Justice, Inclusivity, Sustainability – #Philly Region

Big Question: 

What is the status of justice, inclusion, and sustainability in Philadelphia?

In this mural called "Legacy," a young Black boy wears a necklace of coins engraved with the faces of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass as an emblem of lady liberty lights the path in his hands. To the right of him is a map of the African continent.
Legacy by Erick Okdeh (@okdehmurals ), Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA
Image via Flickr Jason Murphy

Time Commitment: 50 minutes

Reflection Question: What do you know about the Philly region, and how do you know it?

Diving In, Part 1: Al Jazeera’s Social Justice Tour of Philadelphia

A few years ago Al Jazeera worked with some community organizers to put together this social justice tour of Philadelphia. Watching it with familiarity with the city is a simultaneous reminder of many of the chronic injustices that plague Philly and an astonishing indication of how much can change in just a few years. Take a look (2 and a half minutes):

Some of the organizers involved in the video work with the Media Mobilizing Project – a Philly organization that amplifies the voices of communities fighting for justice, equity and human rights – and Philly Thrive – an organization dedicated to defending communities and our future against the largest fossil fuel refinery on the East Coast. We are grateful for their work.

At about 1 and a half minutes into the video, the camera pans from the beautiful, forested West Bank of the Schuylkill River, where Bartrams Garden is located, to the East Bank, where the oldest and largest oil refinery on the East Coast of the United States is located. That spot illuminates a local-global intersection, as Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) Refinery connected Philadelphia to the world – through oil purchasing, refinement, and distribution – for more than 130 years, and exposed nearby communities to high levels of toxins in the process. In 2019, a major explosion rocked Southwest Philadelphia. The source was a fire at PES, which has been closed since then. Environmental activists, unions, community groups, the City, and new owners battled over its future, which is moving away from refining products and toward activities with considerably lower risk.

As you can see through this one particular space, over the last couple of years, in this very large city – Philly is complicated. The city is diverse, expansive, beautiful, strong – and, like all communities – ever in need of creative building toward more just, inclusive, sustainable futures. It is always changing. Cities are ecologies – continuously adapting systems.

Diving In, Part 2: Philly Data Trends

The Pew Charitable Trusts is a major foundation and research center based in Philadelphia. Its data-driven and place-based analyses offer a broad overview of Philadelphia today. In 10 Trends that have changed Philadelphia in 10 years (from 2019), Pew Researchers note,

  1. The Population (1.58 million) rebounded, a trend largely fueled by young adults and immigrants
  2. Immigration surged – more than one-quarter of all Philadelphians are either immigrants or US Natives with immigrant parents
  3. Poverty persisted – Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate (26%) among the ten largest cities in the US
  4. Crime fell, but homicides increased
  5. The Opioid Crisis hit
  6. Infant mortality dropped
  7. The percentage of city residents without health insurance dropped – to 7.1%
  8. The number of people in jails decreased
  9. The high school graduation rate increased
  10. Construction boomed

As Pew’s 2020 State of the City Report went to press in April 2020, it was clear that population, educational access, and economic activity had all continued to increase in the months before the COVID-19 pandemic. But – quantitative data doesn’t tell the whole story. How can we access individual stories, individual and community desires, and textured, nuanced, lived experiences? And what comparison data might be helpful?

Diving In, Part 3: POPPYN on Gentrification

Check out these interviews from a Philly youth-led reporting initiative facilitated through Temple University: POPPYN (Presenting our Perspective on Philly Youth News). Watch from the start to 15:16, and you’ll hear from some folks in North Philly and along Girard Avenue, as well as in South Philly and Point Breeze. The last section before the 15:16 cut-point explores the story around the closing of the Bok Vocational Technical School (mentioned in the first video) and the creation of the resulting Bok Building, including an interview with members of Juntos. Juntos is a community-led, Latinx immigrant organization in South Philadelphia, fighting for our human rights as workers, parents, youth, and immigrants.

Diving In, Part 4: A City of Neighborhoods

We shared the videos above because they originate in Philadelphia, from the perspective of Philadelphians, through organizations dedicated to justice, inclusivity, and human rights, and from youth. We also added some Pew Research Center data to contribute to our thinking. Each of these forms of knowledge – personal and community lived experiences and broader data analysis – are important in attempting to understand a place. As we saw in our overview of participatory methods, it is vital that researchers and social activists learn through the questions, experiences and interpretations of the people most effected by policy questions and changes.

Philadelphia – and the region in which it sits – is a large, numerous, complicated and beautiful place. Frequently, Philadelphia is understood as a City of Neighborhoods. In lived experience, Philadelphians – like residents of many cities – often cling to their neighborhood identities and habits. And organizing analysis by neighborhood can also be helpful. City data can be quite broad, while neighborhood-level analysis is more specific. Next City is an organization with a vision for a world in which cities are not in crisis and are instead leading the way toward a more sustainable, equitable future. They charted how neighborhoods experienced crime, household income, population, poverty and home prices between 2012 and 2017.

