Since launching our Who’s Next series, Billy Penn has been honored to feature nearly 500 of Philly’s most promising young leaders. In this edition, presented by the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania, we’re highlighting impressive people who work in public service.
When interviewing these individuals, no matter their job title, a common motif was a positive outlook in the face of adversity, a social awareness that transforms into action, and a willingness to get creative when problem-solving.
These under-40 Philadelphians contribute to the public good in a myriad of ways, each with an abundance of enthusiasm for their respective cause, and humility when engaging with their fellow citizens.
Below, meet this year’s 19 honorees in the field of public service, listed in alphabetical order.
Given how diverse and geographically expansive the city is, says Orlando Almonte, immigration work in Philadelphia is challenging. But it’s a challenge he’s been more than willing to take on for the past two years. Growing up, Almonte acted as a language interpreter for his parents. When he entered Rowan University in 2009, he first thought about pursuing law school, but soon realized he was more interested in taking his experience with languages and making it into a career. At first his family was less than enthusiastic, due to the cultural stereotype of government workers being “inherently lazy.” However, they saw how fulfilled Almonte felt providing language access services at Quantum, Inc. and later at the Nationalities Service Center in Philly, they've been supportive — even if they sometimes playfully tease about not becoming an attorney. Since 2016, Almonte has been with the city's Office of Immigrant Affairs, working with police, health centers and other city programs to bridge the divide in communities that stem from differences in language. If Philadelphia is going to talk the talk about being a "welcoming city for all," Almonte reasons, he's going to be there to make sure they walk the walk.
Anjali Chainani’s introduction to municipal policy is proof internships can change the course of a young person’s future. Chainani, an Oklahoma City transplant, went to Temple for social work and graduated with a degree in social work and a minor in political science. Thanks to a professor’s suggestion that she stay in Philly the summer of 2003 and intern with the Mayor's Internship Program, Chainani was placed at the Office of Emergency Shelter Services (now the Office of Homeless Services). There, her eyes were opened to the opportunities and social impacts of work at an executive, governmental level. Her first job in the field, with Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, lasted for a whopping 10 years, during which she realized the city could better use data for daily decision-making. Now, working for Mayor Kenney, Chainani has been able to implement the use of behavioral science, human-centered design and trauma-informed approaches to tackle issues facing residents. It's all happening via GovLab PHL, a multi-agency team formally launched a little over a year ago. Chainani is proud to be one of the three female people of color leading the program. Now, her goal is to try to promote women in STEM at the government level. “I promise,” she said, “the research is cool and we have a lot of fun — probably too much!”
Though she’s been drumming since she was nine years old, Jessica Craft never expected she would wind up founding a nonprofit music organization. She went to Temple for business and economics, but admits most of her energy was focused on the punk bands she played with. The concept of Rock to the Future, which she launched in 2010 to nurture love for music in the city’s underserved youth, was built out of the desire to get kids “off of the streets, and into the studio.” in spaces where they won’t be able to get in trouble and can direct their energies toward creative expression. Students get the opportunity to perform at established venues like Union Arts and World Cafe Live and record at fully-functioning studios, all while learning the social, writing and time management skills that are essential for school and beyond. As public schools have been slashing arts funding, Rock to the Future has expanded and become more mobile, directly bringing resources to schools in North Philadelphia, such as Hackett Elementary and Conwell Middle School. When she isn’t in the office, Craft is jamming as one of the bandmates of Conversations, which is currently in the process of releasing a sophomore album.
A Dominican immigrant who grew up in New York City surrounded by families struggling to pursue opportunities like his, Francisco Garcia is certain Philadelphia is a city unlike any other. It “comes from a policy perspective that stands up for the historical definition of the American dream,” he explains. However, he's equally sure Philly still has “a lot of work to do” when it comes to the desegregation of that dream. That’s why Garcia, for four years now, has been focused on closing the gap between skills and resources among people outside of Center City, and diversifying and amplifying the local tech industry. Prior to becoming a public servant, Garcia was the owner of an ice cream shop in Brooklyn. Getting into the small business scene made him curious about how cities innovate and prosper, and the roar of Silicon Valley reverberating throughout the nation got him to ditch the cones and get to the heart of economic development in communities. So, will Philly become the next Silicon Valley? Probably not, Garcia says, but he and his team are working on expanding the community, and room for growth is there. Amazon, come at us.
