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Students demand that Interim President Wendell Pritchett speaks with residents of the University City Townhomes during the Silfen Forum event featuring Pritchett and filmmaker Ken Burns in Irvine Auditorium on April 18. Credit: Kylie Cooper

Penn students disrupted a forum moderated by Interim President Wendell Pritchett to demand that the University take action to prevent the imminent eviction of residents from the University City Townhomes — a housing development primarily occupied by Black and low-income Philadelphians. 

The protest took place during the Silfen Forum 2022, an event held on April 18, which hosted filmmaker and documentarian Ken Burns, Penn’s 2022 commencement speaker. The demonstration was organized by the  Save the UC Townhomes Coalition, a group consisting of Penn students, residents of the UC Townhomes, and organizers from other activist groups in Philadelphia.

The event was disrupted by approximately 15 demonstrators, consisting of Penn undergraduate and graduate students and alumni. The demonstrators called for the University to take action against the eviction of residents from the UC Townhomes and for Pritchett to hold a public meeting with Townhomes residents and key supporters of the cause to discuss their concerns and demands. After about five minutes of synchronized chanting from the protesters, Pritchett said he appreciated the protesters practicing their freedom of speech, adding that he would eventually speak with the Save the UC Townhomes group after the event.

Pritchett previously told The Daily Pennsylvanian that Penn is “in conversations with” city leaders about how to help deal with the scarcity of affordable housing throughout University City, although he did not explicitly mention the Townhomes. 

At the event, the protesters held signs that read, “Save the UC Townhomes,” “Stop Penntrification,” and “Stop Displacing Black Families.” UC Townhomes residents were unable to attend the event because the forum’s attendance was limited to members of the Penn community. 

Credit: Kylie Cooper Interim President Wendell Pritchett (left) and filmmaker Ken Burns react to students demanding that Pritchett speaks with residents of the University City Townhomes during a Silfen Forum event in Irvine Auditorium on April 18.

College sophomore Jack Starobin, a former DP staffer, was one of the organizers of the demonstration who spoke at the event. 

“The residents have a right to an open meeting with an institution so involved in their displacement and the threat of eviction,” Starobin said during the event.

College junior Gigi Varlotta, one of the demonstrators present at the event, said they became involved with the cause because they wanted to help fight for the UC Townhomes movement.  

“We are excited and motivated, but all the organizing work we do is in support of the residents, led by the residents, and we're just using our voice at Penn to try to assist in the UC Townhomes movement,” Varlotta said.

Varlotta said the Save the UC Townhomes Coalition has sent Pritchett and other Penn administrators 100 handwritten letters from the Penn community regarding several demands, including stopping the UC Townhomes eviction, meeting with the Townhomes’ residents, cutting all ties with Altman Management Company — the real estate firm that currently owns the property — and ending the displacement of Black community members from their homes for Penn’s expansion.

The demonstrators distributed flyers to audience members with information about the UC Townhomes. According to Varlotta, some audience members were visibly frustrated and annoyed, while other Penn community members showed support for the demonstration, as seen in a video posted on Police Free Penn’s Instagram page. 

Credit: Kylie Cooper College sophomore and member of the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes Jack Starobin speaks to faculty that work for University Life following the Coalition's disruption of the Silfen Forum event featuring Interim President Wendell Pritchett and filmmaker Ken Burns in Irvine Auditorium on April 18.

University spokesperson Ron Ozio did not respond to multiple requests for comment in time for publication. 

The eviction of the UC Townhomes residents has gathered significant attention and backlash from the Penn community. On Feb. 23, nearly 100 people gathered to protest Penn’s lack of action regarding the imminent evictions, and over 300 members of the Penn community rallied to protest the sale of the Townhomes on March 20. 

Starobin said the group met with Penn administrators who work closely with Pritchett after the event. The administrators said Pritchett would remain committed to the promise he made on stage to meet with UC Townhomes residents to hear their demands and concerns. 

The meeting is currently in the process of being scheduled. 

“Everything that happened today came from a really broad group of organizers. It was a real team effort and could not have happened without months of work and collaboration,” Starobin said. “This was a real effort to work with the community and follow their lead and we will keep showing up for residents as long as they need.”