This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Bill Hangley Jr.
At a rousing interfaith rally of thousands, Superintendent William Hite vowed to support the community organizing group POWER’s newly launched campaign to organize public school parents into an effective citywide force.
At the rally, held Sunday in the massive Deliverance Evangelistic Church in North Philadelphia, Hite agreed to meet regularly with POWER and encourage principals to let it organize in their schools. In return, Hite asked POWER’s members to help lobby for education funding in Philadelphia and Harrisburg.
“Good jobs don’t happen without education. It is a constitutional right,” Hite told the audience to cheers and applause. “And it is also the responsibility of the state — the same state that has cut a whole bunch of money out of the budget of the School District of Philadelphia. We can’t go up there alone. We need this kind of organization standing behind us.”
Later, as he left the rally, Hite said he also needed POWER — short for Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild — to help him spread the message of “shared sacrifice” as he seeks major concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in upcoming contract negotiations. POWER “can also help us advocate with labor,” Hite said. “We’re struggling as a District and we need everybody to pitch in.”
POWER’s speakers and organizers delivered a message of their own to Hite and everyone else in attendance: The Philadelphia parents that they have talked to are deeply frustrated by what they see as a “top-down” system whose leaders show little concern for their needs.
“Too often, parents and students are seen as an afterthought while decisions are made about their future,” said the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler of South Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “The governor, the mayor, the SRC, District administration, local school leaders — everyone gets a say, it seems, about the future of Philadelphia schools, except the parents and student who are in those schools. The general consensus is that the voice of parents simply doesn’t matter.”
POWER is an interfaith group founded in 2010 that has grown to include 40 dues-paying congregations from across the city. Members include Catholic churches, mainline and evangelical Protestant churches, Jewish synagogues, and a mosque. It has nonprofit status and an annual budget of about $350,000.
To date, its agenda has been focused on jobs, and the main mission of Sunday’s session was to rally members around a campaign to make the most of the planned expansion of the Philadelphia airport. The group wants Mayor Nutter and City Council to press US Airways and airport officials to agree to policies that will raise wages and improve Philadelphians’ access to construction jobs and permanent positions.
A second major goal is to press for immigration reform and “pathways to citizenship.”
And although improving education is a new focus for POWER, its calls for better public schools drew passionate cheers throughout Sunday’s three-hour session.
Julie Greenberg, rabbi of Leyv Ha-Ir/Heart of the City, a synagogue in Center City, said that while POWER’s education campaign is still taking shape, it will have two main goals — to organize partnerships between congregations and their local schools, and to organize citywide campaigns for more systemic change. Even with the financial crisis the District faces, there are many steps the city can take that don’t carry big price tags, she said, such as aligning city social services more closely with schools. “The social services already have their own budgets,” Greenberg said, “but they’re in 17 different offices!”
POWER is working now to organize parents at four schools: Nebinger (a K-8 in Bella Vista), Spring Garden (a K-8 in Fairmount), Universal Bluford (a K-6 charter school in West Philadelphia), and Fulton (a K-6 in Germantown slated for closure, where organizing efforts will focus on easing the transition process).
In all four cases, POWER congregations were already partnering with the schools. The Nebinger partnership is typical. Tyler said that his church, Mother Bethel, “adopted” Nebinger some time ago. But the school needs a greater organizing presence than one church can provide, he said.
“Nebinger has a great principal and parents who really have high expectations — but like a lot of schools, [it’s] kind of mired with some of the societal stuff,” he said. The school is a world apart from nearby Meredith Elementary, which draws students from the relatively affluent Queen Village, Tyler said. But he believes that good organizing can help balance the scales.
“I’m a Meredith father. When we hear from our principal that something’s going to be cut — we raised $15,000 in one night with phone calls and emails,” Tyler said. “At a Nebinger, you’re talking about working parents that just don’t have those resources. That really is the difference.”
POWER organizers estimated that they drew about 3,300 people to Sunday’s session; the cavernous venue, which seats 5,100, was well over half full with a racially mixed audience that visibly reflected the diversity of POWER’s member congregations. The central message that attendees heard was that jobs, education, citizenship, and equality are, at their heart, spiritual matters. The day’s emotional peak came when the Rev. Ernie Flores of the Second Baptist Church of Germantown exhorted the crowd to express its faith through activism and organizing.
“God’s a little tired of prayers that go, ‘God, bless me, my wife, my family,’” Flores preached, his voice rising as he warmed to his subject. “God is watching all of us, and there will be a reckoning. God is watching when the wealthiest 1 percent waste more money in a day than most of us make in a lifetime. They think nobody is watching! But God is watching!” Flores thundered as the cheering crowd rose to its feet. “Justice! Equality!” Flores cried. “For all God’s children!”
But POWER’s agenda did not neglect earthly concerns.
“Money is important,” said Bishop Kermit L. Newkirk Jr. of the Harold O. Davis Memorial Baptist Church. “Power is organized money. Those that diametrically oppose our agenda have organized, and they’ve organized their money.” Newkirk called on the audience to raise $25,000 in the donation buckets, and although organizers said the final take was closer to $10,000, they said that was still POWER’s highest one-day fundraising total ever.
Hite was not the only official present; City Council members Mark Squilla and Kenyatta Johnson were also in attendance, and Johnson pledged to serve as POWER’s champion in Council as its campaign for airport jobs and better schools heats up.
Also present were small but vocal delegations from the city’s blue-collar union, SEIU Local 32BJ; the hospitality workers union, Unite Here!; and the community organizing group Fight for Philly.
Nutter did not attend. Organizers made a point of telling the audience that he had been invited, but chose not to attend. But they also say that the mayor recently met privately with a delegation from POWER, as did Hite and members of the School Reform Commission.
Hite — an Episcopalian married to a Catholic who says he hasn’t joined a congregation himself, but is still visiting churches citywide — stayed for the entire event, stopping to chat and pose for pictures with attendees as he left. He praised POWER for its constructive agenda. “They actually want to do something to make things better,” he said.
And while advocating for funding and spreading “the message of shared sacrifice” will be important, Hite said, he added that he hoped POWER congregations could also provide more localized support, connecting cash-strapped neighborhood schools with after-school programs, mentors, and tutors.
“There are so many things an organization can do,” Hite said. “I just hope and pray that they remain organized and be true to their commitment to assist us in improving the schools in Philadelphia.”