In the minds of many Americans, The Gambia, that small nation on the west coast of Africa, is forever associated as the ancestral home of famed writer Alex Haley, author of the seminal 1976 book “Roots” that spawned the influential television mini-series of the same name.
For one Philadelphia-based organization there is a deeper association with The Gambia – as deep as this organization providing life-saving assistance to citizens living in the mostly rural nation with a total population only a little larger than the 1.5-million living in Philadelphia.
Power Up Gambia has undertaken the unique mission of providing reliable electricity and water service to health care facilities in the western stretches of The Gambia through solar energy.
Solar generated electricity enables medical facilities from hospitals to one-room clinics to provide a variety of things most Americans take for granted like clean water, refrigeration to preserve blood and vital vaccines, power for medical treatment machines, and electricity simply for having lights at night. Traditional diesel generated electricity is subject to outages due to access to fuel and the cost of that fuel.
PUG, for example, provided a solar energy installation that now enables electricity to flow at the Bansang Hospital, enabling 24 hours a day, seven days a week operation at the most remote hospital in The Gambia, a sliver of a nation along the Gambia River surrounded by Senegal.
Recently, PUG held a fundraising reception at the American Friends Service Center in Center City that raised $5,000, reaching that goal within in one hour.
An official for the Gambian Embassy in Washington, DC who attended the fundraiser said his nation is grateful for the assistance from PUG and other organizations.
“Gambia, as a small country, really values assistance from the outside no matter how small,” Gambian Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Baboucarr Jallou said during an interview.
Dr. Shannon Marquez, director of Global Public Health Initiatives at the Drexel School of Public Health, said The Gambia has made significant strides in addressing “challenges” like increasing immunizations for malaria and decreasing infant mortality.
“The primary focus of the health care system there is on prevention,” PUG Board Member Marquez said, noting that public health problems are “universal” pointing out that sections of West Philadelphia have infant mortality rates comparable to “many Third World countries.”
The infant mortality rate for the City of Philadelphia Health Center 3 that covers parts of West Philadelphia is 15.6 per one thousand births, a figure lower than the 69.5 rate in The Gambia but higher than the rate of 14.3 in Jamaica.
PUG Board Member Richelle Todd-Yamoah said the organization helps break a “sad cycle” by using natural sunshine to provide electric power where none exists in parts of The Gambia.
NEWARK, N.J. — Basketball star Shaquille O’Neal learned early in his legendary career that cheers and jeers are all part of the game.
However when O’Neal received caustic jeers last Friday, outside of the movie complex O’Neal co-owns in downtown Newark, N.J., those taunts were different, directed against O’Neal’s business practices, not his basketball prowess.
Protestors condemned O’Neal for the decision by his CityPlex-12 to cancel a critically acclaimed documentary movie scheduled to screen at that facility last Friday.
CityPlex-12 management, when cancelling the documentary three weeks ago, also fired a theater staff member that worked on the scheduled screening with director of this documentary, Stephen Vittoria, who like O’Neal, was born in Newark.
Vittoria’s documentary – “Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary” – examines the prisoner at the core of Philadelphia’s most contentious murder case – Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Vittoria’s documentary departs from previous films about Abu-Jamal that examined ‘whodunit’ aspects of the journalist’s controversial 1982 conviction for killing Philadelphia Police officer Daniel Faulkner.
“Long Distance” explores who the proudly radical Abu-Jamal is and how he’s managed to produce applauded books/political commentaries/social critiques while enduring nearly decades of isolation. “Long Distance is scheduled for a Philadelphia screening this Friday.
Renowned Newark poet/activist Amiri Baraka, who participated in Friday’s protest, called the cancellation “shameful.” The program originally planned for the “Long Distance” screening, included a question and answer session led by Baraka.
“Long Distance” has sold-out theaters during screenings in New York City, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area as well as garnering favorable reviews including one in the New York Times.
Filmmaker Vittoria said sources told him the cancellation of his documentary occurred during an April 11 meeting at CityPlex-12 about the screening involving theater co-owners Boraie Development and O’Neal.
“No one has the guts to say why this film was cancelled,” Vittoria, who participated in the Friday protest, said about CityPlex’s refusal to respond to his inquiries for explanation about the cancellation.
