Featured post

JOIN US! Charles Barkley & Connor Barwin

Charles Barkley & Connor Barwin
Athletes & Their Cities

How great would Philadelphia be if its citizens cared about our civic health as much as our football team? Please join The Philadelphia Citizen for the first of our Citizen Speaks Social Impact Series, featuring former NBA superstar Charles Barkley and Eagles All-Pro linebacker Connor Barwin discussing how professional athletes can make their cities better.


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Arch Street Presbyterian Church
1724 Arch Street
(entrance on Arch Street between 17th & 18th Streets)

6:00 – 7:30 pm
doors open at 5:30

$10 / ticket
RSVPs are required. Click here for tickets.
Includes complimentary commemorative Citizen t-shirt

Barkley and Barwin are uniquely positioned to talk about this topic. Barwin’s Make the World Better Foundation raises funds—and he matches every dollar raised—to refurbish inner city playgrounds for Philadelphia’s youth. In June, Barkley pledged $3 million to charity, including the Wounded Warrior Project.

Arch Street Presbyterian Church is a growing, diverse and welcoming congregation in the heart of Center City, Philadelphia. ASPC is committed to fostering a community that reflects the beauty and diversity of Philadelphia and to work for a more just and compassionate city. Their goal is to find meaningful connections to those trying to balance relationships and work, to those pained by the challenges of hunger, homelessness and inequity in education facing our city, and to those who believe artistic expression provides nourishment for the soul. To learn more, please visit archstreetpres.org.

Thanks to our presenting partner



The Budget Stalemate Blues

Our columnist on what it will take to end the madness

by Jeremy Nowak



In a June column I asked how Governor Wolf would move from campaigning to governance. I speculated that getting the budget done, which would have to be built on significant compromise, would answer that question.

Of course it takes two to tango and so far nobody has been filling out the dance card. As the budget battle continues two months after its due date the question is why has it taken so long and what is the endgame?

I would cite big four reasons for the delay:

  1. Opening positions: The distance between the Democratic and Republican budgets is wide in terms of total general fund outlay and tax rates.

The two sides do not even agree on the size of the proposed budget with the Republicans quoting one number and the Democrats another (it depends on how you factor in an outlay for pensions of $1.7 billion into a restricted account and $2.1 billion set aside for 2016 property tax relief). The differences on the personal income tax, the sales tax, and the gas severance tax are significant.

  1. Structural issues: Unlike many budgets, this is not about simply negotiating taxes and spending. There are structural issues at play: the liquor store system and the pension fund system. Anytime you ask legislators to negotiate on fundamental shifts in expectations and government practices, the gulf widens. It is no longer about price but standards of action.

Structural shifts generally require a crisis. There are significant differences between the sides regarding where the crisis exists. Is it historical levels of under spending as with claims about education? Is it historical levels of over promising and under contributing, as with pensions? Is it with tax rates out of sync with other states (the gas severance tax) or is it with a system that many think keep us in a business we should not be in (selling alcohol)?

  1. Symmetry of power: Obviously it is easier to get a budget done if one side has the power in the executive and legislative branches. But in Pennsylvania (as in Illinois, where there is no budget either) the power is evenly distributed.

We have a Democratic Governor who won a decisive election against the former Republican who many in his own party did not support.

At the same time, the Republicans hold both houses of the legislature where they increased their margins last year. Wolf was one of the few bright spots for new Democratic governors in 2014 while the Republican gains in state houses are part of a national trend.

The result in Pennsylvania: a Democratic Governor that cannot pass a budget and a Republican legislature that cannot override a veto.

  1. Not enough early pain: A 2009 Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling prohibits state workers from having interrupted paydays during a budget delay. This diminishes the early pain and panic characteristic of pre-2009 delays. It means that direct state services continue.

The early pain has to do with contractors with the state, including the many social service organization without contract renewals and payments. They are making contingency plans right now including decisions about laying off staff and cutting back services. In some cases their county or local governments can help out, but in many cases that is not possible. Continue reading


The Citizen Recommends: The New Ralph Brooks Park Ribbon Cutting

Ed. Note: It’s August. We’re hard at work trying to get our website ready to launch after Labor Day. So we’re re-running and updating some of the ideas and people we introduced you to over the last eight months on The Citizen blog.

