Reaching Out to West Philadelphia: The Work of the Netter Center and Penn in the Neighborhood

By: Jorge Penado, C’19
International Relations Major
Work-Study Student, Sweeten Alumni House

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Source: Netter Center Collection

Since the second half of the 19th century with the move of the university from the 9th and Market/ Chestnut region, the University of Pennsylvania has shared a common land with the community of West Philadelphia. Though our geographical neighbor, learning and venturing out into the community is not traditionally prioritized by the average Penn student who tends to stay within the university limits. But, though the average Penn student doesn’t explore the neighborhood as much, this does not mean that Penn is isolated from West Philadelphia. There are various departments, centers and individuals who work directly with West Philadelphia, and one in particular that has led noteworthy efforts in engaging Penn in West Philadelphia has been the Netter Center for Community Partnerships.

The Netter Center was formally opened as the Center for Community Partnerships in 1992, but the efforts for community partnerships had been established a few years prior. In 1983, Penn’s Office of Community-Oriented Policy Studies was created to help connect institutional initiatives with West Philadelphia, including through the West Philadelphia Partnership. Two years later in 1985, the idea of academically based community service (ABCS) began when Penn students presented a research proposal for a summer job training corps for West Philadelphia youth as part of their honors seminar class taught by Ira Harkavy and Lee Benson. Soon after, the official center would be established to create and manage projects and programs that saw various individuals, particularly Penn students and faculty, mutually engage with West Philadelphia. Nowadays, the Netter Center, under founding director Ira Harkavy’s (C’70, GR’79) leadership, runs numerous programs throughout the academic and summer terms with programs like the aforementioned ABCS courses, traditional service programs, and community development initiatives, as outlined on their website.

With this general background in mind, one can begin to explore the opportunities and services that the center offers to the average student and even to alumni. In order to learn even more about the center, we reached out to the current assistant director, Rita Hodges (C’05, GED’15), to learn from a representative of the center, and after a short conversation, many services, programs, and initiatives were highlighted that exemplify the mission of the center. As an assistant director and former undergraduate student involved in the center, the insight the conversation provided was helpful in understanding these projects. First and foremost, as assistant director, Hodges does quite a bit at the center which includes supporting the internal operations of the center, overseeing marketing and communication, working with development and alumni operations, and working closely with the director and associate director on replication outreach activities. One interesting project that the center is working on would have to be the replication outreach initiatives which sees the center participate in the creation of a network of colleges and universities around the nation that are improving relations with their local neighborhoods through conferences, workshops, and continued partnership. The center additionally engages in helping establish regional training centers on university-assisted community schools and has recently worked to establish one at UCLA.

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Source: Netter Center Collection

Outside of this position, other services the center offers include ABCS courses, averaging about 70 per year in 30 different departments, internships, work and volunteer opportunities, and extensive work in local schools to help create centers that benefit the local population, both local students and parents through its university-assisted community schools program. There are mentoring and tutoring programs, STEM related programs, that help expose students to STEM fields through lessons and activities run by Penn undergraduate and graduate students, and programs focused on literacy, health and nutrition, arts and culture, college access, career readiness, sports and basically anything you can think of! The opportunities, however, are not just for current students as the alumni network and opportunities are just as substantial. The center maintains a relationship with alumni by running various events such as volunteering during alumni weekend or class reunions. Many Netter Center alumni maintain a solid relationship with the center by coming back for events like panels and volunteering. One event that the center helps run is the Basketball Clinic that sees alumni, their children, local children and Penn’s basketball players from the 1979 Final Four Team come together to play basketball for a day. The diversity of events and services offered clearly extends much farther than one can imagine.

With all of this in mind, the question arises as to how the relationship between the two has changed over time. Through a long history, the relationship between the neighborhood and the institution, while not always perfect, has definitely improved. Various departments, besides the Netter Center, have engaged with the community. In particular, one department that stands out is Penn Athletics who has been partnering with neighborhood schools to help students learn and participate in sports like track & field and lacrosse through the Young Quakers Community Athletics program that it runs in partnership with the Netter Center. After speaking with Assistant Director Hodges, it was made clear that President Amy Gutmann has made it a priority in her presidency to engage the community more in a mutually beneficial way, not only through academic partnerships with Penn students and faculty, but also by overseeing various initiatives on the business side of things such as working on economic inclusion and helping small businesses. Ultimately, while the relationship has definitely improved and seems to be heading in a much better direction, there is still so much work to be done between the neighborhood and the institution. There are still ties to develop between Penn and local schools and increased interaction between students and residents through pathways like ABCS courses. The work will continue as the relationship between Penn and West Philadelphia becomes even more mutually beneficial, allowing Penn to be a support institution for the neighborhood while it enhances its own research, teaching, learning, and service.

Ultimately, as mentioned above, the history of Penn and West Philadelphia could fill an entire book and this post is too short to do it justice, but the takeaway is hopefully one of awareness. As they celebrate their 25th anniversary, the work of the Netter Center has been developing and strengthening ties between the neighbors, and their work should be highlighted in order to hopefully allow more people, students, and alumni, to participate in the variety of programs they offer and to continue developing that connection.

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