CityPlex-12 officials, during an interview last Friday at the complex, declined comment on the cancellation - stating it was their policy to screen only Hollywood-produced films.
O’Neal and Boraie did not respond to requests for comment.
Newark activist Lawrence Hamm, chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress, stated management told him the cancellation was a “cold” business decision when he met with them.
“This is not about money. It is about cultural imperialism, others deciding what we will see,” Hamm said during Friday’s protest, promising more protests to come. “This cancellation is a gag rule on free expression.”
Pam Africa, head of a Philadelphia-based international support organization for Abu-Jamal, criticized the movie cancellation during that protest, lashing out at O’Neal for being on the “wrong side” of important issues for Blacks like police brutality and mass incarceration.
Philadelphia contractor Benjamin Jones, a participant in the School District of Philadelphia’s initiative to utilize small, minority-owned businesses, said his company has received decreasing amounts of work from the district despite his paying thousands of dollars annually to maintain the bonds and insurances the district requires for companies seeking contracts.
“We don’t get peanuts. We don’t even get the smell from the peanut bag,” Jones said about the few Black firms still participating in the School District’s small business program.
The School District of Philadelphia spends millions of dollars every year on constructing or fixing schools, purchasing supplies and paying for professional services like hiring lawyers.
The School District awarded $83.4-million in contracts to companies and individuals from just the middle of last year to early 2013, according to district supplied data. This data noted that multi-million figure did not include additional spending related to “City, State or Federal contracts; Proprietary Licenses or Educational Partnerships.”
But many across Philadelphia believe the School District’s multi-million dollar spending is producing too little bang for those bucks — especially in this city with high levels of poverty and unemployment. Philadelphia holds the unenviable distinction of having the highest poverty rate among the nation’s ten largest cities.
Particularly egregious to many is the fact that those mega-tax dollars spent annually by the School District produce little benefit for local Black-owned businesses, city residents needing employment opportunities and School District students needing work experiences or that start in life after graduation.
“Black contractors are really catching hell at the School District,” Jones said. “Blacks get a fair share of nothing from those millions spent in tax dollars. The School District and the SRC [School Reform Commission] are not working to lower unemployment and poverty with those resources.”
The 23 schools that the SRC voted to close in early March are located predominately in low-income, non-white communities where unemployment rates easily exceed Philadelphia’s citywide average of 11.4 percent. Unemployment in some city sections ranges upwards to an alarming 37.2 percent, according to federal statistics compiled by Philadelphia Works Incorporated.
Since 2006 the School District spent $44.3-million on capital improvements on those 23 schools now approved for closure at the end of this school year in June, according to financial figures the district provided The Philadelphia Tribune.
Little of that $44.3-millon expended on capital improvements either helped reduce unemployment in city neighborhoods or increased economic opportunities for local Black businesses.
One of those schools to be closed by the SRC is the Leslie P. Hill Elementary School located in Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion section, where unemployment rates are high. Federal census data states unemployment in the several blocks surrounding the L.P. Hill School is 18.6 percent for males and 33.8 percent for females.
Tyrone Williams, community liaison for the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation, said unemployment is a “major issue” in that community.
“When residents constantly watch contractor come in to this community with New Jersey tags on their trucks, coming into the place where residents live but can’t get a job, that makes them bitter,” Williams said.
Williams said residents in his community received no employment from the multi-million-dollar renovation the School District made a few years ago to Strawberry Mansion High School, which is attached to the Hill School.
“What does that say to residents?” Williams said.
In 2006 the School District and the SRC entered into a specialized agreement giving local building trade unions exclusive employment on District construction projects totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. While this agreement mandated the hiring of “local residents” and district graduates, the district failed to enforce or even monitor its mandate, knowledgeable sources stated.
On that March night when the SRC voted to close those 23 schools, that state controlled body approved a number of contracts for companies - despite justifying school closures on the desperate need to reduce district expenses.
Those contracts included $8.5-million to a firm headquartered outside Philadelphia providing janitorial/custodial services that received a $35.8-million contract in 2010, $1.8-million to retain an international law firm to represent the SRC and $250,000 for two non-Philadelphia firms providing mechanical services work.
One female owned company received a $100,000 contract for replacing window shades in schools. That firm is located in New Jersey, ten miles north of Newark.
