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Drexel’s Urban Innovation Fellows are tackling workforce development and public health

Michael O'Bryan, one of Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation's three new fellows, presenting at the Urban Innovation Summit. (Photo via twitter.com/PMorganPHL) November 17, 2017 Category: FeatureFeaturedLongPeople
The Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University has always focused on solving the problems that persist in an urban environment like Philadelphia through civic engagement.

But most of that work and research had been coming from within the university, namely its students, faculty and professional staff. That changed late last month when Lindy announced at its first Urban Innovation Summit that it would be taking in its inaugural class of Urban Innovation Fellows, three emerging local leaders to collaborate with in solving some of Philly’s challenges.

Those three fellows, each working for the next three to six months on addressing a different challenge pertinent to their existing work, are:

  • Chris Spahr, executive director of Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation (CDC)
  • Michael O’Bryan, director of youth and young adult programs at the Village of Arts and Humanities
  • Priya Mammen, director of public health programs and clinical associate professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University

Spahr, who was just hired for his current position this past January, is going ahead with an idea his board of trustees first conceived to bring a sustainable source of energy and revenue into the neighborhood: solar energy.

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The idea is to install install solar panels in underused spaces in the East Parkside neighborhood — most likely parking lots at nearby institutions such as the Philadelphia Zoo and the Please Touch Museum, Spahr said — to produce a source of energy in a designated energy investment district. Places like the zoo and museum could then purchase this energy from within the neighborhood and therefore funnel much-needed money back into the community.

"The zoo is spending $700,000 a year on their energy bills, so why can’t they put some of that back in the neighborhood?"
Chris Spahr

“We live in a neighborhood where there’s a lot of disinvestment, a lot of poverty and yet we’re surrounded by great assets, and the revenue that floats into those institutions is not seen by the community,” Spahr said. “The zoo is spending $700,000 a year on their energy bills, so why can’t they put some of that back in the neighborhood?”

Spahr is looking forward to take advantage of Drexel’s resources in hope of finding a way “to create a decisive role for the residents in this model, in the sense that it becomes a community-owned model and that they feel that it’s theirs.”

O’Bryan, who works with students often from grades 6 through 12 through after-school programs focused on the arts, is taking that experience and developing a workforce development model around that: He wants to implement workforce development tools and practices that focus on building up some of the more ‘softer’ skills within young people — creativity, imagination, critical thinking.

“If we do not invest in growing skills that are complexly human, then we’re going to have major problems when it comes to workforce development and fulfilling the labor needs as they emerge over the next couple of years and decades,” O’Bryan said.

"If we do not invest in growing skills that are complexly human, then we’re going to have major problems when it comes to workforce development."
Michael OBryan

And for O’Bryan, it’s also about fulfilling the need for those living in impoverished ZIP codes in Philly to be able to get higher-paying jobs. It’s going to take a lot of networking though, as O’Bryan emphasized how he’s looking to take an “ecosystems approach” to the issue which means involving a whole bunch of different stakeholders.

“That means I need to be talking to a number of researchers from economic, public health, psychology sectors,” he said.

Speaking of public health, Mammen’s fellowship will focus on the place where she spends most of her time: hospital emergency departments. But she wants you to know that the little blurb Lindy has on its website describing her goal isn’t entirely accurate.

Instead of turning the emergency department into a community center, she said via email that her goal is to introduce concepts from the “Community-Centered Home” model to the emergency department and hopefully, change the perception of what an emergency department is to the public.

“The ultimate goal is to show the ED [emergency department] for what it is — not what the lay perception is,” Mammen wrote in an email. “It IS a perceived only source of access to care for many or most in urban centers. It IS where all factors affecting health come together — chronic disease, acute processes, physical health, mental health, social determinants of health, access to care — but where resources are not focused and attention is not paid.”

To hear Mammen, and the rest of the fellows, tell it themselves, check out the videos below:

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