“Rique,” as Tyrique Glasgow is known to friends, wasn't accustomed to being intimidated by anything. He'd run the corner on 27th and Tasker with bravado, eventually surviving 11 gunshot wounds and five years in prison. But being responsible for children was an idea that was daunting. After his release, Glasgow had the chance to work as a flag football coach and chaperone for neighborhood kids who needed a push towards getting off the streets and into the fields. Soon, Glasgow expanded the program, which he named the Young Chances Foundation, to areas beyond flag football, including cookouts, basketball workshops and a free summer camp. Now, the foundation is thriving, and Glasgow has been able to expand his mission by serving as a Community Outreach Coordinator for the DA's office. The foundation will soon open a Young Chances community engagement center, which will have free computers and free childcare — right on the corner Glasgow used to run.
Anh Hua has traveled the globe working on anti-human trafficking initiatives, but Philly's where she's chosen to settle. She had the opportunity to work in Cambodia for a year for an organization that fostered economic empowerment and self-sufficiency for women who had been trafficked into the Southeast Asian nation. She later did similar work for women in India, the Philippines and California. The more she was on the ground in different countries with victims and survivors struggling similarly, the more she realized how widespread the problem is, and that there's a lack of understanding or awareness of the issue, especially in the United States. After graduating from Princeton with a masters in public affairs, Hua based herself at the Nationalities Service Center. She is inspired by her clients’ resilience and ability to still find the energy to rise above their own trauma so they can support their families. Nevertheless, she admits the nature of anti-trafficking work can be emotionally draining. It helps her to remember that she and her colleagues have touched and improved the lives of many, and she also decompresses through cooking and going on walks.
With a daily schedule that includes case management for older patients in the morning, and answering innocent questions like “Will I grow a foot taller this year?” for high school students in the afternoon, Kiasha Huling does everything (and then some) at the Sayre Health Center. A unique facility located on the grounds of William L. Sayre High School, Huling provides outreach and services for a wide variety of West Philadelphians at an affordable rate — and sometimes for free. She also works on community engagement, by attending meetings, seeking out and conversing with government representatives, and making sure she's well-versed on current public health policy at the federal and state levels. Philly is often rated as one of the worst cities when it comes to overall health, but Huling has seen tremendous improvement since she got into social work and healthcare in 2008, specifically around trauma-informed therapy and mental health services. Huling is dedicated to creating a broader, more unified system to create a culture that puts health on a pedestal and understands health as part of community development.
Darryl Irizarry was never a Boy Scout, but his work at the Boy Scouts of America has earned him the National President’s Award...twice. Raised in Fairhill, which he calls the section of North Philadelphia “that is always on the news for the wrong reasons," Irizarry was thankful to have parents who emphasized staying out of drugs and getting into books. While studying business administration at Temple, the opportunity arose for Irizarry to become a Boy Scout program leader and mentor. Two years into running the program, his work was impressive enough that a representative from national HQ offered him a full-time position on graduation. He worked as a district executive for Delaware County-area troops, and after “busting his behind” for some time, was promoted to being the head of 55 Boy Scout program specialists, serving 3200 youths throughout Philadelphia. He was only 26 years old at the time. He attended Fels to receive a Certificate for the DiverseForce Board Leadership and Governance Program, and soon found himself traveling 100 days out of the year for speaking engagements. In 2017, Irizarry was awarded with the Delaware Valley’s Most Influential Latinos Award, an honor he says stems from never turning his back on the people that raised and motivated him.
Raymond John grew up watching his Korean immigrant parents work odd jobs that required 13-hour days and grueling night shifts. Upon graduating from Penn, John was motivated by his upbringing to mentor high school students in a now-defunct community group in West Philadelphia. Though John had planned to eventually become a doctor, he discovered a calling helping students achieve their academic potential. Five years ago, he and a cofounder began 12+, which started as a small “Plus Center” at Kensington Health Sciences — a special classroom providing intensive tutoring and counseling to make sure every student had a plan for after graduation. Before 12+, Kensington Health was one of the lowest performing schools in the district, but after the first year of the program, it achieved a performance rate of 70 percent. Graduating seniors are also now able to get continued support through a 12+ alum program, known as “Ascend.” John is immensely thankful for the teachers, principals, and faculty that he and his co-founder have partnered with, as it has allowed them to serve 6,000 students (and counting).