This map of Philadelphia depicts areas that are: Facing the greatest challenges; Falling behind; Average; Advancing; and Making the greatest advances. If you click the link, https://nextcity.org/features/view/philadelphia-neighborhoods-gentrification-mapping-growth, you will be taken to an interactive map of Philadelphia.
Map via Next City. Click the link to be taken to the interactive map. Shape by Philadelphia.

Reflection Question:

Trends in crime, household income, population, poverty, and home prices are interesting. But do these data points expand our understandings of justice, inclusion, or sustainability in Philadelphia? Might some of the increases in these indicators correlate with the pain and challenges of gentrification described in the POPPYN video above? What are the strengths and limitations of this data?

Diving In, Part 5: Evaluating Philly’s Sustainable Development Strengths and Weaknesses

Fortunately, some concepts and research tools are designed to look structurally at justice, inclusion, and sustainability. The UN SDGs, which we explain on this page, are the leading example. Philadelphia is included in an analysis that examines how US Cities perform on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Drawing on 57 indicators across the 15 SDGs, the Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington Metro Area ranks 40th in the United States. The ranking reminds us of a few key points in our region’s pursuit of justice, inclusion, and sustainability. Namely:

Everyday, government entities, civil society organizations, individuals, and socially-minded businesses work to make progress on SDGs in Philadelphia, though they rarely use SDG language. In the pages to come, we’ll explore efforts underway to advance:

Our effort is to draw on and amplify community-based insights and organizations that have been leading these charges for many years. We’ve been fortunate to work with many among them through the Haverford College Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, the Bi-Co and Tri-Co (Bryn Mawr’s Civic Engagement, Swarthmore College’s Lang Center), and PHENND (The Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development). Together, we are higher education entities committed to the activist rallying cry, “Nothing about us without us.” As we build these pages, our aim is to identify and amplify people and organizations who are co-creating a more just, inclusive, sustainable #Philly region. If you’d like to suggest a page that profiles an issue or organization in the spirit of this initiative, please do so here.

Page Completion – Outcomes:

Now that you have completed this page and the readings, videos, and activities within it, you should have strengthened your understanding of: 

  • Two social justice video narratives about Philadelphia
  • Philadelphia data trends over the last decade
  • Available data points for thinking about the health of a city
  • The relevance of SDGs to local social justice efforts

Please share feedback on this page by taking this brief survey. Thank you!

Next: We’ll explore ways different civic actors contribute to the decarceration movement, calling for an end to mass incarceration.

Citation for this page: Hartman, E. & Keene, S. (2020). What is the status of justice, inclusion, and sustainability in Philadelphia? In E. Hartman (Ed.). Interdependence: Global Solidarity and Local Actions. The Community-based Global Learning Collaborative. Retrieved from http://globalsolidaritylocalaction.sites.haverford.edu/justice-inclusivity-sustainability-philly-region/

Further Reading


Hiar, C., & Seville, L. R. (2020, January 16). Huge oil refinery leaks toxic chemical in South Philadelphia. Retrieved May 7, 2020, from https://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/massive-oil-refinery-leaks-toxic-chemical-middle-philadelphia-n1115336

Jaramillo, C. (2020a, February 24). The future of Philly’s shut-down PES refinery is wide open. Its neighbors are keeping a wary eye on what happens next. Retrieved May 7, 2020, from https://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2020/02/24/the-future-of-phillys-shut-down-pes-refinery-is-wide-open-its-neighbors-are-keeping-a-wary-eye-on-what-happens-next/

Jaramillo, C. (2020b, May 5). Planned $120M renewable-energy plant at South Philly refinery site is not dead. Retrieved May 7, 2020, from https://whyy.org/articles/planned-120m-renewable-energy-plant-at-south-philly-refinery-site-is-not-dead/

Next City. (n.d.). Next City – Inspiring Equitable Cities. Retrieved May 12, 2020, from https://nextcity.org/

Sustainable Development Solutions Network. (2019). 2019 US Cities Sustainable Development Report. Retrieved from https://www.sustainabledevelopment.report/reports/2019-us-cities-sustainable-development-report/

The Pew Charitable Trusts. (2019). 10 Trends That Have Changed Philadelphia in 10 Years. Retrieved from https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/2019/04/11/10-trends-that-have-changed-philadelphia-in-10-years

The Pew Charitable Trusts. (2020). Philadelphia 2020 State of the City. Retrieved from https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/2020/04/philadelphia-2020-state-of-the-city

Washington, L., Jr. (2012, March 24). Philadelphia, “The City of Neighborhoods.” Retrieved May 7, 2020, from https://whyy.org/articles/philadelphia-the-city-of-neighborhoods/

WHYY. (n.d.). PES Refinery. Retrieved May 7, 2020, from https://whyy.org/series/pes-refinery/

Videos and pieces cited within the videos:

AJ+. (2016, July 27). Take A Social Justice Tour Around Philadelphia [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjKjaAfwKu4&feature=emb_logo

CNBC. (2019, June 21). Video footage captures explosion at Philadelphia-area oil refinery [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/video/2019/06/21/video-shows-explosion-at-philadelphia-oil-refinery.html

whatsPOPPYN. (2017, September 16). EP 24: Housing, Neighborhoods and Gentrification [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NbjENcMous&feature=youtu.be