(Photo by Emily Scott)
Joanna Otero-Cruz wears many different hats within city government.
The deputy managing director of community services’ latest focus, and perhaps her biggest challenge, is the Gurney Street Project, the cleanup of the area surrounding Conrail tracks in Kensington and Fairhill that’s become a hub for the city’s opioid epidemic.
It fills her office with satellite images and sketched maps of the neighborhood. It fills her time, too: She’s working to bring together all of the offices that fall under the managing director’s office, plus the police and fire departments, plus the Department of Human Services and Parks and Recreation.
It’s a hell of a process, but she’s uniquely positioned to be able to handle it.
Otero-Cruz joined city government in Feb. 2016, and since then, she’s stood by what she calls her “core principles” of improving the quality of life in the city’s most at-risk neighborhoods, like the one she was raised in — yes, Fairhill. She started her career in the nonprofit sector at Congreso de Latinos Unidos, working as a case manager for teen mothers.
“At the time, I was still very young and had a young child, so I could relate,” she said. “It really changed where I thought my career path was going to be and it put me in a place where I enjoyed working with people and trying to figure out how do we eradicate certain ills, like teenage pregnancy.”
She has since worked primarily on public health issues like asthma and cardiovascular diseases, but also the foster care system.
Prior to coming into the managing director’s office, she was the executive director of Concilio, the city’s oldest Latino nonprofit based in the Northeast. She saw the government position as an opportunity to take her work citywide.
“How do you influence policy?” Otero-Cruz said. “How do you influence operations? When you bring it all together for outcomes and to improve people’s well-being, to me that is a win-win.”
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In her position, Otero-Cruz oversees the community services cabinet of the city government, which includes the Office of Immigrant Affairs, the Community Life Improvement Programs (CLIP) and 311, the city’s non-emergency call center.
She also heads up the Town Watch Integrated Services, a training and assistance program for Philadelphia community residents who want to start a neighborhood watch group, as well as the Office of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service.
The Gurney Street Project started with the question of how to properly address the people who live on the Conrail tracks and those subsequent living conditions.
The cleanup of the Conrail tracks is scheduled for July 31, and the plan is to also seal them to prevent people from using the area to shoot up in the future. But “it’s much more than that,” Otero-Cruz said: Nearby, there’s also higher unemployment, lower educational attainment and higher disparities in rates for issues such as asthma and cardiovascular health compared to Philadelphia at large.
“It’s not about gathering people and putting them in shelter and treatment beds,” Otero-Cruz said. “It’s much more complicated than that, so I think it’s going to take multiple different strategies, not just one way.”
To that end, in January, the city hosted a 300-person community meeting in Fairhill to discuss community policing, community engagement, preventative education and life-saving education such as how to administer Narcan, the brand name of the drug that stops opioid overdoses.
There were also discussions of starting a beautification project — possibly a way for the residents to reclaim their neighborhood from the grips of drugs and create a cleaner environment, Otero-Cruz said.
From that meeting, El Barrio Es Nuestro, or “The Neighborhood Is Ours,” a community coalition group, was formed to create strategies on a monthly basis to improve the quality of life in Fairhill. Otero-Cruz has since worked alongside the group on several beautification projects like lot cleanups and drawing colorful windows and doors on sealed homes.
Cynthia Figueroa, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Human Services, has known Otero-Cruz for 15 years, when they were colleagues at Congreso. She recommended Otero-Cruz for the managing director position.
“She’s really passionate about constituent issues in vulnerable communities,” Figueroa said. “She really listens and translates that to policy and change.”
Otero-Cruz said that working in the Kenney administration isn’t much different than her work in the nonprofit sector because of how the policies align with her values. She sees that happening now, as disparate departments come together for the Gurney Street Project.
“One of the things I hear from all of my colleagues is this is the first time we are all together at the table and are holding each other accountable until the end of fixing this in Fairhill,” she said. “To me, it was, ‘Really?’ That should be the norm, but apparently it’s a big shift.”
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