Cultivating good relationships: Harkavy with (from top) Lakiesha Alexander, Brian Washington, Liz Willettes, and David Thompson at University City High School.

Dr. Ira Harkavy saw long ago that the futures of Penn and West Philadelphia are connected. As director of the Center for Community Partnerships, he’s led a persuasive campaign to link teaching and research to service and problem solving.

By Susan Frith | Photography by Bill Cramer
Sidebar | A Healthy Combination

West Philadelphia, 1985.

It was the summer of her discontent when Marie Bogle was called into the principal’s office to meet with two strangers. One of them was Dr. Ira Harkavy C’70 Gr’79, an administrator from Penn who would later become the first director of its Center for Community Partnerships.

Bogle was already steamed about being transferred from the classroom where she had taught for a dozen years to Bryant Elementary School. “I was one of those burnt-out teachers,” she says. “All I wanted to do was teach and go home, because I felt like the system was kicking me around.”

Harkavy, who was then vice dean of the School of Arts and Sciences as well as the director of the Office of Community-Oriented Policy Studies, proposed that she team up with Penn on a school beautification project. It would involve children affected by the city’s bombing of the MOVE headquarters and the burning of an entire block of homes that resulted from it. 

“I expressed my thoughts very clearly,” Bogle recalls. “I was not interested in getting involved in another project where people came into the community when the money was there, and as soon as it was gone, they left. 

“Traditionally, Penn had always taken from the community,” she adds. But this time was going to be different, Harkavy told her. In fact, he promised that Penn would stay involved. “Give us a try,” he asked.

Bogle did. And one thing led to another. 

Out of that experiment and others like it came Penn’s Center for Community Partnerships (CCP), which just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Today the University has partnerships with West Philadelphia’s schools and throughout surrounding neighborhoods to stem problems like poor nutrition, lead poisoning, and drug abuse while working on community development.

“This is not missionary work,” Harkavy emphasizes in an interview this spring. “This helps us to be a better university.” CCP’s collaboration with the community strives to be “democratic, mutually respectful, and mutually beneficial,” he says. “And [we] are partners in improving public schools, the community, and the University.”

Harkavy weaves his fingers together to emphasize the word partners. At times he bangs on the table in his office, where he sits and talks. It is largely because of his passion and persistence, many say, that Penn has become a model for other universities in the growing service-learning movement. And the center’s outreach has played a significant role in Penn’s improved relations with West Philadelphia.

“There’s no longer a sense of being in an armed camp, but there’s a sense of being part of a much larger community—not only that, but a community that’s actually happy to see and deal with you,” says Mitch Berger C’76 G’76, a Washington attorney who serves on CCP’s board of advisors.

In April the center hosted an international conference on “Universities, Schools and Communities: Partners for Effective Education, Community Building, and Democracy.” And this spring the University-Assisted Community School Program—developed by CCP in conjunction with the West Philadelphia Partnership and the Philadelphia School District, and with the help of teachers like Marie Bogle—received the W.T. Grant Foundation Youth Development Prize, awarded in collaboration with the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Children, Youth and Families.

“There are great things happening around him,” Bogle—now retired from teaching—says of Harkavy. “And he’s still that humble guy who says, ‘Wow, there’s so much more to do.’”

The futures of Penn and West Philadelphia are intertwined, declares the center’s mission statement, and that recognition lies at the heart of what it does. Though CCP has had a hand in everything from job-training to promoting dialogue among community leaders, a major focus has been the development and coordination of 140 academically based community-service courses, which span many schools and disciplines at Penn. In a given year, 40 to 50 such classes, enrolling 1200 students, are offered. (Among the choices this fall are courses on mural arts as a tool for social change; the urban asthma epidemic; and the politics that shape the production, marketing, and consumption of food.) Through its partnerships the center also has transformed several of West Philadelphia’s public schools into community hubs that are open for extended hours and serve as sites of learning, services, and activities for the entire neighborhood. These “university-assisted community schools” link community problem-solving to their curriculums. It’s a concept that has deep roots in the University’s history.

