In a matter of minutes, what started as a homecoming game’s halftime show shifted into a massive student protest, as dozens of students took Franklin Field by storm with three orange banners outlining their demands from Penn’s administration: Save the UC Townhomes, Divest, Pay PILOTs. The disruption—touted by Fossil Free Penn as their biggest protest ever—was the culmination of the activism group’s 39–day–encampment outside of College Hall.
At the front of the protest, Gigi Varlotta (C ‘23) stood chanting “Stop Penntrification!” in their favorite Phillies jersey. “We needed an escalation to bring our demands to the center of campus, to the center of administration, and to our alumni. We felt that the Homecoming game was a great way to show our message and really spread awareness about what we're fighting for,” says Gigi. An advocate spearheading campus coordination around the “Save the UC Townhomes” movement who’s involved in a coalition of advocacy groups on and off campus, Gigi hopes to encourage Penn students to consider the community in which they live and how Penn as an institution has affected its neighbors. Protesting at the Homecoming game aimed to bring their message to the heart of campus conversations. “It felt really impactful to bring the fight of the townhomes to the center of the homecoming football game, which is really the amalgamation of everything this university is about,” Gigi says.
Despite their fearless attitude on the field, Gigi admits that they were scared seeing the significant police presence in the stadium. However, “once we were on the field, I felt empowered seeing people in the stands chanting with us [and] repeating the demands,” they say. After the students held the field for around an hour, police forces advanced on the protestors and arrested 19 students—including Gigi. Prior to the game, Gigi was aware of the fact that they could be arrested, but even with that possibility, nothing prepared them for the experience itself. “It was an intense process, [and] I think I still haven’t processed all of it,” they reflect. In spite of the police’s and administration’s backlash on the students involved, Gigi believes the protest was successful in reaching its goal of increasing their demands’ visibility: not only in increasing general knowledge of these issues, but also catalyzing constructive conversation. In fact, after the action, they received messages from other students expressing interest in the cause.
The fight is still far from over. The week following the Homecoming game, Gigi had already organized their next action; in front of College Hall, people united to attend a University Council meeting as advocates for the University City Townhomes and discuss housing equity. “I’m confident that we can get Penn to meet our demands on the townhomes front, and I will continue fighting until that happens,” Gigi says.
On the personal front, last summer, Gigi spent 32 days in an encampment at the UC Townhomes to protest the potential eviction of residents as well as gentrification of the community after the townhomes complex was sold. They’re passionate about the positive effects of the joy and sense of community that come along with being a part of grassroots organizations. “We were painting, drawing, skating, rapping, dancing, and really utilizing the space in a beautiful way, forming really deep, meaningful connections,” Gigi says. Despite the fact that the encampment was torn down by the sheriff's department after a Philadelphia court order, Gigi says that “while the tents in the structures were gone, the relationships we formed weren't.”
In fact, for Gigi, the community at the townhomes has grown into something greater. “I view [many of] them as my siblings—they feel like brothers and sisters to me. I'm really grateful that the families there have opened up their world to me, and I've gotten a chance to really get so close to all [of] the kids, because they're amazing.” Gigi says.
After graduation, Gigi plans on staying in Philly to continue building upon the community work they’ve been a part of during their four years at Penn. “I want to keep organizing around joy and political education with the kids that I've already gotten so close with,” they say. Their next project is a group called “Sk8 2 Liber8,” an organization with a cause that’s close to Gigi’s heart. “A dream of mine is being able to start a [skateboarding] collective that has boards, instructors, food, resources, and community programming for the kids of townhomes, plus any other kids in the city who want to learn to skate,” Gigi says, “because I believe skateboarding is a tool for marginalized communities to achieve liberation.”
Even in the midst of such an unprecedented homecoming disruption, Gigi wants to remind the student body that people don’t need to consider themselves activists to advocate for important community issues. “There's this common rhetoric [of], ‘I'm not an activist’ or ‘I can't do anything,’ and that is just not true,” Gigi says. “Anyone who cares about these issues can and should get involved. Little things like talking to your roommates or classmates about these issues are really important. Then, take the next step of being in conversation with your professors and clubs to see how you can integrate what you're already doing to meet the needs of the community.”
Post–interview, Gigi attends a teach–in about preventing Chinatown gentrification. After that, how do they end their night? “[With the Phillies’] game one today,” they smile, thinking of their beloved baseball team. “Hopefully, we’re gonna win this World Series.”
Because after all, whether it’s the Phillies or the Philly community, Gigi will never stop fighting for the underdog.