[UPDATE: In June, we promo’d the night of indie music put together by Eagles’ linebacker Connor Barwin’s Make The World Better Foundation, which raised $300,000 for Smith Playground in South Philadelphia. On Monday, Barwin and luminaries including Mayor Nutter, City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and the Mural Arts Project’s Jane Golden will be on hand to unveil the improvements at last year’s recipient of MTWB’s largesse: Ralph Brooks Park at 20th and Tasker. From 2 to 4 pm, there will be speeches, 3-on-3 basketball, great music, (this is a Barwin event, after all), and an official ribbon-cutting. On September 8, Barwin will join The Citizen and former NBA superstar Charles Barkley to elaborate on his commitment to civic engagement.]

by Larry Platt

Connor Barwin slides all 6’5” of his chiseled frame into a booth at Fairmount’s La Calaca Feliz, one of his favorite haunts. “He hasn’t been here before,” he tells the waiter, nodding in my direction. “So I told him it doesn’t even make sense to look at the menu. You gotta have the sea bass.”

images-1They are in agreement, both feeding off the other’s enthusiasm. I concur and, after a couple of hours of head-spinning conversation, realize that the moment was a harbinger of what was to come: Connor Barwin, in an era of too many dour-faced, Neanderthal jocks, is all about his enthusiasms. He’s this wide-eyed gentle Goliath, ever curious, grilling me on the history of this city that, more and more, he’s representing in a type of ambassador role. Last week, there he was, live on the Fox-29 Morning Show, knocking on an unsuspecting homeowner’s door and helping to direct the installation of a green roof for NRG Energy, one of the nation’s leading green energy providers. (In the off-season, Barwin heads to Haiti and actually helps do the installation; this close to the season’s kickoff, however, he was relegated to a ceremonial role). And this Saturday at Union Transfer, he’ll be hosting his second annual Make The World Better concert; last year, $185,000 was raised for Ralph Brooks Park in Point Breeze. This time, the renovations are targeted for South Philly’s Smith Playground and include rec center building improvements, new football and baseball fields, and installation of green stormwater infrastructure. (Purchase tickets here)

Barwin is an active citizen of Philadelphia. “I read a lot of Jane Jacobs, who said that cities are all about feet on the street,” he says. “I like to be part of that energy.”

This is not for show. Countless athletes lend their names to foundations and good works, enabling them to honestly mouth familiar platitudes about “giving back” that pepper post-game interviews. Barwin—who is as hands-on with his Foundation as any athlete I’ve ever seen—is engaged in the city to the point of self-definition. It is who he is. You see him riding his bike from Center City to Fairmount or taking SEPTA. Instead of cloistering himself in jockdom, he hangs out with musicians, artists, writers—the type of characters that make cities unique and vibrant. He walks our streets, soaking up our architecture, searching out quirky joints and interesting people, as a matter of ingrained ideology. Continue reading


Ideas We Should Steal: Parking Signs That Actually Make Sense

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

Ed. Note: It’s August. We’re hard at work trying to get our website ready to launch after Labor Day. So we’re re-running and updating some of the ideas and people we introduced you to over the last eight months on The Citizen blog.

[UPDATE: Since this story ran in April, the Philadelphia Parking Authority announced that it has struck a deal with Pango, a mobile parking app that will allow Philly drivers to pay for on-street parking via their cell phones; send them a text message when their time is about to run out; and allow them to add time to their meter from wherever they are. The program was supposed to launch in late July, despite concerns from Mayor Nutter that fewer parking tickets would mean less revenue for schools. Now it’s scheduled to begin as a six-month pilot in and around Center City in mid-October, after which it will hopefully extend to the entire city. Meanwhile, Mayor Nutter’s administration released data on each of the 4.9 million tickets issued since 2012—most of them in Center City.]

Los Angeles Senior Transportation Engineer Ken Husting—the guy in charge of the city’s parking signs—was on his way to brunch with his wife one morning in December, 2013, when he pulled his car into what seemed to be a perfectly good parking spot. Or maybe it wasn’t. Wait, was it? By the time Husting got to the sixth sign on the parking pole, even he was confused.

“The parking signs were extremely complicated—even for me,” says Husting. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”

So Husting set out to make Los Angeles the first city in the country with parking signs that actually make sense. And he may have succeeded—with the help of a Brooklyn artist.


