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Illustration by Tracy Walker

A new website aims to be a hub highlighting Penn stories that are “in, of, and for Philadelphia.”


As Tony Sorrentino GCP’05 was helping put together the University’s economic impact report for fiscal year 2020, he was asked by then Penn President Amy Gutmann Hon’22 whether there was a way to also measure social impact.

That got him thinking.

“As we grew into the largest private employer in the city of Philadelphia, the second largest in the state, our prowess was more than just the fiscal impact,” said Sorrentino, who, as the associate vice president in Penn’s Office of the Executive Vice President, is tasked with leading the University’s economic impact report that comes out every five years. Per the 2020 report, Penn generated $15.5 billion in economic activity in Philadelphia. But “how do you get your head around $15 billion?” Sorrentino asked. “You know what matters in Philly? Philly is a city that likes stories about people.”

For decades, the University has touted its community outreach in West Philadelphia and beyond, but that’s harder to measure than economic activity and jobs generated. Sorrentino tried anyway. He began by surveying deans, vice presidents, and student groups, “asking them to quantify what was never asked of them before,” he said. “And I started to put together some really interesting numbers.” In that same economic report, the University announced that Penn faculty, staff, and students spent 344,000 hours on civic engagement annually, touching roughly 718,000 Philadelphians. “And I thought, Well, this is deeper than just a report,” Sorrentino said.

That’s how the initiative Penn & Philly (pennandphilly.upenn.edu) was born. Launched in January, the website is a central repository of curated content about the University’s community partnerships. Sorrentino hopes the site answers a query he said his office often hears: “I wish there was a website that collected all the really good stuff about how Penn contributes to the city.”

Sorrentino began working on the project in 2020. Longstanding champions of community engagement such as Netter Center founder Ira Harkavy C’70 Gr’79 and University Chaplain and Vice President for Social Equity & Community Chaz Howard C’00 served as advisors. Sorrentino hired a firm to conduct focus groups with civic and business leaders around West Philly, along with city politicians and University faculty, staff, and students. One of the insights was that people outside of the University’s orbit often believed that Penn didn’t actually care about the city—and used gaudy economic impact numbers to dodge criticism about not paying PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes). The focus group tune changed, however, when someone brought up former Penn president Judith Rodin CW’66 Hon’04, who grew up in Philly. “They said, ‘You know, the thing about Judy was she was of Philadelphia,’” Sorrentino recalled. “And that really caught my attention: of Philadelphia. People think of us as just in Philadelphia—just 300 acres and a lot of people who are almost at an arm’s length distance from the rest of the world. But there are a lot of people who do amazing things here that are culturally of the city.” When one of Sorrentino’s colleagues remarked that “Philadelphians will fight you if they think you’re not for Philadelphia,” a new mantra was born: “In, of, and for Philadelphia.”

“We have all of these examples of faculty and students who are in, of, and for Philadelphia—and their stories weren’t out there,” Sorrentino said. “I was creating this place where economic data could sit, but I wasn’t capturing any of the social stuff. What if we merge them?”

Based on their research, the website was organized around six focal themes: public education; healthy communities; knowledge in action (research); arts, culture, and recreation; economic opportunity; and tomorrow’s industries (life sciences). Sorrentino said that public health has initially gotten the most traction on the website, pointing to the “prowess” of Penn Medicine but also to examples of the work that Penn Dental and Penn Vet does in the neighborhood via mobile clinics.

In addition to regularly updating the website, a communication strategy was formed to promote stories on social media. Before long, the project’s breadth widened, “galvanizing people on campus to want to tell their stories,” said Sorrentino, adding that his Penn colleagues can submit ideas via a direct link.

“One of the cool things was after it launched, I’ve heard from departments that I didn’t know existed, that I didn’t consult with during the process,” Sorrentino said, citing an example of a Penn Medicine group that does genetic testing in the community. “They’d write to me and say, ‘This is amazing. How do we get involved?’”

Sorrentino has been involved in anchor institution work since arriving at the University in 2000, striving to “fix the image of what happened in the ’60s and ’70s when urban renewal was taking place in West Philadelphia.” Working closely with Senior Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli W’85, driven by the “understanding that a university can’t truly be at its best if the neighborhood that it’s in isn’t also improving,” Sorrentino feels the Penn & Philly project is almost a culmination of all of his efforts.

“In the future, I think more people are going to feel a sense of ownership over it, and we will essentially just be a container here in the EVP office that they’re filling,” he said. “What we’ve done is create a platform for their storytelling. I think of all of them as incredible symphony musicians, and someone just has to keep them on time and in tune.” —DZ

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