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The  Penn's Social Equity and Community Fellows program plans to build a more equitable relationship between Penn and the West Philadelphia community. 

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

The inaugural class of Penn's Social Equity and Community Fellows program has begun working on a range of projects to build a more equitable relationship between Penn and the West Philadelphia community.

The new Office of Social Equity and Community, led by University Chaplain Charles Howard, selected eight undergraduates to join the program in late January. Students’ projects focus on promoting minority-owned West Philadelphia businesses, alleviating local homelessness and food insecurity, studying Penn’s history of medical racism and criminal injustices, exploring the harm caused by Penn’s territorial expansion across West Philadelphia, and fostering social justice through athletics.

After the first eight fellows finish their semester-long term this spring, the program tentatively plans to host six more undergraduate fellows each year for a year-long term beginning in the spring or fall. All Penn undergraduates are eligible to apply to the fellowship, which is unpaid. 

Wharton first year and SEC Fellow Ashley Song said that most of the fellows generated their own ideas for the projects they're working on. Song's project involves creating a comprehensive directory of local minority-owned businesses to share with Penn students next semester.

“We all found an area that we were really passionate about or interested in,” Song said, adding that students then turned their ideas into full projects in collaboration with Director of the Office of Social Equity and Community Scott Filkin. 

Filkin said that the fellowship aims for students to learn about, and listen to, the needs of West Philadelphia before taking action, especially because the trust between Penn and the West Philadelphia community has been broken many times. He pointed to Penn's expansion into the neighborhood formerly known as Black Bottom during the 1960s and 1970s as an example. 

"We wiped out a whole neighborhood of Black residents, and there’s a lot of resentment that has come out of that," Filken said. "We don’t know if we can fix that exactly, but we want to at least look at and explore the harm that was done and see if there are ways that we might be able to make it a little better.” 

With this history in mind, Filkin said that each member of the Penn community should approach the work of the fellowship with the humble mindset of a "guest." 

"It’s choosing to relinquish some power and privilege and view ourselves as being on somebody else’s land or in somebody else’s neighborhood," Filkin said. 

College junior and SEC fellow Michael Hagan is working to improve Penn's outreach to the local homeless community. He is one of multiple fellows surveying existing homelessness support programs at Penn and communicating with local homeless shelters to determine what kinds of student action are most needed.

Hagan applied to the fellowship after Howard reached out to the Shelter Health Outreach Program, a group of Penn undergraduates providing volunteer support to local homeless shelters, and recommended that students at SHOP apply to the fellowship. Hagan has worked with SHOP since his sophomore year to make primary care and health information more accessible to the local homeless community.

"I feel like at Penn, a lot of times, it's encouraged to really create something and to start something new, but when it comes to sustainability and ensuring that it makes an impactful change, that's sometimes where I feel like we can fall a little bit short," Hagan said.

SEC fellow and College sophomore Lucas Monroe is organizing Penn's first Sport & Society Week: The Athlete Impact, which begins on April 3. The event will include three days of virtual panel discussions about the intersections of sports and social justice, as well as social media posts sharing community service opportunities and profiles of former athletes who have created social change.

Monroe said that his work as part of the fellowship extends beyond any one field of study or extracurricular passion.

"I think racism and a lot of these social issues that we have in this country are like a disease, just like we have COVID-19. If you have the ability to help, then you have a responsibility to do so," Monroe said. "Everybody has a voice. No matter what you do, you have a voice, and you can use that voice to educate people and to try to change people's minds, [and] change the way people think and the way they look at others."