He had written that paper. In his own words, of course. No cheating involved. He was a diligent worker and a smart kid who never even needed to cheat. Why would he? He had made it to Penn on his own, after all. Nevertheless, as the young, doe-eyed Penn freshman, Rick Krajewski (E ‘13), stood in front of his professor, he was being accused of plagiarism. To make matters worse, Rick knew he was being singled out as a Black man. The professor just assumed Rick couldn’t have written a paper that good.
Rick went to the administration with the racially charged memory seared in his brain. They told him that despite the unfortunate circumstances, little could be done. The professor remained, and so did Rick, shaken and uneasy. It was just “another isolating, racialized experience,” he says.
Today, Rick is retelling this story from his West Philadelphia home in a wholly different context. On June 16, Rick ousted long-time Democratic incumbent Jim Roebuck in the primary for state representative in Pennsylvania’s 188th District. The district encompasses Penn and many of its West and Southwest Philadelphia neighbors. He faces no Republican challenger in November and will take office in 2021 in the state capitol. His time at Penn feels like ages ago, yet also sits poignantly with him as he talks about how a Black kid from the Bronx got to Penn’s engineering school and then to the Pennsylvania Statehouse. Speaking with Rick is a window into the places where privilege, politics, and Penn all connect.
Rick was raised by the low-rise industrial garages and corner-store bodegas of New York City’s South Bronx. The son of a single, Black mother, it didn’t take long for Rick to learn what it meant to struggle financially while trying to keep a family afloat. Early on, Rick’s mother knew he was smart and scored him a scholarship to one of New York’s most elite prep schools, Horace Mann, which he attended until his high school graduation. Rick watched his neighborhood disappear into the horizon each hazy New York morning as he headed off to school. The community he was leaving behind would shape his understanding of the world, and ultimately his career.
Rick speaks fondly of the neighborhood he grew up in, describing it as “full of hardworking people.” His time in the Bronx, however, can’t be separated from the hardships his community faced.
“[The neighborhood] was also dealing with cycles of divestment from our public resources, economic divestment, the war on drugs of the 80s and 90s…I could see our public school being deficiently funded. I remember there being a police tower next to [the public] school and seeing the mass policing and over-incarceration that was happening in my community firsthand.”
“I have several cousins and uncles who have been impacted by the justice system and I saw: one, how they were not given any other opportunities to provide for themselves, and then two, when they came out that if anything it was actually even harder for them to achieve financial independence than it was before they were incarcerated.”
In August of 2009, Rick traded the South Bronx for West Philadelphia as he started his freshman year studying electrical engineering at Penn. Rick quickly began to notice the way Penn students and the school at large interacted with its West Philly neighbors.
“Something that was an early experience for me,” he says, “Was getting on campus and hearing everyone say, ‘Don't go past 40th and Market’ and being like, ‘Oh, why?’ and they're like, ‘Because it's not safe past there.’”
“Then you go past 40th and Market and you realize, oh, you're just saying that's where the poor, Black people are.”
Rick’s adjustment to the University and its surrounding community was difficult, to say the least. Penn’s racialized and largely occupational relationship with its neighborhood was evident, especially for someone raised in a place that looked and felt like West Philadelphia. And of course, his brush with a plagiarism accusation sits with him even today.
Although Rick acknowledges the opportunities given to him at Penn, none of it can be separated from the difficulty of his four years.
“To be a young black person that entered this institution...that had really high expectations, really [difficult] coursework, it was very easy to feel alienated because of my otherness, because I didn't come from privilege...because I was in an institution that did not have as many people that looked like me as I probably needed as an early adult.”
“Many people that enter higher education institutions like Penn...that come from like working-class or poor backgrounds often feel very alienated and very isolated in these places because you're immediately made to feel as though you're not enough,” he adds.
Rick was not alone in feeling marginalized both as a Black student and a working-class student at Penn. In fact, in 2017, the New York Times reported that only 3.3 percent of students at Penn came from the bottom 20 percent income bracket. That same study found that 45 percent of Penn students came from the top 5 percent. In the fall of 2018, five years after Rick had graduated, Penn’s student body was still only 6 percent Black.
In his undergrad years, Rick helped found Check One, a campus group for mixed-race students like himself (Rick’s mother is Black and his dad is Polish.) He helped lead fundraising initiatives and build community spaces. In hindsight, Rick sees this as his first foray into becoming a community organizer.
“The work I did for Check One was some of the stuff I'm most proud of my time at Penn. That's what felt the most fulfilling to me,” he says.
In May of 2013, Rick sat in the middle of sunny Franklin Field donning his cap and gown for Penn’s 257th commencement ceremony. He would soon be sent out into the world with a degree in electrical engineering and an unclear sense of exactly what he wanted to do next.
“I was pretty agnostic as to what I wanted,” he says.
Feeling the pressure of his looming student debt and his deeper understanding of “the path that my mother worked so hard to put me on,” Rick took a job in web development for a healthcare IT company in the Philadelphia suburbs. He stayed in West Philly after college, making a home for himself in the neighborhood he had so uneasily bordered as a Penn student for the four years prior.
“I was able to pay off my loans and I started to learn what it meant to have disposable income, to actually be able to survive and have some stability,” he says. “As I started to think about things other than immediate financial security, I really started to ask myself, ‘Why was I able to go down this track when countless disadvantaged Black and Brown people who are just as capable as I am are not? Why did I get the golden ticket go to Horace Mann and Penn and then get a job in engineering, when that should have been a chance afforded to everyone?’”
