In this year’s edition of City & State’s Forty Under 40, you may notice a few motifs: For one, each honoree is from Philadelphia and there are a number of immigrants and first-generation Americans. Spending time working for the City of Philadelphia is a line on many of our honorees’ résumés. And contrary to national trends, this group has done precious little job-hopping – a sign, perhaps, of their self-confidence in the direction their careers and lives are taking.
One other thing the people assembled on these pages have in common: a love for the city. Time and again during interviews, we heard about how happy someone was to move here, or to come back home after moving away, or to be able to give back – and give some love back to The City That Loves You Back.
These rising stars bring purpose, passion and professionalism to their work on everything from politics to finance to advocacy. The following profiles were written by City & State staff and freelance writer Hilary Danailova.
The daughter of two musicians, Samantha Apgar was herself a music major and likens her career to choral singing. “It’s about all the voices working together to create something, versus just one soloist standing out there in front of the crowd,” said Apgar, who has steered Temple University’s public policy graduate program for three of its six years. Whether shaping nonprofit careers or blending into the alto section, Apgar noted, “community and collaboration are so important.”
At Temple, where Apgar shapes the next generation of public policy leadership, she explained her role as being “the first person prospective master’s students talk to, and the last person doing exit interviews at graduation.”
Apgar, 34, is also the incoming president of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, where she was involved in hiring a new executive director and restructuring the organization to better support local chapters, including Philadelphia’s.
Serving on the board of the Charlotte Cushman Foundation, a philanthropic group supporting local theater, keeps Apgar involved in the arts – but as the pandemic recedes, she’s looking forward to returning to the alto section of the Temple Singing Owls.
If not for knee injuries and a coach’s wife, you would be reading about Melissa Atkins’ WNBA career.
Atkins, who was a captain of the University of Miami’s women’s basketball team, had long planned to play professional basketball – until two torn ACLs made that an impossibility. While trying to decide what to do next, the wife of one of her coaches, who was a lawyer, convinced her to try law school.
“When I realized that there's life beyond basketball, I took a different route,” she explains. After getting her JD from Faulkner University in Alabama, the Philadelphia native returned home, where she worked for the City of Philadelphia. “I was at the City Solicitor's Office and the Labor and Employment Division for five years,” she says, adding that her time there “gave me the experience that I really needed to excel” at Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP as a labor attorney.
“Excel” is an understatement: In January – just eight months after starting at Obermayer – Atkins made partner at age 38. The mother of three also finds time to give seminars on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the practice of law, and other labor and employment topics.
“I can juggle a lot,” Atkins says. “And I think that I actually know how to do it successfully because I played basketball.”
Philadelphia City Commissioner Seth Bluestein was always in a hurry. He started graduate school at Penn while still an undergrad there, and worked on then-Commissioner Al Schmidt’s campaign during his second year of graduate school, joining Schmidt’s office full time in 2012. Now 33 and married to his high school sweetheart, Bluestein assumed his current role when Schmidt resigned earlier this year; he is one of three members of Philadelphia’s Board of Elections charged with overseeing elections and voter registration.
The Northeast Philly native has been fascinated by government since AP History class at Central High School. By college, Bluestein was an election board worker and volunteered on political campaigns. Working in Schmidt’s office, however, “was new, because I learned about administering elections from the inside,” he said.
As a deputy commissioner, Bluestein oversaw the launch of a 2013 public voting and elections website. “It made the election process more transparent and open to regular voters,” he explained. Bluestein’s pandemic challenges include handling the increased volume of mail-in ballots, which, without administrative reform, “make it harder to know the results on election night, which allows misinformation to spread.”
Among his allies in this struggle are colleagues at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s election task force, a national coalition that aims to figure out solutions to election administration challenges. Bluestein, who is also raising two young children, has some thoughts about getting it all done: “A lot of focus,” he noted, “and a lot more caffeine than I needed in college.”
