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Police Free Penn held a panel at the LGBT center to discuss Penn and its relationship with Black Philadelphians on Oct. 2. Credit: Chenyao Liu

Police Free Penn and other local community groups hosted a panel discussion to discuss Penn’s relationship with Black Philadelphians on Monday.

The panel took place at the LGBT Center from 6 to 8 p.m. The speakers included former resident of the University City Townhomes and activist Darlene Foreman, advisory board member of Collective Climb and Creative and Performing Arts High School junior Samirah Mungin, and community organizer with the Philadelphia chapter of Black Lives Matter and former Penn faculty member Krystal Strong.

College senior and Police Free Penn member Janay Draughn, who moderated the conference, said that the panel had three aims: to detail a broader history of Penn’s relationship with surrounding communities better than the “propaganda” community members are told from administrators, to imagine a better, equitable, and liberated future, and to turn knowledge into action. 

Draughn said this discussion was the second of its kind, the first of which was held in 2022. Strong said that she helped organize the first discussion about Penn and Black Philadelphia.

“New students every year come to orientation and get told that Penn’s a great place to be and we are good neighbors…We wanted to give [new students] these educational events where they can learn more and then do something with that,” Draughn said.

The topics of conversation at the discussion ranged from the UC Townhomes to Penn’s community engagement and gentrification of West Philadelphia.  

“We don’t have a relationship with Penn,” Foreman said, expressing frustration with Penn’s lack of communication with the community associated with the UC Townhomes and construction projects that have displaced Black Philadelphians over the years.

Strong, who is a founder of Police Free Penn, added that community engagement is part of Penn’s identity, pointing to the Netter Center for Community Partnerships as an example. However, she said that she believes the University uses this community engagement to help them justify not paying property taxes. 

Students and community members have called on Penn for years to participate in Payments in Lieu of Taxes, financial contributions that property tax-exempt organizations voluntarily make to local governments. 

“We don’t have money for after-school programs. We can’t afford uniforms for our sports teams. We can’t afford our musical. We can’t afford laptops. We can’t afford anything extra,” Mungin said, reflecting on her experience of underfunding and disinvestment at a Philadelphia public school.  

The panelists agreed that the way to galvanize change at Penn is through organizing. According to Strong, people need to take a confrontational approach and put public pressure on the institution, rather than ask for a meeting with administrators. 

“You gotta take your freedom, not ask for it,” an audience member said. 

When the discussion opened up to the audience, attendees shared their personal stories of grappling with inequity, poverty, and struggle, adding that they appreciated the welcoming and safe atmosphere the panelists fostered.  

“I think to have these spaces where people can talk about their experiences with this struggle, and make sure that people know they're not in it alone [is important]," Mugin said. "I think that it gives us the motivation and allows us to feel empowered enough so that we can keep pushing forward."