In retrospect, the rise of Jim Kenney had a certain #FeelTheBern quality to it. The giddy millennials. The underdog element. The AARP-eligible white guy with whitish hair who somehow was cool. Like, shockingly cool. Clinking-beer-glasses-with-young-people-at-Johnny-Brenda’s cool. Kenney blended working-class populism with a distinctly 21st-century relatable-ness: all that reckless tweeting (example: calling Chris Christie “fat assed” for supporting the Cowboys), all that emoting on the floor of City Council (example: “If you’re a homophobe or a racist and you’re from the suburbs or outside the city, we really don’t want you to come here”). His policies were cool, too: Kenney got the LGBT equality bill passed; he decriminalized marijuana; he was pro-immigrant. And in what surely was a first in Philly mayoral history, he suggested that we borrow fresh ideas from the far-flung metropolis of Gdańsk, Poland.
Some media outlets described Friday’s town hall on stop-and-frisk as “raucous” or “chaos.” But that’s only a half-truth. Sure, there were emotional eruptions by the audience, defiant answers from the police commissioner, and angry constituents jeering the mayor. But in spite of the high tensions, the event co-hosted by the interfaith group POWER and Techbook Online largely did what it set out to do: clarify where each of the key players stands on stop-and-frisk. Not that audience members necessarily got the answers they wanted. Read more »
Here’s a strange nugget from yesterday’s primary results: 6 out of the 7 wards* where a majority of voters cast ballots for Bernie Sanders … went for Hillary Clinton back in 2008. In some cases, the change between elections was staggering.
Take the three most-decidedly pro-Sanders wards: 31, 18 — which are neighboring wards covering the Fishtown/Port Richmond area — and 1, which connects Pennsport and East Passyunk (ed note: It’s where I voted). Look at the disparity in Clinton votes during the past two contested Democratic primaries within each of those blocs: Read more »
On the night of the Brooklyn Democratic debate, I head toward the South Philly field office of Bernie Sanders for President. The address takes me to a storefront with an enormous overhang bearing the name of the former tenant, Boutique W — a discount designer-clothing store based in Newtown Square — in pink and black lettering. It’s an odd sort of welcome sign for the grassroots, 99-percenter campaign, but then again, office space is office space and inside, the place looks more the part.
Young volunteers are passing around phone-bank lists like an aggressive game of Go Fish and chomping on Chips Ahoy during breaks. Folding tables are scattered with HP laptops and bottled water. There’s a garbage can humorlessly labeled “garbage.” And clipboards. Lots of clipboards. Everyone seems to believe that South Philly, perhaps more than any other neighborhood, is Feeling the Bern. I float to the back of the no-frills, white-walled space and chat with a shaggy-haired campaign worker who speaks on background (only volunteers can speak on the record, I was told). He nonetheless wanted to know: “Do you like Bernie?”
Two days before the Pennsylvania primaries, that question would seem a relevant one to ask of anyone and everyone in Philadelphia. Of course, it ignores the Republicans who’re also voting on April 26th (recent polling suggests Donald Trump has a double-digit lead in the state), but given the 7-to-1 edge in registered Democrats in the city and the upcoming DNC this summer, it seems right to focus on the blue team here. (Also: Liberal media bias, natch.)
But truth be told, writing any story about the Tuesday primary feels like an obligatory act of self-aggrandizement, considering the national consensus that our vote means zilch. “Why Pennsylvania won’t matter much in either primary,” ran a headline in the Washington Post on Thursday. Hillary Clinton is cruising, having locked up 81 percent of the delegates required to secure the nomination. And, thanks to the Dems’ lack of winner-take-all primaries and the omnipotent Clinton-friendly superdelegates, she can conceivably lose every single remaining state and still win by a comfortable margin. Not that she appears to be in any danger of that: Depending on which of the latest polls you believe, the former Secretary of State has a 13-point or 27-point lead over Sanders among likely primary voters in the Keystone State, where she beat Barack Obama by nearly 10 points in 2008.
