When you approach the storefronts at 52nd and Warren streets, just off Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia, you might notice the handcrafted facades of One Art Community Center’s Earthship-style building, which uses glass bottles and cans placed in cement to provide structure and light.
In the center’s backyard, a group of students are working on another hands-on project—converting a shipping container into an affordable housing unit.
These students—who come from all four Philadelphia campuses of One Bright Ray Community High School—are working with the youth development nonprofit We Love Philly to learn real-world skills that help them grow in both their personal and professional lives. The idea of shipping container homes originated during the 2020–2021 school year after the students learned about issues like gentrification and affordable housing.
The students of that class did the research into how a shipping container house could be a solution to Philadelphia’s lack of affordable housing, and then did all of the fundraising to make the project a reality. Although the class of 2021 would not be around to actually work on the project, they saw this as a way to create an opportunity for the class of 2022.
It’s since provided another level of hands-on education for students like Semya Dennis.
Dennis, a senior at One Bright Ray, didn’t get involved with We Love Philly until September. Now she’s one of the most involved students, and isn’t just learning how to swing a hammer to build out the shipping container.
She and her classmates are reading blueprints, navigating permitting and scoping out the real estate world in the hopes of ultimately selling the shipping container home as affordable housing and profit sharing the proceeds. As part of the curriculum, We Love Philly helped the students set up bank accounts with American Heritage Credit Union, where all proceeds will be deposited, and students will get financial literacy instruction.
“I got to see how quick students learn outside of a school and how much more open they are to take risks.”
— Carlos Aponte, founder and executive director of We Love Philly
During the week in November when she was interviewed, Dennis had worked on the house, toured a real estate office and completed journal reflections on gentrification.
It’s the type of education she prefers—student-led, as opposed to traditional.
“Some kids don’t want to come to school and learn because they don’t see the value in it, because they don’t feel like they have a say,” she explains. “Make space for them to have a say in what they learn.”
We Love Philly Executive Director Carlos Aponte says it was a series of relationships based on community action that brought him and his team of students to One Art’s backyard.
Aponte founded We Love Philly in 2018 while he was working as a history and social studies teacher at One Bright Ray’s Elmwood campus. The school has four high school campuses throughout Philadelphia and a unique student base: it accepts 16- to 21-year-olds who either lack the credits to graduate on time or have aged out of the standard graduation track altogether.
Aponte valued his time in the classroom, he explains, but yearned to give his students community resources and real-world experience—two things textbooks don’t provide.
To start, he partnered with the nonprofit Students Run Philly Style, which engages students through mentorship and running. He was immediately inspired by the impact.
“I got to see how quick students learn outside of a school and how much more open they are to take risks,” he notes in an understated tone that just barely conceals the excitement of his discovery.
This mindset led him to another idea, one that had students questioning his sanity.
Every Wednesday, Aponte would schedule time in the school day for what he called “Circle Up,” where he would pose a question to the kids about the people they were and the people they wanted to be.
Often, Aponte played them videos he had taken of people in Kensington, where he grew up, who were experiencing homelessness and addiction, including interviewing them about their lives.
Some of Aponte’s students were also from Kensington and had their own, often negative, interactions with people experiencing homelessness and addiction, hence the questioning of Aponte’s sanity. But as the students saw these people open up on camera to tell their stories, they were able to view the struggles of these people, and their own personal traumas, in a new light.
When he was four, Aponte’s family was shaken up by multiple traumas, including separation and addiction, that led to him moving in with his grandmother.
By the time he was eight years old, his family had reached some stable ground, and Aponte moved back in with his mother and stepfather in Tacony.
The newfound stability, however, did not erase the trauma.
As Aponte openly admits, “I used to not be a good person. I used to manipulate and hurt a lot of people and lie, cheat and steal. But then I went through my own personal awakening and dealt with my trauma. When you grow up in Philly you go through a lot of traumatic things and in order to go through that journey of self-discovery, what helped me was to turn my pain into passion.”
That passion manifested in We Love Philly’s mission of not only using multimedia to teach kids to relate to the world, but to also train them on how to use multimedia in an entrepreneurial way.
As Aponte describes it, “The journey of entrepreneurship is the total exploration of you. In fact, it’s often the realization that sometimes it’s you versus you. It’s something that with time, and with practice, and with forgiveness of self, you can start to become better.”
We Love Philly started as a labor of love for Aponte—a volunteer-run nonprofit that placed One Bright Ray students with other nonprofits throughout Philadelphia in need of media help.
Students worked on projects involving digital branding and media marketing and gained experience doing interviews that turned into a podcast that We Love Philly also founded.
Aponte recalls how many students would be resistant to putting themselves out there at first, as they have dealt with a lot of mistrust. Even though these students had talent to market, they didn’t have the confidence to risk rejection, he explains. But We Love Philly afforded them an opportunity for self-discovery.
Thayid Wilson was one of these students.
After graduating from One Bright Ray and We Love Philly in 2020, he is now working with the organization, creating video assets and screen-printing T-shirts. Wilson also co-wrote a grant with Aponte to attend South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, to speak on a panel about innovation in the classroom.
“The education I wanted just wasn’t in the average school system. We Love Philly was my way to learn about the real world…”
— Thayid Wilson, We Love Philly member
“The education I wanted just wasn’t in the average school system,” Wilson explains. “We Love Philly was my way to learn about the real world and what I had to do in the future … Now I’m hands-on outside of the classroom.”