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” University President Dr. Judith Rodin CW’66 was quoting the words of Benjamin Franklin in her keynote speech at the conference CCP held to celebrate its anniversary. “I love these words for many reasons,” Rodin told the assemblage of scholars and community leaders, some of whom had come from as far away as South Africa and Korea. “One, they capture the pedagogical wisdom of academic service-learning. Two, Franklin’s words really anticipate and crystallize the growth of Penn and so many other universities.”

As Franklin also seemed to indicate in his “Proposal for the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania,” there is “no inherent conflict or tension between doing well and doing good,” Rodin said. Service learning has been a catalyst for the fusion of these two scholarly missions, which, in their merger, “form a more perfect university.” 

One CCP volunteer, Phillip Geheb C’04, had seen how hard it was for some West Philadelphia teachers to get their classrooms under control. So on his first day of teaching at a local high school, he asked students to talk about themselves. What he heard was sobering: One student was trying to come to terms with an abortion she had had. Another talked about being diagnosed with sickle-cell anemia.

Hearing their stories “really touched me on a personal level and made me want to do more for the kids,” Geheb says. Having a good listener made the students take his efforts more seriously, he believes. “A lot of times people don’t listen to them at all.” 

For many years Penn’s reputation for listening to West Philadelphia residents was, frankly, not very good. In their eyes, the University was a lot better at deciding what it wanted to do—and then bulling ahead and doing it. 

Shortly after he took office in 1980, former Penn President Sheldon Hackney Hon’93 went to a community meeting. “The first thing I heard was the stories of Penn being poised like a bulldozer ready to mow down the neighborhoods around it and expand for its own purposes,” he recalls.

So it was with very deep skepticism that community residents met Penn’s plans for neighborhood outreach. Harkavy, who grew up in the Bronx, knew something about the passions and nuances of urban turf wars, and he understood “how culture and history and neighborhoods matter.”

“The challenge of being a good neighbor in a community which doesn’t look like Stanford or Duke is a particularly tough one,” says Dr. Thomas Ehrlich, a former Penn provost and leading advocate for the service-learning movement. “I think the programs that Ira has sponsored [through CCP] have given Penn a way to turn what could have been a set of serious problems into real opportunities.”

Ehrlich, now a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a Penn trustee, says that in the field of service learning, “Ira’s been an extraordinary catalyst on campus and a beacon around the country—and internationally as well.” In fact, he is working with Harkavy on a comparative study involving scores of countries, looking at college campuses as sites for promoting democracy. What is particularly impressive about the work of Harkavy and the center, he adds, is their success in fusing theory with practice.

Consider the example of Dr. Francis Johnston. Now an emeritus professor of anthropology at Penn, Johnston had been doing research in Guatemala for years on the growth and nutritional status of children when he received an invitation to lunch at the Faculty Club with Harkavy and Dr. Lee Benson, now an emeritus professor of history and faculty fellow at CCP. They told him: “We want you in our village.”

Marie Bogle, who went on to teach at Turner Middle School, had pointed out the need there for a curriculum that would emphasize healthy lifestyles and nutrition. With his research background, Johnston got excited about the idea of exploring these issues with “real collaborators in the community” and developing “relations of trust” that he couldn’t do as easily in a faraway place, Harkavy recalls. “He said, ‘What I’d like to do is develop a process of working with the community in which they would not be researched on, but they would really learn and make a contribution.’”

“We had always talked about it, but what Frank Johnston did was figured out a way to do it,” says Harkavy, clapping his hands for emphasis. “To have his students who do research with him work with middle-school students and have those middle-school students teach others. To have those middle-school students develop projects with his students, and to have those teachers he worked with help shape what they were doing in West Philadelphia.”

As the course progressed, Johnston says, he found himself surrounded by “dedicated, committed, intelligent students” who wanted to get involved in the community. “Every time we were up against some kind of problem on how to do [something], more often than not, a student came forward with an idea.” Their collective work led to the Urban Nutrition Initiative, now used in several local schools, which promotes good health and active learning through after-school fruit-and-vegetable stands, school gardens, a farmer’s market, microbusiness development, and a community fitness program.

