There’s something about the Netter Center that makes people want to stay, keeping its former volunteers tied to Penn. Year after year, graduated students mark their work with Netter as the start of their careers, trailing years of undergraduate involvement. There’s no better example to look to than Netter’s founder,  Ira Harkavy (C ‘70), who attended Penn as an undergraduate and founded the center in 1992.

30 years later, Harkavy looks back on the work that Netter has done to promote Penn’s civic and community engagement within West Philadelphia via student and institutional programming.

I initially asked Harkavy what it was like to return to Penn, which, turns out, was the wrong question—because Harkavy never left. He received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in history, all from Penn. As he pursued various degrees, Harkavy got involved with Netter’s predecessor programs, including the Community Involvement Council, an undergraduate volunteer organization active in West Philadelphia that he chaired while working towards his B.A, and the Office of Community–Oriented Policy Studies (OCOPS), which Harkavy directed after completing his Ph.D.

“The way I would put it,” Harkavy says, “is that if I could do what I do now, I wouldn’t do it, if it were not for my experiences during Penn undergrad. They shaped my life.”

As a student, he led a demonstration at College Hall that protested both Penn and the city’s treatment of the Philadelphia community, specifically the eviction of residents of the Black Bottom. And while attending school during the 1960s—at the height of the Vietnam War—he led efforts opposing the University’s science research conducted in support of the war. In 1985, while working at OCOPS, Harkavy worked with the young people affected by the MOVE bombing.

Fast–forward to 2022, and Harkavy’s spirit of activism is still alive in members of Penn’s student body, who most recently made headlines for leading a 39–day encampment on College Green to protest the University’s investment in fossil fuels, role in the ongoing gentrification of University City, and refusal to make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTS) to Philadelphia–area public schools.

Harkavy was once in a similar place. Reflecting on his tenure as a student activist, he recounts how invaluable his Penn education—beyond the degree—really was. 

“It was the experience at Penn that enabled me to put my ideals and the things I believed into practice,” Harkavy says. “It was learning from and with the community of West Philadelphia. The people I met, I still work with them. We’re a lot older, but some I’ve worked with since I was a freshman or sophomore in college. They were my teachers in many ways.”

When Harkavy founded the Center For Community Partnerships (CCP) in 1992, it was a natural evolution of his activist efforts and involvements as a student, and later faculty member, at the University. In 2007, CCP was officially renamed the Netter Center, following a generous donation from alumni Barbara and Edward Netter.

Harkavy’s story certainly isn’t an outlier. Numerous Netter Center staff, including Associate Director Rita Hodges (C ‘05) and Director of the Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development (PHENND) Hillary Kane (C ‘99), also attended Penn. 

As an undergraduate, Hodges was involved in two of Netter’s core programs—participating in Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) courses and working at Sayre High School, a University–Assisted Community School

“The founding vision [of the Netter Center] is really the same as it is now,” Hodges says. “It has always been to develop and sustain mutually beneficial partnerships between Penn and West Philadelphia.”

The key word here is “mutually”—it defines the core of Netter’s beliefs, programs, and mission. It emphasizes that the work being done by the center is carried out both for the sake of the Philadelphia community and for the enrichment of the University. That one end of the partnership wouldn’t be possible without the other. 

This idea of mutuality underlies the design of its programming. 

Hands–on community work is integrated into ABCS coursework, giving students a chance to work with community members through a problem–solving approach. This spring, students enrolled in ACCT 2110/BEPP 2110 will perform tax services for the West Philadelphia community, while ANTH 5467/EDUC 5467 students will produce ethnographic films with students in nearby high schools. 

The University–Assisted Community Schools program places Penn students in after–school or summer programming at one of eight West Philadelphia schools, where they assist with programming spanning from STEM to mental health and wellness.

However, convincing local organizations of the center’s commitment to these intentions, Harkavy notes, has been a recurring obstacle in building partnerships with the greater community.

“First and foremost, [our work] is about building relationships,” Harkavy says. “We’ve had to illustrate that we are partners, that we are listening to [West Philadelphians] ... we only have answers if we work together.” 

Netter has worked deliberately to foster “reciprocal and trusting relationships,” as Hodges puts it, by engaging community partners on the ground directly as experts in receiving input. “We have really valued community voice in our work,” Hodges says.