Like every city everywhere, Los Angeles has complicated rules about where and when people can park their cars—from tow away zones, to two-hour parking, to rush hour no-park streets, to loading only. Husting says L.A. has at least 100 different variations of parking rules, and spots along any street can have as many as six signs, with different rules for each side of the pole. It’s the same madness you find in New York City (famously parodied by Louis C.K.)—and here in Philadelphia, where the search for a spot that might or might not be legal turns drivers into muttering crazies. (Tried to park on Walnut Street lately?)


In early 2014, Husting set his 40 employees at the LA Department of Transportation to the task of finding a new way to make parking signs. They came across the work of Brooklyn artist Nikki Sylianteng, who had created—and hung—her own parking signs in her neighborhood using simple red and green color blocks to indicate when drivers were allowed to park their cars in a spot. After hanging paper printouts of her new signs, Sylianteng garnered national news, praise from her neighbors and a call from Husting’s team. Continue reading


Wanted: A Less Pusillanimous Mayor

As the Nutter legacy tour takes off, recent events elsewhere tell us what we should be looking for in this mayor’s race

By Larry Platt

Ed. Note: It’s August. We’re hard at work trying to get our website ready to launch after Labor Day. So we’re re-running and updating some of the ideas and people we introduced you to over the last eight months on The Citizen blog.

[UPDATE: Since we ran this piece in February, Jim Kenney won the Democratic primary for mayor and is virtually assured victory in November’s general election. Has there been any indication during this campaign that he’ll reject the politics of pusillanimity and spend political capital to tackle seemingly intractable problems, as Platt outlines? Not yet. On a recent trip to meet with Pittsburgh’s mayor, Kenney talked yet again of his priorities to jumpstart the economy: Universal pre-K, focusing on prisoner re-entry, and “dealing with industrial-based jobs. We want to concentrate on the port of Philadelphia which is a wonderful opportunity for us to create jobs…” Given that it’s difficult to find a city that has centered an economic stimulus program around old-school manufacturing, the question is: Will Jim Kenney be a change agent or a keeper of the status quo?]

Recently, in the pages of Philadelphia magazine, writer Simon Van-Zuylen Wood asked a compelling question: “Michael Nutter is about to leave the city younger, safer, bigger, and smarter than he found it—so why don’t we like him?”

It’s a question Nutter himself has grappled with—happily concluding, and touting, that he’s been the best mayor since, well, ever. This week, the Mayor released a self-funded poll that found Philadelphians were remarkably upbeat about his performance. And in the pages of the Inquirer recently Nutter argued that, “in virtually every category, we are up where you want to be going up and we are going down where want to be going down,” citing increases in population, employment and bond ratings and decreases in murder, crime and wage taxes. Add to that the cessation of the perp walk parade out of his predecessor’s City Hall and it makes for a seemingly convincing case…so much so that it made me think long and hard about my own disappointment in Nutter. I’m on record as a one-time Nutter supporter who, like so many others, feels the mayor let slip away opportunity after opportunity to remake the city.

Cuomo (top) and Brown: Does Philly need what they got?

Cuomo (top) and Brown: Does Philly need what they got?

In light of the record Nutter is highlighting, am I wrong to feel
that, ultimately, we got a technocrat more inclined to kick pressing problems down the road, rather than a transformational figure willing to take on stubborn and systemic challenges? Nutter makes the argument that one-time supporters like me had outsized expectations in 2007. Maybe that’s true. But I can’t help feeling that Michael Nutter was an incrementalist when our situation called for more dire change—which would have required political skills he never possessed. It’s an important discussion to have now, because we’re a little over three months (yikes) away from once again not asking the right questions of those seeking the same job.

When Michael Nutter became mayor, he inherited the highest big-city tax burden, poverty rate, and digital      divide percentage in the nation—not to mention the most screwed up school system, too. When Unknown-1he leaves office,
he’ll be leaving behind the highest big-city tax burden, poverty rate, and digital divide percentage in the nation—not to mention the most screwed up school system, too. (And let’s clear up oe convenient argument often trotted out during the Nutter autopsy debate: the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression did not force Nutter to rethink his priorities and policies, as it occurred nine months into his administration, after he had already proposed an old-school, non-reformist budget that increased spending by 3.2%). Yes, Commissioner Ramsey was a helluva hire and Nutter’s sustainability program is laudable and his government has been basically honest…but he didn’t try to do the hard stuff, despite having the political capital to change our city and our politics.

