Philadelphia is a small big city. That’s what some Philadelphians say, especially transplants from other big cities. More than 1.5 million people call Philadelphia home, making it the 5th largest city in the nation, but it is still pretty easy to negotiate on a daily basis. It is much less frenetic than the Broadway-musical-like production that walking down Manhattan sidewalks can sometimes feel like.
Besides being surprisingly convenient and manageable for its size, Philadelphia is also an exceptionally poor place, the poorest large city in America—and with the highest degree of “deep poverty.” Like the terms “hyper-segregation” and “deep south,” it suggests that impoverishment has degrees, and none of the other relatively poor big cities in the country have more residents living at half of the poverty line or below than “the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection.”[i]
For the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2), colloquially known as Penn’s “Social Justice School,” Philadelphia is exactly where we need to be. It provides us with our “collaborative advantage.” SP2 aims to train the best civic leaders, policymakers and social service providers on the planet, and we have been working on that for well over 100 years. We used to be Penn’s School of Social Work, and we still graduate about 150 social workers every year with MSWs and DSWs, most of whom spend their professional lives working in Philadelphia. About 10 years ago we added two new Master’s programs, one in Nonprofit Leadership and the other in Social Policy. These programs add almost 100 more alumni to our annual total—again, many of them choosing to stay in this city once they graduate.
That means we can see the impact our graduates have on this small big place. It is palpable. They run some of the most vibrant non-profits in the city. They are decision-makers in the area’s most important social service agencies. And they collaborate with graduates from other area universities as the professionals most intimately and intensely enmeshed in the lives of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable residents.
Every year our matriculating students conduct more than 250,000 hours of scientifically contextualized and curricularly mandatory community service. We are having an impact, and in a city as big and little as Philadelphia, even if SP2’s impact is mostly unsung, we know that people feel it. Of course, our students and graduates are all over the country and the world, too. In fact, I took two trips to Beijing in 2015 and met with several of our alumni there, but Philly is where the majority of our students and graduates do the varieties of things they get trained to do exceptionally well.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a major social service provider or non-profit agency aimed at human advancement anywhere in the city that doesn’t already have a connection to SP2. And as dean, my goal is to make sure that Philadelphians feel it in increasingly potent and productive ways, which isn’t an easy thing to pull off given all of the obstacles to the kind of work we want our students and graduates to accomplish in the world. And make no mistake about it, when talking social justice, social policy and social change, the challenges and obstacles are undeniably real.
One challenge hinges on the difficulty of translating lofty concepts into everyday realities. Many of us can agree on ideals (“freedom,” “equality,” “inclusion,” “fairness,” “patriotism,” etc.) when they remain abstract and non-specific, platitudes without particulars. But the moment we start to make those terms concrete, which is exactly what policymakers and activists do, our superficial agreements show signs of strain.
Partisanship in electoral politics is another challenge. So much of public culture is organized around zero-sum bloodsport that politicians tend to use a 24-hour news cycle and never-ending electoral campaigning season to lob merciless and indiscriminant attacks at one another. Partisans aren’t respecters of policy—much less justice. If the other side backs a reform or recommendation today, our side rejects it. Period. And that’s even if we supported that same position yesterday. American politics today is both hyper-ideological and post-ideological at the same time. It is a world of unflinchingly committed “neoliberals,” “neoconservatives,” “liberals” and “progressives” who are also usually willing to do whatever it takes to defeat the other side, political ideals be damned.
Maybe most important of all, American citizens have long held differing opinions about who legitimately belongs, about what being an American implies. We draw diverse—sometimes mutually exclusive—configurations of us and them, concentric circles of greater and lesser loyalty, of more or less empathy. Our policy priorities and our definitions of justice depend, in part, on the circumferences of those circles. All lives might matter, sure, but some of them matter more to us than others.
Immigration is only one of the most obvious examples of this political calculus, and our varied perspectives on relevant policies (such as mass deportation, pathways to citizenship, wall-building along the southern border, safe-haven cities and religious bans on entry into the country) all provide working answers to the question of who we think we are. In a way, every single national election is a referendum on what it means to be American. On who counts. And it isn’t just guided by the objective merits of a specific policy position. It is about how well we can communicate a policy’s ethical and practical underbelly, what it declares about the scope of our legitimate social universe—a universe where certain people deserve our help and others deserve whatever they happen to get.
Each election year, different issues come to the fore: welfare reform, mass incarceration, tax policy, policing. We are all asked to adhere to some single, coherent position. Should we, for example, “die in” to protest the deadly consequences of a racialized criminal justice system, or do we dismiss such public demonstrations as stunts, little more than indications of anti-police and anti-American fanaticism?
Even the phrase “social justice” is contentious. Does it mean you are advocating for “the redistribution of wealth”? Or for a way of making sure that the call for American individualism isn’t rigged from the start? Reasonable people disagree. And then unreasonable ones contort those disagreements into massively dysfunctional and intractable civic conflagrations.