The date was February 23, 1969. Inside College Hall, the crowd of student, faculty and community protestors cheered—and some even wept—as College junior Ira Harkavy read aloud an agreement forged with the University administration. They had been fighting Penn’s involvement in military research as well as what they saw as its unfair treatment of the West Philadelphia community. After a six-day sit-in, the campus activists had won several concessions.

“We changed the decision-making processes and priorities of this institution,” Harkavy told his classmates. “Nothing was destroyed, but we built a hell of a lot.”

Harkavy was no stranger to social activism when he came to Penn. His parents were involved in the peace and civil-rights movements, and his father took part in the March on Washington, he proudly recalls. But it was a class at Penn that set him on a mission to connect academic work to the problems of society. 

Sitting in his office at the center, which is housed in a maze of rooms inside the old Mellon Bank Building at 36th and Walnut streets, Harkavy describes his “lightbulb” moment. It came in the middle of a history seminar 35 years ago. His professor, Dr. Lee Benson, posed the question: “Why study history?”

“And everybody buzzed around that issue and talked,” Harkavy recalls. Finally, Benson gave his own answer: “To better understand the world so that each of you can help change the world for the better.” (The respect is mutual: Looking back on his academic career, Benson cites being “Ira Harkavy’s teacher” as his proudest accomplishment.)

In his graduate studies and teaching, Harkavy had the chance to cultivate Benson’s ideas. “I came to see that the way for me to do engaged scholarship was to work to change things for the better in Penn’s community of West Philadelphia,” Harkavy said last year when he accepted the Tom Ehrlich Faculty Award for Service Learning, given by Campus Compact (a coalition of university presidents committed to improving the civic engagement of higher-education institutions).

In 1985 Sheldon Hackney teamed up with Harkavy and Benson to co-teach a seminar examining the history and problems of Penn’s relationship with West Philadelphia. A student project in that class spawned a community-revitalization group known as the West Philadelphia Improvement Corps—whose work is a model for universities around the world. It also led to the creation of CCP.

“I was optimistic” about the center’s chances for success, says Hackney, “but it’s done much more than I even thought was possible. Ira really is remarkably talented in motivating people, getting people to work together, and drawing faculty into [his work]. He is an academic entrepreneur with a strong social conscience who puts things together for the benefit of the University and the community.” 

Some might also say that Harkavy is a masterful pest.

Dr. Robert Giegengack, professor and chair of earth and environmental science, recalls his own recruitment into the ranks of faculty teaching academically based community-service courses. Harkavy, a former student of his, “started bugging me after we’d been friends all these years, and he said, ‘When are you going to come and do environmental studies [for middle-school students]?’ I said, ‘Ira, that’s crazy. I study global climate change … What the hell am I going to tell these kids?’ He just kept after me.”

Giegengack finally told him, “To get you off my back I’ll do it, but if we’re going to do it then we have to choose an environmental case that is of immediate relevance to the children of West Philadelphia.” Lead-paint exposure emerged as the most obvious concern, given the older housing stock of the neighborhood. So Giegengack developed a course that put Penn undergraduates in local middle schools to teach the dangers of lead poisoning while also gathering data about the distribution of lead in the neighborhoods.

“The burden to society from the reduced functionality of all those kids [exposed to lead] is really enormous,” Giegengack says. “And every time we send a bunch of kids into the school to pass on some information that helps some family protect another child against lead poisoning, it probably [makes] a net contribution to society.”

In Environmental Science 404, middle-schoolers are sent home to collect dirt samples, paint chips, and dust out of vacuum-cleaner bags, then bring them back to their Penn instructors for analysis. The results then are shared with the schools as well as city agencies. Working together, the Penn and middle-school students create an educational pamphlet to distribute to families and neighbors. “We turn middle-school kids into delegates,” says Giegengack, who went on to create additional courses on tobacco-use prevention and asthma prevention following this model.

If Harkavy’s persistence occasionally leads to a flat no, he also knows how to bide his time until the moment is right, says Lee Benson. Several years ago CCP was developing a major school-based health-education program in conjunction with Penn’s School of Medicine. According to Benson, then-Dean William N. Kelley took over and nixed the idea that the medical school would be involved with the School of Arts and Sciences in a community-health program. 