This dawned on me a couple of weeks ago. I’d read the Philly Mag piece and was wondering if I’d been too hard on Nutter. But then I watched Andrew Cuomo’s eulogy of his father, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, and—that same week—I watched Jerry Brown’s political jujitsu moves in California, and I realized that we don’t have to look far for political leaders willing to take on seemingly intractable problems. Continue reading


Meet the Disruptor: Alejandro Gac-Artigas

26-year-old Alejandro Gac-Artigas, CEO & Founder of Springboard Collaborative, is disrupting local education — and getting results

By Rosella LaFevre

Ed. Note: It’s August. We’re hard at work trying to get our website ready to launch after Labor Day. So we’re re-running and updating some of the ideas and people we introduced you to over the last eight months on The Citizen blog.

[UPDATE: Since this story ran earlier this year, Springboard has doubled in size and expanded to the Bay Area. This summer, Springboard served 2,000 children in Philadelphia and Oakland, employing 200 seasonal staff. They generated some of their best-ever results: Students replaced what would have been a 3-month reading loss with a 3.3-month reading gain. Weekly workshops training parents to teach reading averaged 94% attendance. Springboard accomplished these outcomes not by importing superstar teachers, but, rather, by training those already working in the Springboard schools.]

Alejandro Gac-Artigas knew his first graders could do better than this—after all, they had been reading at a higher level at the end of kindergarten, the previous June. It was now October, 2009, and Gac-Artigas—a first time Teach for America teacher at North Philly’s Pan American Academy Charter School—was struggling to get them through the basics. “It was not until November 28th—83 days into the year—that their reading levels finally caught up to where they had been before the summer,” Gac-Artigas recalls.

Alejandro Gac-Artigas

Alejandro Gac-Artigas

That was when Gac-Artigas realized that many of his students hadn’t looked at a book all summer—and had effectively regressed. This, he learned, is the “summer slide”: A common problem in low-income communities, where children often lack continuous access to learning at home and at school, which is responsible for not just six months of academic backsliding but years of learning difficulties. Compounded annually, it is, quite literally, the achievement gap.

Gac-Artigas set out to find a solution. He took an internship at management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., engaged the best minds in organizational problem-solving, and developed a new approach. In 2011, when he was 22, Gac-Artigas started Springboard Collaborative as a summer program in charter schools to help students and families continue reading throughout the summer. Since then, Springboard has expanded into a year-round program offered in public, charter and Catholic schools, with a message for teachers and parents alike: We can’t treat our students’ families as liabilities, but must instead make them partners in their children’s educations.

“Only 13 percent percent of Philadelphia 4th graders are proficient in reading; 10 percent earn a college degree. Philadelphia’s adult illiteracy rate of 22 percent matches the city’s poverty rate. This is the cycle ensnaring our city. The triangle between teachers, parents and students is broken.”

Springboard has served hundreds of kids, received $250,000 in funding from the School District and grants from the M. Night Shyamalan and William Penn foundations, received national attention—and significantly improved the ability of its students to read. The program has expanded from Philadelphia and now serves Camden, New Jersey, with further expansions planned. Just one recent example: Thirteen percent of students entered Springboard’s pre-K program ready to read, according to the program’s assessment. Five weeks after completing the program in summer 2014, 63 percent of the 62 pilot students were reading-ready.

“There was an electric energy in the pre-kindergarten classrooms, so we are going to continue to roll this out as our offering this year,” Gac-Artigas says. “The earlier you intervene, the greater the return on investment.”

Here, Gac-Artigas shares more about Springboard Collaborative’s work.

THE CITIZEN: What is the genesis and mission of Springboard Collaborative?

Alejandro Gac-Artigas: I came to Philadelphia in 2009 as a first-grade teacher. The biggest problem my kids were having was not with what happened during the school year but with what did not happen during the summer. Kids in low income communities don’t have continuous access to learning at home and school.

Springboard Collaborative trains parents and teachers to collaborate in order close a student’s reading achievement gap. Our model has three components:

1) we coach teachers in data driven instruction to lead pre-kindergarten to third graders toward reading growth goals;

2) we train parents to be their child’s reading teacher at home

3) we award educational incentives in proportion to student reading gains.

THE CITIZEN: How stark are the summer reading comprehension losses?.

AG: Research out of Johns Hopkins found that during the course of the summer, kids in low-income communities lose three months of reading progress. This is problematic not just in the magnitude of the loss, but also in terms of the opportunity cost as the first three months of school are spent catching up rather than making forward progress. These losses compound year after year after year. The Hopkins study found that 2/3 of the achievement gap we see in high school is attributable to summer learning loss in elementary school alone.