Last time, the race felt neck-and-neck; in 2016, it’s a runaway. The wide berth is just one reason for the apathetic mood of lots of Philadelphians though. “I’m not supporting a broken system,” says Paris Adams, 19, a young man from Frankford who said he supports Sanders, but doesn’t see the point in casting a ballot. “Unless Captain America is running, I’m not voting.”
In ’08, voters like Adams were exactly the type — well-informed, African-American, eligible for the first time — that the Obama ground game famously turned out in droves. After an economic recession and eight years of gridlock in Washington though, voters appear to be a lot more jaded. A Pew analysis of a dozen primaries (including Super Tuesday) suggests that Democrat voter-turnout rates have been roughly 60 percent of what they were during Obama v. Clinton. The most optimistic spin is that turnout has not been cataclysmically bad. Dems are voting at higher rates this year than in 2000, sure, but they’re slightly off the pace of the average turnout since 1980. (And that average is excluding the outlying year of 2008.) The enthusiasm this year can be summed up in a single word: Meh. Read more »
Hillary at the Fillmore
By the time Hillary Clinton took the stage at the Fillmore in Fishtown last night, she’d had a long, eventful 24 hours. First, she finished off a 16-point drubbing of Senator Bernie Sanders in the New York primary on Tuesday night. Then, Clinton arrived in Philadelphia to appear at a panel discussion — which included former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Tanya Brown-Dickerson, the mother of a high-profile police-shooting victim in Philly — on gun violence, criminal justice and policing. All of which caused the former Secretary of State to arrive an hour late to the Fillmore, which by then was filled with 2,000 animated supporters who’d been lining up since the late afternoon. Read more »
This was the sort of scene Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was hoping to avoid.
Security guards screened entrants to her campaign stop at the Fillmore in Fishtown Wednesday evening, taking a look at the signs the crowd was bringing in. But that didn’t stop a group of protesters from sneaking in very off-message placards, disrupting the rally, and being forcefully escorted out. Also caught up in the expulsion? Me. A credentialed reporter, there to cover the event for this magazine, who was told by the Secret Service that I needed to get out, or risk going home in handcuffs.
It started as a standard, stage-managed campaign event. Smooth-jazz renditions of Beatles hits and Katy Perry — lots of Katy Perry — filled the venue before former Secretary of State Clinton took the stage about an hour behind schedule, at 7:45 p.m. She quickly launched into a discussion of her longstanding ties to the Pennsylvania region, including memories of her father’s home in Scranton. She then acknowledged Senator Bob Casey and former Mayor Michael Nutter, both in the audience, among other dignitaries. After talking at length about the economic growth during her husband’s presidency, things started to get interesting.
Almost seven minutes into her roughly half-hour long speech, a group of about 10 protesters emerged from the audience with small signs that when strung together made up phrases like: “You’re Not Welcome Here” and “Stop Killing Black People.” Read more »
Last September, after visiting the new Whitney Museum in New York, I climbed up to the High Line for what I thought would be a breezy stroll with gorgeous views of the Meatpacking District. How wrong I was. Between the people jockeying for avant-garde lawn chairs and the gaggles of camera-toting tourists, the foot traffic crawled along at an infuriating pace.
The park was designed for 600,000 visitors per year; last year, there were 6 million. Though the High Line remains an international beacon of innovative green space (it has also invited lots of deep-pocketed developers into the once-sleepy Chelsea neighborhood), it’s not a functional piece of the urban grid. You can lick all the $8 popsicles you want there, but don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s a good way of getting around the Lower West Side.
All of which made me believe that the rallying cry in Philly to create a High Line-esque park out of the rusting Reading Viaduct and adjacent railroad tunnels — together, they form a continuous stretch of land going from Chinatown to Fairmount Park — was mostly about beautification, and not at all about improving mobility. That’s why I left it off Philly Mag’s recent list of “20 Smart Transportation Ideas Reshaping Philadelphia (and Your Life).” Was it one of the 20 coolest urbanism projects around? Surely. But was it going to change the way we moved around the city? Meh.