“Our children are not accustomed to seeing Black men and women working in the schools. It’s a disgrace. We pay taxes too,” Philadelphia grassroots activist Sacaree Rhodes said. (Rhodes is the wife of contractor Benjamin Jones.)
Activists like Rhodes and Tyrone Williams in Strawberry Mansion said School District engagement with Black owned businesses and employment of Black workers provides important role modeling for students enabling students to envision future paths.
Black students account for 54.5 percent of the School District of Philadelphia’s population, with Hispanics comprising another 18.56 percent. Although white students comprise 14.3 percent of district students, white owned businesses get the lion’s share of district contracts.
Critics of the School District’s spending practices question why educators ignore connections between the lack of employment and the spawn of social ills like crime and poverty. One third of Philadelphia’s annual budget goes to crime related expenditures like police, prisons and courts while another big budget chunk is allocated to address other poverty-related issues.
“Education, economics and violence are all tied together. If a person has no job they can’t raise a family right and their children are running out of control,” Father’s Day Rally Committee President Bilal Qayyum said. The FDRC is an anti-violence/problem-solving organization founded in 1989 that is headquartered less than two miles from the L.P.Hill School in Strawberry Mansion.
The School District will spend millions of dollars, nearly $20-million by some estimates, closing those 23 schools and preparing other schools for the transferring students.
Contractor Benjamin Jones, who specializes in painting, said small businesses like his would participate in the post-closure transition like moving equipment, cleaning out buildings and renovating receiving schools. But a School District spokesman said last week that the district hopes to do most of the transition work “in house.”
The School District of Philadelphia anticipates generating income by selling the 23 school buildings it will close.
A Philadelphia City Controller report issued in February warned that the district “overstates” revenues anticipated from the sale of closed schools.
A cloud hovers over the district’s anticipated sale of the now shuttered old West Philadelphia High School building because the firm the district said it is negotiating with for that sale is not registered with the State of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Corporations.
That Controller’s report listed another name for the firm negotiating to purchase the old West Philly High building, for a reported $6-million. But state Bureau of Corporations personnel stated “we have no records matching the business in question.”
“Any entity doing business in the Commonwealth must be registered with the state. How is the SRC negotiating with an entity that is invisible to the state?” stated a source knowledgeable of government contracting compliance.
“If this stuff happens on the front end, what happens when that firm starts doing work to convert that building to apartments or condos? It’s unlikely [that] Black owned firms will secure meaningful involvement on that project.”
Philadelphia School District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district does “have a policy to utilize minority and female owned businesses.”
Data provided by Gallard, for example, stated that minority and female owned businesses received 28 percent of the $83.4 million in contracts allocated over the past eight months. Minority/female contracting ranged from a high of 41 percent in the design and construction category to a low of six percent in the purchasing supplies category.
However, Gallard was not able to provide specific data detailing how many of those contracts went to minority owned companies vs. female owned companies, how many local Black owned companies received contracts and how many of those minority/female contracts went to non-Philadelphia based firms.
Philadelphia businessman Bruce Crawley, an economic equity activist, said Philadelphia residents should have access to contracts and economic activities, but a persistent problem is that too many people who live in the city are excluded from economic inclusion.
“Elected officials, business leaders and the mainstream media are not speaking out on issues of exclusion at the School District,” Philadelphia African American Chamber of Commerce founder Crawley said.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who supported those recent school closures, has said little publicly about the need for the School District to increase contracting and employment opportunities for beleaguered Philadelphia residents, although Nutter recently castigated Philadelphia Magazine for a racially inflammatory cover story.
Activist Sacaree Rhodes said Nutter’s posture on School District spending practices shows his “disdain and disregard…His silence makes this issue worse” for taxpayers who send their children to public schools but can’t get “business and employment” through School District spending.
Nutter’s spokesman referred requests for comment about the mayor’s position on School District spending practices to Dr. Lori Shorr, Nutter’s chief education officer. Shorr’s office referred those requests to the City of Philadelphia’s Executive Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, Angela Dowd-Burton.
Dowd-Burton said she was “not aware of any initiatives in collaboration with the School District” to specifically direct district spending to increase contracting opportunities for local Black-owned businesses and employment for local residents including School District graduates.
John Macklin, Philadelphia chapter president of the National Association of Minority Contractors, said the School District could do a lot more with increasing economic development in neighborhoods through its spending practices.