This is an important problem to fix early because 3rd grade marks a critical transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Until 4th grade, students are learning how to look at letters and make sense of the words. By 4th grade, reading has become the primary medium through which students learn subsequent disciplines. Children that fail to make this transition experience diminishing returns through the rest of their education. How can you learn chemistry if you cannot read the textbook? As these kids grow up, their 4th grade reading ability is among the strongest predictors of future outcomes.

How does the story play out for our kids? A student who can’t read on grade level by 4th grade is four times more likely to drop out of high school than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times more likely to drop out than his or her proficient, wealthier peer. Only 13 percent of Philadelphia 4th graders are proficient in reading; 10 percent earn a college degree. How does the story end? Look at it this way: Philadelphia’s adult illiteracy rate of 22 percent matches precisely the city’s poverty rate of 22 percent. This is the cycle ensnaring our city, and it stems from the fact that the triangle between teachers, parents, and students is broken. Continue reading


The Big Three

Our columnist’s prescription for change requires connecting some dots

 by Jeremy Nowak



This column has covered a range of Philadelphia policy issues over the past six months including pension funds, childcare, K-12 schooling, community college, the tax code, and political culture.

Most of these issues can be organized around three questions:

  1. Can Philadelphia’s fiscal position allow it to offer quality public services?
  2. Can Philadelphia reduce its 26% poverty rate?
  3. Can Philadelphia profit from tomorrow’s economy?

Let’s look at each question and then ask how to connect the dots.

Fiscal soundness in a nearly $4 billion city budget (along with a nearly $3 billion school budget) requires a tax system that incents growth, spending strategies that give us bang for the buck, and coming to terms with long-term liabilities.

When it comes to taxes, we have a strong candidate for change on the table in the agenda set by the Philadelphia Coalition for Job Growth.

A broad consensus exists for shifting the tax burden from those items that can relocate – people and firms – to those, like commercial and residential real estate, that cannot. The Growth Coalition is the best proposal for that position.

My colleague Larry Platt has been beating the drum for a zero based budgeting approach in order to address the second part of the fiscal integrity puzzle: spending.

With zero based budgeting you do not assume that this year’s budget will be based on last year’s architecture, but ask questions regarding what expenditures are most essential to the core mission, and what is the most effective way to meet that mission.

There are regulatory limits to what you can do with zero based budgeting, but a zero based budgeting simulation around a number of items could be done effectively.

A third aspect of fiscal soundness has to do with managing long-term liabilities eating away at our ability to operate government. This refers to unfunded pension liabilities, long-term healthcare costs, and various forms of public debt.

A great deal has been written about the impact of too much public sector debt and the effect of dramatic levels of unfunded pension liabilities. With the bankruptcy of Detroit, the recent bond defaults in Puerto Rico, and the looming crisis in Illinois and New Jersey, we are now getting the picture.

There are moments in time that no longer allow us to kick the can down the road. Recent changes by the Government Accounting Standards Board will force new disclosures based on more conservative assumptions. Look for a great deal of angst about the condition of restated government balance sheets over the next few years.

The PICA report that discusses Philadelphia pension funds still offers the best framework for change.

Presumptive new Mayor Jim Kenney will not be able to effectively govern for his likely two four-year terms (taking him through 2023) without dealing with this issue.

Poverty reduction is a moral and economic imperative. We need more, not less, able citizens in the work force earning wages that allow them to support themselves and their families. We need more household income and less long-term dependence on government payments. We need more asset growth for row home Philadelphia.

In education politics Republicans want outcomes without funding and Democrats want funding without outcomes. If Wolf wants to rise above the typical fray, he will stand for both.

Poverty alleviation assumes four things: jobs that pay a living wage, social policy that rewards work, educational institutions (from pre-K to post high school) that are social mobility ramps, and social practices that promote access and mutual aid. Continue reading


New Blood: Revenge of the Nerd

Can Andrew Stober—a non-political technocrat once mentored by Michael Dukakis—jumpstart an Independent movement by running for City Council?

by Larry Platt

Ed. Note: It’s August. We’re hard at work trying to get our website ready to launch after Labor Day. So we’re re-running and updating some of the ideas and people we introduced you to over the last eight months on The Citizen blog.