Someone begged to differ. “Think about being in West Poplar or NoLibs, riding a few blocks to Fairmount and 9th, taking an elevator up onto the Viaduct and then riding all the way to PMA or Boathouse Row, and [you] only have to stop for cars when crossing Kelly Drive,” Michael Garden wrote to me on Facebook. Alright, that got my attention. Read more »
Outside a leaky old candy factory in Juniata, the season’s first snowstorm is caking the sidewalk in slush. A fire-engine-red door opens with the push of a tattooed hand belonging to artist Alex Da Corte. He ushers me inside a cavernous space the size of a basketball court, past a series of installations in mid-assembly, up a flight of stairs, and into a room that has the makings of a David Lynch dream sequence. There’s a bushy-tailed dog ablaze in peach-hued sunlight, propped up on all fours, staring at me from the perch of a plywood table. It’s stiff as the Sphinx. “That’s Nicole Brown Simpson’s Akita. It’s the dog they say found the bodies,” Da Corte explains, showing me its scraggily wire innards with gleeful delight. The pup will soon be placed on a mechanical track and rotate in circles, as if searching for something. To add a touch of dementedness, Da Corte has adorned the replica with a rubber Halloween dog mask. The dog is wearing a dog mask. “It’s maniacal,” Da Corte says. “It’s just not right.”
No matter where you look, there’s a cloud of confusion surrounding the future of stop-and-frisk in Philly. Take the political theater playing out in various opinion columns over the past month. Despite Mayor Jim Kenney reiterating that his position “hasn’t changed” on stop-and-frisk, the kerfuffle hasn’t died down, even a little bit, regarding whether Kenney has backtracked on a campaign promise to end the controversial police practice (or, conversely, if the criticism is mostly hot air).
If you prefer numbers over words, there’s perplexity stemming from a new report released last week by the law firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg — the police department’s court-appointed independent monitor of PPD stop-and-frisk — showing the persistence of discouraging statistics. The report, covering stop-and-frisk data from the first half of 2015, found that 33 percent of all police stops lacked a constitutional reason for performing them, a number that hardly budged from the same period a year prior. Though the numbers were unequivocally poor, the confusion arose in the aftermath of the release, when the ACLU of Pennsylvania called upon the police department to raise their standards for pedestrian stops, from reasonable suspicion to probable cause. Commissioner Richard Ross and the city solicitor suggested that adjusting the standards lies outside their authority, unless the Supreme Court overturned Terry v Ohio. The police say it’s undoable, the ACLU says it’s completely within the department’s autonomy.
So can we get some clarity? On anything?
Deep breaths, people, there will soon be a chance for precisely that. A town hall focused around the issue of stop-and-frisk will take place on Friday, April 29th, at 7 p.m. at the New Vision United Methodist Church in North Philly. Read more »
Ama Mazama, slight in stature and wearing a tightly fastened Ruth Bader Ginsberg ponytail, is revving up an Epson projector on a cold and rainy December morning. The head of graduate African-American studies at Temple University, Mazama — a self-chosen name that translates to “tender and violent love” — is both gentle and commanding at the head of a class. When she’s listening to you, the 48-year-old mother of three squints ever so slightly, as if not quite hearing you or not quite trusting your line of reason. But she politely guides you, in her French-Caribbean accent, to a logical answer nonetheless.
Mazama teaches a lesson on cognitive psychology in a classroom that looks ill-equipped for the task: devoid of whiteboards and desks, outfitted with drums and a piano. There’s commotion from a dog in the nearby kitchen. Only two pupils are present. The four of us are cloistered in the “music room” within Mazama’s three-story stone home in Germantown.
