Is Germantown Settlement ancient history? The Missing Branch radio show explores this 10-year-old scandal that keeps on giving. Part Two of a live broadcast of The Missing Branch radio show (January 2, 2019 — read Part One here)
LAWANDA: I think it’s human nature to desire to see things grow and improve. And it feels even better when you’re a part of what makes those positive changes happen.
But on the other side of that — as a reminder to the people who organize in Germantown and who our community folk are very active. It doesn’t feel so great when you’re not a part of it. When you’re not included in it. And that brings me to some of my frustrations about Germantown. I feel as though not everyone is included.
From email distribution to certain events. Even just the tone and subject matter of some of the things that are going on here. It seems to be lacking in an understanding of who actually lives here. And sometimes not just lacking understanding, but dismissive of who lives here. What the salary ranges are like. What it’s like to live and exist.
Sometimes we criticize certain parts of the community for not being involved in things and we don’t connect that to whether or not they were made aware of those things in the first place. Whether or not they’re already working three jobs and are barely getting by and don’t have a whole lot of extra or free time for street cleanup and other neighborhood association gatherings.
There’s just a lot of co-occurring challenges in these communities, and it’s always passed off as a lack of interest in being involved when I think in reality it’s more complex than that. So It’s easy to see how given those things a large portion of Germantown – 80% black, average income $28k/year — would feel isolated, uninvited, and disconnected from some of the things that are happening here.
To speak to more of my Germantown frustrations: when I first moved to Germantown, one of the first things someone approached me about was this Germantown Settlement. I don’t know what happened with this – Henry did some research but all I know is the first thing that was said to me when I was proposing to do something new here.
And it was negative so I stopped listening. And then subsequently it was brought up in almost every conversation I had with people about things I wanted to do here. Let’s do a quick rundown about what happened with this Germantown Settlement everyone keeps talking about.
HENRY: Buckle up, I have a quick narrative, I won’t be able to get into everything, I won’t use any names. I’m sure many people will have very strong opinions, they can let us know on Facebook, tell us what you’ve observed.
LAWANDA: Where are you getting this information?
HENRY: I read investigative articles from journalists in Philly from 2010 to the present. The story is about whether there was incompetence, enabling or corruption. A lot of unanswered questions remain and very little accountability. I think that’s what rubs people the wrong way.
What was supposed to be a project for improving Germantown became a huge mess and this problem is still with us. Even though Settlement had been wound up in 2009 and the non-profit was disbanded (it went into bankruptcy), you still have properties that are still owned or controlled by the former executive director. The Housing Authority is trying to get control of them again because people are without heat and gas. Maintenance has been neglected.
LAWANDA: What’s the backstory?
HENRY: Settlement was founded in 1884 by a Quaker woman to provide free kindergarten for children of Irish mill workers. It expanded through the years and provided more social services including libraries and similar services for the local population. As white flight took hold in the 60’s, this vestige of old Germantown was primarily white Quakers distributing money to the black residents.
The Quakers wanted to see more black people involved since a non-profit’s leadership should reflect who it serves as its clients. Settlement started recruiting black board members. The first one eventually became its executive director in the 80’s – he had been involved with it for over twenty years before becoming its executive director. By most accounts, throughout the 80’s and even to about 1995 it was run well, providing social services and housing.
The new executive director was very good at raising money but not so good at managing money. Two important and stabilizing figures passed away during the mid-nineties and the general consensus is that this was the turning point.
Settlement was a story of ambition and bringing investment into a distressed area. According to one journalist, it is estimated that close to 100 million dollars in grants, low-interest loans and tax breaks flowed through that organization into Germantown over 25 years. It was the sole conduit of money into the area.
LAWANDA: It sounds like we would need to avoid having one organization be the entity that handles all the money coming into Germantown.
HENRY: Absolutely. You want to have checks and balances. You want to have an ecosystem of nonprofits and businesses competing and collaborating.
