Grass Roots Poli Sci
In this season of political discontent, professor Steve McGovern's junior and senior "325" students are getting into the Philadelphia community to measure the efforts of 15 area grass roots advocacy groups on the lives of urban dwellers, and to discover effective cross-referencing among the groups themselves. They are spending eight hours per week working for such agencies as the Asociacion de Puertoriquenos en la Marcha (which advocates for Puerto Rican rights); the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, which looks out for living environments in areas such as West and North Philadelphia; and the Pennsylvania Economy League, an umbrella organization that monitors the "quality of life index" among Center City and downtown businesses.
"The idea," McGovern smiles from his small office in Hall 105, "is to determine what's working and what isn't, to learn about urban policy and politics, in a hands-on way." Which means that each of his 15 students will intern in specific venues and do "whatever needs to be done there," from canvassing, to writing reports and setting up websites, to virtually acting as staff — and then return to Hall 105 on Monday nights for intense two-and-a-half-hour sessions to compare notes. "At the end of the semester, of course, they've got to produce a research paper, " he chuckles. "No rest for the weary."
"I heard a lot of good things about the class, and about Steve," testifies Jesse O'Dunne, '06, a political science major from Saratoga Springs, N.Y. " That he's a lot of work, but that you get so much out of it." The idea of going into the community and experiencing "what really goes on," then applying academic analysis to the experience seems innovative, and "sort of what I came to Haverford for," O'Dunne explains — he didn't want the more formulaic "lecturing" education that so many schools — even ostensible liberal arts institutions — still offer.
He continues that the course and meeting work so far remind him more of the one practical election job he's done on his own, back home; this was "busywork," making calls, printing things, trying to get the vote out for incumbent Mayor Ken Klotz of Saratoga Springs, a Democrat, who "lost by a small margin" to a Republican: "They're better at advertising," Jesse chortles. "Doesn't have much to do with real issues at all."
O'Dunne's internship is with After School Activities Partnerships, which tries to coordinate programs available to area school kids to amuse and teach and channel energy: "Chess is big right now. Yeah, all over, it seems to be. I mean, you'd expect it at some places and not at others, but this is a game everyone wants a piece of. For one thing, it pays off. Research shows that chessplayers' math scores increase dramatically . . ."
Ben Koski, also a junior and a Growth and Structure of Cities major, likes "325" for its combination of the pragmatic "and the purely analytical . . . I'm from Old Lyme, Conn., and I first got a glimpse of how things really work when I watched a community group try to impact a school bond issue up there . . . Ultimately they lost, but it was important to me to see how effective that kind of organized effort could be. . ."
With his group, the Pennsylvania Economy League, Koski — who is the editor of the Bico News this year — is looking into issues like student transportation in the Philadelphia area: "There is a proposal to lobby SEPTA for extended hours and availability for students," he says. "With an entity like that, you try to leverage what you want — you don't protest, as you might with some of the other groups members of my class are interning with. What's the incentive for SEPTA? Significant revenues via a 'universal pass' modality. And then there's simple public relations — a monthly pass is a real good deal, and makes students like the city, even after they graduate . . ."
Koski sees Philadelphia as something of a paradox as far as its grass roots history goes: 'Traditionally, it's been a great place because it was known as 'The City of the Individual' . And yet what you see now, keeping it from going the way of, say, Camden, across the Delaware — is its preponderance of grass roots community action groups. Maybe the answer is that the groups are there to support the individual . . ."
Nat Vogel is another junior and another Poli Sci major. His affiliation this semester is with the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, an internship that might be described as the spiritual obverse of the well-heeled PEL. "One thing the NTI did was help Mayor Street with his first campaign promise — to get the junk cars off the streets. You have no idea how the sight of rusting hulks with weeds growing out of them, blights people's feelings and visions of themselves — not to mention affect property values . . . NTI helped the mayor get rid of 40,000 cars! If you lined them up, you'd go from Philadelphia to Ohio . . ."
"So far, with Steve, we've learned about the history of Philadelphia economic development, and then its decline. How economic trends were created . . . the end of the Industrial Age after WWII; factories closing, jobs pulling out; the Federal Highway Commission, the subsidizing of the building of highways; breaks to auto manufacturers; the rise of the industrial park; the decline of the inner city . . . Next of course, is strategies of reversal — the Green Strategy, planting trees and vegetables in vacant lots; the comeback of places like Center City, the rise of a vibrant arts and cultural life, which we already have here . . ."
Vogel, who is also pursuing minors in theater and French, likes the everyday drama of confronting urban problems as the best possible theatre: "There is the drama of organizing city development, and how different organizations design their priorities; the drama of politics — which is more and more polarized at present.
"'325' just helps me get all of that. It's right up my alley."