My name is Isaiah Thomas, and I am running for City Council-at-Large in 2019. While many issues affect the safety and prosperity of our city, none has a greater impact on the future of Philadelphia than the opportunities available to our young people. This is a subject that affects us all – rich and poor, black and white, old and young. As a skilled educator, passionate youth advocate and experienced coalition-builder, I know what it will take to address our city’s challenges. This is why I have made this “Youth Agenda: Capacity, Careers and Community Coalitions” the centerpiece of my 2019 campaign.
Why a Youth Agenda?
I grew up in the Northwest neighborhoods of Philadelphia. My parents both had full time jobs; my dad as a teacher and my mom as a childcare provider, and I learned a strong work ethic and family values from their example. Although I did not realize it at the time, like many young people in our city today, I attended under-resourced schools in under-resourced communities. My elementary school (Ellwood) had almost no playground equipment for us to explore at recess, and my middle and high schools (Conwell and Frankford) lacked technology and a curriculum designed to prepare us for the 21st century. Gun violence and fighting was commonplace, and I was forced to walk past drug dealers and prostitutes on my way to and from school each day. Further, like many young men of color, negative interactions with police were the norm for me as early as middle school – both the communities around my schools and my home neighborhood were characterized by an aggressive police presence and the frequent use of stop-and-frisk on me and my friends. Ironically, seeing so many people treated badly by the criminal justice system only pushed more of my friends and acquaintances towards substance abuse, drug dealing and violence. Looking back, I credit my parents with realizing that if I did not have an opportunity to develop a positive identity and leadership skills, I could have fallen victim to many of the same negative forces that enveloped my community. They enrolled me in basketball and volleyball programs, the Freedom Schools project, and other extracurricular programs that gave me a chance to grow into my own person and become resistant to peer pressure. I became a coalition-builder, bringing together students, teachers, coaches and community leaders to advocate for better resources and fairer justice. Not only did these activities fortify me, but the leadership I learned to exert allowed me to fortify other young men and women. Over time, it became obvious to me that many young people lacked these opportunities, and it became my life’s mission to create chances and hope for youth in our city. After years as an educator, coach and mentor, and as Director of Community Affairs for the Controller’s Office, my next goal is to have an impact on the lives of thousands of youths, and our city as a whole, as your City Councilperson-at-Large.
The Future of Philadelphia
My Youth Agenda is designed to build a brighter future not only for youth, but for all Philadelphians. What, you may ask, is the connection between today’s young people and Philadelphia in general? It’s simple. Our city’s population has been growing for more than a decade, and much of this growth is spurred by millennials and immigrants.1 Despite the popularity of our city, a disturbing trend exists – experts say the city’s school system drives out parents once their kids reach age 5: “[The city is] great when you're young, but once you have school-age kids, it all gets dicey. The public schools are not doing well, and people don't see that changing.”2 This problem has to be fixed. We also need better support for our youth so we can meet the demands of today and tomorrow’s companies, the backbone of our city’s great reputation and revenue streams. Philadelphia is one of the fastest growing cities for jobs in a variety of different industries, beating out even New York City.3 According to 2018 data, Philadelphia is ranked 7th in the country for projected growth of technology jobs – companies expect “increased demand for developers, information security professionals and, in particular, skilled network and telecommunications candidates . . . ”4 At the same time, two-thirds of executives report that it is difficult to find qualified technology talent in the city.5 Another recent report found that Philadelphia’s workforce suffered from not only a lack of candidates, but also from a lack of diversity.6 In a city that is roughly 43% black, 35% white non-Hispanic, 14% Hispanic, and 7% Asian, we can do better. As I hope you see by now, building a better city for our youth means more prosperity for all of us. Quality schools and graduating talent will attract strong employers, which will lead to higher wages and more tax revenue. Better opportunities for youth and more just policing will lead to lower rates of violence and drug use, saving money on enforcement, the court system and prisons. Each of these outcomes is dependent on the foundation we offer the next generation. So how do we create that foundation?
Youth Agenda: Capacity, Careers and Community Coalitions
My Youth Agenda addresses three core areas that will help us build Philadelphia into a city of opportunity for everyone: Capacity, Career and Community Coalitions.
Capacity: Improving our youths’ abilities through increased education funding, a high-tech curriculum and leveraging charter schools.
- The greatest challenge facing our school district is lack of funding. Relying on property taxes and state funding is inequitable and inefficient. As City Councilman, I will explore innovative and more sustainable sources of funding, such as foundations, contributions from businesses and universities, and seeking fair contributions from developers while maintaining tax abatement incentives that spur growth.
