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Jayna Wallace/Billy Penn

Who’s Next community leaders: 17 young people improving Philly’s neighborhoods

Meet the people under 40 who are making Philly’s communities and neighborhoods better every day.

Every community in Philadelphia has leaders who make the neighborhood work. But some of the young people spending time every day in an effort to improve what’s around them stand above the rest of the crowd — and they all do different types of work.

Some of these young people like Akeem Dixon and Ilena Garcia are working to improve business corridors, to foster small business growth. Others, like Joe DeFelice and Ryan Kellermeyer, facilitate events and collaboration between organizations. And yet others are taking a different path toward community improvement, like Dawn McDougall who works as a civic hacker or Jasmine Sessoms whose goal is to train young women to get involved in local politics.

Welcome to this month’s edition of Who’s Next, a feature we at Billy Penn use to highlight some of the most dynamic under-40 leaders in Philadelphia. These winners were nominated by their peers as people who are making a positive impact at work and in their communities and are part of the next generation of movers and shakers in the city.

In the last year, Billy Penn has highlighted nearly 200 of the city’s up-and-coming leaders through the Who’s Next feature, from lawyers to artists to musicians to chefs. Now, meet these young people who are working every day to improve their neighborhoods, in alphabetical order:

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1. Neil Deegan

Title: Pennsylvania State Director of Enroll America

Age: 29

Who’s Next because: Deegan is the Pennsylvania state director for Enroll America, a non-partisan, non-profit that works to reduce the number of uninsured Americans. Here in Pennsylvania, Enroll engages with uninsured Pennsylvanians directly, online and through partners across the state ranging from small businesses and community organizations to local, state and federal government partners. Before joining Enroll America in October 2014, Deegan served for eight years on the political staff of Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, most recently as political director and senior finance advisor on her 2014 gubernatorial primary campaign. Deegan, who is based in Philadelphia, has also advised a number of candidates for office at the local, state and federal levels. He graduated from Temple University and is an active Central High School alumnus. Find him on Twitter at @NeilDeegan24.

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2. Joe DeFelice, Esq.

Title: Chairman Community Development Corporation, Legal Counsel Mayfair Civic Association

Age: 38

Who’s Next because: DeFelice is the legal counsel for the Mayfair Civic Association and served as its longtime president. He also serves as chairman of the Mayfair Community Development Corporation and is a board member of the Mayfair Business Association. He helped found the Mayfair Memorial Playground, the Mayfair Farmers Market, the Mayfair Fallen Heroes Run, the Mayfair May Fair, the Mayfair Oktoberfest and a number of other events and committees. He’s also a past vice-president of the Lombardi, Montemuro, Alessandroni Lodge of the Sons of Italy and a board member of the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia. During the day, DeFelice is the executive director of the Philadelphia Republican Party. The person who nominated DeFelice said “Joe is everything to the Mayfair community” and another said “his tireless efforts have improved our quality of life, created a greater sense of community, as well as enhancing the economic vitality of our business district.” Find him on Twitter at @josephjdefelice.

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3. Jennifer Devor

Title: Director of Partnerships at Campus Philly

Age: 31

Who’s Next because: A resident of Point Breeze, Devor is a driving force behind a range of projects including public school advocacy, business development, trash education and removal, social services for underserved neighbors and gun violence prevention. Devor is a Democratic committeeperson in the 36th ward, and she releases a quarterly newsletter called The Devor Report that tells subscribers who she’s voting for and why by sharing ways to get more politically engaged. Devor is currently the director of partnerships at Campus Philly, an economic development organization working on the city’s talent retention strategy. She’s also part of Leadership Philadelphia’s Connectors & Keepers program, is a recipient of Generocity’s Do-Gooder award and was recognized as a Difference Maker by the South Philly Review. Previously, Devor served on the Board of Directors for Diversified Community Services. Find her on Twitter at @JenDevor.

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4. Akeem Dixon

Title: 52nd Street Commercial Corridor Manager

Age: 35

Who’s Next because: In his role as the 52nd Street Commercial Corridor Manager with The Enterprise Center, Dixon implements market driven activities focused on economic and retail development, job creation, blight and litter reduction, retail and restaurant site selection, business attraction, and crime reduction. The Philadelphia native works with the Department of Commerce to improve the commercial corridor. He was also appointed by the city to serve as a member of the North Central Empowerment Zone Trust Board, an organization granted with $1.2 million to revitalize North Central Philadelphia. He’s also a Ride Indego Bike Share Ambassador and a Workshop School board member. The person who nominated Dixon said this: “Akeem plays a lead role in investing in and transforming the 52nd Street Commercial Corridor, including bringing art to the corridor to beautify it, engaging local students in plans to improve it [and] working with the police to keep it safe.” Find him on Twitter at @akeemdixon.

