As the primary election on May 21 draws closer, political consultants are gearing up to spend big bucks gauging public opinion about Philadelphia’s elected officials.

They could’ve gotten a pretty solid snapshot of the electorate’s mood for exactly zero dollars, had they attended the first session of the People’s University voter education series. Several residents who attended the class last month had no qualms voicing their feelings on the personalities currently in office.

Cherelle Parker?” asked one resident who lives in District 9, which Parker has represented for the past three years. “I’ve never heard of her. Not in the neighborhood, nothing.”

The Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities is hosting the free meetings with the goal of getting people like that — who are interested in civic engagement but not sure of all the details — much more involved.

Over the monthly sessions, it aims to educate Philly voters and prep them for the primary election. The next one, set for Feb. 11, focuses on housing law, and who has control over issues regarding assessments, the Land Bank and more.

Why the focus on May? While the general election can feel more important, Philadelphia is an overwhelmingly Democratic city, and many politicians run with nary a Republican challenger. This year, voters will choose candidates for all 17 City Council seats, as well as the mayor, and the primary will likely decide the outcome of most races.

People’s University attendee Tyrone McQueen (right) identifying his Council district Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Making civics fun

People’s University has been alive longer than a decade. The coalition hosted the first session of this election cycle last month, giving attendees a basic rundown of the people who are up for election and what power they have.

“Throughout our coalition work, we continue to come across folks who need more basic information about their elected officials,” said Christi Clark, organizing director of the Women’s Community Revitalization Project and People’s University instructor. “We continue to come across folks who don’t know the difference between a district councilperson and an at-large councilperson. There’s a basic education that’s needed.”

For something resembling school, this course isn’t boring — the whole thing was really interactive. For about 30 people who attended, the event was constant discussion and moving around the room.

There was a pop quiz on the different powers afforded to the mayor versus City Council. Instructors read aloud an example — like drafting legislation — and participants had to hold up either a yellow paper to answer Council, or a pink paper to answer mayor.

Attendees voting unanimously for Council in a power-identifying exercise Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Later on, folks put dots on a Philadelphia map to determine which Council district they lived in. Divided into groups with their neighbors, they figured out their Councilperson and learned how long they’ve been in office — and how much money they’ve raised since 2017.

There was even a role-playing exercise, in which staffers acted out the personalities of Mayor Kenney and various councilmembers.

Funny as the class was, for many attendees it was also meaningful — this was the most they’d ever learned about their elected officials. Tyrone McQueen, a 60-year-old lifetime Frankford resident, has been associated with the Women’s Community Revitalization Project for a few years now. He found the first People’s University session useful.

“It’s really good for people who don’t know about their district Councilman,” he said. “You find out their bio, what they’ve done, how they affect housing trust funds, how they influence everything.”

McQueen already knew that he fell under Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez — he’d met her before around District 7. Still, he said, the class was valuable because he learned from his classmates about their elected officials.

“It was interesting, how the workshop worked,” McQueen said. “I liked how they had everything set up for every district in the city, and everyone talked about their councilperson. That way we’re learning from different people.”

The event is open, and many attendees are drawn from the coalition’s 62 member organizations — including Community Legal Services, the Philly Tenants Union, Lutheran Settlement House and CDCs from across the city.

“Right there we already have a pretty wide spread,” Clark said. “But we opened it up publicly because there’s been so much conversation in this city about gentrification and land use, we really felt like the energy went beyond our coalition members.”

People’s University seems to provide a vital service — many attendees didn’t know their own Council district. Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Who decides housing law?

Philadelphians can attend any of the three remaining People’s University sessions to learn about local elections, especially as they pertain to land and housing:

  • Feb. 11: Where Decisions Get Made on Land and Housing: Understanding the Land Bank, the Housing Trust Fund, and the roles the Mayor and Council play in land and housing decisions
  • March 11: Who is Running in the Primary? Information about some candidates and how we hold them accountable
  • May 13: Where and How to Vote Review who is being elected, how to find your polling place, and what to know on election day and how to keep winning for our communities beyond election day

At the end of the workshop, you can expect an energized explanation that your civic engagement work is not done. After you vote, Clark and other instructors encourage you to stay involved in Philly social justice work.

“As the people, what power do we have, not just during election time but all the time?” Clark said. “We’re helping people understand that there is an election going on, but there is ongoing work being done in communities year-round.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...