[UPDATE: Since this story ran in mid-July, Stober has hired a fulltime campaign manager and fundraiser and is on track to have raised $100,000 by Labor Day. This week, he withstood a Republican ballot challenge. For nearly three days, his team of volunteers—a close friend, plus his Mom and Dad—took on Republican operatives in an argument over thousands of signatures before the Board of Elections. When the dust settled, Stober remained on the ballot, but precious campaign and fundraising time had been wasted. “I am certainly perceived as a threat,” Stober says of the Republican opposition to his Independent candidacy, which threatens to upend one of the Republicans on Council. “As well I should be.”]

A few months ago, Andrew Stober started asking political people, “Am I missing something?” Since 2008, the 36-year-old Stober had been one of the faceless behind-the-scenes shapers of the Nutter administration’s policies. As Director of Strategic Initiatives of The Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, and then as the department’s Chief of Staff, Stober, who holds a Master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says he was in the business of “making Philadelphia government work.”

Copyright Lindsay Docherty Photography http://www.lindsaydocherty.com

Copyright Lindsay Docherty Photography www.lindsaydocherty.com


But, around the time that a handful of highly qualified challengers were vying for the at-large Democratic nominations to Council—ultimate winners Allan Domb and Helen Gym, not to mention impressive candidates like Paul Steinke, Tom Wyatt and Isaiah Thomas—Stober started wondering why no one was thinking of running for City Council in the general election, as an Independent. After all, per the Home Rule Charter, two Council seats are reserved for minority parties. The current occupants are Republicans David Oh and Dennis O’Brien, neither of whom are exactly imposing. All it would take, the smart thinking told Stober, is 45,000 votes for an Independent to capture one of those seats. Robo-calls and a press conference endorsement from Mayor Nutter ought to be able to deliver that.

“Council should be holding hearings and looking at best practices across the nation,” Stober says. “We need a Councilman who has done that, who has explored what works around the globe and how that can fit in a Philadelphia context.”

So Stober, who has been a registered Independent since 2013, announced his candidacy, at a time when the local zeitgeist might just be ready for a jolt.

It’s easy to read May’s primary Council results in cynical terms: The ascension of Domb and Gym is proof of nothing more than that he who spends the most and she who screams the loudest gets elected. Proof that all that matters in low-turnout elections is a modicum of name recognition. Stober thinks something deeper is afoot. Continue reading


Meet the Disruptor: Morgan Berman

Entrepreneur Morgan Berman turned her masters thesis into the sustainable living app MilkCrate through a combination of personal passion and deliberate collaboration. Now she’s expanding beyond Philly—and making payroll

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

Ed. Note: It’s August. We’re hard at work trying to get our website ready to launch after Labor Day. So we’re re-running and updating some of the ideas and people we introduced you to over the last eight months on The Citizen blog.

[UPDATE: Since this story ran in April, MilkCrate has made some pretty tremendous strides. It soft-launched in Boston and Denver, and is in the works for Asheville, N.C., and Washington, D.C. The app has new features, including tips for green civic engagement. Funding from Pipeline didn’t pan out, but the company will close out a $650,000 seed round of investment in September. Meanwhile, CEO Morgan Berman was invited to the White House to meet with senior administration officials about her work, gave a TEDx talk, and recently auditioned for Shark Tank.]

Sometimes, being a tech entrepreneur means assembling seed bombs on your living room coffee table. At least it does if you’re Morgan Berman, founder and CEO of MilkCrate, a sustainable living app which launched an updated version today. On Wednesday, Berman gathered her (as yet unpaid) MilkCrate team in her Fairmount living room—a bright plant-filled space that feels like a back patio—for a decidedly low-tech project: Hunched over a (dull) vintage paper cutter, they made labels out of eco-friendly paper, then tied them to cheesecloth wrapped around flower seeds—a literal “seed bomb.”

milkcrate -25

It was very…Girl Scout troop, circa 1982. And also clever marketing: MilkCrate is the official app for the Philadelphia Farm and Food Fest on Sunday, providing participants who download the app with a guide to vendors and activities in the Convention Center. The seed bombs’ label directs people to the app, and will hopefully help spread the word—like wildflowers. “We got forget-me-nots,” Berman notes. “So people don’t forget us.”

That forget-me-nots are native to Pennsylvania makes them the perfect flower for MilkCrate. Born out of Berman’s own experience of trying to be eco-conscious in her lifestyle choices, MilkCrate is a guide to sustainable local living. The first version of the app, described as a “Yelp for sustainable living” when it launched in August, compiled a list of dozens of Philadelphia businesses, organizations and other resources that are eco-friendly—from the vegan eatery Hip City Veg to the local office of the Clean Air Council and local soap and candle maker Volta Market.