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5. Nic Esposito

Title: Publisher, urban farmer and Sustainable Practices Manager at Philadelphia Parks and Recreation

Age: 32

Who’s Next because: Esposito splits his time between his two passions — building sustainable communities and Philadelphia’s literary scene. On the sustainable communities front, Esposito is the co-manager of Emerald Street Community Farm, the president of the East Kensington Neighbors Association and the Sustainable Practices Manager in the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. The person who nominated Esposito specifically highlighted his work with EKNA, saying the group has “a different flavor of civic association, due in large part to their young membership.” On the literary front, he’s the Founder of The Head & The Hand Press and Workshop as well as the author of the books Seeds of Discent and Kensington Homestead, the latter of which is a collection of essays about based on the homestead and community farm he runs in Kensington. Find him on Twitter at @NicEsposito1.

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6. Peter Frank

Title: Executive Director, Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance

Age: 35

Who’s Next because: As the executive director and co-founder of the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance, Frank works to establish a more sustainable and cooperative economy in Philadelphia neighborhoods. PACA is a nonprofit that connects co-ops (businesses owned and controlled by members) in food, housing, education, art and more. Before working for PACA, Frank was the organizational development coordinator at Mariposa Food Co-op in West Philly. He also serves as the vice president of the board of the Kensington Community Food Co-op and sits on the board of The Energy Co-op, a 6,000 member co-op that provides consumers with sustainable electricity, natural gas, heating oil and biodiesel. In 2011, Frank worked as advocacy coordinator for Cooperation Works, supporting legislation introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives to develop co-ops in underserved communities. Find him on Twitter at @peter__frank.

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7. Ileana Garcia

Title: Commercial Corridor Manager, Frankford Community Development Corporation

Age: 29

Who’s Next because: Originally from East Harlem, Garcia relocated to the area to attend Haverford College and, since graduating, she’s stayed in Philly to help improve her neighborhood. Currently, she’s a Commercial Corridor Manager at the Frankford CDC where she helps neighborhood small business owners there improve and grow their businesses through support from the Frankford Business and Professional Association. She’s also worked with other nonprofits in the area and served as a special assistant for Spanish and Portuguese speaking communities to Councilman David Oh. The person who nominated Garcia said this: “Ileana is a quiet player who has been involved in everything from helping grow the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to being instrumental in helping create Councilman David Oh’s PHL Live program, to working hard at the Frankford CDC to revitalize a neighborhood in desperate need of a renaissance.”

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8. Felicia Harris

Title: President of Influencing Action Movement

Age: 29

Who’s Next because: Harris is currently the president of the Philadelphia-based Influencing Action Movement, a nonprofit that works to connect people across to role models, career advancement opportunities and community-based resources. The organization offers specialized, online mentoring programs for teenagers and last year served more than 3,500 Philadelphians through mentoring programs, networking events and community service projects. Harris has served as a committeeperson in the 50th ward and sits on the boards of the Philadelphia NAACP, the Finley Recreation Center and SCH Creative and Performing Arts. Leadership Philadelphia named her a 2014 Connector & Keeper and she has volunteered with organizations like Heads Up DC, Big Brother Big Sister and Achieving Independence Center. Find her on Twitter at @Felicia_Dawn.

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9. Jabari Jones

Title: Founder of the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative

Age: 21

Who’s Next because: Still a student at Drexel University, Jones is the founder of the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative where he leads local business leaders in addressing issues facing business owners in West Philly, advocating for procurement opportunities for local and minority businesses and representing the concerns of business groups to elected officials. The organization was founded last fall after Jones conducted a thorough survey of the business climate in the neighborhood as part of an internship and then submitted his recommendations to the university president on how the school could mobilize students to use their perspectives in facing economic development issues in West Philly. Through those connections, he’s worked with top Drexel officials over the last year on ways the school can be more inclusive to local businesses. The person who nominated Jones said this: “Jabari is a young man who is playing a vital role in helping businesses in West Philadelphia grow and collaborate with each other.”

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10. Ryan Kellermeyer

Title: Hunting Park neighborhood advocate

Age: 38

Who’s Next because: Originally from Indiana, Kellermeyer moved to Hunting Park in 2000 and has worked with neighborhood organizations on improvement projects since. He played an instrumental role in the revitalization of Hunting Park, a project that led to a huge reduction in crime in the surrounding area. He also headed up community efforts to transform an illegal junkyard into a park and convene a network of neighborhood churches for advocacy. Kellermeyer jokes that his goal for Hunting Park is to achieve “maximum Shalom” in about five years. He’s also a deacon at Grace and Peace Community Fellowship and serves on the boards of Hunting Park UnitedFruit of the Vine International and Timoteo Sports. During the day, Kellermeyer works at Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP improving efforts related to the Sheriff’s sale of blighted property and will soon be joining The City School as director of development. Find him on Twitter at @RKPHL.