Rebeca Cruz-Esteves had a newborn daughter and a social services career overseeing projects for Philadelphia’s Hispanic community nonprofit Esperanza when her life was turned upside-down last year. A rare neurological reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine left her unemployed, on disability, and struggling to function.
“I was a runner, a biker. But I could barely get up to change my daughter’s diaper,” recalled Cruz-Esteves, 32, who was medically discharged from the military after a 12-year career as a result of her ongoing challenges from the vaccine.
The ordeal gave her firsthand insight into the challenges many face in a society with gaping holes in the safety net – holes the Puerto Rico-born, Philadelphia-bred Cruz-Esteves had tried to plug before her illness, first at the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and then at Esperanza, where she oversaw pandemic food distribution, immigration and employment services before leaving to focus on her health.
Now substantially recovered, Cruz-Esteves serves on WHYY’s Community Advisory Board and is planning the relaunch of her nonprofit consultancy, Populouz. “At the core of it, nonprofits offer opportunities to help people progress,” she said. “But they need help mobilizing – technologically and strategically – for a remote workforce.” As Cruz-Esteves continues adjusting to COVID-era challenges, she hopes to help nonprofits do the same, saying: “That is actually what keeps me going.”
If he'd had better eyesight, Kyle A. Darby Sr. might have been a fighter pilot instead of a lobbyist. Darby planned on following in his father's military footsteps, but his terrible vision meant he was told "at a very young age that my hopes and dreams weren't able to be accomplished," recalled Darby, 28.
Now with the Philadelphia office of government relations group Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Darby showed a clear ability to pivot (including on the basketball court, where he was recruited for college athletics). The turning point was an internship with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, where he did constituent services with Veterans Affairs and the Department of Education. "Working with federal agencies was cool, but I thought there could be more impact in the private sector," Darby noted.
A registered lobbyist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey since 2015, Darby launched his own firm, Darby Public Strategies – now on hiatus – before joining Buchanan, where he works largely on federal appropriations. He previously managed government relations for a criminal justice reform organization called REFORM Alliance.
Darby credits his effectiveness in part to his ability to integrate multiple perspectives into his work: He’s a 20-something former military brat who was raised by a grandmother along with siblings two decades his senior, and who now has a toddler of his own. "The world is moving really quickly," Darby said. “I can bridge those gaps between the generations."
Neil Deegan grew up in Northeast Philly, where he canvassed for Republican candidates alongside his father. “I was always more interested than your average kid in the news and politics,” reflected Deegan, now the managing principal at Rittenhouse Political Partners, a Philadelphia lobbying firm.
Deegan’s career was jump-started by a campaign politics seminar at Temple University, which led to a fundraising job on the 2006 reelection campaign for Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz. Deegan worked for Schwartz, his mentor, until her retirement in 2015. “I found I had the skill set and temperament for fundraising, and I really enjoy the frenetic pace of it,” Deegan reflected. He went on to become Pennsylvania State Director for Enroll America, a nonprofit that connects the uninsured with health care resources.
At Rittenhouse, Deegan is especially proud of his role in Ed Gainey’s groundbreaking 2021 campaign to become mayor of Pittsburgh. His team is currently focused on the 2022 midterms, as well as the 2023 primaries. As president of the Associated Alumni of Central High School, Deegan is involved in a capital campaign for the storied Philadelphia institution where, he recalled, 20 years ago, “an amazing social studies class honed my interest in politics – and helped shape my worldview.”
Juggling a busy job with motherhood, workforce development specialist Latoya Edmond knows firsthand how difficult a successful work-life balance can be to achieve and maintain – especially during the pandemic. “When schools were closed, parents were forced to add ‘educator’ to their resumes,” she pointed out, noting that innumerable parents lost both work and income.
Edmond fights those obstacles as the new regional director of CareerWork$, a nonprofit that connects employers with young adults from low-income communities. Expanding the organization regionally and nationally won’t be easy – but Edmond brings 15 years of experience and a record of high placement rates to her role.