The idea to start a nonprofit homecare agency came to Aurora Kripa in 2012. She was 29 at the time, and was several years into working for a human services organization in Philly that provided assistance on a widespread scale. She was excited to try a more specialized, niche approach when she was asked to run an agency that specialized in helping the elderly and the physically disabled. Like most grand ideas, JEVS at Home started slowly, but soon worked its way up to having a 37 million dollar budget and more than 1000 clients across five Philadelphia counties and two in Pittsburgh. Kripa attributes part of her entrepreneurial drive and service inclination to being an Albanian immigrant. She came to the country when she was around 13 years old, and saw her parents struggle and endeavor to achieve the American dream. This taught her not only to value immigration and supporting the disenfranchised, but also the value of being well-educated and well-networked. As far connections go, being a Temple grad and a Fels MPA recipient helps, but most of all, she says, hiring people who are “passionate about what they do” and “innovators” is what has kept her — and JEVS — thriving.
From the outside, leaving a prestigious position as a BET television producer to start a nonprofit might seem like a step down, but not for Anton Moore. The young founder of Unity in the Community has never felt more successful, he says. The organization works to prevent gun violence and provide healing for communities ravaged by it. Since 2009, Moore’s organization has sent kids to college, helped ex-offenders get jobs, worked on conflict resolution, hosted events during Peace Week, and referred grieving mothers to appropriate counseling services. In 2016 during the Democratic National Convention, Moore was asked to speak on segregation, and even though producers “warned him” not to go off-script, he used his screen time to speak about poverty and its perpetuation of gun violence in Philadelphia. Because he believes marginalized persons can be lifted up by artistic mediums, he is codirecting a documentary, titled The Weight of Death. The film features Black Thought from The Roots, Meek Mill, Bernard Hopkin, Deion Waiters, former Mayor Michael Nutter, Police Commissioner Richard Ross, Senator Bob Casey, Police Commissioner Blanche, funeral directors and parents of deceased victims in Philly. The documentary is set to air in August. Moore's book, Going the Distance, is also in progress.
Gabriela Raczka considers herself to be “a very Philly girl,” and her resume backs up the claim. Since 2012, she has worked in a number of offices and organizations in the city, including Visit Philadelphia, Philly311, the Mayor’s Press Office, and now as the right-hand woman to Jane Golden, the executive director of the groundbreaking Mural Arts program. Now, along with Golden, Raczka attends a multitude of community meetings and events, and is involved with project management — something that allows her to have a say in the design process of the many great works of public art that grace Philadelphia's streetscape. One of the most rewarding experiences she has had thus far was working closely with Detroit-based artist Tyree Guyton in Kensington for Monument Lab. The art installation, with a focus on restorative justice and thinking about time on a philosophical level, was an eye-opening journey for Raczka. At the epicenter of the opioid crisis, she and Guyton enlisted the help of veterans suffering from addiction and trauma-related disorders from Impact Services to participate in the process. Seeing the confidence of those veterans grow once they felt valuable and had an outlet for their creative expression was immeasurable for Raczka. She “couldn’t be happier” to be a part of the outcome of investment in public arts.
Krishna Rami has a girl crush on Nina Ahmad, and isn’t afraid to admit it. Rami met Ahmad when she started working for her and her husband's company, JNA Capital in 2015. Later, they both began working for Mayor Kenney in 2016, and she was further drawn to Ahmad, seeking her as a mentor — both because of her extensive work on intersectional feminist policy, and because she was a badass South Asian woman, like the one Rami strived to be. Rami, who moved from Chicago to Philly to complete a degree in international justice and human rights at Drexel, has always been deeply invested in gender equality, women’s rights and domestic violence prevention. Under Ahmad’s wing, Rami was introduced to the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, and concentrated in creating an “infrastructure of trust” and “equitable spaces for all backgrounds” as a member of the Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement. At the same time, she was also an Asian American affairs liaison for the mayor, and co-leader of a Girl Scout Brownie troop in Frankford. Recently Rami was promoted to Special Aide to the Chief of Staff at the Mayor’s Office and elected as the Vice President of the Pennsylvania chapter of NOW.
Combining their love of cycling, library sciences, and education, Link Ross sought out a grant for — and created from scratch — the Free Library Book Bikes program in 2016. The program offers mobile literary services for venues and communities that have low access to consistent library services. Patrons can even check out books directly from the bike if they have their card on them. Ross also secured a Charlie Cart mobile kitchen for the Free Library’s Culinary Literacy Program, which encourages hands-on teaching and learning about healthier ways to prepare food and facilitates discussion about nutrition. Ross attended Muhlenberg College in Allentown for a degree in gender studies, and then went onto pursuing a masters in library sciences at Drexel. Ross’ favorite part of being a librarian in South Philly is when children come up to them and, instead of saying, “I have to do x, y and z,” say “I’m interested in this, can you help me learn more?” Ross strives to squash the stereotype of the “grumpy, shushing” librarian, by executing partnerships for louder, dynamic and inclusive programming. One such partnership is with “You Can’t Kill A Poet,” an adult queer and transgender poetry series started by Boston Gordon. After listening to kids identified as LGBTQ who wanted a space to share their literary work, Ross and Gordon were able to modify the series so that it could include an all-ages version at the library.
