Philadelphia’s Action Team

by Arun Prabhakaran
August 15, 2011

The Philadelphia Action Team is comprised of a set of core partners, Philadelphia Academies Inc., the City of Philadelphia, the Urban Affairs Coalition, Philadelphia Youth Network, Drexel University, and the Knight Foundation.  We attended the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s 2011 Leadership Forum, “Learning From Hollywood: Can Entertainment Media Ignite a New Learning Revolution?” hosted by Sesame Workshop and University of Southern California.

Our Action Team has been working together since January to build the Digital On-Ramps Project, a four-year initiative that envisions a practical solution to one of Philadelphia’s most formidable challenges: preparing all Philadelphians to work and compete in the 21st century economy. (Learn more about the Digital On-Ramps Project: download a PDF.) This initiative will provide a digital framework for delivering comprehensive education and workforce training to youth and adults. Accessible via the “cloud” from a full range of devices (mobile, tablets, netbooks, desktop computers, etc.), it will offer an array of educational and training tools from basic literacy and math to post-secondary education and employment training. To reach people in ways they’ll be most likely to learn, the material will engage students through interactive technologies such as gaming and SMS-texts.

Digital On-Ramps, still in its discovery/research/planning phase, received a tremendous boost through our attendance of Cooney Leadership Forum. In the weeks preceding the Forum, our team had identified a number of questions to be answered during the early part of our discovery and research portion of the project.  A fair number of these questions related to technology, strategies, and practices to be employed at a citywide scale.  We were at the real limit of our knowledge from direct experience and needed to be in touch with others who were exploring these questions to broaden our view and advance our thinking in practical and theoretical ways.

Knowing this, Donna Frisby-Greenwood, the Knight Foundation’s Philadelphia Program Officer and a member of our Action Team, invited us to attend the Cooney Forum. She must have had a strong sense of possibility with respect to our attendance and what it could provide in terms of a network of peers, connections to interested collaborators, and food for thought.

The Cooney Forum turned out to be an exceptional experience for our group.  At the Forum, we came in to contact with our fellow Action Teams, researchers, practitioners, leaders from industry, non-profits government, philanthropy, and others.  It was exactly what we needed.  We met people working on projects with direct relevance to the Digital On-Ramps and/or with knowledge that could assist us.

In particular, our Action Team members were impressed with:

  • The use of arts as a medium for teaching core subject areas, not just as a strategy for empowering youth, including movie-making, game design, plays and more.
  • The fact that the Creative Industry was so genuinely at the table and interested in leveraging their media assets, talents, knowledge and expertise to advance education and to build a solid foundation for the future.
  • The ways that technology (mobile, tablets, digital media, etc.) is being harnessed inside and outside of the classroom to teach 21st century skills.
  • The caliber and diversity of the network convened, including peers from other cities that have significant experience and robust collaborations for our Action Team to learn from.

Coming away from the Forum, we noticed that there was something very special about the network it convened.  First, the intellectual chemistry at the event was remarkable. Second, the Forum put us in touch with other Action Teams, in particular, New York, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, who have tackled many of the problems that we are looking to address. Third, our group was exposed to significant leaders from industry and academia that could inform our perspective from their respective fields. Finally, the groundwork for a real community of practice was present, which is especially important for the Digital On-Ramps project since it is a fundamentally new approach in Philly’s workforce and education arenas.

Having the community that is forming around the nexus of the Cooney Forum has already grounded and advanced our work, acting as the community of practice that we very much needed. In addition, a number of natural partnerships emerged with academic institutions, industry, content partners and others.

The experience overall was amazing.  The connections that we made will inform our work deeply. Most importantly, the community that we joined will help the Philadelphia Action Team reach our goals and fulfill our vision to prepare Philadelphia for the 21st Century by building Digital On-Ramps.

Arun Prabhakaran is Manager of Government and Strategic Partnerships at the Urban Affairs Coalition (UAC), which works to improve life’s chances for young people, low-income families and minority-owned businesses by creating economic opportunities and strengthening nonprofit organizations in urban communities.

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