Engage with purpose.
Alongside “explore across disciplines” and “innovate and apply knowledge,” this deliberately vague phrase teases visitors to the Penn Admissions homepage with an enticing promise: at this university — the self-described “Civic Ivy” — you will engage others with some purpose.
As the website proudly proclaims, Penn’s founder Ben Franklin said, “The great aim and end of all learning is service to society.” At Penn, the glaring headings and bright red and blue colors promise you will engage in service to society.
With dozens of partnerships and service programs through the Netter Center for Community Partnerships and Civic House, Penn students have certainly fulfilled their founder’s duty of providing service to society. Despite their active involvement in the community, however, Penn students remain generally averse to one key aspect of local affairs: city politics.
Philadelphia: A Temporary Home
Penn holds a virtually unchallenged role as the preeminent nonprofit institution in Philadelphia. Its $7.25 billion annual budget for the 2015 fiscal year dwarfs the City of Philadelphia’s $3.87 billion budget. As the largest private landowner in the city, Penn holds considerable weight over economic policy in the city. Despite its signifcant influence in city affairs, most Penn students are from outside the region.
Over 80 percent of the Class of 2018 comes from outside Pennsylvania, with an even larger amount hailing from outside Philadelphia. These students, many of whom are substantially knowledgeable about national politics, are generally disinterested in local affairs.
“There is, to my knowledge, no group who is really focused on Philadelphia politics,” said Sarah Simon, College sophomore and President of the Government and Politics Association.
Simon, whose nonpartisan political group has attempted to broaden their focus to local issues, thinks Penn students prefer service to political outreach.
“People are interested in volunteering more civically but not politically,” she said.
With well-over 20 programs available through the Netter Center, Civic House, and Fox Leadership Program, Penn students have ample opportunity to provide service to the local community.
However, voter turnout by the Penn community remains dismally low, even in national elections. Only 1,060 students turned out to vote in the November midterm elections out of almost 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students on campus.
Student leaders attribute this disparity between community involvement and political engagement to student disinterest and apathy toward Philadelphia’s one-party politics.
“What it comes down to for some people is inertia,” College sophomore and Vice President of Internal Affairs for the GPA Samuel Byers said.
Byers, a former Daily Pennsylvanian staff reporter, is from Bucks County, PA, and chose to vote there for the 2014 elections instead of in Philadelphia.
“I like the idea that in Bucks County, I can cast a vote as a self-described moderate for a candidate from a major party,” with a realistic chance of winning, Byers said.
Philadelphia, like most major urban areas, notoriously bleeds blue. Democrats hold thirteen of the sixteen seats on City Council — which includes two seats given to the minority party by law. The last Republican mayor in Philadelphia was elected in 1948. With 78 percent of registered voters identified as Democrats, that statistic does not look bound to change anytime soon.
Byers admitted to not having “a huge interest in a lot of the local issues,” but added that Philadelphia’s noncompetitive general elections have not incentivized him to develop an interest in local politics.
“I can vote in the [Philadelphia] primary for a Democrat of one stripe or another, but overall it’s a less competitive election than I would see at home,” he said.
Simon also identified the issue as being rooted in students’ political efficacy. In her view, Penn students have low trust in local governance to substantially affect change. These students opt for meaningful change on their own terms, through individual service work rather than political activism.
A knowledge gap of local affairs also blocks student involvement in city politics.
“A lot of students don’t see this as their home. They have issues in their own community that they care about more than the issues in Philadelphia,” Byers said.
These issues, often involving complex and monotonous City Council and community ordinances, tend to not capture most students’ attention.
“Let’s say you come from California and you love it, but then you show up in Philadelphia and have a whole new [political] landscape that you have to learn. You’re not invested in it the same way,” Byers said.
Simon is disappointed in this political disengagement because of the greater opportunity to actually enact change on a local level.
“Where we can actually infect change is local policy and Harrisburg. College students won’t be able to affect much change with federal policy,” she said.
An inconvenient primary election date also weakens student involvement in campaigns. The primary election is on Tuesday, May 19, the day after Penn’s Commencement. Most students will have finished up exams a week prior. For student organizers, the primary date poses a major obstacle to enhancing student interest.
“It’s pretty difficult [to attract interest] because the primary is right after graduation,” College sophomore and Penn Democrats Vice President Max Levy said.
Additionally, Penn Leads the Vote — a key student group for increasing voter turnout and awareness on campus — does not organize registration drives for the mayoral primary. The group, which is very active for national elections, does not partake in local turnout drives.
Communicating information to students about local elections is mostly left to the Office of Government and Community Affairs, which does a significant job distributing information for early voting and absentee ballot registration in dining halls and residential areas.
Despite their considerable effort, voter turnout has stagnated in Penn’s voting district. In the 2007 Democratic mayoral primary, 1,910 voters casted ballots in Philadelphia’s 27th Ward, the district encompassing Penn and the surrounding area. In 2011 — Mayor Michael Nutter’s reelection year — that total decreased to just 980 votes.
Choosing Campus Politics Over City Politics
In recent years, advocacy groups have focused prominently on campus issues rather than Philadelphia-specific problems.
Penn for Immigrant Rights, a recently formed advocacy group on campus, has reinforced immigrant rights and awareness through communication with Penn’s administration.