As she introduces today’s discussion topic — spiritual intelligence — I can’t help but think it’s a little heavy for her 10-year-old son, Kiamuya, and 13-year-old daughter, Tamu. Minutes later, the three are not only discussing an array of metaphysical ideas; they’re doing so bilingually, alternating “okay” with “d’accord.” Mazama’s kids scribble in their notebooks and exchange occasional giggles, the way children in the back of a traditional classroom would. But their curriculum is far from traditional, even by homeschooling standards.
Mazama is known nationally as an Afrocentrist scholar and linguist, a translator of Marcus Garvey, and, increasingly, one of the most prominent voices of an emerging segment of alternative education: black homeschooling. According to survey data by the National Center for Education Statistics, the overall homeschooling population has doubled from 850,000 in 1999 to more than 1.7 million in 2012 — including, say Mazama and other researchers, an unheralded group of African-Americans. When Mazama started teaching her oldest boy 13 years ago, she says, there was nothing by way of research on the topic. The assumption was that the motivations of homeschooling black Americans were no different from those of the two archetypal camps that were doing so: religious fundamentalists and crunchy-granola progressives.
“People assumed they were doing it for the same reason as white parents,” Mazama says. But once she started interviewing parents in seven regions across the country, she found otherwise. Black parents were nearly as likely to cite racism (24 percent) as their primary motivation as they were to blame the low quality of education in brick-and-mortar schools (25 percent). When Mazama dug deeper, interviewing parents one-on-one, she reached a more damning conclusion: “Racism was interwoven into every reason why they disengaged.”
By racism, she means not only bigoted name-calling, but the full gamut of marginalization within schools: the dearth of black teachers; the over-representation of blacks in special education and disciplinary actions; their under-representation in honor tracks; the Eurocentricity of curricula; the 15-point gap in high-school graduation rates between blacks and whites. But the data, however important, wasn’t as devastating as what Mazama heard. As much as parents want to believe in American education as the great equalizer, its infrastructure remains skewed for some to succeed and others to fail — or, at best, simply to get by.
“It’s not necessarily that they stopped believing in quote-unquote the American Dream,” says Mazama. “It’s rather that because of the way things are set up now, their children don’t have enough of a chance to participate in that.”
SINCE 1993, WHEN homeschooling was legalized in all 50 states, the most vigorous lobbying force in everything from blocking state mandatory-testing laws to providing federal aid for college-bound homeschoolers has been the Home School Legal Defense Association. The nonprofit is a self-described “Christian organization” whose membership accounts for about 15 percent of homeschooling families. But the national visibility of the HSLDA — and its outsized presence in statehouses and the press — has fed a popular stereotype about which kids are being homeschooled: namely, those rocking Bible-camp t-shirts, or, if you’re a fan of tabloids, scandal-damaged pseudo-celebs like Josh Duggar. That image has endured even though an emphasis on religious and moral instruction has been declining as the primary motivating factor of homeschooling parents in recent years.
It’s estimated that more than three percent of the school-age population, or about two million American kids, are currently homeschooled. (Thanks to myriad challenges, precise demographic data on homeschoolers both here and across the country are hard to come by; the NCES plans to release specific figures early this year.) Today, 10 percent of all homeschoolers are black, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. Mazama’s research suggests many of the families of those children share a unique dissatisfaction with traditional education. What she’s found is playing out in our local courtrooms: Call it “diversity on the suspension roll but not the honor roll.” This past November, a group of parents filed a complaint against the Upper Dublin School District alleging that black students account for 45 percent of district suspensions though they make up just seven percent of the student body, and that blacks are systemically excluded from upper-level courses and gifted programs. A similar charge was leveled at the Lower Merion School District in a 2007 federal lawsuit claiming black students had been placed in special ed despite middle-of-the-pack test scores. Though that suit was dismissed by a district judge who wasn’t convinced racial bias could explain the numbers, enrollment of black students in Lower Merion’s honors and AP courses has since doubled, and the racial gap in special education has narrowed.
