Meet Samantha Porter, the West Philly Promise Zone's biggest cheerleader - Generocity Philly

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Dec. 13, 2017 2:13 pm

Meet Samantha Porter, the West Philly Promise Zone’s biggest cheerleader

The new director of place-based initiatives at the city's Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity wants you to know what's going on in the Promise Zone, a federal designation meant to reduce poverty in the area.

Samantha Porter.

(Photo by Sahar Coston-Hardy)

recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts affirmed, once again, that Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate among the nation’s 10 biggest cities.

That means around 400,000 Philly residents — including 37 percent of those under age 18 — are living below the federal poverty line. It’s had some wondering what kind of different thinking is needed from the city to tackle such a big problem.

Samantha Porter, the city’s new director of place-based initiatives at the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity (CEO), which heads the anti-poverty focused Shared Prosperity initiative the city launched in 2013, feels the city’s West Philadelphia Promise Zone can offer a form of respite.

The Promise Zone is an official designation given by the Obama administration to the area between the Schuylkill River, Girard Avenue, 48th Street and Sansom Street, and it’s one of the big initiatives Porter is working on during her tenure. Here’s what the Temple University alumnae told us when she was first hired:

“This designation creates opportunities for increased collaboration between community-based organizations, nonprofit organizations, institutional partners and Promise Zone residents to address issues such as access to quality affordable housing, education, health and wellness, and economic and workforce development.”

But here’s the thing — while this Promise Zone status, which has been given to 21 other cities around the country, does offer what Porter calls “preference points” to the more than 100 partners working in the area when applying for federally based grants, the designation doesn’t come with any grants in and of itself.

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Even so, Porter, who started at CEO in October, said the activity in the Promise Zone has encouraged her belief in its potential: It’s garnered $69 million from eight different federal agencies since 2014, as mentioned in a recent Shared Prosperity report.

“The fact that Philadelphia has had so much activity in the Promise Zone around Promise Zone work when there isn’t specific funding associated with it, that’s been something I’ve learned a lot about and been very impressed by,” Porter said.

A lot of that activity has been spurred on by the focused work being done by CEO’s five subcommittees for the Promise Zone, each heading up one of five policy issues: housing, public safety, health and wellness, education, and economic and workforce development.

The Promise Zone. (Screenshot via Shared Prosperity’s 2017 Progress Report)

For example, the education subcommittee’s many partners and collaborators were a key part of helping Drexel University secure a $30 million Promise Neighborhoods grant in 2016 from the U.S. Department of Education for seven West Philly schools in the Promise Zone over the next five years.

It’s this kind of teamwork that Porter will also be working to foster, Porter said, because private funding from partners will also be a necessity as the federal administration’s priorities shift. (The National Promise Zone Coalition recently made a trip to D.C. to help advocate for more Promise Zone commitment and funding.)

With the year coming to a close, a big focus of Porter’s 2018 plans is interweaving citywide initiatives with the work being done in the Promise Zone, i.e. getting more of the city’s workforce development efforts into West Philly. And her work isn’t limited to the Promise Zone: If it’s place-based poverty work, Porter will be on it, focusing part of her time on efforts such as North Philly’s Choice Neighborhoods initiative.

But aside from those specific initiatives, she wants to let people know that efforts like the Promise Zone, which may have been off many Philadelphians’ radar since it launched, have some “really engaged partners” who are committed regardless of the lack of immediate resources.

“My goal is to really tell and highlight that story because partners across many sectors are at the table to see this initiative to be successful,” Porter said.

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