PGDG! Positive Social Impact

This is the first 2015 installment in an ongoing series of posts highlighting the amazing contributions of the PGDG! Class of 2014-2015.In mid-February Sylvia Palms, of Locus Partners, a  nd I met with three members of the 2014- 2015 PGDG! Class to chat about their personal trajectories and their role in fostering Positive Social Impact in Philadelphia: Yael Lehmann, Executive Director of The Food Trust; Carmen Febo San Miguel, Executive Director of Taller Puertorriqueño; and Jane Golden, Executive Director of the Mural Arts Program. Throughout the past 20 + years The Food Trust, The Mural Arts Program and Taller Puertorriqueño (now 40 years old) have become vital non-profits in Philadelphia; their impact reaching beyond the city into the national and international realms.

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I decided to begin the discussion with a basic question; Why Philadelphia? As a non-native Philadelphian I was interested in understanding how each of their paths brought them to the city, and why they decided to stay.

 ‘Philadelphia wasn’t even on my radar’

Yael Lehmann, Executive Director of The Food Trust, never thought that Philadelphia would become her home. A native of San Francisco and a graduate of U.C. Berkeley Yael had spent her entire life on the West Coast, living and working in the midst of the HIV/AIDS crisis, experiences that Yael says had a ‘huge impact’ on her. She had always had an interest in the relationship between social justice and public health and decided to move to the East Coast, thinking she would be here for only a few years. A former supervisor recommended a position at The Food Trust, and Yael took a leap across the country. She is quick to acknowledge that after meeting Duane Perry, the founder of The Food Trust, she never looked back. She now calls Philly home and is passionate about the topic of food. She noted that although Philadelphia is a great city, there are serious issues of social justice and abandonment. She sees these challenges as opportunities with food access and education as one component that can help create change within the city.

‘I wanted to elevate mural art’

Anyone meeting Jane Golden for the first time cannot ignore her infectious vibrant energy. Jane Golden the Executive Director of the Mural Arts Program came from an art & business oriented parents who inspired her to study Fine Arts and Political Science at Stanford University. After Stanford Jane moved to Los Angeles a city that she describes ‘felt like another world.’ She notes how she had always been interested in capturing history, creating a sense of place, and engaging with communities through her work. She also talks about how looking at books on 1930’s murals while growing up inspired her to paint murals. While in LA she combined her interests and with a grant from the Social and Public Art Resource created Ocean Park Pier’ in Santa Monica; a 20x100ft mural that was named a historic landmark in 1984.

While in LA, Jane founded the Los Angeles Public Art Foundation. Soon afterward, however, she decided to move back to Philadelphia to be closer to her family.

Once in Philadelphia Jane says she saw an opportunity to harness the energy of graffiti artists and redirect it for positive social change. Jane saw the graffiti artists as ‘natural muralists’ and thus combining her passion for murals and interest in art as an agent of change founded the Mural Arts Program as a part of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network.  Today the Mural Arts Program is internationally recognized and serves as a model for cities throughout the world.

 ‘I wanted a place with a large Latino community in need of services’

Carmen Febo San Miguel M.D., is the Executive Director of Taller Puertorriqueño, came to Philadelphia looking for opportunities to help the Latino community through social outreach and her work as a physician. A native of Puerto Rico, Carmen talks about how her family always emphasized the importance of tradition and heritage ‘understanding where you come from.’ Through her medical practice in Philadelphia she learned about the work of Taller Puertorriqueño and became involved, serving as Board Chair prior to becoming Executive Director in 1999. Her passion for cultural dissemination however, extends beyond her work with Taller. Carmen served on the Mayor’s Commission of Arts and Culture during the Goode Administration and is currently a member of the Advisory Council on Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy.

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The mornings’ conversation quickly moved away from each woman’s personal story and focused on discussing some of their shared values. Jane, Yael, and Carmen agree that each organization stemmed from a similar desire to empower communities and positively affect change.

To Jane the ‘process is as important as the product.’ Jane notes that at the time the Mural Arts Program began, muralism was considered an ‘underdog’ in the art realm. Her goal through the Mural Arts program is to elevate mural-making as an art form, meanwhile giving communities a sense of engagement and stewardship over their neighborhoods. Jane and Carmen discussed how the Mural Arts Program worked with Taller Puertorriqueño on one of the first murals. This collaboration has helped transform the Taller and surrounding neighborhood. To Jane, expanding the scope of impact of the organization is important because she feels that art allows people to ‘change perspective of their environments’ which can positively affect their core health and life quality. The initiatives of the Mural Arts Program now extend into juvenile center outreach programs, afterschool services, and apprenticeships programs, among others.

For Carmen, opportunities for positive social impact are deeply rooted in tradition – ‘a cultural focus.’ Through Taller Puertorriqueño Carmen works to empower communities by creating links to their origins. Educational outreach, human rights programs and social advocacy are some of the initiatives that she has developed as Executive Director of Taller. Taller provides cultural exploration programs, art programs, lectures, gallery exhibits and outreach programs focused around Puerto Rican and Latino heritage.  Carmen also talks about the biggest project to date – the construction of a new Cultural Center. Designed by local architecture firm Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT) the new Cultural Center will allow Taller to expand their facilities and increase the diversity of their programs. For Yael, positive social change starts with connectivity. She notes that many communities lack many basic services such as adequate public transportation which leads to ‘personal isolation and neighborhood isolation.’ She talks about food as one contributor that positivity impacts a neighborhood. In her work with The Food Trust Yael helps connect lower-income communities with affordable healthy foods and nutritional education through schools initiatives, community centers, corner stores, and farmer’s markets etc. She has helped the Food Trust become a model nationwide, extending their initiatives throughout the country, most recently working in Wilmington Delaware to extend the Healthy Corner Store Initiative to their neighborhoods.

In listening to Yael, Jane, and Carmen’s stories it is easy to see why their work has had such a huge impact in the city. Although they come from diverse backgrounds, their shared passion for social change, dedication to communities, and ‘can-do’ attitude has helped change the social landscape of Philadelphia.

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—Fátima Olivieri