With double standards in schools ranging from cash-strapped inner-city institutions to those in posh suburban districts, Mazama found that black parents didn’t know where to turn to educate their kids. One increasingly popular option is to bypass the schools entirely. When Nicole Madison pulled her oldest daughter, Noelle, out of first grade at a Catholic school in Chestnut Hill, it was the sit-up-straight-and-stand-in-line pedagogy that gave her pause more than any sense her daughter was mistreated because she was black. But the more Madison talked to other parents who’d kept their kids in school, the more she heard “horror stories,” as she describes them: anecdotes about the disparity of resources, how black students fare far worse than whites on standardized tests, how one friend told Madison that her sixth-grader went to court for making terroristic threats because he used the word “kill” on the playground.
“I think the perception is that when you look at a 10-year-old African-American boy and a 10-year-old Caucasian boy, the African-American boy is more likely to act out on purpose, as opposed to just being a kid,” she says.
That’s not to say some black students aren’t misbehaving, or to discount environmental factors inside the home that could be at fault. But when they are disproportionately punished as far back as pre-K, by the time they reach high school they may be branded as problem kids — in turn, making them more likely to act out. The statistics from Upper Dublin and Lower Merion reflect disparities nationwide: Black public-school students are three times more likely to be suspended than whites and account for 31 percent of school-related arrests — feeding the so-called school-to-prison pipeline — despite making up just 16 percent of the K-through-12 student body. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy with residual effects.
Ameenah Muhammad-Diggins, a first-year homeschooler in Burlington County, saw how her son, the only African-American child in his private-school grade, was viewed through that prism despite being a standout student. “He brought a science project in and they were like, ‘Whoaaaaa, he did so well, oh my God.’ And I’m thinking, it’s a good science project, but why are you amazed?” she says. “I felt he was not expected to do as well as everybody else.” After she pulled her nine- and 11-year-olds out of school last summer, Muhammad-
Diggins says, she felt the need to undo all the damage wrought by that marginalization: “We spent the last month just kind of trying to rebuild their self-esteem and doing more exploratory learning.”
How to insulate black children from a potentially toxic school culture is a theme throughout Mazama’s research. For this, she coined the term “racial protectionism,” which she defined in a paper for the Journal of Black Studies:
Racial protectionists shared the view that schools, public or private, could not, given the racist nature of American society, be emotionally safe for Black children. Racism was talked about as an inevitable fact of American life and schools as a place where Black children were bound to experience dire racial oppression and hostility in the form of the suppression of African American cultural identity and imposition of Whiteness as the ideal norm. …
In her homeschooling, Mazama moves to circumvent that “imposition of whiteness.” Aside from a novel each by John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway (she has a soft spot for those stories), her children read no white authors; during the lesson on spiritual intelligence, all the examples in Mazama’s PowerPoint were African-American or Native American. “I made a point of not teaching anything from white history, white literature, white nothing,” she says.
Though the concept of racial protectionism harks back to Marcus Garvey and the Nation of Islam, don’t confuse black homeschooling with a modern-day separatist movement. Mazama’s approach is exceptional. I spoke to 10 other homeschooling parents, and most take part in multicultural homeschooling groups; none have strong feelings about Afrocentrism. What they do share is a desire to teach black history without relegating it to a single month.
“It’s going to be hard for you to sit in a traditional classroom and find resources and topics that address what’s going on with black people unless it’s February,” says Andrea Thorpe, a Burlington County mother, expressing a universal sentiment among the black parents I interviewed. Thorpe runs a Facebook group for African-American homeschooling moms that has grown from 15 to 1,600 people over the past 18 months. One function of the group is to serve as a forum for swapping notes on black-related historical sites to visit on field trips, books with strong black characters, and how to teach current events related to race. “I had no idea there were that many black families homeschooling,” Thorpe notes, “so it’s nice to know that you’re not by yourself.”