With that in mind, Rick started teaching computer programming to fifth and sixth graders at a local elementary school in the neighborhood. Understanding that his talent for STEM helped him break the vicious cycles of poverty that often entrap Black and Brown communities, he wanted to spread this skill set to West Philly’s young minds.
“STEM...is not prioritized in a lot of inner-city, low-income schools and areas,” he says, “even though it is directly connected to well-paying white-collar jobs.”
The computer program grew over the course of seven or eight months, with more and more STEM teachers coming in to bring coding to Huey Elementary School. At the height of the project, however, it was abruptly stopped. Rick and his fellow teachers were given no notice and no reasoning for the cancellation.
Later, Rick found out that Huey, a school donning Malcolm X murals and community art in the heart of the neighborhood, was replaced with a charter school. Many progressives in recent decades have lamented charter schools for their role in draining resources from public school districts, shutting down public schools, and capitalizing on an industry that should be focused on helping students, rather than investors.
For Rick, this moment was a “real politicizing experience.” He recalls his frustration in seeking out the institutions designed to lift people like himself up, only to be disappointed by them. At the same time the Huey program was shut down, so were Rick’s efforts to pursue mentoring programs through the Mayor’s office.
“Both of those combined led me to feeling really disillusioned and to feel like all the institutions I was supposed to go to try to adjust problems don't really care.”
Not long after, Donald J. Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States of America.
Already disenchanted by local government’s shortcomings, the 2016 election season sparked an even greater desire for change in Rick. He watched as Donald Trump’s campaign rode to victory on the back of white nationalism, heightening the already dangerous experience of having dark skin in the United States. At the same time, Rick was awe-struck as Bernie Sanders campaigned on a genuine, grassroots platform.
Immediately, “I felt this call to do more,” he says.
Rick became a member of Reclaim Philadelphia, a progressive organization with a mission to restore political power to Philadelphians and push housing, education, criminal justice, and the environment to the forefront of the political agenda. He volunteered in the neighborhood, getting to know its people and its deep history in connection with Penn. He then canvassed for Larry Krasner, a progressive lawyer who has prioritized criminal justice reform and racial equality in his tenure as Philadelphia’s District Attorney.
Then, four years after that sunny spring day when Rick Krajewski graduated from the University of Pennsylvania to become an engineer, he quit his job.
“[I] made the decision that I care more about these issues than I care about my day job...and I've seen how they affected my life and...communities that I'm really invested in. If I really want to commit to this, I should do this full-time.”
Shortly after, Rick became a full-time community organizer with Reclaim Philadelphia. His political career was in full force.
What’s on Rick’s agenda for the coming year in Harrisburg? A lot.
“The thing that people don't know about Harrisburg often is actually how much it's responsible for,” Rick says.
While many recent demands in relation to the justice system and policing have been directed towards the Philadelphia City Council, Rick advises Philadelphians not to forget the power the statehouse holds. Funding of the justice system, minimum wage, schooling, and many welfare provisions are doled out on the state level.
And, Rick adds, “There is not a progressive agenda in Harrisburg. There just isn't.”
At the forefront of Rick’s mind right now is the coronavirus pandemic. Rick wants to create legislation for a comprehensive COVID-19 relief plan for Pennsylvanians, stronger mortgage and housing protections, greater food and healthcare access, and improved access to medical equipment for frontline workers. He also hopes to grant early parole to many incarcerated people, allowing them to return to their families and escape the hotbeds of coronavirus in prisons and jails.
Another goal of Rick’s is to prioritize the immediate needs of West Philadelphia neighbors. His campaign launched a mutual aid program in the midst of the pandemic to help connect Philadelphians to food, legal advice, and other much-needed assistance. Rick wants to continue the spirit of the mutual aid program, building an economic services office to help people address their “right here, right now” problems.
“The status quo is not enough anymore,” Rick says, speaking about long-time establishment politics.
“What evidence have you and I had in our lifetime to say that the previous way of running things works?” he adds with a laugh. Conducting this interview in the midst of a global health crisis, recession, and massive civil unrest in response to racial injustice, the answer to Rick’s rhetorical question seems pretty clear.
“You cannot go back to the old way of doing things,” he says. “And we also know, particularly as a working-class Black person who suffered under this system, that the root causes are not having sufficient healthcare, not having economic rights, not protecting workers...” and the list goes on.
Rick’s journey will begin this fall, as the rest of the world wrestles with confounding social and economic problems and the University begins an uncertain and unimaginably different semester. One certainty for us all seems to be that nothing is, or possibly will ever be, quite like it was before. The coronavirus pandemic and resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement have called Americans to examine and question institutions, many of which have failed to protect and serve in various forms. For a young politician like Rick, this uncertainty may not be all bad for West Philadelphia and Penn.
“If we're [reimagining] policing in communities then that should also mean reimagining policing by institutions like Penn. It is the responsibility of students and faculty at Penn to engage in that conversation.”
“If there's [something] I would want to tell a Penn undergraduate to do, it’s to be aware of how the University relates to its community and to hold it accountable to more partnership.”
As the summer drags on, COVID-19 will continue to ravage American communities, especially low-income, Black neighborhoods like University City. Protests in Philadelphia have not ceased since George Floyd’s death over a month ago as Americans call for an overhaul of our policing system. Upcoming elections, the persistent climate crisis, and the unclear state of the American economy after months of lockdown all remain salient. Amidst all of the unknowns, one thing is for sure. Rick Krajewski is ready for the challenge.