“The School District is using our tax money against us.”
If Black owned small businesses receive a backhand from School District spending practices, Philadelphia residents and School District grads needing employment receive a poke in the eye.
In 2006, the School District of Philadelphia and the School Reform Commission, entered into a contractual arrangement with Philadelphia Building Trades unions, the same labor organizations that have historically discriminated against non-whites.
That arrangement, called a Project Labor Agreement, reserved exclusive employment for building trade union workers on all School District construction contracts over $10,000. Local Black owned contractors said that PLA crippled their access to district contracts.
That PLA, covering hundreds of millions in construction projects, did include specific language about the need to improve “employment opportunities” for minorities, women, Philadelphia residents and the economically disadvantaged.
That PLA specifically required “local residents” to perform 25 percent of “all hours worked” on district funded construction projects.
However, the School District neither enforced nor monitored the PLA to ensure the hiring of Philadelphia residents on those building projects it funded, stated the head of the Philadelphia Area Labor Management Committee, the entity the district paid $315,000 to provide professional consultation services on construction activities and the PLA.
“The School District never came up with a good system for tracking the employment of local residents,” PALM Executive Director Anthony Wigglesworth said.
“We recommended the hiring of an outside organization like the Urban Affairs Coalition to track the hiring, but the district made a decision not to do it,” Wigglesworth said. “It might be the district didn’t have the resources. But there are not definitive statistics on that hiring.”
The School District did not provide The Tribune with data on the PLA despite three weeks of requests. District spokesman Fernando Gallard said data on the PLA is “not easily available.”
The Tribune initially inquired about PLA data in April 2011, but at the time Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and her top officials declined to release any data.
Significantly, that PLA also required that Philadelphia-based trade unions “recruit at least 250 apprentice candidates” who were School District graduates.
School District spokespersons did not provide data on how many district grads got those PLA mandated union apprenticeships despite three weeks of requests for that data.
The PLA is a mystery to most people because, as Strawberry Mansion CDC liaison Tyrone Williams said, “The School District does little outreach informing the community of things like the PLA.”
Staff members at the North Philadelphia based YouthBuild, a nationally acclaimed charter school where the curriculum for students includes instruction in construction, is among those unaware of the employment mandates that were embedded in the PLA.
“None of our students were given PLA opportunities,” YouthBuild staff member handling employment placement Le’Jean Thompson said.
YouthBuild is unique in that it provides high school education to dropouts aged 18-21.
Every day, public school teachers in Philadelphia tell their students about the importance of listening for learning and development.
However, the School District of Philadelphia bureaucracy historically fails to listen to recommendations to improve educational, employment and economic opportunities for district students.
In 1979, the “Human Rights Agenda” issued by the local Black Political Convention called on the School District to provide “job preparedness and skills management courses” in all junior and senior high schools.
The education section of that agenda also called on the district to create “work study programs within the public schools.”
The report, issued from the 1992 African-American Summit held at Benjamin Franklin High School, urged the School District to “promote/monitor Black entrepreneurs/contracts in the school system” in that report’s education section.
The education section of the 1998 “African American Mayoral Platform” urged the next mayor to give highest priority “improving the education system.”
That document demanded more state funding for Philadelphia schools, funding for offsetting the victimization of children and their families through “allowing vital services and programs to disappear because of lack of funding.”
Bok Technical High School, with its vibrant career programs including a culinary arts program inclusive of millions in infrastructure, was one of the schools the SRC decided to close in March.
The SRC brushed aside the examination of school closure related issues contained in the report issued in February, commissioned by Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church.
Jerome Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia NAACP, told Philadelphia’s City Council during testimony in February that the Enon report “documents in dramatic detail the failings” of the closure plan the SRC adopted weeks later.
Former Philadelphia director of Housing and Community Development Thomas Massaro faults the School District for consistently failing to utilize its contractual spending to create training for students and employment for public school graduates.
“The School District spends over a million dollars for printing, but doesn’t utilize graphic students. Involve students from the Saul School [of Agricultural Sciences] on landscaping projects. Involve students studying accounting in the teachers’ pension plan,” Massaro said.
“Insane beyond belief” is how Massaro described the dynamic of providing classroom training for students while falling short on connecting students to job opportunities.
“We have a certified death wish for our city’s youth and our future,” he said.