But is the attempt to remove institutional racism from a child’s experience a form of sheltering? After all, racial tensions are all over the news; prejudice and discrimination await after the kids end their homeschooling. Nicole Madison, who now lives in Plymouth Meeting, insists it’s quite the opposite: Her daughter wouldn’t have been as well prepared for facing racism in college without homeschooling. “I think because she had such a firm foundation, knew who she was already, it didn’t hurt her the same way it might’ve hurt her if she’d grown up feeling that systematic racism her entire life.”
HOMESCHOOLERS LIKE RYAN JOBSON, a freckled, African-American freshman at Swarthmore College, are helping to dispel the broader stereotype. He’s your classic overachiever: He started fixing computers when he was seven and ran a business at 12. Despite never having taken a standardized test, he placed in the 98th percentile on his ACT science exam. “When I meet somebody, I usually say, ‘Hi, I’m Ryan, the homeschool kid,’” he says, with a smile highlighting his dimples. Jobson’s introduction is one part sly strategy to make an impression and one part a polite way of saying, This is who I am, get over it. Having been homeschooled is as much a part of his identity as his decisions to enroll in a black-studies course and to double-major in engineering and computer science. He proudly wears it all on his sleeve.
Jobson grew up in wealthy suburbs and with ample resources, much like your prototypical homeschooler. Thanks to the logistical and financial challenges of teaching your own children, homeschooling parents tend to be married, higher-educated and higher-income. But for some, like Nicole Madison, the challenges of homeschooling are enormous. Following a divorce, Madison faced the daunting task of educating three—soon to be five—kids alone. She got a late-night copywriting job and functioned on four hours of sleep for a time.
In Philadelphia, though, there’s a movement to make it easier to opt out of standard education. Enter Natural Creativity, a homeschooling center in Germantown. “We need a place for working parents where children can go and be a part of a community of other families and get support for the transition out of school,” says Diane Cornman-Levy, the center’s executive director.
Two years ago, Cornman-Levy forged the idea for the center with Peter Bergson, the co-founder of Open Connections, a 40-year-old “progressive education” campus located on a 28-acre farm in Delaware County — something like a cross between a Montessori school and a commune. Educators are mere facilitators, while kids are left in the driver’s seat of the curriculum, suggesting what the group programming should be and what individual projects they’ll pursue. One mother who sent her kids there told me her kids were using power tools — safely — by the third grade.
The city spinoff opened in a temporary location — the First United Methodist Church of Germantown — in January, with plans for a permanent home soon. Costs per family are based on parents’ ability to pay, to allow for more socioeconomic diversity. All signs point to greater racial diversity, too: About half of the two dozens kids enrolled in the program so far are black. That doesn’t surprise Cornman-Levy. “When I talk to families about Natural Creativity, I connect to African-Americans faster than to any group,” she says. “They get it — I don’t have to sell the fact that school is doing these things not in the best interest of their child.”
When I ask Mazama what she’s heard about a homeschooling center opening up less than a mile from her home, I get one of her gentle, skeptical stares. We’re standing in her foyer, the sound of rain pattering outside. She knows nothing about Natural Creativity — a response suggesting that homeschooling is growing too fast for even a researcher to keep up.
A racially integrated homeschool experiment like Natural Creativity is another means to expand the growing share of black self-educators, so Mazama is all for it. She points out that Maryland’s Prince George’s County, the bastion of black upper-middle-class life in America, has a booming black homeschooling population. Mazama doesn’t think it’s a coincidence. “These are black people who see that there’s definitely a problem and they decide to do something about it, to remove themselves physically from that environment,” she says.
With racial inequality seemingly at every turn of their children’s lives, black parents view homeschooling as an opportunity to claim authority over at least one area: education. Consider it a new twist on the old African-American proverb “Each one teach one.” Ever the iconoclast, Mazama sees the potential for this movement to ripple out through society: “There was this woman I spoke to who always would say this: ‘If all those black men in prison had been homeschooled, they would not have ended up there.’”
Published as “A Class of Their Own” in the February 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.