In 1999, the ambition lead to the launching the Germantown Settlement Charter School. Someone without a background in education tried to run a charter school and did so poorly. The school tried to hire new teachers, but it’s hard to attract good people when you’re bouncing checks, not withholding payroll taxes, and not paying health insurance premiums.
This was an important project and no one wanted to see it fail. This is why the questions came up of whether there were enablers or whether there was corruption? People from all levels of government (local, state and federal) kept the money flowing even as red flags emerged.
LAWANDA: Was anyone ever indicted? Were there any consequences for mismanagement?
HENRY: I have not seen any. However, the former executive director went into business afterward with somebody who’d gotten out of Federal prison for money laundering which kind of reflects poorly on him.
LAWANDA: That reflects poorly on Philadelphia in general because it happens to be a city where there’s an awful lot of that going on.
HENRY: By the early 2000’s, the budget was 2 million dollars annually and it quickly grew to having expenses of 7 million and running deficits of 2 million or so each year. The executive director controlled over 30 different companies in the Northwest and was president of at least 16. It’s hard to run even a single business, now imagine running 16 businesses.
LAWANDA: From a consulting standpoint (because we are consultants) it’s also just not a good idea to be president of 16 companies. It’s rife with potential for conflict and mismanagement.
HENRY: Exactly, that’s the big problem here. What happened to the money? The articles allege that they were constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul. They were moving money from entity to entity to stay one step ahead of utility shutoff’s and other problems. Grant money that was supposed to be for the charter school might show up in the bank accounts of one of the other entities. Hundreds of thousands of dollars kept flowing back and forth. The proper financial controls were not in place.
Still, to many outsiders it looked like a very well-run organization. One guy who’d been with the Housing Authority took an accounting job at Settlement as the next step in his career. As he started looking over the books, he found a lot of irregularities and he blew the whistle. He was fired almost immediately and that was the beginning of the end.
In 2009 Settlement filed for bankruptcy protection. Perhaps it was just a story of people enabling, making sure important projects kept going along but there was also incompetence and mismanagement at the top. There’s a huge breakdown in trust now. People don’t want to see a repeat of this situation.
LAWANDA: Yeah, well. We’re outsiders so I think our emotions aren’t as high about this whole thing. Honestly, my first reaction was like “Ok when did that happen? And why is everyone still talking about it?”
HENRY: Cause it’s not over with.
LAWANDA: I think though that part of the reason why people are still talking about it because it’s now really difficult to get money to come to this area because people have been really burned by this. I do hope for the sake of Germantown we can get to a point where we can move past this.
Honestly when I talk about my frustrations about Germantown, this is one of them for the simple fact that it comes up in every conversation – in any conversation — about the things that we ought to do to make this place what we all would like to see it become. If we can’t have a conversation about the future without bringing up the past, it’s going to be much harder for us to ever see that future come to fruition.
That’s my opinion. There’s probably a ton of people who will disagree with this perspective. But a clean clear set of eyes has come to your neighborhood, saying “You guys seem pretty wrapped up in this particular thing.” It’s one thing to be wrapped up in something, it’s another to be wrapped to such a degree that you are unable to move forward with anything else.
Another frustration: the Germantown Facebook pages. Facebook has turned into a really naughty place, just in general. Even when I look at my hometown pages, it’s the people who are from home vs the people who are new to home, and they’re just going at each other’s throats all day. But in Germantown the Facebook pages here take on an interesting characteristic. Because I think again there are those people who truly care, and the well-meaning folks and then like the folks who want to appear to be well-meaning.
I think there are far more people on the Germantown page talking about trash then actually picking up trash in the neighborhood. Every time there’s a clean-up I see like one or two people – shout out to Keith Schenck!— I see a few people out there actually cleaning up the trash but I hear hundreds: these threads will go on for days and weeks.