A large part of Netter’s mission is to build these relationships itself, but what’s equally important to the center is facilitating the wider University’s relationship with the community as well.

The intertwinement of Penn and the West Philadelphia community that Netter’s programs facilitate comes with its own set of challenges. 

Staffing, for example, is a limited resource on both ends. Many nearby schools are already understaffed, meaning that there often isn’t a volunteer coordinator or similar position designated to direct Penn students and help facilitate the school’s partnership with Penn. 

“It takes time to do partnership work,” Kane says. “So even though [the school] might appreciate and want the additional help, it’s another resource to manage that they don’t have the capacity to deal with.”

Another issue arises with programs’ dependence on Penn’s students, who usually volunteer for only a semester or two before returning home. To help address these concerns, Netter has established programming that runs for a set number of weeks in which students are fully engaged. Part–time paid staff positions have been established to account for gaps that may arise in programming. 

“It’s a lot of relationship–building,” Kane says, “and just like any relationship, you have to put the work into it."

Kane adds that, “there’s a distinction between what Penn does and what the Netter Center does.”

Put simply, Penn has its own history—one that stretches to long before the center’s founding. Kane, who attended Penn as an undergraduate, recognizes the “ebb and flow” of this relationship. “It has changed over time,” Kane says. “There's been periods of great relationships, fraught relationships, and sometimes, those are happening at the same time.” 

The center’s positioning within the University allows it to “advise, counsel, and be partners in some decision–making” that relates to its role in the community, according to Hodges, although the University is ultimately the final authority. Netter has used that platform to focus particularly on the connections that the University fosters and maintains with its partners. 

“Besides saying we think Penn should do XYZ, our primary emphasis has been on how it should go about working with the community and valuing those relationships,” Hodges says, “not just [focusing on] specified projects or outcomes.”

Netter houses four distinct advisory boards—a community advisory board, a student advisory board, a faculty advisory board, and a national advisory board—who help inform its counseling, in addition to their community partners on the ground who can best convey their needs.

“Those sorts of recommendations have been taken at varying degrees over the many years of Penn’s existence,” Hodges says.

Ultimately, all of these relationships are a work in progress. Impactful ones are being built, harmful ones healed, and the many fluctuations over time have been addressed. There’s a reason that despite 30 years of work—in many ways—Netter is just getting started.

Despite its distinction from the University at large, the center has endeavored to become more central to both the University’s identity as a democratic, civic institution and to its academic core. 

“We see our role as pushing Penn from within to become better engaged with the community,” Hodges says. 

The center’s programming has reached new heights over the past 30 years. ABCS courses and University–Assisted School programming has expanded to the graduate level, with nearly 3000 undergraduate and graduate students now enrolled in these programs. Partnerships with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have created school–based mental health service resources, while projects around environmental improvement and sustainability have brought gardens to schools. The center is now home to 50 full–time staff. 

Netter has also increased its profile on a regional and national level. As the director for PHENND, Kane works to “develop mutually beneficial, sustained, and democratic community–based service–learning partnerships” with the organization housed at the Netter Center. It facilitates opportunities for Netter Center staff to meet staff at peer institutions to discuss similar programming, and learn and build off of each other’s work.

“For example, with the ABCS courses here at Penn, there's someone who does similar work to that at LaSalle, Temple, and Villanova. So we'll have meetings and convene where these people come together to learn from us and each other,” Kane says.

Netter has been a pioneer in its work, influencing other colleges and universities around the country and the world. Its growth has been exponential.

Still, Penn is an institution with a legacy dating back hundreds of years, and its historically exploitative relationship with West Philadelphia is still very ingrained into the city, its schools, its people, and the culture of the University as a whole.

Repairing damage done over such a significant period of time requires, at the minimum, intentional and accelerated efforts. There’s a persistent, resounding agreement among the Netter Center’s staff that more can, and should, be done. 

What Netter wants to see is “Penn engaging its full set of resources,” as Hodges says. “There are many more parts of Penn to tap [into].”

In practice, this looks like more ABCS courses and faculty involved across all schools and departments in a “deeper, more impactful way,” as Harkavy says. 

All of Netter’s programs, grants, and work have accrued promising results. And yet, what’s clear is that it hasn’t been—and won’t continue to be—enough. “We know from the current state of the schools in West Philadelphia, the rest of Philadelphia, and all urban public schools, that much more needs to be done,” Hodges says.

