Rooted in a safe space

The strong beat of a bass resonated from 18th and Diamond streets. With a community party equipped with food and a bounce house, Philadelphia School District students were basking in a shared sense of accomplishment at the Advocate Center for Culture and Education’s end of year “Advocate Jawn on Gratz” street party.

Many of the writings and artwork created by Philadelphia students throughout the course of this year’s Advocate after school program were on display at the Church of the Advocate on June 11 to empower their “giftedness” in the presence of community support.

The ACCE is a community-based organization that works to bring together community residents, volunteers and educators to improve the lives of individuals living in Philadelphia. This program includes activities and educational opportunities for Philadelphia students.

“This theme of social justice pervades just about everything we do,” said McKenzie, who is the Vicar of the Church of the Advocate. “A true understanding of North Philadelphia, I think, becomes really clear when you know the history of the Advocate.”

The ACCE is hosted within the Church of the Advocate, which is historically known for hosting the 1968 National Conference on Black Power, the 1970 Black Panther Conference and in 1974 for the ordainment of the first women into Episcopal priesthood.

After a year of intermingling basketball with homework help from Temple students, the ACCE expanded its program in 2015 with services that include concentrations in academics and the arts. Soon enough, all of these changes have consummated into Advocate After School, an interdisciplinary youth development program that targets communal growth in three key areas: academics, athletics and art.

“I think basketball just builds that sense of community in all of our approaches to the community,” said Rev. Peggy Jean “PJ” Craig, Executive Director of the ACCE.  

Craig– who taught preschool in Alabama and English to students in Laos– focuses on student voice and agency in her approach to learning, beginning with their giftedness.

100 percent of the ACCE’s students are African American, with 95 percent of them living below the poverty line, Craig said. A large number of the students come from zip codes that surround North Philadelphia’s collective neighborhoods, which are deemed to be among the poorest and most violent in Philadelphia.

“[These circumstances] are born out of structural, systemic injustice, which often is oppressive to minorities and poor folks,” Craig said.

For Craig, the Church of the Advocate itself was a key guest at the showcase, for it emanates the historical presence of those who have been fighting the same battle before them.

There is a tendency among the local schools to only see the student’s deficiencies rather than their intelligence, she said.

“That’s what we try to focus on here: creating a safe space, a peaceful space, but also a place where their gifts can come alive and kind of dance for a few hours,” Craig said.

The work of the after school program revolves around social justice and cultural awareness. According to McKenzie, in order for young people to be successful, they need to understand their history and be able to create a connection.

“Students have no idea who they are [and] historically who black people have been,” McKenzie said. “[They haven’t learned] the kind of power and presence that we have in not just overcoming kinds of oppression, but in actually being vocal and supporting other groups with the same kinds of issues.”

For Craig, activities of the after school program should not be focused on merely finding the “right answer” to a question or writing practice for better grammar, but so that the students can have a stronger sense of identity and respect for their own opinions and voices, she said.

Shamira O’Neal, Program Director of the Mighty Writers North in partnership with the ACCE, noted the upsurge in confidence among the students, which she accredits to the fact that the students have choices within the safe space that the ACCE provides.

“They’re in school all day, eight hours or so, and with all of the things that they have to do, they don’t get a choice in what they do,” O’Neal said. “They’re our future leaders and we are trying to help them understand that their voice matters,” she explained.

Chelsea Zackey can be reached at Chelsea.zackey@temple.edu.

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