W hen I was a freshman at Penn, I was terrified by the seemingly dangerous abyss that was West Philadelphia. I don’t mean the West Philly in which we live. The idea of venturing past 41st Street was unnerving, to say the least. When my grandfather told me about the apartment he used to rent on 43rd and Baltimore, I admitted I wasn’t sure where that was.
In one of my urban studies classes, we took a trolley ride around West Philadelphia. What was intended to awaken us to the realities of our neighbors turned into poverty-tourism. We, the privileged, Ivy League students, protected by the walls of our trolley, looked out the window toward West Philadelphia but never actually disembarked from the bus. It felt strange and uncomfortable when West Philadelphians waved at us as if we were celebrities, while we maintained our separation from them within the walls of the bus.
The idea of leaving the “ivory tower” of Penn often echoes throughout campus. It seems, however, not to have resonated with far too many students, who, like me as a freshman, rarely venture past 41st Street. For many Penn students, it acts as an invisible, impenetrable border.
As a rising junior, I spent my summer interning at LIFT-Philadelphia, located at 56th and Chestnut.
I was exposed daily to new clients struggling with real life situations: facing eviction, unemployment, homelessness and hunger. Some clients chose to work with me regularly and were willing to share the details of lives very different from my own. We formed meaningful relationships - and we were not separated by the walls of a trolley.
Every morning I took the Walnut Street bus from 40th street, and every evening I took the Market-Frankford line from 56th Street back home. My co-workers and I weren’t simply touring West Philadelphia - we were living and actively engaging in it. Poverty was no longer a distant concept that we had read about in a textbook but something tangible and urgent.
Many of us, myself included, grew up in states of distorted reality. We lived in nice homes, went to above-par schools and never faced the questions of whether or where we would receive our next meal. During my summer at LIFT, I learned that for many of our West Philadelphia neighbors, food, housing and safety are real and daily concerns.
Our problem goes far beyond never leaving the “ivory tower.” Most of us live in a state of ignorant bliss, unaware of and unconcerned with the extreme poverty that exists a mere 15 blocks away. We walk past the beggar on the street without making eye contact, as though this person’s life and current situation is completely separate from our own. I, too, am guilty of this offense. We all are.
This entire community - and its members - are and should be as much a part of our Penn experience as everything else. It’s not simply about seeing the poverty that exists 10 or 15 blocks westward, but about breaking down the barriers that we build to separate ourselves from it.
We must actively engage ourselves - working in soup kitchens, tutoring in local schools and advocating for our neighbors in West Philadelphia at places like LIFT. Imagine if each Penn student spent one hour each week volunteering in West Philadelphia - that’s 10,000 hours. We must prioritize West Philly, deciding that we are not too busy or too removed to volunteer some of our time to a community that we have a vested interest in maintaining.
As Penn students, we have countless opportunities afforded to us. How and why we utilize those opportunities will define our Penn experience. Are we seeking simply to better ourselves, or also to better the community in which we live?
Mark Twain famously said, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Moving forward, we should embrace this sentiment wholeheartedly, not allowing our “ivory tower” schooling to interfere with our real world, West Philadelphia education.
Today, my favorite place during the fall and springtime is Clark Park, located at none other than 43rd and Baltimore. It just goes to show that there is a lot to be learned past 41st Street.
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