Germantown Friends School students (from left to right) Eleanor Loden ’20, Lila Kushner ’18, Jasmine Gaillard ’21, Henry Farnham ’20, Asaf Lebovic ’21, Katie Turk ’21, and Corinne O’Leary-Lee ’21 with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney in his office. (Photo by Scott Foley)

by Hannah Caldwell Henderson

“Hi … Jim,” went Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s disarming greeting to each of the seven Germantown Friends School students gathered in his City Hall conference room as he made his way around the table.

With 26 prepared questions in hand and the clock running on their hour together, the students took a collective breath and dove in: How can we not displace or harm people in our neighborhoods? How would you respond to people fearing gentrification? Are you going to stick with your commitment to being a Sanctuary City – even given the pressure you are under? Why is Philly the poorest big city? Is Philadelphia’s soda tax working? What’s your opinion on safe injection sites?

Kenney was at the school as part of a series called Philadelphia Talkers, a January term class dedicated to bearing witness to the nuanced and varied stories of our city’s past, and to the voices of our citizens. Members of the class identified people whose experiences and insights would add dimension to commonly held notions about Philadelphia, and then arranged to speak with them. Kenney was on their wish list and, much to the students’ delight, he accepted their request for an interview.

The Mayor spoke with remarkable candor about how his family’s history of fleeing desperate circumstances in Ireland has shaped his views on immigration.

“We emigrated here back in the 1840s because we were starving to death and we had no other place to go,” he said. “The English were basically taking all the food and shipping it out to Europe and selling it, and we were left with rotten potatoes. So, one million people died and a million people emigrated, and some of those people didn’t make it over. When we crawled off the ships, we went to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and they told us to go home: ‘We don’t want you here,’ ‘No Irish need apply,’ You can’t do this,’ ‘You can’t do that.’ Now the same issues are being put out there about Muslims.”

This understanding of the common immigrant experience is at the root of the Mayor’s resistance to the pressures he is facing in response to his commitment to remaining a Sanctuary City.

Kenney has made education his top priority. Regarding the controversial “soda tax” he’s implemented to help fund it, he said.

“I don’t want to tax anything, but the point is that we have a 26 percent poverty rate,” Kenney said. “Education is the only solution to that poverty rate, and we’re going to educate our kids.”

He explained the many hurdles this new law has encountered, from merchants charging extra tax and pocketing the overage to lawsuits from beverage companies to misinformation among customers about the tax rate.

Nonetheless, he expressed optimism about the tax on sugary beverages and characterized the alternatives as less desirable.

“Philadelphia is the poorest big city because our education system has been underfunded,” he said. “Look at the structure of real estate taxes in the suburbs – they have much higher real estate taxes than here. In order to have a sane tax structure, we can’t have high real estate taxes so we rely on wage taxes. That’s why we need the beverage tax to fund schools.”

In addition to speaking with Mayor Kenney, the Philadelphia Talkers class managed to interview police officers from the 14th District (where GFS is located), Pennsylvania State Rep. Chris Rabb, and a representative of a nonprofit called Fast Food Justice.

“We really found that this class changed our perception of Philly and the world around us,” said Asaf Lebovic ’21 and Corinne O’Leary-Lee, ‘21. “Each person we interviewed shifted how we perceive their jobs and their impact on the community. We found it surprising how open and unapologetically selfless they were, and we definitely enjoyed reflecting upon our experiences within the class.”

Sam Sullivan and Robin Friedman, co-teachers of Philadelphia Talkers, explained their vision for the class as a chance for students to dig into commonly held assumptions about our city.

“You hear things like ‘It’s poor and has high crime rates,’ ‘It’s sports obsessed,’ ‘Its education system is failing,’ etc.,” said Friedman. “This class offered students the chance to challenge assumptions, build their own narrative, and narrow gaps that emerge in the absence of human experience and connection.”

Hannah Caldwell Henderson is Director of Communications and Marketing at Germantown Friends School