Three new profiles of young Philadelphia who are making a difference.
Tyree Dumas, 22
It's chaos. The music's throbbing, and they're jumping, and standing on their hands, flipping upside down, feet splayed in the air. Who has the energy to deal with 20 or 30 dancing middle-schoolers?
Tyree "TopDollar" Dumas, 22, runs this twice-weekly hullabaloo at Waterview Recreation Center in Germantown. He realizes it's not exactly a structured dance practice. His presence in the bare gymnasium fulfills two purposes: keep these kids off the streets and give them a safe place to blow off steam. "For the most part it's just a networking thing," he says.
Networking? It's easy to dismiss a 13-year-old as oblivious to business, but under Dumas' guidance they're running a party movement called Dollarboyz, with its own record label, celebrities, school, and growing influence. Dumas recognizes youth's potential as business people and artists - he remembers getting yelled at a few times for selling candy out of his locker at recess in middle school. He started Dollarboyz to give kids a safe outlet for their energy, and a community they can call their own.
"I have 5,000 registered members in Philly, and about 5,000 more registered members throughout the U.S. with hundreds of thousands of followers registered on our website," Dumas says. His parties, with Dollarboyz artists performing, draw hundreds of kids.
One of Dollarboyz' most popular artists, 13-year-old DB Woody, would accompany his brother Dumas on school tours. "We talk to kids about the importance of staying in school and bully prevention," Dumas says. "Not only was he a distraction to the school, but school was a distraction to him, because of the girls running to be where he at."
He started Dollarboyz Academy for Dollarboyz who, Dumas says, "can't necessarily go to a public school. If they walk around they need security." The Pennsylvania Academy Leadership Charter School provides equipment, teachers and curriculum online. From 9 to 12 the students do core coursework. From noon to 2 they have their "treat."
"You specialize in rapping, you're in the studio, you're writing lyrics, you're preparing for your shows. If you're a dancer, you're in the studio creating moves. It's a new approach to education, so it's not boring," Dumas says.
By day Dumas works as a Youth Counsel Liaison at the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Technology. Dollarboyz operates as a for-profit, but Dumas has started a non-profit arm call Youth Now on Top, or YNOT. He does what he does because he dropped out of high school; he thought he was useless. Dumans wants to see kids on the street doing something constructive. And, like every good entrepeneur, he sees a hole and the market and intends to fill it. That hole happens to be an ineffective education system.
"My whole perception of school was, you get your high school diploma and you get your college degree to work for someone. I've always wanted to be an entrepreneur. In middle school I was making a hundred or so dollars a week, and I got my first official job at 13, my first office at 14, so when I got to high school I was like, what am I here for?" he says.
"Most people don't expect a 14-year-old to be a CEO," Dumas says. With Dollarboyz, Tyree is training his 14-year-olds to do just that.
Fernanda Marroquin, 22
Dream Activist Pennsylvania
Activist Fernanda Marroquin's eyes fill with tears. With a toss of her hair, gazing across the room, she steadies herself. Then she tells her story: when she graduated high school she faced applying to college as an "illegal alien," even though she moved to the area from Peru when she was 11.
"It's unfair when people say 'Why don't you get in line and become a citizen?' There is no line for me to stand in to get my residency or get my citizenship. So here I am, living here undocumented, and there's no way to change my status," she says. "I can't drive, I can't vote. I can't be a real person."
Marroquin works as an organizer for Dream Activist Pennsylvania, an arm of a nationwide network working to see a Senate bill through Congress that would give undocumented youth access to in-state college tuition rates and the chance to become citizens.
The bipartisan Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would give young people who've lived in the U.S. for five consecutive years a route from alien to citizen status if they complete high school, attend college and have no criminal record.
Marroquin says the very title "alien"
dehumanizes people who've lived most of their lives in the United States, who
speak the language and go to the same schools.
She first saw her older sister, the founder of Dream Activist Pennsylvania, struggle with applying for college, but she says it didn't really hit her at the time. Then she became a senior in high school and watched as her classmates zipped off college applications without a second thought, and that's when she came face to face with her reality as a stranger in a familiar land.
