What Does a Caring Philadelphian Look Like?

Or are you too apathetic to care?

Did the city of Brotherly Love forget about the love? The Gallup-Knight Foundation’s three-year study of 26 cities, including Philadelphia, resulted in some surprising results and one awfully incongruous finding: Philadelphians don’t think Philadelphians care about one another.

Recently, all of the people named “Connectors” by the Philadelphia Leadership program (278 people nominated in three rounds), were invited to get together for the first time at the Franklin Institute. In the rotunda, at the foot of the massive Ben Franklin statue, we Connectors were given the full “Soul of the Community” report by Donna Frisby-Greenwood, program director for Philadelphia.

Of all the cities studied, Philadelphia has the highest “rate of attachment,” with very high urban density. Attachment means just what you think it means: an emotional bond, love and passion. That’s the good news. But only 23 percent of Philadelphians polled gave high marks to the quality of K-12 education, and just 32 percent rated the overall aesthetics of Philadelphia highly. Some data seems obvious: Those earning salaries of $75K or more are more attached than those making $25K. “Will work for food” easily translates into “will move for food,” right?

As I understand it, the purpose of this study was to find the inexplicable or nebulous ways in which people become attached to their cities. With attachment comes economic growth, engagement, stability. The study’s hope is that city leaders will take a look at these results and see where Philadelphia can improve. In fact, the results are discussed with a positive spin in the report we were given, with the suffering perception of education looked at as an “opportunity to prioritize.”

The reason why the Connectors were being given all of this information, though, was because Philadelphia residents tend to give low marks on the extent to which residents care about each other. Residents are, apparently, attached to the city but not one another. We were seated at tables of eight, and our assignment was to consider ways we could alter that perception.

Now, keep in mind that if you’re selected as a Connector, you probably are an optimistic person. So, first we needed some time to process. We were a bit stunned.

Pedro Ramos, chairman of the Philadelphia School Reform commission, reminded us of the enormity of the non-profit sector in Philadelphia. Ed Tettemer taught the majority of us that no other city has a charter like Philadelphia’s maneto “Peace, Hope, Justice and Prosperity.” (In fact, Partners for Civic Pride’s mission is to promote and celebrate those four guiding principles.)

After we processed this news we got to work on how we were going to fix this problem, remaining convinced that apathy was a perception and not a reality. I suggested a campaign with a circle around the word “apathy” and a slash through it that read “eradicate.” But we were afraid that “eradicate” was too complicated a word.

We moved on, and Michael Norris, of Philadelphia Art-Reach suggested we treat apathy like a disease and run an awareness campaign. Frame it as illness that we can cure (and we mean the collective we). Boom! Things were bubbling along, and suddenly we had developed (in our minds, of course) a series of television PSA’s, bus billboards, and trash-can signage, all depicting Philadelphians actually caring. I cannot speak for the rest of my group but I felt better already. I felt even better when, after an hour or so of putting us to “work,” folding doors opened and a bar was open for us to continue our conversations with others.

Everyone was still buzzing about the problem of the apathy perception, and the “pay it forward” $50 gift we had been given in order to give away. We were told to give the money so as to have some kind of impact, and to report our stories back to Leadership Philadelphia. Some people were suggesting we pool all of that cash to start the caring campaign.

I met Donna Frisby Greenwood, and we talked more about the study’s findings. Another contradiction was that Philadelphians rate the colleges and universities very highly, higher than other cities, but rate our openness to keeping graduates here as very low. This is one of the many findings where the perception does not parse with the facts. I mentioned that I’ve met many Drexel students who graduate and don’t leave the city, and while they say that they can’t leave because they couldn’t tolerate being out of Wawa region, I’m betting they have reasons other than awesome hoagies and the world’s best coffee.

We talked about perception itself, the intangibility of these concepts, and I felt good about the city and its love. But today, I realized again that maybe we were preaching to our own choir? I googled around, looking on Philadelphia media sites specifically as well, to see the local coverage the Gallup-Knight “Soul of the Community” report. Did you anticipate the punch line yet? Does little to no media attention mean no one cares?