“That ended it,” Benson says. “But that setback never distracted Ira—or me, for that matter—from the idea of eventually restarting the health program.” After Kelley left in early 2000 in the wake of multimillion dollar losses for Penn’s Health System, Dr. Arthur Rubenstein—who had shown a strong interest in community health—took over as executive vice president of the Health System and medical-school dean. So Harkavy reached out again. The result was the Sayre Middle School health program, a partnership involving not just the medical school but many of Penn’s undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools. “That is an even greater development than we had originally envisioned,” says Benson. “It exemplifies Ira’s persuasive capacity and his long-range vision.”

For all of Harkavy’s persistence, the work he oversees still takes place under the auspices of a center, and not a degree-granting program. “A center is sort of a stepchild of the University,” contends Mitch Berger. Having largely broken down the invisible barrier that separates Penn from West Philadelphia, CCP has another challenge back on campus: convincing people that it’s “more than an outreach program” and deserves to be part of the core curriculum, Berger says. “There’s room in a large university, set in a challenging urban setting, to get a bachelor of arts degree in a major that concentrates in service-based learning—in my humble opinion.”

Even without the support of a degree-granting program, one could argue, CCP’s presence on campus has influenced students’ outlooks and life plans. And through their fresh ideas—as well as the work of an energetic staff—what Harkavy and a handful of others started has gathered a momentum of its own.

“I guess it completely changed my life around,” says Mei Elansary C’04. She ditched a semester abroad and her French major to pursue environmental studies and biological basis of behavior, taking a leading role in CCP’s development of the school-based community health center at Sayre Middle School. For her leadership she received the 2003 Howard R. Swearer Student Humanitarian Award from Campus Compact. She’s applying her award money toward the development of a peer-education program at Sayre. Starting this summer, it will group 50 students who are failing science with 50 students who are doing well in that subject. The students will spend one day a week at a hospital being trained as “mini docs” and another day at a local health clinic. After she graduates, Elansary plans to join Teach for America and then pursue a career in public health and adolescent medicine. 

“One thing Dr. Harkavy does well is that he inspires students to find their niche, their passion, and really go after it,” says Phillip Geheb. After taking a class with Harkavy, he was inspired to create a program that tries to give high-school students “the communication skills they need to go out in their communities and organize around problems.” 

One semester Geheb’s students turned their frustration about the high cost of transportation into action. A SEPTA official came to their classroom and listened to their proposal for a reduced bus fare for students traveling to and from school. “Obviously, we’ll see what happens,” Geheb says.

He discussed with his students how “the wheels of change are slow and you don’t often see the benefits of what you’re doing until possibly months or possibly years down the line. But you need to carry this mentality into all the things that you do: Be persuasive and be forthright with people, because sooner or later things will change.”

Not every moment in the classroom is a success. Toward the end of Giegengack’s course on tobacco-use prevention, several of his undergraduates talked about some of the challenges of engaging pre-adolescents.

“We did exercises about what middle-school students are like, but it’s never what you think it’s going to be” says Vaishali Patel, a pre-med student. “My group ended up making adjustments to the lesson plan just because the kids may not have been responsive to something.”

“I think a lot of the problems were there before we got there and stayed there after we left,” adds another student. “If the [regular] teacher has no control of the classroom and can’t teach and can’t keep kids interested, then they have no respect for us because we’re just showing up” for part of a semester. 

But Patel feels she connected with the students. “It definitely works better if we don’t become the same figure as their teachers,” she says. “Especially the first couple of days we went in there, what they really wanted to know about was us and what college is like. The more you establish that relationship with them, [the more] they start to listen to stuff we say about tobacco.”

Though service learning has taken off only in the last 10 years, Harkavy says, its intellectual framework actually goes back to the American philosopher John Dewey, who argued that learning takes place in “‘a forked-road situation,’ when human beings focus on real problems in society.”

Before Harkavy and Benson knew of service learning, which had been fermenting since the 1960s, they coined the phrase “academically based community service.” It was based on the writings of Dr. Howard Mitchell, a Wharton professor; the work of scholars who were engaged in what was known as “participatory action research”; and their own teaching experiences.