After the 2020–2021 school year wrapped up, Aponte left One Bright Ray to focus solely on We Love Philly full-time, becoming the organization’s first employee and its executive director.
One Bright Ray continues to be the organization’s main feeder for students, and students can still get high school credits due to Aponte’s continued accreditation, but much of his time with students is now spent outside of the school day.
At the same time, We Love Philly’s focus has also shifted.
The first shift was an expansion of its curriculum. The We Love Philly curriculum still promotes branding, marketing, digital media and podcast skills, but the website now also states that students will learn skills that “will enable them to take ownership of their community (home ownership, local laws, taxes, etc.).” All of these goals are on display with the shipping container project.
This expansion also coincided with the desire to focus their work within a specific neighborhood.
Although We Love Philly had good partnerships with nonprofits throughout the city, Aponte’s experiences in his own neighborhood of Kensington showed him how important it would be for his students to focus their attention and service on a specific community and really put down their roots—a priority that led them to One Art to volunteer for the construction of the Earthship’s facade.
In the spring of 2021 he used One Art’s space to host a prom for One Bright Ray graduates who were going to miss their prom due to the pandemic, solidifying One Art as their homebase.
Malaika Gilpin, a cofounder of One Art, says meeting Aponte “was like reconnecting with my little brother. He’s family!”
One Art is a space that fosters innovation in and of itself.
Founded in 2001 by the late Benjamin Dyett Reid, whose life was tragically cut short only a few years later, the center is now run by Gilpin, Reid’s wife at the time of his 2005 passing, and her current husband Ewan “One” Gilpin.
It’s one of those places that makes a person recognize why it’s so special to live in Philadelphia. What started as a junkyard is now a holistic community center that houses storefronts, including the mother and daughter–run Black-owned plant store Plants and People, as well as the InI Collective, which sells handmade goods created by BIPOC partners.
The backside of the buildings house a coworking space, community kitchen and a screen printing shop—and an area once used for lumber storage is now an event space that, prior to the pandemic, hosted 50 events and meetings per year.
Farther back is a community farm that supplies many of the vegetables for the kitchen, complete with a horse that acts as a main attraction for neighbors, along with hens and ducks and one glorious peacock that catches the attention of every visitor.
It may seem like there’s too much going on at One Art to keep everything straight, but Gilpin sees more value in the space being a cyclical experience rather than a straight line.
“There’s something powerful when people see honey in InI [Collective] and find out it was harvested from bees at the farm, or they eat a meal from our community kitchen and find out the veggies came from the garden,” she says. “It creates a connection here.”
Gilpin stood as she said this, motioning over to farm, her flowing dress brushing against the ground and almost blending her into the landscape around her.
From that cyclical connection comes the operative word that seemed to be at the heart of missions of both One Art and We Love Philly: healing.
Aponte uses every inch of One Art to fulfill this mission of healing at We Love Philly. Aside from having the space to build out the shipping container, he uses the center’s outdoor garden to foster students’ meditation and mindfulness practices, encouraging them to reflect both on their work and their lives.
And as both he and Gilpin profess, One Art is a place where students can put down their phones, stop looking at social media and be immersed in nature as they learn, not just for a field trip, but for their entire day.
Aponte acknowledges that this is a bit ironic for an organization still heavily focused on multimedia skills. But he views mindfulness and being outdoors as a muscle that his students need to flex everyday if they want to be successful.
Gilpin, who holds a master’s degree in multicultural education, agrees that getting kids outside should be the rule, not the exception.
As a parent of two adults, a high schooler and an elementary student, she has witnessed the positive effect of exposing kids to green spaces in schoolyards or other natural areas to “listen to the earth.” Gilpin insists that this can’t just be for the occasional excursion, but rather a consistent part of the school day.
Moving forward, Aponte hopes to see more organizations like his spring up to help connect students to their communities and vice versa.
He’s seeing more and more hands-on education advocates being invited to bring their talents into schools throughout Philadelphia.
Within the past six years, the School District of Philadelphia and the Kenney Administration have partnered on 17 community schools that strive to create that school and community connection, and in other places it’s the friends groups and parent associations aiming to do the same work.
But, like getting kids outdoors on a consistent basis, connecting schools to the community can’t be the exception. Aponte further points out that efforts must be made to connect community and business leaders who look like the students they are talking to and who sometimes might not be the typical person asked to speak at a school. The school district must make the extra effort to map these community resources and bring them to the students, Aponte explains.
As Dennis has learned, a successful entrepreneur doesn’t design a system by dictating to the user how the product should be designed; the successful entrepreneur listens to the user and designs a product that fits their needs.
Dennis believes the same should be done for the lived experience of students in the school district, many of whom exist with traumas both past and present.
Dennis certainly recognizes how unique We Love Philly is. When asked what sets it apart from other workforce development programs, she answers, “I feel safe here and I actually want to be here.”
As for what Dennis is working on next, she responded that she would be attending the DivaGirl Brunch Bash, part of the She Means Biz business conference, an opportunity that came to her through We Love Philly.
And would she be speaking there?
“No,” she responds humbly, “I’m just going there to learn.”
We Love Philly is hosting a Holiday Party & Student Showcase on December 19. Buy tickets at welovephilly.org