And I will be the first to admit that from time to time I have gone on there and gotten involved and immediately regretted it. But I think that over the years I’ve maybe commented on five posts that lasted days. One was actually about a missing turtle from the grounds of one of the historic houses here. It almost completely ruined my holiday because my notifications kept binging and at the time I didn’t have those turned off. And it was like a Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday and people were like talking for two weeks about the missing turtle…
Some of this stuff is just really disappointing for a community that needs so many things. For a community where people are actually dying. To have week-long conversations about turtles on a neighborhood page. Two weeks, in this case. Again, I think that these are the kinds of things where our time hopefully in 2019 people will start to think about how they’re contributing to the problem either thru inaction or not very helpful action.
There are processes we need to go thru, for instance, to have trash removed. It’s not about any one individual or organization so I feel attacks aren’t helpful. I feel like this kind of dialog really consumes Germantown. There are far fewer people actually supporting the non-profit organizations here that are trying to solve a lot of the problems. I find they don’t have enough volunteers, nobody’s going to clean up, people aren’t attending their events or providing them with the kind of money they need to do a good job. They’re only talking about how poor a job they’re doing. That’s something that I’d really like to see resolved in Germantown. And I think it will make it a better place to be and live and work.
We’re like a bunch of crabby old ladies and men looking outside of our windows for things to find wrong. Then arriving at the window again the next day to find more things wrong. I just hope that we can like leave the house and get off Facebook and actually do stuff.
The other thing I find a little bit frustrating is the racial divide, both in Philadelphia and also in Germantown. I was really surprised to find in like 2018 that there’s still a city in America that is still as segregated that I think Philadelphia is. That was definitely surprising. That is given that even living in upstate New York, even being only like one of five black people who had a higher level of job in local government and lobbying.
Even given all of that, I was super surprised to find how racially segregated we were. That I could attend an event and be the only black person there. That Henry could come with me somewhere and be the only white person. There isn’t the kind of like community and camaraderie that we all love to talk about. That seems to just not exist.
I think there are ways that we create this almost subconsciously. There are people we are familiar with, people we like, people we hang out with that are in the spaces we feel comfortable in. I think the coverage of Philadelphia or of Germantown more specifically is along those lines. If the reporter feels most comfortable at a particular location, then the story is about that location and the people who are at that location. But if they don’t feel comfortable then the story isn’t happening there.
I’d like to see more support. More diverse coverage, more diverse support of organizations and institutions here. And more support for ground level initiatives. Don’t assume they’re the only organizations worthy of writing a check to are the ones that have been covered in the newspaper.
HENRY: Wasn’t that kind of the problem, with Germantown only supporting the Settlement for so long, and not having a diverse set of organizations here?
LAWANDA: Yeah and I think that just because the players are different doesn’t mean you’re not still putting yourself at risk to have some of the same problems.
Something I read the other day about Philadelphia and gatherings. Like our city’s planning and strategy is like a raindrop in the middle of a storm. What that analogy is supposed to imply is that there’s constant planning taking place, constantly. In fact I believe to a certain degree that some of the planning is about not having to do. If we make it seem as though the paperwork process in the planning is something that takes forever then we never have to actually attempt to solve the issues.
What sort of scares people about getting started, they feel as though they have to do something that is complete. People don’t feel accomplished working on things in pieces. And working on things in pieces, I know as a consultant, absolutely positively is the only way to get anything done. So if the problem is litter, it has to start with you cleaning up the block. If the problem is drugs and violence, any solution has to start at the root cause of that, which is often unemployment and lack of opportunity.
And if you can do one little thing that actually attacks that problem. If there were hundreds of people doing one little thing, we’d see a significant change. I think we need to see more people out in the street after the meetings. There’s a ton of people who’ll come out to the meetings, but after the meeting no one’s there. They’re just waiting until the next meeting.
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The Mission Branch is a Mission Incorporated radio show. Mission Incorporated help start, grow, find funding for non-profit organizations and community activism throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Learn more at www.MissionIncDevelopment.com Follow us on Facebook & Twitter. Power to the people!