Rasheen Crews is on a mission.
In the basement dining area of the New Deck Tavern, he addressed a crowd of 20 or so community members gathered on a snowy Wednesday night in early February.
“We want to fill all of these divisions in,” said Crews, referring to the empty sections of a map of University City that he had given to each table earlier in the evening.
The map depicted the 27th ward, one of 66 regions of the city used to organize elections and determine representation. It was further subdivided into 23 “divisions,” each a few square blocks in size. Penn’s campus and the surrounding area where most students reside encompass 10 divisions - over 40 percent of the ward.
However, only four of 20 seats near Penn on the Democratic ward committee - a political group which represents the party on a local level - are currently filled, and none of them are held by Penn students or faculty.
Because of this lack of representation, key duties of ward committee members go unperformed on Penn’s campus. Members of each party’s committee build support for local, state and national candidates and get out the vote on Election Day. They also communicate the needs of their community to their party’s ward leader, who works with local elected officials to address those needs.
Crews sees this lack of engagement as a problem.
Crews’ goal is simple - to get more students and community members involved with the ward committee.
However, Crews, who works for State Senator Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia), has a tough path ahead of him.
No students attended his February ward-interest meeting despite his efforts to advertise through student political organizations and Penn students have been reluctant to run for either the Democratic or Republican ward committee in the past.
But in Crews’ eyes, increased committee involvement is a cornerstone for a strong neighborhood and community in the 27th ward. He believes increasing membership on the committee will help everyone - students and community members alike - in the long run.
More students involved in the ward committee, he believes, will ensure that more students vote, especially in years without a federal election. He said that student voices aren’t heard in local government if they don’t vote in the city where they live nine months out of the year.
Penn Democrats President and Wharton junior Amiyr Jackson said that Penn Dems is currently working with Crews to try to fill the gaps in representation for students that currently exists in the 27th ward.
“When you think about it, a lot of Penn students have aspirations to impact the world in a positive way but I think we should all take a step back and aim to positively impact the West Philadelphia community,” he said.
Crews remembers his mother used her position on the ward committee to bring members of her neighborhood together. They would often gather in each others’ homes to dine and socialize with their neighbors and with each other.
He hopes that greater student participation in local politics can help bridge the gap between the surrounding University City community and Penn.
“The 27th ward should feel like a family,” Crews said.
The 27th ward’s Republican committee leader, J. Matthew Wolfe - who graduated from the College in 1978 - sees his job somewhat differently. “Our job is to represent the Republican Party in this neighborhood,” he said.
When Wolfe came to Penn, he quickly became involved with the College Republicans, working for a time as the organization’s vice chairman. He first ran for the ward committee as an undergraduate and was selected to be ward treasurer by the time he graduated from Penn. The following year, he was voted ward leader, and has served in that role since.
Throughout his time on the ward committee, Wolfe has worked to address important neighborhood issues. He cited a recent scandal with the Penn Alexander School’s admissions process - in which a politician’s three children were enrolled at the local public school even though his children were not zoned for the school - as an example of the type of issue he tries to bring attention to through his position as ward leader.
In an guest column published by the University City Review on Feb. 5, Wolfe called for greater transparency in the admissions process for the school, so that local parents know that their children all have a fair and equal chance of admission.
Charles Gray, a 2012 Wharton and College graduate, remembers his time on the Republican ward committee as one where he could influence the local political conversation.
“It was important for me to be there and say ‘I’m a student and I believe in these [Republican] values,’” said Gray, who represented the Quad and Stouffer College House on the committee from his election in 2010 until his graduation.
In 2010, several Penn students won elections to serve on the Republican Ward Committee. However they were unable to serve the full four years of their terms because they left the city following their graduation from the University.
After graduation, Gray, a former Daily Pennsylvanian columnist, was forced to resign his committee seat because he returned to his home state of Wyoming to run his family’s business. Other Penn alumni contacted for this article who were former Republican and Democratic ward committee members either declined to comment or did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“I was concerned about the direction of the country,” said Gray, describing his motivation to run for the ward committee. At the time, he saw the committee as a way to direct the local political conversation, which in turn “drives the national conversation.”
As a committee member, Gray focused on getting already registered voters to the polls and educating them about the Republican Party’s candidates. He preferred not to focus on registering new voters, something he felt groups such as Penn Leads the Vote, the College Republicans and Penn Democrats were doing enough of already.
Gray, a former College Republicans president, believes that while these groups fill a valuable role in political life at Penn, they can’t ever fully fill the void created by the lack of ward committee involvement on campus. Both Penn Dems and College Republicans are too focused on national issues, Gray said, adding that “they don’t want to focus on local politics.”
Jackson, the Penn Dems President, denied the bias towards national issues. “I think we focus on issues important to the campus,” he said.
He also noted that campus organizations could work effectively with ward committees and other local political organizations to address issues affecting the community. “I think that there is a lot of value and potential for growth in terms of community partnerships.”
President of the College Republicans Anthony Cruz, a College junior, refuted Gray’s criticism, saying that the organization has entered “a new era” of local involvement since he joined as a freshman.
“The College Republicans have been making an effort to be more involved in local issues and on the state level,” he said, noting a renewed connection to the Pennsylvania GOP and increased dialogue with local party leaders such as Wolfe as evidence of a change of priorities since Gray graduated.
Wolfe concedes that the transience of Penn’s student population makes it difficult to get students involved in off-campus politics, but he prefers to see this as a challenge, rather than a problem.
“I’ve had some Penn students who were dynamite serve on the committee,” he said, adding that just because they don’t stay long doesn’t mean they don’t work hard and have an impact.
However, a local Republican Party proposal to reduce the term length for committee members from four to two years could make it easier for students to serve a full term on the committee, if it is adopted.
For politically active students interested in working in the community, the ward committees can be a good opportunity, Wolfe said.
He hopes to have several students run for committee positions in this election, which will be held on May 20, and has already begun distributing nomination petitions to eligible students and committee members.
Deputy City Commissioner and former 52nd ward Democratic committee member Dennis Lee echoed this sentiment.
He remembers the eight years he spent on that committee as a time where he was able to work with his neighbors to accomplish goals for his neighborhood.
“Being a committee person was one of the best things I have done in my life because I saw a real change in my community,” Lee said.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that candidates must acquire 10 signatures by March 18. The signatures are due to the City Commissioner's Office on March 11.