Diversity and Democracy

Pathways to College and to Social Justice Leadership: The University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia (UCCP)

“The UCCP changed my outlook on life by giving me another perspective. I literally went from wanting to be a lawyer wanting to incarcerate individuals to wanting to prevent them from getting to that point by engaging them in their community.” (Former participant, Leaders Corps member, and Temple University graduate)

“The longer I worked with the UCCP and the more I was confronted with the issues that plague the Philadelphia School District, the less I could ignore my desire to do something about them. My work with the UCCP propelled me toward Teach for America and my experiences here undoubtedly stood out as the most relevant of my qualifications.” (Former Leaders Corps member and Temple University graduate)

“My goal is to get people who are not from the city to feel like it’s part of their college experience to give back to those cities.” (Former Leaders Corps member and Temple University graduate; current full-time staff member)

The voices of these college students are a refreshing antidote to the acrimony and polarization currently pervading the political system and the apathy about social responsibility in the financial sector. To counter the crisis in leadership these trends represent and to give youth voice in issues that affect them, the UCCP created an infrastructure for fostering public-minded, equitable, and just leadership among youth while inspiring change in other institutions. Founded in 1997, the UCCP (as described in its mission statement) “prepares and supports youth and young adults to become confident, effective leaders and collaborates with other organizations to create cultures that value and integrate the contributions of youth, thereby building stronger communities.”  

Engaging approximately 130 youth (ages fourteen to twenty-four) from Philadelphia’s low-income communities each year, the UCCP’s programming builds confidence and self-esteem; develops effective leadership skills; instills awareness of larger social, economic, and political issues; and nurtures the values of fairness and justice. The UCCP’s approach is distinguished by its emphasis on long-term development, its deliberate incorporation of youth leaders into its organizational structure, its strong social justice orientation, and its university location. Collectively, these attributes have shaped a cadre of college and high school students who can engage in deliberative practices, identify and contest injustice, and challenge and inspire others to do the same.

Long-Term Development

Involving youth in high-quality, long-term civic leadership activities can yield many positive academic and social outcomes. An overall approach to working with youth rather than a discrete program, the UCCP’s continuum of after-school programming, credit-bearing internships, peer education activities, media production, and paid employment opportunities is designed to keep youth involved at different levels and capacities over an extended period of time, including the critical transition from high school to college or employment (see fig. 1). This continuum provides participants with unique opportunities to address issues that are relevant to theirlives while forming connections to other youth and to college student mentors.

Over the course of their affiliation with the UCCP, participants develop action-oriented projects to increase awareness and mobilize others around issues that matter to them, including educational equality, community violence, college access, and media representations of youth. After identifying an issue, conducting research, networking, and building alliances, participants create documentary films, public service announcements, and workshops that they present to community members, researchers, policy makers, journalists, educators, elected officials, and peers. These projects are an example of how participants engage over the long term in the kinds of rich and diverse opportunities that enable them to be effective advocates for social change in their schools and communities, as well as in the larger society.

Figure 1. Progressive Youth Leadership Development Continuum

Figure 1
(click on image to enlarge)

Incorporation of Youth Leaders

Incorporating youth as leaders into the organizational structure underscores their value to the organization while building their skills, confidence, and ability to navigate the world around them. All UCCP programming is implemented by our Leaders Corps, a dynamic team of former program participants who are now college students serving as de facto role models for younger cohorts. Leaders Corps members attend Temple, St. Joseph’s, and Penn State Universities and the Community College of Philadelphia. They receive ongoing support and professional development from UCCP’s six staff members that prepares them to facilitate UCCP programs, support training and technical assistance at other organizations, and conduct workshops in the community and at professional conferences.

In addition to developing participants’ skills, leadership, and confidence, this practice has shaped career and educational aspirations. Of the 120 former Leaders Corps members, more than twenty are teaching in Philadelphia and other cities, fifteen are working in the nonprofit sector, eight are in the educational and public sectors, three are part of the UCCP’s full-time staff, and ten have pursued policy-oriented graduate and law school programs. These alums have taken their leadership on the road, helping to inspire a new generation of social justice leaders. Their example also serves as a powerful motivator for high school students who see in it the civic pathway to college and the college pathway to leadership.   

Civic Leadership and Social Justice

The UCCP’s strong orientation toward civic leadership and social justice has led us to invest heavily in media—viewing, critiquing, and producing it. Capitalizing on the frustrations of a group of ambitious high school and college students who were upset by mainstream media’s negative portrayal of urban youth, the UCCP created POPPYN (Presenting Our Perspective on Philly Youth News), an award-winning youth-produced television news show. Airing weekly on public access stations in Philadelphia and New York and available on YouTube, POPPYN spotlights youth who are engaged in community-building activities (such as urban farming, small business development, and cultural production).

Involved in every stage of planning, production, marketing, and distribution, POPPYN crew members have acquired a wide range of technical, project management, communication, and media literacy skills. They have learned to promote and defend their ideas and to accept that their ideas may not always predominate. In short, they have learned to operate as professionals in a democratic setting.  

University Location

All of the UCCP’s programming articulates the message that lifelong learning is essential to social justice leadership. By conducting programming on Temple’s campus, where participants have access to state-of-the-art technology, media labs, and libraries and regularly interact with faculty, staff, and students, the UCCP increases participants’ comfort with a university environment and their confidence about pursuing postsecondary education. Beyond Temple, the UCCP has access to a vast network of student interns and faculty mentors from the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, LaSalle and St. Joseph’s Universities, and the Community College of Philadelphia. These connections have helped participants navigate admissions, financial aid, and course registration at these institutions and win scholarships to some of them.

In a city with a 40 percent high school dropout rate, over 90 percent of the UCCP’s high school participants graduate, and close to 85 percent go to college. Their success demonstrates that youth can and will choose constructive paths when structured, supportive, and meaningful opportunities are available to them. The civic pathway to college and the college pathway to social justice leadership can be a powerful combination.

To learn more, visit http://whatspoppyn.blogspot.com.


Barbara Ferman is the founder and executive director of the UCCP and a professor of political science at Temple University.


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