My friend Kiera and a man named Country met when Kiera first moved to Philadelphia from Wilmington, DE to attend Temple’s Jazz Program. Unfamiliar with the area, and having grown up in a much smaller city than Philly, Kiera was a bit nervous about living in North Philly and didn't know what to expect. Luckily for her, Country, who is originally from Georgia but moved to Philly years ago, quickly befriended her after he asked her for “a little blessing” one night so he could afford some food for dinner. Kiera gave him all the spare change she had on her and offered him some snacks from her pantry. This started a lasting friendship between Kiera and Country.
They talk about their days, plans for the week, and the latest gossip in the neighborhood. Country knew about my friend’s breakup before I did. When her home became overrun with rats, it was Country who helped scare them away. The more time I spent at my Kiera’s home, the more time I spent with Country, learning about his nephew’s real estate business and listening to him tell stories about working on farms in Georgia. Nowadays, he does any work that will make him money, be that helping North Philly garbage men or selling items he finds on the street. When Philadelphia began experiencing its first murmurs of the coronavirus pandemic, Kiera said, “If Country gets sick, I’ll put him on my insurance plan.”
Country has yet to get sick. However, the heartbreaking reality of what Kiera said highlights the rarity of generosity as extreme as her’s. It shouldn’t be uncommon to know your neighbors, and it shouldn’t be uncommon to extend kindness to everyone in your community. Although this is a strange time for Penn students to be called to act for the good of the broader Philadelphia community, seeing as many are not returning to campus next semester, Penn students still have the responsibility to be positive contributors to the city, in the same way that Penn has a responsibility to positively impact the city.
The relationship that Kiera and Country formed is unique, but showing kindness to your neighbors shouldn’t be a rare phenomenon. Being on Penn’s campus shuts Penn students off from the broader Philadelphia community in a way that we need to actively combat.
Many Penn students felt the need to participate in the protests that are blazing across the country in the wake of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others’ murders. Participation in protests is one way to show support for a community of people. However, community engagement comes in many forms, and if you’re going to show up for a widely covered and photographed protest, you also need to show up for your local neighborhood, where there aren’t reporters or people to pat you on the back for doing the decent thing.
Last week, when Kiera moved out of North Philly to a cheaper West Philly apartment, Country helped us move all of her furniture. The changes that Penn students demand, such as asking Penn to pay PILOTs, or calling upon the school to defund its police force, are for the good of the broader Philadelphia community. But we can’t act as though we’re separate from this community, and we can’t tackle the big issues such as these, without doing our part in small ways.
I’ve witnessed people ignore Country on the street, and laugh at and say mean things towards him. A man who goes out of his way to clean the trash from a street he doesn’t even live on faces more backlash from people our age than those in power who should be working to help alleviate the limitations on disadvantaged communities. Country doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment from anyone, let alone college students who moved to Philadelphia just a few years ago and feel as if their stake in the city is more important than anyone else’s.
If we’re going to show up for the big issues in public, we need to work on how we handle ourselves when others aren’t watching. Community engagement means actually engaging with our community, treating our neighbors with respect, and never thinking we are too good, busy, or different to help another human being.
SOPHIA DUROSE is a rising College senior from Orlando, Fla. studying English. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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