West Philadelphia: a community beyond Drexel | The Triangle

West Philadelphia: a community beyond Drexel

Photo courtesy of the Lindy Center

As a first-year student at Drexel University, it may seem like you are learning new things about Drexel every day, but something that your emails probably will not let you forget is Drexel’s commitment to being a “civically engaged university.” Yet what exactly does that mean?

Two of the most dedicated on-campus hubs helping students answer that question are the Lindy Center for Civic Engagement and the Dornsife Center for Community Partnerships. The Lindy Center supports students in finding ways to serve and interact with the West Philadelphia community. West Philadelphia is marked with three major universities that have caused indegenous residents to be displaced. Most Drexel students become familiar with the history and the centers through the required course it oversees, CIVC 101: Introduction to Civic Engagement. For students who want to expand their engagement beyond the classroom, the Lindy Center compiles an online database of individual and group volunteer opportunities around the city called Galaxy. Included are one-time and long-term roles, and ways to create meaningful relationships between Drexel students and community development organizations or public schools. 

If the Lindy Center is the channel that connects students to local civic engagement initiatives, Drexel’s Dornsife Center is where these programs are given the resources to grow. The Dornsife Center was established in 2014 to foster relationships between the quickly expanding university and community residents within the surrounding West Philadelphia Promise Zone, one of a network of neighborhoods identified by the federal government as prime areas for initiatives that combat poverty and increase accessibility to quality education and employment. 

The Partnerships Coordinator at Dornsife, Dominique Coleman-Williams, since its founding and a Mantua resident herself, believes that while trust with the community’s residents is still being built, the many bonds Dornsife has formed with community organizations have brought valuable progress. 

“Before we moved to Spring Garden, we started out in a small storefront in Mantua Square where we had a computer lab and we did some pro bono legal work,” Coleman-Williams said. “Now we’re more popular among community organizations and nonprofits who want to partner with us and utilize our space, but we’re still working on building trust with community members because representing Drexel comes with challenges like gentrification and development around the university.” 

To best build that trust, Coleman-Williams says they initially asked community members what types of programs they envisioned in their neighborhood’s future and then partnered with organizations that addressed those specific hopes so that Dornsife could “serve the community completely” across all demographics and needs. The result is a sprawling ecosystem on 35th and Spring Garden stre et built through the combined efforts of all of Dornsife’s community partners: a path through the community garden (organized by Urban Growers) leads to three buildings that house everything from Action for Early Learning’s after-school read-alongs to health workshops by Lazarex Cancer Wellness Hub to dance lessons with Drexel’s Dance Department, all offered for free. 

Saana Valasma, president of the student-founded community group Sharing Excess, which redistributes unused food from grocery stores and restaurants to those who need it,has experienced creating a successful event with Dornsife firsthand. Last spring the Drexel entrepreneurship and innovation junior collaborated with Dornsife on a large-scale distribution called the Share Fair, where community members received free food from eight to ten different organizations and socialized while enjoying live music. 

She said putting it together was “exhausting but definitely worth it,” and that it shows the growth Sharing Excess had undergone since it was first founded by alumnus Evan Ehlers. Valasma said she joined not only because she believed Ehlers’ idea addressed an important issue, but because it sounded like a perfect way to help people around her while forming meaningful relationships. 

“I’m an international student, so it was difficult for me to meet people at first,” said Valasma, “but [joining Sharing Excess] exposed me to the real community and showed me the ways we affected people in a positive way.” 

Sharing Excess has grown to have chapters across the city that together redistribute over 120,000 pounds of food per week. Drexel’s chapter organizes multiple food distribution pop-ups per month and events all over campus.

The Writer’s Room at Drexel is an organization that works closely with the people of West Philadelphia. Founding director Rachel Wernick describes the community they have built as “tight-knit but welcoming.” The Writer’s Room is a group where students and community members come together for creative expression through collaborative projects, workshops, and open mics that focus on writing and incorporate other mediums like photography to impact the community and promote social justice. 

“We have workshops every second Tuesday that form the core of our programming,” said Lauren Lowe, Writer’s Room alum and programs manager, “they’re designed so that…you come in and you don’t have to do any prep beforehand. We’ll have an artist or teacher or community member leading the workshop and you write on the spot and leave having created a new piece.” 

Writer’s Room also takes on larger projects like TRIPOD, a writing and photography initiative documenting and working with students from Robeson High School who describe their experience living in Philadelphia’s changing neighborhoods, and the Second Story Collective, a project which uses writing to impact change in affordable housing. 

Writer’s Room constantly develops new programming based on feedback from their members, like taking members to watch and write in response to plays and inviting inspiring creatives to come and speak. Wernick has led Writer’s Room efforts to involve the community in big ways through their best and hardest moments, having helped organize a festival with funding from the National Endowment from the Arts and helped arrange a serious community discussion for people to voice their feelings in the aftermath of the shooting of George Floyd. Wernick says that the intergenerational community at Writer’s Room “accomplishes and faces everything together.” 

Wernick believes that Writer’s Room is so important because it creates a place where both students and community members “can be seen, and to be visible and know that you’re appreciated and respected is such an important thing.” 

Lowe echoes that message saying that she wasn’t intimidated when joining Writer’s Room as a student because “you can’t just sit back and do nothing, you’re with these people who are interested in you and what you have to offer and you just have to interact.” 

As a new student trying to navigate how things work at Drexel, serving the community may sound like additional pressure during an already stressful experience. But coming to Drexel University opens doors to volunteering at any number of programs that fit your unique interests. Similar to all Drexel’s student volunteers when they first started, you can’t be sure of the impact civic engagement can have on your life until you show up at the first meeting.