Instead of competing with RecycleBank and the Sustainable Business Network, Berman spent months pitching them MilkCrate and convincing them to share their directories with her, to create a one-stop-shop for eco-conscious living. The new, interactive version has searchable categories with profiles of more than 1,100 businesses and organizations.

The new version—and updates over the next several weeks—will have searchable categories with more than 1,100 businesses and organizations, with descriptions for each, including a map of all the bike sharing locations; a way to personalize the list through a “favorites” button; a mapping function; and more interactivity both within and outside the app, through Facebook and the like. MilkCrate in the summer will also launch in Colorado—where one of Berman’s co-founders has moved—and Asheville, North Carolina.

“A woman in Asheville heard about us, said she loved what we’re doing and sent us a list of all the sustainable businesses there,” says Berman. “Turns out, Asheville is a great place for this kind of thing.” By summer, the app also will offer a way for its businesses to advertise—the first step in turning MilkCrate into a profitable venture. Continue reading


Citizen of the Week: Lisa Miccolis

Why a coffee shop owner is hiring and mentoring those who have aged out of the foster care system.

By Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

Ed. Note: It’s August. We’re hard at work trying to get our website ready to launch after Labor Day. So we’re re-running and updating some of the ideas and people we introduced you to over the last eight months on The Citizen blog.

[UPDATE: Since this story ran last fall, Miccolis has opened a brick-and-mortar coffee shop in Brewerytown, at 28th and Girard, and hired another three employees who are former foster kids. She also has two supervisors who help with training, mentoring and running the cafe. The Monkey & The Elephant now holds YouthQuake, a monthly open mic night with Apiary Magazine; monthly foster parent info sessions; and First Friday events for a rotating cadre of artists whose work hangs on the walls. Miccolis says business has been good, but also challenging—in addition to the normal strains of opening a new restaurant, Miccolis says her payroll is extra high to ensure all her employees get the shifts they need to complete the training program. The cafe is open 7 to 5 everyday.]

Six years ago, when Lisa Miccolis took a trip to South Africa, she expected to experience a cultural awakening of sorts. She just never thought the trip would open her eyes to a cultural divide right here in Philadelphia.

Lisa Micollis, Founder & Execuitve Director, The Elephant & The Monkey

Lisa Micollis, Founder & Execuitve Director, The Elephant & The Monkey

During her travels, Miccolis befriended Ephraim, a teenage boy at an orphanage who had left his home in Zimbabwe at 14 for a better education in South Africa. When he was 18, two things happened: South Africa revoked Ephraim’s refugee status, and he aged out of the orphanage. Already back home, Miccolis learned through email with him about his struggles to finish high school, to find a place to sleep, to stay in a country where he could be safe and successful. It was heart-wrenching—especially when Miccolis realized that she could do little to help Ephraim or others like him in South Africa. “I’m not from there, and have no support there, and don’t know how the system works,” she says. “My ability to enact some change in South Africa was limited. There wasn’t much point in trying to make a change there.”

Each year, 250 youth age out of Philly’s foster care system. Ninety-five percent have no source of income; one in three live below the poverty line; forty percent experience homelessness. “It is easier for a young man who has a drug and alcohol problem to get services,” says Miccolis.

Instead, Miccolis founded The Monkey & The Elephant to serve a similar population right here in Philadelphia: Each year, 250 youth age out of the foster care system in Philly with little or no support. Ninety-five percent have no source of income; one in three live below the poverty line; forty percent experience homelessness. Unsurprisingly, one in four end up incarcerated within two years. “There is nothing for these guys,” say Miccolis. “It is easier for a young man who has a drug and alcohol problem to get services, than for a young man who doesn’t.”

Miccolis envisions another path. A Wayne native, 30-year-old Miccolis spent seven years after college working in coffeeshops around the area, managing both the Milkboys in Ardmore and Bryn Mawr, and Town Hall Coffee in Merion. She loves everything about cafes: The community of regulars, the casual networking, the “vibe that naturally exists.” Now Miccolis has melded her love of coffeeshops to her desire to help former foster care kids. She launched The Monkey & The Elephant a year ago to be a coffeeshop whose baristas have all recently left foster care, and a nonprofit that will provide life skills training and social service help through an 8-month curriculum that Miccolis is currently developing. Continue reading