She will complete her Associate's degree at Montgomery County Community College in two semesters. To attend Temple , she will have to pay out-of-state tuition and, as a foreign student, get no financial aid.
She pays for school by baby-sitting, since she can't get an office job; nor can her mother, a housekeeper, or father, who works at a hotel. Undocumented youth are caught in a catch-22: working the lowest-paying jobs to pay higher prices for the same education.
Even though passage of the DREAM Act may be little more than a dream, Marroquin has been organizing vigils around the legislation. Dream Activist Pennsylvania stopped the deportation of an expectant mother who was DREAM Act-eligible, and regularly holds College 101 workshops for undocumented youth. Marroquin's barely a college student herself, but she tries to educate others on how to scrape together an education. She and other activists also staged a "Coming Out of the Shadows" rally, revealing their status to the public and media.
Given their inexperience, they're like renegades - outlaws displaying their status at risk of an arrest that could send them to where they were born, a place they barely remember.
Marroquin's sister Maria was arrested in Georgia in April with five others during civil disobedience protests against a state bill that would ban undocumented youth from the state's flagship universities. She was let off with community service. It was scary, Marroquin says, but fear is something they deal with every day.
"I want these youths to feel empowered and fight back, because if you don't tell your story, nobody's going to tell it for you," she says.
Claire Robertson-Kraft, 29
Young Involved Philadelphians
Fast talking's the name of the business game, and Claire Robertson-Kraft, 28, is a businesswoman. Her wit is as crisp as her blouse and skirt. She apologizes for being late - just got off a plane - "I look like a mess," she says, nary a rumple in sight. Holding still for a photo, and she's off again. A group she works with happens to be holding a party next to the room where her volunteer-run non-profit, Young Involved Philadelphia (YIP), is holding its board leadership prep class at the United Way in Center City.
She and her board at Young Involved Philadelphia organize the State of Young Philly summit between city politicos and YIP's network of entrepreneurs and non-profits; hold the Board Prep Program; and put together fun-yet-educational stuff with groups in the city, like Philly Tech Week and the #whyIlovePhilly Twitter campaign. This year's State of Young Philly will happen in the full swing of the city's mayoral campaigns this autumn, giving young involved Philadelphians two weeks of ear-time with candidates.
This is a cooperative generation, says Kraft. YIP "brings together established leaders with young leaders, to start having those conversations about how to give people access to positions of leadership," she says. "We have to know the system to figure out what changes to make to the system."
The fact is, she argues (calmly and persuasively), the system's put itself into a rut. Especially the education system. And you can't have an economy without education.
"We have a school system that was essentially designed for a manufacturing economy, and it worked in the '50s when there was lots of opportunity for kids to get manufacturing jobs. The skill set required now for success is very different than it was in the 1950s, and we still have a school system designed for the 1950s," she says. Today, we need problem-solving, innovation, creative thinking, and flexibility.
Young Involved Philadelphia brings groups together to make that happen, focusing on education, creative economy, sustainability and volunteerism. The education problem is a daunting one, but certain pieces are falling into place. Philadelphia is attracting more and more young, educated people (native Texan Kraft is one) who know each other and use social networking as a matter of course. YIP brings those young innovators to established city leaders to try to work out solutions.
"Philadelphia has a reputation for being hard to break into or make change happen politically, but that's changing. We want to make sure the young perspective is represented in whatever decisions are being made," she says. The board prep program is one of those steps.
"Our goal is to match every single one of (the 30) people who goes through the program with boards," Claire says. "We've reached out to organizations that have typically had an older population of leaders on their board, and we say, 'Would you want new young talent?'"
Networker of networkers, Kraft ties together the establishment with the hip, entrepreneurs with each other, and educated professionals with communities, using the tried and true threads of pub nights and delicious local catering to have the conversations that will seed Philadelphia's future.
State of Young Philly 2011 will take place October 3 - October 14.
Photos by Ada Kulesza
Cover Photo: A Dollarboyz dancer