For portions of our body politic, even for some members of SP2, “social impact” is a more acceptable articulation of things than “social justice,” though others dismiss that turn of phrase as neoliberal naiveté. It is hard to square those two philosophical positions.
I was going to start this piece with a short discussion about how the founding of HBO in the 1970s changed television forever. It is a good story, a powerful one. HBO should have been impossible to pull off. The movie studios wouldn’t license them enough films. The major broadcast networks fought them tooth and nail. Many people weren’t even sure the satellites they wanted to use would stay in the sky. The Federal Communication Commission just about outlawed their programming model almost as soon as they got out of the gate. Moreover, they were being run by a magazine outfit, Time-Life, with little television experience. And nobody knew if they’d ever get enough people to pay for something everyone was already used to getting beamed into their living rooms for free.
As far as I’m concerned, there are lessons to be learned from HBO’s improbable story. And it isn’t just a trivialization to imagine that a media conglomerate might have something to teach civic leaders, policymakers and the people who train them about how to imagine an entirely new world into existence. For SP2 faculty and students, it means attempting to think about how to best harness both free-market forces and the mandate of governmental authority to make short-term and long-term investments in the betterment of society. It demands recognizing that, if mobilized thoughtfully, both capital and Capitol Hill can serve as catalysts for positive social change. Our graduates don’t just “manage” the poor, they aim to end poverty altogether.
SP2 is Penn’s smallest and least wealthy School, situated literally in the shadows of Wharton, one of the most globally recognized business brands in the world. Our school collaborates with Wharton on issues of social entrepreneurialism and research about effective philanthropy. We partner with Penn’s Nursing and Education schools on research aimed at helping children and their families in as holistic and comprehensive a way as possible. In fact, we have collaborations with all of Penn’s other Schools. We are rabidly interdisciplinary, because the questions we want to answer, the problems most in need of solutions, can’t be tackled from any single discipline or through ideological cant. That’s why, despite the hackles it might receive from portions of our SP2 community to invoke a multinational corporation as a model for anything related to social justice, I want to imagine that we can collect our muses and models from every sector of the social world.
There are a few other reasons why the story of HBO is salient to me as I introduce you to our SP2 Penn Top 10 project. We call our students (social workers, policy makers and non-profit leaders) “change agents,” and change agents should be as undaunted as those HBO execs were back in the early 1970s, willing to work toward their goals regardless of the high barriers they faced. For a relatively small school like SP2, it means not using our smallness as an excuse for setting goals that are anything other than ambitious and transformative, especially in a big city that can be so small in ways that allow our students and graduates to make a noticeable dent in its human services landscape.
The HBO example is also in my head because a group of Penn graduate students from the Annenberg School for Communication, the School of Arts and Sciences, and SP2 have been working on a documentary about how the founding of HBO transformed television back in the 1970s. But that isn’t the end of their tale. We can come up with subtle or dramatic ways to change the world, but we can never rest on our laurels. And HBO is an object lesson for that truth, too. By some accounts, the satellite giant finds itself in danger of being outflanked by other media innovators today. That 1970s upstart is now the big kid on the block with streaming media services like Netflix and Amazon Prime threatening to make its conventional subscription model obsolete.
Who knows what things will look like for the future of American television—let alone the future of American society. I can’t predict what issues will demand major national re-imagining in the years to come, and no scholarly expert has all of the answers, but ours are asking some of the necessary questions—sincerely, rigorously and with an investment in positive social outcomes. The SP2 Penn Top 10 project represents one more example of that effort.
Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself what issues are most important to you. That’s part of what democracy means. If you don’t examine evidence carefully and ask enough questions, you can easily become a sucker to someone else’s agenda. That’s what makes democracy so demanding. The academic experts in this project are offering arguments about how we should envision our collective social policy/justice landscape given research that they or their colleagues have conducted on crucial social issues. Some of these issues, like gun control, are already mainstays of our national political conversation. Others (like debates about how best to care for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens) probably deserve a lot more election-time discussion than they currently receive.
Some of the issues that trouble me most as an academic administrator in the 21st century (the current and rising price tag for college and graduate school along with a growing demonization of the professoriate as left-wing ideologues brainwashing America’s young) don’t get extended treatment here, but they are high on my own “top 10” list. And I don’t just want to gather “evidence” on these topics to reinforce my current take on things; I especially need to know when my working assumptions are wrong—and why.
So, don’t read these pieces as gospel, as definitive claims about what issues you absolutely have to privilege or how you must think about them. Instead, the facts, figures, theories and opinions offered up are meant to support some of the evidence already at your disposal on issues that impact your life and the lives of those you care about. You don’t have to agree with all of the authors’ conclusions. You don’t even have to accept many of their premises. You won’t. But you should take up their challenge to assemble all of the data and expertise and historical context you can muster to make sense of the issues that matter most to you. As you read these essays and check out the videos and other multimedia materials connected to them, please do know that this project only succeeds if it can help in the ongoing impulse to get us all thinking a little more critically about how to make sense of—and transform!—our world.