This article was submitted by The Promise, a public-private partnership.
Two Philadelphians with large, yet quite different, followings have joined a movement to lift more of their neighbors out of poverty.
Journalist Ernest Owens and lifestyle writer Olivia Muenter may have contrasting vantage points from which to understand the issue. But they both are supporting The Promise, an effort to end Philadelphia’s long-held distinction of having the largest percentage of poor people of any major American city.
Owens, an editor at large at Philadelphia magazine and president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, has been an outspoken and influential critic of government programs he believes are ineffective. Muenter is a lifestyle writer, editor and digital content creator who teaches others to do the same.
The Promise is a collaboration of community-based nonprofits conceived and coordinated by United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, and funded by the city and private donors, gives more people in the city a fighting chance to improve their incomes and their outcomes. Launched in 2020, the collaboration is the region’s largest effort to counter Philadelphia’s status as the country’s poorest big city.
Establishing clear goals to combat poverty
One key factor that appeals to Owens is the specific goals The Promise has established.
“They’re speaking numbers and they’re matching it around impact,” he said. “They’re planning to lift 100,000 people out of poverty over five years. I haven’t seen the city propose anything as bold or ambitious and focused.”
Under The Promise’s structure, nonprofit community-based agencies do the outreach to attract individuals and families living in poverty to access the benefits to which they are entitled, such as the expanded child tax credit program. Then that agency can help that client and if necessary, hand them off to another organization that offers complementary services such as legal or housing assistance where they can receive more services.
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Another aspect of The Promise, beginning this spring, will help ex-offenders, of which there are 400,000 in Philadelphia, get their records sealed or expunged. The Promise will then connect these individuals with companies and organizations looking to give them job opportunities, the kind of track that can turn a person’s life around.
Ambassadors to spread the message
Muenter, who has lived in Philadelphia for only three years, said she fell in love with the city when she moved here, so getting involved with The Promise excites her.
“As I listened to all the inspired people involved with The Promise, I wondered whether I really fit into this group,” she said. “I fit in in the sense that I have a platform, a following, and I get questions about Philly constantly… To be able to shed light on the fact that we are the poorest big city in the country is important in the ways we can work to change that and is just as important as talking about what great restaurants there are.”
Owens points to United Way as an institution that has values, credit and respect. He appreciates the fact that The Promise did not dictate how the program would work, but instead asked the experts, the people on ground.
“They started early by reaching out to figures and leaders versus trying to do everything by themselves,” Owens said. “We’re a part of this conversation now. I’m at the table to help shape and advise on these initiatives. They’re saying, ’let’s initiate things so that when we measure progress, no one in the community or leaders will be able to say they didn’t have an ability to shape or influence the program.’ I love that approach.”
Muenter and Owens both see their roles as ambassadors for this program.
Engaging both established institutions and new leaders
“I feel like Philly has a lot of people, like me, that are from other places and want to be a part of this, but don’t have the same understanding of the city as someone like Ernest who’s been here for 10 years,” Muenter said. “Yet this is something anyone can be a part of. I might not know every complexity of poverty in Philly, but I love this place and am willing to do whatever I can to help it be better.”
Owens is using his vast social media platforms to make people aware. His channels are known to shake up and start conversations.
“It gets people talking. It gets people engaged. I’ve already been doing that with other issues, so this is part of who I am,” Owens said. “ I feel like we’re talking so much about the chronic issues without understanding the linkage and connecting the dots.”
Specifically, Owens points to the rush of money the city has sent to certain groups to fight gun violence. He believes those expenditures deserved more scrutiny. He endorses The Promise because the city is investing in United Way to vet, coordinate and analyze the organizations that do the work. “We’re realizing there are so many issues going on that to have the city try to do all this independently is just impossible,” he said.
Meet The Promise ambassadors
Joining Owens and Muenter, are the first cohort of community leaders using their platform to help create a more equitable Philadelphia. Additional Promise Ambassadors include:
- Swabreen Bakr, Digital Creator
- Conrad Benner, Founder of streetsdept
- Jezabel Careaga, Founder of Jezabel’s
- Kurt Evans, Chef & Cofounder of Everybody Eats and End Mass Incarceration Dinners
- Ofo Ezegwu, Founder of WhoseYourLandlord
- Kelsey Frank, Blogger
- Payal Jay, Artist, Model, Podcaster
- Brittnie Knight, Digital Creator
- Rashaad Lambert, Entrepreneur
- Syreeta Martin, Entrepreneur & Journalist
- Naroen, Creator
- Jordan Price, Blogger
- Marquise Richards, Digital Creator
- Will Toms, Co-Founder of recphilly
- Mel Wells, President of ODAAT
- Stephanie Willis, Founder of Everybody Eats
- George Banks-Weston, Digital Creator & Podcaster
All Promise Ambassadors are urging Philadelphians to sign the pledge, which is a call to action to end Philadelphia’s poverty cycle here and now.
“I think that any sort of action, even something as small as signing a pledge and putting in your email and receiving more information, is an effective way to get us out of our little bubble,” Muenter said. “Anyone who lives in the city can be kind of guilty of being comfortable with their neighborhood and their version of the city, but I think the more that we give ourselves opportunities to be reminded of the facts around poverty and its causes, the more people will take action.”
Owens feels the same. He believes poverty is the biggest crisis facing the city.
“If we address poverty, we address a lot of the other racial and socio-economic issues and divides that are happening, including gun violence. Think of all the issues that we talk about in this city. They are connected to poverty, and yet until this effort, we kept ignoring it.”
Added Muenter, “Sometimes people think, including me, that all cities have poverty, but Philly is unique in the level of poverty for a big city. Spreading awareness is the first step. And then I’m excited to learn beyond that how I can help with more specific challenges The Promise hopes to meet.”
Learn more and sign the pledge at wethepromise.org.-30-
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