“Pushing Penn, as an Ivy League institution, to start developing more sensitive policies helps the whole university network,” College sophomore and a PIR Executive Director Athena Buell Becerra said.
Since its inception in 2012, PIR has advocated for other substantive changes in University policy, specifically with regard to financial aid. Applicants can now use the “askBEN” search engine on the Student Financial Services website to find information specific to undocumented students. Information materials even include a checklist for undocumented prospective students to streamline their application process.
PIR has also made strides in campus dialogue on immigration through offering sensitivity workshops to different campus groups — including The Daily Pennsylvanian — and providing a scholarship to college-bound students in the Philadelphia area.
The group has continued performing service work in the local community, in coordination with groups like Juntos, but has mostly strayed away from political activism in Philadelphia.
“The advocacy work we are doing is not community based. It’s in the Penn administration,” Buell Becerra said.
These “behind the scenes” initiatives complement PIR’s mission to “refocus” itself through campus-oriented programs. Often, these initiatives spur great change even if they are not as eye-catching as public protests.
“There’s a lot of great [protests] being done. We don’t necessarily have to be the ones doing it,” Buell Becerra said.
The Student Labor Action Project is foremost among these organizations in their citywide political involvement. SLAP’s yearlong battle for Penn to make Payments in Lieu of Taxes has attracted headlines from across the state. Though voter turnout numbers would suggest generalized student apathy toward local affairs, various student groups have made strides in their issue-specific political outreach.
SLAP has previously advocated for labor rights on campus, most notably in their successful unionization of Penn’s employees in Hillel’s Falk Dining Commons. This year, however, the group set its sights on the PILOTs issue, which involves Penn’s role in addressing the massive funding deficit in the local school district.
As a nonprofit, Penn is exempt from paying property taxes under state law. In lieu of these taxes, which normally go to the school district, Penn has been asked to make voluntary payments to the district instead.
While SLAP has not changed the administration’s opposition to PILOTs, their frequent protests — including a high-profile sit-in at Penn President Amy Gutmann’s holiday party — have attracted a response from the city government.
Last month, the City Council approved a resolution calling for “mega-nonprofits” in the city to pay PILOTs with an overwhelming 15-1 vote. While the resolution is non-binding, it brought the PILOTs issue to the forefront of the policy agenda.
SLAP members were involved in helping Penn alum and Councilman W. Wilson Goode form the resolution, and one SLAP member, College sophomore Devan Spear, even testified in favor of PILOTs in front of the Council.
However, in their direct political dialogue with city government, SLAP proves generally the exception among most campus political groups, who focus their issue advocacy on campus or with national issues.
With SLAP moving toward Philadelphia-specific outreach and PIR mostly focusing on Penn and higher education, other groups continue to struggle balancing issue advocacy with generalized political engagement.
Penn Democrats, who have hosted four mayoral candidates this semester, see a vital importance to local elections.
“When people get the opportunity to engage in the community, there’s a lot of positive feedback there,” Levy, the Penn Dems Vice President, said.
Penn Dems even visited a local high school to promote voting and speak about the importance of local elections.
“In a very bipartisan sense, we talk about why it’s important to vote,” Levy said.
In past years, the support of Penn Dems has even spurred a mayoral candidate’s campaign. In 2007, the group was one of the first organizations to endorse Nutter for mayor. Nutter, who visited on behalf of Penn Dems earlier in the semester, expressed his gratitude for their early support.
The group has not yet endorsed a candidate for mayor this year, though they plan to do so sometime soon.
The Divide Between Advocacy and Action
From an outsider perspective, there hardly seems to be a problem with political engagement at Penn. Just last week, Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation staged a protest on College Green due to the University’s closing of the Africa Center while SLAP led a march around campus to support the PILOTs cause.
These issue-oriented groups prominently make their missions known across campus, yet student voters support of local candidates who also champion these issues is lacking.
Advocacy groups often prefer to champion their own issues rather than trust politicians to do it for them.
“By their very nature, social advocacy groups have to paint things in black and white,” Simon, the president of GPA, said.
These groups often rally behind singular causes, which end up being one of dozens of issues elected officials have to worry about.
“It’s not that those issues are unimportant, it may [just] not be the highest priority [for elected officials],” Simon added.
For students devoted to a specific cause, lobbying compromise-friendly politicians may not be their option of choice.
“It’s not as sexy to compromise,” she said.
Disconnect between ward politics and campus issues accentuates the electoral divide.
“Rarely is there a connection between what’s going on in the ward and what’s going on in campus. It doesn’t exist,” College senior Kelly Stine said.
Stine, who is a Democratic committee person in Philadelphia ‘s 27th Ward, Division 9, ran for elected office at age 20 with little electoral competition.
“I was elected with 13 votes. I think we had a total of 20 voters at our polling place when I was elected,” Stine said.
Through her duties as committee person, Stine facilitates problems with people in her division and assists the Ward Leader with get out the vote tactics. Convincing her peers at Penn to vote has gotten considerably more difficult.
“If more than 20 Penn students showed up to vote for a particular candidate or referendum, that would sway our entire division,” she said.
If campus groups brought their issues directly to the ward, Stine thinks greater political change would be possible.
“That’s the coolest thing about local politics — you can actually make a direct difference,” she said.
If Penn students want to “engage with purpose,” embracing local politics may be the next step.Comments powered by Disqus
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