Becoming a lawyer was always in the cards for Jordan Segall, but the realization that he wanted to provide public good wasn’t as obvious while he was growing up in Baltimore. Attending American University, where government felt “all-encompassing,” Segall realized he did not want to be the type of attorney who benefits only private, high-paying clients. After graduating from The University of Pittsburgh’s School of Law and coming to Philly to work as an investigator in 2011 for the city's Office of Inspector General, he discovered local government was a good fit. Now, as an attorney for the City of Philadelphia’s Board of Ethics, Segall particularly enjoys when he and his staff members resolve violations of the City's Public Integrity Laws to ensure honest government and transparency for the public. Though he's aware that government may not be “the most popular place right now,” Segall is steadfast in his commitment. He also thoroughly enjoys leading trainings and events where he is able to explain and clarify how departments can remain compliant with public integrity laws. When he isn’t “lawyering,” Segall unwinds by going to sports games, being involved at the Constitution Center and the Museum of the American Revolution.
Known for her cheerful disposition and poise when presented with a problem, Sarah Steffan has been working as a City Year Corps Member and Project Leader in Philly for over two years. Though both roles fall under the AmeriCorps umbrella, they require different approaches to education and child development. As an art history major at Berry College in Georgia and a art conversation intern at Villanova, Steffan felt well-equipped for one, but was diving headfirst into the other. Providing one-on-one mentoring for 12 students at Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts was “hard at times, not gonna lie,” Steffan recalls, but this did not discourage her from the Corps. In fact, she loved the organization so much that she stayed to get involved with something that she was even more passionate about: the merger of art, education, and public service via the Civic Engagement Team. Steffan’s day-to-day includes planning beautification projects in schools and youth centers, observing the ways in which a child’s environment can affect their academic and personal development. When design blueprints and public installations can’t keep her grounded, yoga does.
As a graduate student at the Fels Institute and a research assistant for the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, Claire Suh investigates the intersection of health and tech in the public sector by interacting and conducting research with clinical data. Currently, she is finding creative, actionable ways to reach populations that need health services, which can be hard to do while remaining in compliance with the Affordable Care Act. Suh has found one of the best ways is through technology, specifically through machine learning and data analysis, to identify personalized interventions. When she needs a break from the math, Suh does a different form of research for Penn Law through the Wharton Public Policy Initiative, dealing with questions of rules and regulations in government agencies. After she completes her Masters in Public Administration, Suh would like to use technology for public-private partnerships, and would like to get involved with modernizing the government through technology innovation. This year, she’ll be a Civic Engagement Fellow with Microsoft, where she’ll help the company find ways to distribute digital resources equitably and engage with the local community and government.
Briana Ventimiglia and her team of social workers at the Support Center for Child Advocates work closely with volunteer attorneys to make sure children who have been abused or neglected are receiving social services and are in a safe and supportive environment. The program model is unique, given how heavily it relies on the expertise and pro bono work of professionals willing to be generous with their time. Ventimiglia sees her career less like a job, and more like a vocation, because she doesn’t emotionally leave behind her role as a social worker “at the desk.” Her clients are one of her main priorities, so much so that she'll go out of her way to postpone her social life to give them more time to talk their difficulties through. She thoroughly enjoys being the support system and that “person there for them." She enjoys practicing self-care by going on hikes on the Wissahickon with two of the loves of her life: her husband and her blue-heeler mix.
“My parents, since I was like seven, have been telling me that I’m going to help people and be poor.” Melissa Wright smiles as she cites her early encouragement toward the nonprofit world. As an economics major at Fordham, Wright’s parents suspected she had shed that dream for Wall Street. Not so. After transitioning to Philadelphia to study at the Fels Institute, and joining CHOP as a research assistant, Wright became convinced that the public service sector was exactly where she belonged. For almost three years, she has been working as a data analyst for the School District of Philadelphia’s ELECT program, which supports and tracks the success of female and male student parents. Wright is involved with analyzing what this particular group of students needs to graduate, when student parents become absent (usually in the last trimester of a pregnancy), and the reasons why they struggle to integrate back into the traditional school system (childcare is a major cause). Wright uses data as a tool to understand the narrative of these students so that other agencies and departments can help them in the most efficient way possible. As a dual-degree earning graduate student at Penn, Wright is also working as a fellow for ImpactED as part of her practicum.