Most of our brethren around the country know Philadelphia as the place where, in 1776, the Declaration of Independence changed the world order forever. It’s a fact that prompts an interesting reflection: We live in a city that is 94 years older than the United States of America, a period of time in which our character as a city had already begun to evolve—Philadelphia helped shape America, just as America now shapes Philadelphia.
But since the original declaration left out women and African-Americans in classes of people to whom it guaranteed “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” there was still much work to do to ensure that everyone benefited from the vision our founders put forth. Philadelphians were up to the task, including Amy Hester “Hetty” Reckless. Born into slavery in New Jersey the year the Declaration of Independence was signed, Reckless sought refuge in Philadelphia as a runaway slave and went on to operate a safe house in the Underground Railroad. She was among the founders of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, one of few integrated female abolitionist groups in the country (founded because the women were barred from participating in the male abolitionist groups). She also founded a center for former prostitutes and then enlisted women born to prominent African-American families as supporters for both causes.
Our contemporary safe houses now include all-volunteer organizations such as Project SAFE, which helps women who work in street economies, and physical spaces such as the William Way LGBT Community Center, a major hub for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities.
Our place-based community-led organizations—Life Do Grow Farm, North Philly Peace Park, the Village of Arts and Humanities, One Art Community Center, Greensgrow Farms and Overbrook Environmental Education Center among many, many others—are centered on self-reliance and interested in sustaining the bodies and souls of the people they serve.
Their work continues to be supported by more established groups, including Quaker institutions such as Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and the American Friends Service Committee, and newer groups such as Project HOME and Bread and Roses Community Fund, which financially supports an impressive roster of social justice organizations in our city.
Our social justice bench is deep, and we also have strong community development corporations protecting and rebuilding their turf—Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha and New Kensington CDC are two that Grid has covered in the past—and when push comes to lawsuit, the Public Interest Law Center has everyone’s back.
Whether it’s groups such as Eastwick Friends & Neighbors Coalition, which is still at the front lines of environmental justice challenges in South Philadelphia, the advocates at VietLead, Juntos and Black Lives Matter Philly, or the lawyers organizing statewide work at Friends of Farmworkers, Philadelphia is still a hotbed for challenging the status quo, standing up for the rights of the disenfranchised, and taking in refugees and others who need or want to call us home—how many other cities have both a Welcoming Center for New Americans and Immigrant Innovation Hub?
That’s why we were so heartened that Mayor Jim Kenney chose to stand up to the bullies in the new federal administration, and isn’t budging on Philadelphia’s status as a sanctuary city. As a major hub of the Underground Railroad and a place that has been shaped and enriched by its many immigrant communities, we’re proud that we’re a city where both the huddled masses and the politically connected are still working together side-by-side to make a better city and a better country.
America: made in the City of Brotherly Love, and Sisterly Affection.
“The heroism and desperate struggle that many of us had to endure, under the terrible oppression that they were under, should be kept green in the memory of this and future generations.” —William Still, Philadelphia abolitionist and father of the Underground Railroad