- Tomorrow’s employers need a workforce with skills beyond those taught in traditional educational settings. The definition of “literacy” has broadened to include computer, financial, civic and social literacy skills. My initiatives will address the deficits in our education system to make computer literacy a required part of the curriculum in all schools that receive public funding, including training in Microsoft Office, coding and networking. I will push for a financial literacy program to prepare students for credit, students loans and budgeting. Further, civic education about the governance of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, along with optional voter registration, is critical to a pipeline of concerned and engaged citizens who will contribute to the city. Finally, the increased social pressures youth people face, and the impact of domestic violence even in high school, mandate that our curricula adapt to offer more support to students.
- Charter schools have been viewed in some circles as threats to our public school system, and I understand that concern. But charter schools also can serve as important laboratories for experimenting with different educational models, leading to new, innovative and efficient ways of educating our young people. I propose a Charter School Task Force to bridge the divide between our public and charter schools and to provide increased oversight that will limit fraud and double-spending - historical problems with Philadelphia’s charter schools.
Careers: Ensuring the needs of employees and employers are met through job training, favorable conditions for employers, and an increased minimum wage.
- As mentioned in the "Capacity" section, Philadelphia’s students need more direct access to job training and summer employment opportunities that prepare them for entry into the workforce. I will increase partnerships with companies seeking raw talent to create programs that teach students concrete skills needed for jobs in Philadelphia’s many growing industries. In particular, I will pursue partnerships with technology companies that directly prepare students for jobs in information technology and supportive industries. Rather than educating students in isolation and then expecting them to be ready for the workforce, my initiatives will create synergies through cooperation and collaboration.
- Job training is of no use if employers do not continue to find Philadelphia a profitable place to call home. As City Councilman, I will work to revise the tax code to eliminate redundant and unfair taxes on employers, make the tax structure more transparent, and offer tax incentives for activities that create sustainable, long-term jobs.
- The profitability of our local businesses depend not only on the availability of talent and a simplified tax code, but also on the amount of disposable income available to their workers. Similarly, families that struggle to make ends meet often cannot ensure that their children have adequate supervision after school, access to books and computers at home, and healthy food to eat. As many cities and municipalities have done across the country with great success, it is time to raise Philadelphia’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Community Coalitions: Protecting our communities from violence and incarceration through civic leadership, recreational activities and effective policing partnerships.
- Opportunities for civic leadership for youth are chances to build skills and make a difference in one’s school or community, and can also serve as a valuable source of knowledge and ideas for our City Council. I propose to establish a “Youth City Council” that will draw from student government organizations at each school and report directly to City Council several times a year. The time has come not only to legislate for our youth, but also to listen to them – the idea that we have all the answers for the next generation is arrogant and shortsighted.
- Left unsupervised and without engagement after school, on the weekends and over the summer, many young people inevitably succumb to peer pressure, drugs and, in some cases, crime and violence. In this way, our security as a whole is integrally connected to the opportunities available to youth out of school. I propose to increase access to parks, improve recreation centers and fund additional youth activities through a “Youth Fund.” The Youth Fund would support job training, summer employment, and community-based recreation centers to ensure that students’ outside of school time contributes to their wellbeing and education. I would seek seed funding from the Mayor’s office, as well as local businesses and universities.
- If aggressive policing, racial profiling, stop-and-frisk and mass incarceration policies were effective, we would not be suffering from the gun violence epidemic and school-to-prison pipeline that plagues our city today. The time has come for policing strategies that actually work – community policing, de-escalation training, and increased accountability and transparency from the police department. I also will push for our police force to employ gun violence reduction strategies proven to work, such as using data to better understand patterns of violence, spot-intervention with high-risk individuals or communities, targeting underground gun markets, and stripping domestic abusers of gun privileges, just to name a few.7
1 Philly.com, "Philadelphia's population increased, but it's not all good, according to Census data," March 22, 2018.
3 Philadelphia Magazine, "In Search of Hot Jobs? Consider Moving to Philly," February 7, 2018; Technical.ly Philadelphia, "Philly beat New York in job growth," May 23, 2017.
4 Technical.ly Philly, "Philadelphia ranks 7th in tech job growth projections for 2018," December 15, 2017.
6 Technical.ly Philadelphia, "Philly beat New York in job growth," May 23, 2017.
7 Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, "Strategies for Reducing Gun Violence in American Cities"; Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, "Hot Spot Policing Focused on Guns Is Most Effective Strategy for Reducing Gun Violence in Baltimore, Study Finds," January 11, 2018.