Netter is no stranger to fostering relationships. These relationships are what keep graduated students returning to campus, and, in some cases, what draw incoming students to Penn in the first place. 

“A big reason why I came to Penn is because of the Netter Center,” Mya Gordon, a junior in the College studying Urban Studies, says. Mya was a Silverman Fellow her first year, a program through which students pinpoint a specific issue in the West Philadelphia community and design an initiative to solve that problem. 

Mya’s project focuses on the University’s theories of community engagement. “I saw several gaps where I felt that the theories were not being used or could be expanded more,” she says. “I was fascinated with what that actually looks like on the ground and how universities could expand their community engagement mission as a public service institution … What does that look like? Where do they start?”

Using Penn as a starting point, Mya compiled data on the current status of Penn’s community engagement. She has interviewed over 30 individuals from the Netter Center, the Civic House, and the Dean’s Office, among other organizations, with Harkavy serving as her mentor. 

“We have frequent conversations, and he’s been able to give me so much guidance in terms of my career and my interests academically,” she says.

In addition to being a Silverman Fellow, Mya has taken numerous ABCS courses and serves on the Netter Center’s student advisory board. She ultimately hopes to build a career creating university policies that improve relationships with the community.

On the other end, student volunteers can speak to the relationships they've built with local youth through Netter’s programs.

Lila Shermeta (C ‘25) volunteers with OurSpace, an initiative through Netter in which Penn students help found Gender–Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) in West Philadelphia schools and build sexual health curriculum, along with providing workshops on college access, career readiness, and health. 

OurSpace, founded by Penn junior Steven Chen, was originally a winner of the center’s Shah Family Prize, which provides funding for undergraduate students to develop, improve, and implement innovative service projects. It’s one of numerous programs at the center that have been founded or led by Penn students.

Through OurSpace, Lila spends Friday afternoons mentoring high school students. 

“I also had the experience of going to school and being gay, so I really understand what it’s like for these kids,” Lila says. “We’re all just like a family, and it’s really special to watch them apply for schools and all of the stuff that I’ve been through. It’s fulfilling.” 

The same goes for Netter’s faculty who work with Penn students, many of whom come to them through ABCS classes, if not other avenues. Harkavy has had nearly a lifetime of experiences at Penn, but to him, there’s been one constant.

“The greatest joy is teaching students,” Harkavy says. “I’ve seen the impact they’ve had on campus. I’ve seen the wonderful problem–solving research papers they do, and I send them off. I’ve seen them as graduates taking on careers in which engagement service involvement is central to their lives and careers. They’ve had an extraordinary impact on my own learning.”

There’s a level of thought, care, and intention that goes into every relationship that Netter is trying to foster. Perhaps the answer for how to do this is that Netter simply continues what it’s already doing—not only within their own walls, but also by helping Penn foster that same sentiment on a broader scale. 

“We’re trying to get folks to do more, but also more thoughtfully,” Kane says. “It shouldn’t be about coming into a community for their own needs.” 

That’s a connection that takes time to build, but it’s one that Netter is committed to bringing to fruition.

Even the way that Netter is celebrating its 30th anniversary shows its commitment to the community. 

Netter has a year of events slated to celebrate the milestone, including National Voter Registration Day, a celebration at the Andrew Hamilton School, a community sports event, and an ABCS summit.

Many of these events are led by the center’s student advisory board and involve connecting with community partners. “It's been really great to have the students and community helping to lead these events that are both celebratory, help spread the word, and get more people involved,” Hodges says.

I end my interview with Harkavy by asking what it’s been like to watch Netter grow over the past 30 years. Watch, once again, was the wrong word. Netter’s work isn’t something he’s just observed—it’s something that he has been, and to this day is, very much involved in.  

“I’m part of it,” Harkavy says. “'It’s been an absolute joy to work here and work with my colleagues and network with the students and the community members.” 

Relationships are why students come back to Netter, and it’s why they stay. Time has allowed them to grow stronger. 

“This work is so relationship–based,” Hodges says. “It’s been a professional and personal highlight … to see in real life the impact that it’s having on individual lives and groups of students.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly named the high school that Hodges worked at as an undergraduate. The piece has since been updated. Street regrets this error.