Eagles prez Banner: Not your average Joe

Eagles President Joe Banner will receive City Year's Lifetime of Idealism Award at a ceremony tomorrow night.
Eagles President Joe Banner will receive City Year's Lifetime of Idealism Award at a ceremony tomorrow night.
Posted: May 11, 2009

AS A BOY in Boston, Joe Banner had an experience that changed his life. His school took students into the city's rough Roxbury section to teach younger children how to read.

"I had some very powerful experiences there," the Philadelphia Eagles' president recalled in an interview last week. "I lived a middle-class life . . . and I was struck at how profoundly different my life was from the other children there . . .

"I became addicted to that feeling you get when you help other people."

The notion that one person can change the world may sound corny to some. But idealism is at the heart of City Year, an urban youth program that Banner - who served as a program volunteer for two years in Boston - is responsible for bringing to Philadelphia in 1997.

Having arrived in the city three years earlier, to work as the Eagles' chief operating officer, Banner took then-City Councilman Michael Nutter and a delegation to Boston to convince the national City Year office to open a chapter here.

Tomorrow night, about 900 people are expected at a sold-out dinner at the Crystal Tea Room, where Philadelphia's City Year chapter will honor Banner with its Lifetime of Idealism Award.

The award puts Banner in high-powered company: In 2006, City Year Chicago honored a then-U.S. senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. And later this month, City Year New York will honor former President Clinton.

'Extraordinary empathy'

By now, Philadelphians are used to seeing the young men and women in their red jackets and tan Timberland boots.

At least twice a week, they start their day early in the morning with exercise and a unity meeting near City Hall. Most of the 225 corps members then go off to work in the public schools as tutors and mentors for children and teens.

"Give a year. Change the world" is the program's slogan. With chapters in 18 U.S. cities and one in South Africa, it encourages young people ages 17 to 24 to take a year to serve others.

"He has the extraordinary empathy to feel what other people feel," Michael Brown, City Year CEO and founder, said of Banner. "He has an extreme sense of social justice."

Banner, 56, is co-chairman of the Philadelphia City Year board, a member of its national board and also is chair of its National Leadership Committee (composed of chairs of all 19 chapters).

Philly's City Year has grown from 73 members its first year to 225 this year, tying New York for the largest City Year program, said Rex Carney, deputy director of Philadelphia's chapter.

Banner is generally a quiet man who shuns the limelight, except when he is in the news for the Eagles.

"He's an incredible combination of extreme humility and the perseverance of steel," Brown said.

A life-altering experience

Banner has a long history of community service since growing up in a Boston suburb.

He told the Daily News that although his parents weren't wealthy, they sent him to a private school in Weston, Mass.

Then, in 1964, about 10 years before Boston would make international news because of furious anti-busing protests by whites opposed to desegregating the public schools, Banner said, he was part of a kind of "busing program" himself.

"[My school] had a program where one day a week, they'd load a group of us in a van and took us to Roxbury to help teach 6-, 7-, and 8-year-old kids how to read," Banner said.

He was only 11 or 12 years old.

But he noticed right away that the neighborhood, which was mostly black, was pretty rough.

"I'd never had school trauma, or home trauma, or the trauma of not knowing when I'd get my next meal," he said.

And by the time he was 15, Banner had started his own nonprofit group at high school called "CampE." The group raised money with car washes and raffles to send poor children from the city to summer camp.

"I'd loved summer camp myself so much that I wanted these kids from the city to experience that," he said.

The name "CampE" served two goals: The first was to send city children to camp, but the E stood for the education that Banner's more-privileged classmates would get from learning how other people lived.

Not long after attending Denison University, in Ohio - and a stint as a sports reporter at the former WCAU radio, 1210 AM, in Philly - Banner returned to Boston to try to buy the summer camp he'd attended as a child.

When those plans fell through, Banner accepted his father's suggestion that they go into the clothing business together.

Impact of busing

In the early 1990s, Banner got involved with City Year in Boston after selling the family clothing business.

He wanted an organization in which young people would learn the value of service. And he wanted to make sure that people of different backgrounds learned to work together.

He said that Boston's history of busing made an impact on him. That's why City Year's policy of having corps members work in diverse teams appealed to him.

"It was on the news every day," Banner said. "People who grew up in that time in Boston couldn't help being motivated to do something to change things," he said.

He said that City Year founder Brown also grew up in Boston about the same time as the busing fights.

But the City Year programs aren't just about black and white. The teams include male and female members, from cities and suburbs, some who are well-educated and others high-school dropouts.

Banner said that when the teams start working together, oftentimes the Ivy League-educated corps members are the ones who learn from the dropouts.

In the process of planning the nonprofit, Banner made the rounds of schools and community centers in Boston.

Everywhere he went, he said, people told him: "That sounds like City Year. You need to talk to those guys."

Banner then met with Brown and Alan Khazei, who had come up with the idea while classmates at Harvard Law.

It wasn't long before Banner decided to help City Year, rather than duplicate their efforts.

"I was so impressed," he said. "I thought it was an incredible idea for corps members and their families."

Soon, he was volunteering with City Year for four days a week. He started out by helping the group find new office space, Brown said.

'A quiet volunteer'

"Joe Banner spent months and months and looked at a hundred places, all as a volunteer, all for free," Brown said during a recent visit to Philadelphia. "He helped us find our new home.

"He was a quiet volunteer."

Then, a couple of years later, Banner told Brown and Khazei that a pal he'd known since he was 15, Jeffrey Lurie, had bought the Eagles and that he'd be moving. He knew then, he said, that he wanted to bring City Year here.

City Year's Web site has stories and quotes from social activists that include Mahatma Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela.

Banner said that others used to groan or roll their eyes when City Year people would use the famous Gandhi quote: "You must be the change you want to see in the world."

But Banner said that attitudes in this country are changing toward idealism and volunteering. Last month, President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which will more than triple the size of AmeriCorps, from 75,000 to 250,000.

"One of the indicators that we've made a lot of progress is that when you start talking in an idealist and optimistic way, the funny looks are declining," Banner said.

He said that the grand-scale references to Gandhi and Mandela are there for a reason.

"You can't stand up with a small goal and expect people to follow you," Banner said. "You have to be able to risk talking large to attract volunteers and corporate partners.

"Nobody is going to follow you if you're not leading with passion." *

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