In 1985 the Campus Compact organization brought together university presidents around the issue of how to boost a flagging level of civic engagement among college students. The service-learning movement picked up steam from that as well as the publication in the early 1990s of articles and books critiquing universities for their lack of involvement in solving society’s problems.

Around that same time, Penn and other universities also realized that “the quality of the local environment determines the quality of life on campus,” affecting the retention of faculty, staff, and students, Harkavy says. On another level, they began to see that students could benefit if faculty “weren’t just scholarly commuters” but could live in the community and “be more fully involved in the life of the university.” And universities increasingly saw that focusing on problem-solving in the community was “a first-rate way of doing scholarship.”

Sometimes, however, even scholarship with the best intentions falls short in addressing the reality of people’s lives. When a visiting scholar at the CCP conference shared results of a study his students had conducted at a panel discussion on race and poverty, one member of the audience later stood up and said: “You ain’t telling me nothing. I have three African-American sons between the ages of 19 and 25. I feel it. I live it. I turn on the morning news at six o’clock, and they say, ‘African-American male was shot down in West Philly.’ I’m like, ‘Is he home? Is he home? Is he home? Every day.” 

Harkavy recognizes that the work CCP and other like-minded university-based organizations do is far from perfect. “There are profound issues based on history, race, and institutional power that have to be addressed on a continuing basis. Have we made mistakes? Yes. But the idea is to keep working at it to do it better, and to learn from it. Because what’s the alternative?” he asks. “Not to do it is to enshrine a situation of privilege and poverty in this country. Not to do it means that universities are not making the contributions they can to improve the quality of life … and we’re shortchanging our students. Not to do it means we’re not fulfilling the mission of all research universities, to educate for a democratic society.”

Real change—like relationships—happens slowly.

“We were working with Bryant Elementary, and we had been there a little over a year,” Harkavy recalls. The acting principal said, “Dr. Harkavy, we’re beginning to trust you.” 

“Why?” he wondered, thinking maybe it was because he had been an activist as a college student, or because they had a good relationship. But those weren’t the reasons. As Harkavy began to leave his office, the principal said, “The reason we’re beginning to trust you is that academics come and study us for a year. And they leave us with worse problems than we ever had before. You’ve been here for a year and a week. At least there’s hope for you.”

“So the issue is trust,” Harkavy says, reflecting on that moment. “It’s not just ‘Are you researching on the community?’ but, ‘Are you going to be there?’ You’re not going to disappear when the paper is written or the grant is over.” 

“We’re not going to disappear,” he says with the same conviction he expressed to a West Philadelphia teacher in 1985. “We’re in it for the long haul.”


Several Penn Schools Collaborate to Bring a Health Curriculum, Produce Stand, Dental Screenings, and More to a Local Middle School and its Community

It’s the last class of the day at Sayre Middle School, and some of the seventh graders involved in a lesson on drugs led by Penn medical students are showing signs of restlessness. When asked to cite a drawback of marijuana use, one student calls out, “Makes your breath smell like socks!” 

Time for Plan B.

“I need two volunteers,” Taral Patel tells the group, and before they know it, two boys have been assigned new identities as “Brain Cell Number One” and “Brain Cell Number Two.” Patel gives them a couple of balls of paper to toss back and forth. 

The balls represent the brain’s message-sending neurotransmitters. The boys manage to exchange them efficiently until Patel adds another ball to the mix to show what happens when a person smokes marijuana.

“You just dropped a neurotransmitter!” another instructor shouts.

“Here’s more marijuana,” says Patel, tossing another ball to them.

The students can barely keep up.

“What’s going on?” Patel asks.

“It’s too much,” calls out a student named Elliot. “The brain can’t process it all.”

Between final exams on reproduction and the endocrine system, Patel and two other first-year medical students, Amit Shah and Brendon Nolt, have taken the #21 bus up Walnut Street to Sayre for today’s discussion, one in a series of health talks that have been incorporated into the curriculum of a small learning community within the school.