Before CareerWork$, Edmond spent five years overseeing workforce development, economic innovation and career services at Philadelphia OIC, a nonprofit where she managed a $2.5 million budget and secured $3 million in support. She is an advisory board member for the City of Philadelphia’s Fueling Philadelphia’s Talent Engine and an executive team member of the Workforce Professionals Alliance.
Last year, the Philadelphia Business Journal named Edmond a Woman of Distinction; she’s also been a finalist for the Greater Philadelphia Social Innovations Award. “I find great fulfillment in serving as a source of information and inspiration,” said the native Philadelphian, “especially for those from underserved communities who lack access to opportunity.”
As a Penn urban studies major in the 2000s, Alex Feldman watched the University City District – a partnership between institutions, small businesses, and residents to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood – evolve around him. “I saw how a campus that had been very inward opened up and connected, physically and economically, to the community around it,” recalled Feldman, now 39. “I realized this was a model and an ethos with a lot of potential.”
That experience shaped Feldman’s vision at U3 Advisors, the Philadelphia real estate and economic development consultancy where he has spent 13 years, currently as a managing director. With University City serving as his inspiration, Feldman has spearheaded neighborhood transformations around the country through coordinated real estate and workforce development. His U3 projects include the Memphis Medical District collaborative; the University of Maryland’s College Park innovation district; and Midtown Detroit, an urban revitalization where Feldman led the design and implementation of a $5 million employee housing incentive program that attracted 1,200 new residents.
Following the University City model, U3 works with what Feldman calls “anchor institutions” – universities and hospitals – to drive strategic community growth. “Going to college here, I fell in love with the city,” said Feldman, who grew up in Bryn Mawr. “Philly has always been my North Star.”
New Jersey native Melissa Fogg, 39, was always drawn to mental health. But after seven years as a social worker serving immigrants including five at the Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative, Fogg envisioned more creative approaches to helping people deal with trauma. Moving to Philadelphia’s legendary Mural Arts Program, Fogg spent the past half-dozen years creating, as she puts it, “real-world applications that make sense for people where they are.”
These include two vibrant community centers – partnerships between Mural Arts Philadelphia and the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services – that go beyond counseling to include wellness, arts and job training programming for immigrant families. Fogg has championed projects as varied as murals honoring immigrant women leaders, a partnership with CHOP to distribute food during the COVID crisis and leadership training for migrant women.
Building on this experience, Fogg recently moved to the Community College of Philadelphia as director of women’s advocacy and outreach. “I’m excited to be moving back into gender equity-focused issues,” she said, citing child care and leadership programs as priorities. “Building up a women’s center after a pandemic staffing gap, it’s kind of a blank slate, which is exciting.”
While many of her millennial peers hopped from job to job, Kara Fox has spent a decade building a lobbying and media relations career at Bellevue Strategies. Fox, 39, has been integral to Bellevue’s evolution from a two-person media buying and advertising outlet to a full-fledged, Philadelphia-based government relations and advocacy firm with 18 employees, two interns and an office in Harrisburg.
“As vice president and chief office operating officer, most of what I do now is behind the scenes – growing our staff and our vision,” said Fox, whose diverse team is largely comprised of minorities and women.
Fox’s trajectory has been consistent since she earned a degree in communications from Penn State, followed by a marketing role at NBC10. In 2015, Fox took a two-year hiatus from Bellevue while her husband was posted in Shanghai. She returned to a firm that then catered to a dozen clients; five years later, Bellevue boasts a client roster of 60, including Starbucks, Amazon and the Urban League of Philadelphia. Fox is particularly proud of Bellevue’s work on behalf of minority-owned businesses and nonprofits: “The things we’re advocating for, I believe, help the Pennsylvanians who need help the most.”
Deana Gamble prefers to be behind the scenes – “speechwriting, not delivering the speech,” she explained. Since November, Gamble has overseen both national media strategy as well as internal communications for Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health.
