These 10 are changing things around here

Posted: October 14, 2011

TOP-10 LISTS drive people crazy.

You want to start an argument that'll last for days, mention to a pal your picks for the top-10 movies of all time. Or best albums.

But a good list gets people talking, gets people thinking.

So today, as Young Involved Philadelphia prepares to wrap up the "State of Young Philly" - a two-week series of brainstorming workshops - the People's Paper offers a list of 10 up-and-comers who are playing vital roles in shaping the city's future.

Sophie Bryan

Chief of staff to City Councilman Bill Green

Green spent much of his first term tormenting Mayor Nutter about the city's budget and policies. But it was Bryan who scored the first big win on Nutter.

Bryan, 37, led a legal challenge to Nutter's plan to trim the budget by shuttering some libraries. Bryan successfully argued in court that Nutter needed Council approval for the plan.

The West Philadelphia native said she was focused at Harvard - undergrad and law school - on public service. That her mother was a career librarian was plenty of motivation in her first big City Hall dust-up.

Bryan spent a year at a law firm after graduating before heading to Delaware to work for the U.S. Attorney's Office. She came home to work at Community Legal Services, focusing on civil cases about housing. In a very un-Philadelphia way of landing a City Hall job, Bryan applied via Green's website.

"It's amazing, right?" she asked. "What a ridiculous way of getting a job." Green, who has Bryan focused on the city budget and ways to reduce the business-privilege tax, counts himself lucky she clicked on that job link.

"The best thing I ever did was put that button on my website," Green said.

- Chris Brennan

Tumar Alexander

Mayor Nutter's deputy chief of staff

Tumar Alexander was just a teenager when the proverbial lightbulb flickered above his head. He realized what he wanted to do with his life: politics.

Politics? Yeah, politics.

"I was the president of the student council at William Penn High School," said Alexander, 36. "I got the political bug. I realized that you could make a difference each and every day in the city you're living in."

He volunteered for John Street during the former mayor's successful 1999 campaign. That campaign included Alexander being charged with making terroristic threats after an altercation outside of GOP mayoral candidate Sam Katz's campaign office. He received six months' probation, entered a program for first-time offenders and was suspended without pay from his city job for a week.

After that bump in the road, Alexander later got a job in the city Managing Director's Office. While there, Alexander worked on community programs, including Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.

Alexander's profile has risen under Mayor Nutter, who recently named him to deputy chief of staff, a post that has him serving as the mayor's liaison to City Council. A North Philly resident, Alexander also serves on the advisory board of KIPP, the college-prep charter-school network, and the Young Friends Committee of Project HOME.

- David Gambacorta

Sean Agnew

 

Music promoter

Agnew, 34, wasn't the first person in Philly to put on concerts in nontraditional venues.

"I attended those shows when I was younger and those meant a lot to me," said Agnew, founder of R5 Productions. "Those shows stuck out to me more, and those shows don't exist outside of Philadelphia. It was a really unique scene."

The difference between Agnew and the amateur promoters who came before? He stuck with it.

"I'm either smart or dumb enough to have done this for 16 years," Agnew said. He's now one of the names behind the new 1,000-seat Union Transfer, on Spring Garden Street near 11th.

Agnew credits his success in part to Philadelphia's lack of live music infrastructure when he began. It was easy to convince a band to play a church basement when there were no other options.

Agnew jumped from hosting shows on Penn's campus to the First Unitarian Church, to booking relatively new arrivals like Kung Fu Necktie and Johnny Brenda's, culminating in his work with Union Transfer. The venue will compete with Philly institutions like the Trocadero and the TLA.

For his next act, Agnew would like to open a "smaller, more organic arty venue" that can host live music. "I can't imagine it working in many other places but Philadelphia," Agnew said.

- Molly Eichel

Marc Mannella

Founder, CEO of KIPP Philadelphia Charter Schools.