Their classroom visits are but one part of the latest University-assisted community-school program, coordinated by the Center for Community Partnerships in conjunction with Sayre and several of Penn’s undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools. During the past school year, a dental-school van showed up to provide screenings; nursing students conducted physicals and talked about careers in their field; and medical and masters-degree students in public health worked with parents and children to prepare nutritious meals while highlighting diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Last fall, fine-arts students helped Sayre kids construct a clay mural for their school on what good health means to them. Gradually, health-promotion and disease-prevention initiatives are being implemented in the curriculum and the school is being transformed into a health clinic for the entire community.

“There are some substantial health needs in West Philadelphia, and the best way to get information across is really through the kids, because they’re more likely to turn around and [repeat it] to other kids and their parents,” says Alyssa Lord, who works for CCP as Sayre Beacon Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Coordinator. Lord points out that the topics covered in the classes led by Penn undergraduates and medical students are relevant to their daily lives. “They all know somebody who smokes cigarettes. They all know somebody who has high blood pressure—and asthma; asthma is so prevalent here.”

In a classroom down the hall from the medical students, Dana Prince, another Sayre Beacon coordinator for CCP, conducts a lesson around the fruit-and-vegetable stand that students run after school three days a week.

“There’s a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, and a lot of the kids don’t have the most healthy eating behaviors,” Prince explained earlier. “After school they’ll go grab a bag of chips and a soda at the corner store. We’re trying to introduce an alternative to that.”

Sharon Askia-Smith, the full-time classroom teacher, sits quietly during Prince’s lesson, but says, “I enjoy it because they’re excited about it. One thing I believe is that as students realize the importance of healthy eating, then they will start to incorporate it into their lives. They [already] may have had classes on health that teach the ‘food pyramid,’ Smith adds, “but to actually bring the fruit in to them so they can understand what and why, that’s invaluable.”

Patel says he got involved with the program at Sayre because, “I thought it would be a lot of fun. It’s teaching, it’s working with kids. And we just have a good time. We’re not like teachers to them. We’re more like friends. They’re a lot more grown up than we were at their age,” he adds. “They’ve asked very intelligent questions. They really want good information and we’re happy to kind of set the record straight with them.”

The students, in turn, look forward to their visits. “They’re fun because they teach us about stuff we don’t know,” says Elliot, one of the seventh-graders. 

“I listen to them,” says a classmate named Dionne. “I know last week they were talking to us about alcohol—beer, liquor, and stuff. Today they’re talking to us about marijuana and what it can do to affect your mind. They’re telling us how it can cause diseases and make you go crazy and stuff and what you can do to people when you’re affected [by it]. It really upsets you.”

When the bell rings to signal the end of the school day, Prince emerges from her classroom, looking relieved that her lesson worked out. “That was fun. I’m in a better mood.” After a brief math exercise based on fictitious produce sales, she passed out mango slices for the sixth-graders to try. They were a hit, unlike the dried apples they sampled the previous week. “I want to do a whole bean lesson,” Prince muses. “Vegetables are harder.”

Beyond healthy eating habits, the fruit-and-vegetable stand yields many potential lessons, from entrepreneurship to supply and demand, Prince says. “We can even bring in some culture and history to it, asking questions like, ‘Why are there more health problems related to poor nutrition in my community?’ Let’s talk about race, let’s talk about class, let’s talk about access.”

Mei Elansary C’04, who has taken a lead role in developing the health program at Sayre, calls it a great collaboration. “I think the community and the school and the teachers have been extremely receptive to us working with their kids.”

The program is still in its growing stages. In fact, Principal Joseph Starinieri notes that Sayre was just notified that it is going to gradually become a high school, so this might change the pace at which health lessons are integrated into parts of the curriculum. But Sayre has been asking for just such a program for several years, so he’s happy to finally have something in place.

Elansary is pleased to see students already getting excited about math and science and “taking ownership” of their health. At the fruit-and-vegetable stand, she notes, there was one boy who would always buy fruit for himself and some to take home to his little brother. “He told me, ‘I want my little brother to eat healthy as well.’”

There are other signs that the right messages are sinking in with at least some of the students. According to Elansary, “Four boys told me they were trying to stop smoking, and three girls came up to me and said, ‘We really want to go to your school when we grow up. Will you teach us what we have to do?’ 

“If they believe in what they can do and that they can go to Penn, then obviously they’re going to take care of themselves.”

Susan Frith

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