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11. Malcolm Kenyatta

Title: Community advocate and political consultant

Age: 25

Who’s Next because: Kenyatta calls himself North Philly’s biggest fan. He organizes block clean-ups, mentors kids in the area, gets top political candidates to bring their message to the area and serves as a connector between nonprofits and organizations based in North Philly. He is also an LGBT advocate and is the youngest member of the Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club board of directors. He’s also a Point Foundation Mentor, a winner of the LAX Scholarship from Bread and Roses Foundation for his dedication to the LGBT community and was recently elected to the board of Smith Playground and appointed president of the Philadelphia National Organization for Women Education Fund. He has worked as a political consultant, most recently serving as campaign manager for Sherrie Cohen’s city council at-large bid. Last year, Kenyatta received national recognition for his community work in North Philly and was selected as a BMe Leader via the Knight Foundation. Find him on Twitter at @malcolmkenyatta.

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12. Alysia Lee

Title: Director of Sister Cities Girlchoir

Age: 34

Who’s Next because: Lee currently leads the Sister Cities Girlchoir, a girl empowerment choral academy serving girls in low-income communities. The organization piloted in 2012 with 12 girls and now serves more than 250 in the region. The group has done side-by-side performances with Opera Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Singers, Ana Crusis Women’s Choir, Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus and the Broadway Dreams Foundation. The girls have taken their high-energy music to the Kimmel Center, the Phillies stadium, the Union League and other top venues. The person who nominated Lee said: “Ms. Lee has created a safe space for girls from unsafe places. Under her leadership, 300 girls are empowered to lift their beautiful voices and make the world a little better.”

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13. Lauren Leonard

Title: Co-founder/ editor-in-chief of greenlimb.com; President of Queen Village Neighbors Association

Age: 33

Who’s Next because: Leonard is the co-founder of greenlimbs.com which is most known for its annual “Treecycling” event. Held each January, the event diverts holiday trees and greens from landfill by recycling them into mulch for reuse at city parks and rec centers. In 2016, some 700 trees were recycled through the program. She’s also the youngest-ever president of the Queen Village Neighbors Association. The person who nominated Leonard said this about her work with QVNA: “She’s brought her own leadership style to the (volunteer) job and in just a few months has shown her talent of navigating the sometimes dicey relationships between older and newer residents.” Find her on Twitter at @greenlimbs.

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14. Dawn McDougall

Title: Executive director of Code for Philly

Age: 25

Who’s Next because: McDougall is a civic tech and open data professional passionate about building community in Philadelphia. By day, she works at a company with an open source platform built to streamline open data efforts within government. By night, McDougall runs the civic hacking organization Code for Philly with its founder Chris Alfano. As executive director, McDougall builds organizational partnerships and strategic collaborations, grows mission-driven programming, manages the brigade leadership team and runs an occasional hackathon. She’s a civic hacker by way of her love of cities and a fixation on how urban governance can be directly improved by civic participation. Find her on Twitter at @de_mcdougs.

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15. Brandon Morrison

Title: Vice President/ Corporate Services Manager at Janney Montgomery Scott

Age: 35

Who’s Next because: Though Morrison has a day job as a VP at Janney, he’s actively involved with nine nonprofit organizations in the Philadelphia region focusing on civil rights and human relations, mentoring, the arts, homelessness and physically challenged youth. He’s a board member with the Anti-Defamation League in Philadelphia and, for the last three years has served as chairman of the group’s WALK Against Hate event that raised more than a half a million dollars last year. Morrison is also involved with Philadelphia Futures, a mentoring program, and is the vice president of the board of the Philadelphia Independent Film and Video Association. In addition, he’s a board member and a volunteer with Girls Inc. where he’s working to develop preparatory programming for post-college job interviewing and career success. The person who nominated him said “Brandon is motivated to be a civic leader and catalyst for positive and transformative change.” 

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16. Jasmine Rivera

Title: Community organizer/ activist

Age: 29

Who’s Next because: For the last seven years, Rivera has worked as a community organizer in Philadelphia through ACTION United. The nonprofit organizes in Germantown and North Philly on issues ranging from street flooding and blight to public education and bank accountability. Through her work with ACTION United, Rivera was a major player in the passage of the Philadelphia Paid Sick Leave bill which she worked toward for five years. She became the lead organizer with Juntos, a nonprofit working with the Latino immigrant community in Philly, in 2013 and advocated for keeping Philadelphia’s status as sanctuary city. Rivera was a part of the national movement for executive relief from deportations and continues to fight for the closure of a Berks County detention center that incarcerates immigrant parents and children. The person who nominated her said this: “Jasmine is a great community organizer and is always fighting for her community members at Juntos.”

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17. Jasmine Sessoms

Title: Founder of She Can Win

Age: 32

Who’s Next because: Sessoms is the Founder of She Can Win, a nonpartisan program that trains women for civic and political leadership. The organization offers an eight-week training program by expert content facilitators and fosters a sense of community with political organizations run by women. She also serves as the deputy executive director of the Mayor’s Fund, the City of Philadelphia’s non-profit, where she’s responsible for oversight of the Fund’s daily operations, managing its governance strategy and funder relations. Sessoms was recently named to the Governor’s Commission on African American Affairs, a committee that looks to represent African Americans in the state of Pennsylvania.

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