Reopening Libraries in West Philadelphia

As our fellows wrap up and say goodbye for the year, we will be featuring the words Stephanie Bello, who lived and served in Philadelphia.

Initially, I was drawn to the Fellowship due to my interest in developing a career in the Jewish communal non-profit world. I am particularly interested in doing work that focuses on fostering partnerships between communities, and Repair the World offered the opportunity to explore that with intentionality.

As a fellow I focused predominantly on two major areas: education and volunteering. Our education was related to understanding the ‘why’ of social justice work through a Jewish lens–investigating systemic issues related to food access, educational opportunities, racial justice, and economic equality, among others. We challenged our community – and each other! – to not only think about concepts of privilege and other social justice topics, but begin to engage with one another in conversation about them.

During the year, we held events that focused on everything from the Jewish response to racial injustice, to the school-to-prison pipeline, to food sovereignty. We encouraged participants to begin these tough but important conversations with one another in the hopes that they would feel motivated to rectify them. When they did, we worked with local non-profit organizations to provide chances for them to get involved and volunteer with their community.

Specifically, as an Education Justice Fellow, I spent my time working with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia, which runs a variety of after school programs for children from Kindergarten through twelfth grade, and the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC) which works to promote literacy in Philadelphia public schools by reopening (and subsequently running) abandoned libraries in West Philadelphia elementary schools.

With WePAC, we worked diligently to reopen a library that had sat unused for four years, and been under-resourced for over a decade. This included organizing groups of volunteers to go through old books–removing those that were no longer historically or politically correct–and organize new ones into the online system. Over the course of several months, countless hours went into this project. Now, it gives me such joy to know that the students in that school finally have access to something that I once dearly loved: a school library.

I grew in ways that I didn’t anticipate during this year. I am a very different person than I was back in September, and I am still blown away by the many ways in which this program challenged me to think outside the box and explore things in a new manner.