison and out, Holbrook has worked for justice inside the criminal justice system, fighting the practice of solitary confinement and life sentences, advocating for prisoners’ rights and against mass incarceration.
“I believe Philadelphia is worth fighting for,” said Holbrook.
Educator: Indy Shome, presented by Stacy Holland
How does an Indian kid raised in China and traveled the world end up teaching in North Philly at Dobbins High School? According to Indy Shome — who brought some of his former students to the stage with him — it’s because the kids in Philly are the “best hope” for our world’s future. At Dobbins, Shome led the school’s media and music production program, teaching podcast and video editing, technical skills and entrepreneurship. He also launched Future Visions Lab, a paid, after-school leadership program where students identify an issue in their community and develop a project around it. Now at the Philadelphia Orchard Project, his belief in Philly kids is limitless.
Motioning to the students standing beside him, Shome said, “These guys are the best chance we have as a species.”
Disruptors: Michael Forman and Ryan Boyer, presented by Madeline Bell
FS Investments CEO Michael Forman and labor leader Ryan Boyer make a somewhat odd couple for Philadelphia. Nonetheless, for the past few years, the pair have partnered to build the Philadelphia Equity Alliance, a diverse group of business, policy and nonprofit leaders who meet monthly to discuss how our city can solve its biggest issues: eliminating food insecurity, growing Black and Brown jobs, ending gun violence — not taking these assignments out of government’s hands, but finding how they can play roles in big solutions.
“We really need to look at new ways to solve the issues that plague the city,” said Forman. (Boyer was unable to attend the event.)
Lifetime Achievement: Paul Levy, presented by Philadelphia City Council President Kenyatta Johnson
When Paul Levy started the Center City District (CCD), downtown Philly was several years from a renaissance. Nearly 35 years later, Levy is stepping down from his post as CEO of CCD having revived the heart of Philadelphia, seen it go into a pandemic-induced arrest, and put it on the road to another recovery. His mark is apparent in Center City parks, two popular annual restaurant weeks, and the friendly sweepers who stroll Center City offering directions to passersby. But Levy’s legacy is also apparent in Philadelphians’ pride in and passion for our city.
Levy’s message to those of us who want to keep Philly going forward: First, provide the “basics” (safety, cleanliness, accessibility) — then, offer the “lift.”
Lifetime Achievement: Joan Dawson McConnon and Sister Mary Scullion, presented by Philadelphia City Council President Kenyatta Johnson
In 1989, Joan Dawson McConnon and Sister Mary Scullion founded Project HOME with a mission. They wanted to provide people in need with a continuum of care that addressed an unhoused individual’s multiple needs, including housing, opportunity for employment, medical care, and education. Today, Project HOME is a national model for how to treat people in need with dignity and efficacy. The multi-site organization offers long-term housing and temporary safe places; access to mental and physical medical care, education opportunities, job training and placement programs; and drug and alcohol recovery support.
Scullion described the secret to Project HOME’s success: “You’re not isolated as an individual, but bound up in your community.”
Citizen of the Year: David C. Fajgenbaum, M.D., presented by The Citizen’s Roxanne Patel Shepelavy and Larry Platt
David Fajgenbaum’s story sounds like something out of science fiction. Diagnosed in medical school with Castelman disease, the immunologist nearly died five times before taking his treatment into his own hands, using an off-label medication to treat — and ultimately cure — himself. Happily married with two children, Fajgenbaum has dedicated his career to doing the same for others. In 2022, he founded Every Cure to harness the data and research behind 3,000 approved medications and the world’s 12,000 known diseases to find new working combinations. Less than two years in, his research and its effects have been both groundbreaking and lifesaving.
“None of this would happen anywhere in the world except Philadelphia,” said Fajgenbaum.
Watch our highlight reel of the Citizen of the Year Awards:
Here are some more highlights of the evening’s festivities:
MORE HEROES, IDEAS, AND CITIZENSHIP EVENTSCitizen of the Year David C. Fajgenbaum of Every Cure and the University of Pennsylvania.