Mannella, 36, was headed to medical school before he discovered his calling in an inner-city Baltimore classroom.

A native of upstate New York, Mannella joined Teach for America on a whim after graduating from the University of Rochester.

His experience teaching in West Baltimore led him to open Philadelphia's KIPP, or Knowledge is Power Program, Charter Schools, in 2003.

"The kids in my classroom in Baltimore were beautiful, brilliant and smart as any other kid," Mannella said. "The issue was they had been undertaught."

Mannella said the major problem he saw - which he found when he came to Philadelphia as a charter-school teacher - was that leaders put their own agendas before students' needs.

"I thought charters might be the panacea and was quickly disillusioned," said Mannella.

Now, KIPP's four Philadelphia schools serve students who are no longer grade levels behind as a result of longer school days and a highly selective teacher-hiring process, among other key things Mannella says make a difference.

He hopes to have 10 schools by 2016. But he knows there will be challenges.

"The bottom line is this work is just incredibly hard, and my hat is off to everybody who's doing it," he said.

- Morgan Zalot

John Farrell

Head of PhillyRising

Since Nutter chose him last winter to lead the new PhillyRising effort to revitalize troubled neighborhoods without spending on 24/7 cop armies, John Farrell, 30, has operated like the former commander of a Marine infantry platoon in Iraq that he was.

In a remarkably short time, Farrell became best buds with 26th Police District Capt. Michael Cram and with Diane Bridges, the longtime "mayor" of North Philly's Hartranft neighborhood - a small but violent patch between 6th and 10th streets from Lehigh Avenue to York Street.

Farrell says he, Cram and Bridges partnered with "a bunch of other Type-A people like us, champing at the bit to get things going." Within months, they had reopened the long-deserted Hartranft Community Center indoor pool, created Hartranft's first public computer lab, brought Police Athletic League sports to Hartranft Elementary, demolished 14 imminently dangerous houses, and convinced the owners of a dangerously-deteriorated stone church on 9th Street near Lehigh Avenue to make repairs.

Farrell, who lives in Spring Garden, said that violent crime in Hartranft fell 15.9 percent from February to December 2010, compared with the previous year. In his second target area, the West Philadelphia neighborhood around Haddington library, on 65th Street near Girard Avenue, a job-skills boot camp led to bringing residents to job fairs. Teaming with neighborhood activist Sheila Washington, Farrell got a major demolition and lot revitalization project under way on Daggett Street near Girard.

He is now ready to lead PhillyRising into Frankford and Market East.

- Dan Geringer

Ted Qualli

 

Vice president of external affairs and marketing for Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Qualli, 37, sees your tax dollars as an investment in children that pays real dividends. That's the view - starting early with kids can cut costs in education, welfare and corrections - Qualli presents as he roams City Hall or the state Capitol.

"The kids in our program are less likely to skip school, do drugs, those kinds of things," he says.

Qualli came to City Hall after doing outside communications work for the city's Department of Human Services. That led him to the communications office for then-Mayor John Street, where Qualli was deputy to chief spokesman Joe Grace.

"He's got a ridiculously sound work ethic," says Grace, who dealt with reporters while Qualli ran the office. "Ted produced communications for the entire city government."

That take-charge attitude has propelled Qualli to president of an association for the 26 Big Brother/Big Sister chapters in the state. At home, he serves as president of the Blue Bell Hill Civic Association.

- Chris Brennan

Tswana Sewell

American Cancer Society event planner

Most people, if they're lucky, get a handful of opportunities in life to genuinely do some good.

Sewell, 32, has been lucky - and then some.

The Overbrook Park resident worked for the last 10 years as an event planner and fundraiser for the Urban Affairs Coalition.

Sewell landed a job at the coalition - which works with 75 other nonprofits and neighborhood groups - following an internship there after graduating from the University of Richmond.

She watched numerous teens and young adults get their first jobs through a summer employment program run by the coalition.

"I remember one guy who got a summer job through one of [the coalition's] banking partners. Later, he became a senior vice president at the bank," she said.

Sewell said she was also proud of the coalition's efforts to ensure that contractors owned by minorities, women and disabled people got contracts at city developments, including the Convention Center expansion.

Sewell recently left her post at the Urban Affairs Coalition for an event-planning job with the American Cancer Society, in Cherry Hill, N.J. But she remains deeply involved in the city, serving on the board of the Bread and Roses Community Fund and as the treasurer for Teenshop.

- David Gambacorta

Jamira Burley

Coordinator for National Peace Alliance, Police Advisory Commission member

Growing up in some of Philadelphia's most dangerous neighborhoods inspired Burley's passion for combating youth violence and advocating for education reform.

"I didn't wake up one morning and decide to do this," said the 23-year-old Temple University student. "I grew up in an environment where violence and murder was common."

Burley, a member of the Daily News' People's Editorial Board, is the first of her 16 siblings to graduate from high school and attend college. Both her parents and all 10 of her older brothers have been in jail, she said.

While she attended Overbrook High School, the murder of her older brother led her to begin her push for peace.

She established the Panther Peace Corps at Overbrook, which later led to a position with the school district as a student leadership coordinator. Burley is now coordinator for the National Peace Alliance and a mayor's appointee to the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission.

She hopes to be a role model for her five younger siblings, who range in age from 7 to 18.

"In my family, for a long time, getting arrested was a right of passage," she said. "I try to get past that and make them realize there are opportunities."

- Morgan Zalot

Christopher Wink

Co-founder, Technically Philly

It was not that long ago that Wink, 25, was an aspiring journalist emailing reporters around Philadelphia for advice.

Reporters were soon emailing Wink and his buddies, Sean Blanda and Brian James Kirk, asking for advice on how to best integrate technology in their work.

Wink helped found Technically Philly two years ago to pay more attention to the city's online technology industry.

"It seemed like a very real community that wasn't getting the attention it deserved," he said.

Two years later, the business is profitable enough to provide full-time employment for the trio, who are about to hire a freelance writer.

Wink, a native of northwest New Jersey who lives in Fishtown, says he didn't plan on launching a business but found he had to if he wanted to stay here.

"We wanted to be at the Daily News or at the Inquirer," Wink said. "We came out [of college] and there was no work. If we wanted to be in Philadelphia we had to stay in Philadelphia and build something or we would never get here again."

The group stays busy all year long, culminating in April with Philly Tech Week. Wink is focused much of the time on using technology to increase transparency in local government.

Wendy Warren, editor at Philly.com, calls Wink a "classic connector" who forges links between start-up companies, grant-making organizations, major corporations, city government and the local media.

- Chris Brennan

Michelle Freeman

"Flying Kite" publisher

How Freeman, 28, finds time to sleep is anybody's guess.

The South Philly resident publishes Flying Kite, a weekly online magazine that highlights the people, places and businesses that are putting the Philadelphia region on - gasp - the cutting edge.

She runs her own business, Michelle A. Freeman Marketing & Events, which creates marketing programs for the Office of the City Representative, among other clients.

She sits on the board of Girls Rock Philly, a nonprofit that mentors young women and teaches them to play musical instruments.

She's on the board of Young Involved Philadelphia, which is building up the city's next generation of civic leaders.

She's also on the board of the Spiral Q Puppet Theater, a nonprofit that connects art with social justice.

"I was raised Catholic, and my dad was really involved with the Knights of Columbus. He got me involved with community service," said the Northeast Philly native.

Freeman, who helped create the nonprofit Campus Philly while a student at Drexel, said she - like many people who have grown up in Philly - once toyed with the idea of seeing if the grass would be greener in another big city.

"I realized I love this city," she said. "It's a small city. Your work can be really impactful. I just want to do whatever I can to help the city grow."

- David Gambacorta

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