Before that, Gamble indeed wrote the speeches as Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s communications director. Previously, as chief of staff and communications director for the Mayor’s Office of Education, Gamble led media relations around the launch of the city’s free pre-K program. But her greatest challenge may have come during the early months of the pandemic, when she was tasked with relaying fast-changing information to a linguistically diverse population. “I’m proud of how we
mobilized to share information directly in our communities – canvassing and door knocking,” she recalled. “It was hyper-local engagement, really unprecedented for a big city.”
A first-generation college graduate, Gamble is a board member of the Community College of Philadelphia Foundation, co-chairing a gala that will raise a record $750,000 for scholarships this year.
As a Germantown Friends student, David Gould learned the school’s tuition was more than the median income of his Germantown neighborhood. That realization “really shaped my worldview,” reflected Gould, 33, who oversees diversity initiatives for Philadelphia-based Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment. “I wanted to address those disparities in my career.”
After a stint at the William Penn Foundation, Gould managed communications for the City of Philadelphia’s Rebuild community infrastructure program. For the past two years, Gould has combined social action with his passion for basketball – a sport he still plays weekly – at the Philadelphia 76ers, where he oversaw the team’s Youth Foundation before assuming his “dream job” at Harris Blitzer, the 76ers’ parent company. Gould manages the firm’s $20 million racial action initiative, whose community investment projects include the Buy Black program to support Black-owned businesses. “The biggest challenge will be to sustain the momentum created in 2020 – the attention and resources given to DEI efforts,” he noted.
Gould, who sits on the board of the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s Economic and Community Advisory Council, stressed that he is, of course, a fan of all the other Philly sports teams as well.
While many Boston College newbies were decorating their dorm rooms and figuring out the dining hall, Bill Hunter was already studying for his LSATs. “Few who know me would be surprised to learn that,” said Hunter, who last year was named managing partner of the Philadelphia law firm Raju LLP.
That’s because Hunter, 33, was preternaturally focused as far back as Holy Ghost Prep in the Philadelphia suburbs, where, as a high schooler, he excelled on the speech and debate team. After graduating from Temple University’s James E. Beasley School of Law, Hunter spent six years at Dilworth Paxson, another Philadelphia firm, working his way up to partner.
At Raju, Hunter guided the firm’s operations as it launched a new platform that combines in-house counsel with an outside network of lawyers and law firms, providing multiple perspectives for clients as needed. Hunter has served as lead legal counsel for a nationally recognized loan servicer, a public biotech company launching clinical trials for a novel gene therapy product, and an energy services company in its multi-million-dollar merger and acquisition. He is also a board member of the Germination Project, a Philadelphia-based leadership incubator.
Ellen Hwang joined the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation – a philanthropic nonprofit that supports journalism and community projects on a national scale – in 2019. As Philadelphia program director, Hwang’s mission is to build informed and engaged communities by supporting public spaces and civic infrastructure. The 2015 launch of the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative in the neighborhoods of Strawberry Mansion, East Parkside and Southwest Philadelphia was a major foundation achievement.
Prior to her work at Knight, Hwang worked for the City of Philadelphia, leading the Office of Innovation and Technology, where she oversaw the creation of SmartCityPHL, the city’s first roadmap to guide new uses of technology in helping to distribute government services. For Hwang, one of the best parts of her job is “when I meet other people who also have a deep love for Philadelphia. I think the other thing is being able to embrace all the different ways people express their love for the city and for our community.”
Hwang is a member of the American Planning Association PA Emerging Professionals and the CoLab Philadelphia Task Force with Jefferson University. She also formerly served as a member of the executive committee and chair for the Artists Committee for Build-a-Bridge Hopeful Cities.
When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2009, Deanna Jenkins was studying for her master’s degree in health systems administration at Georgetown University. “It was a real turning point for me personally,” recalled Jenkins, 36. “It was legislation by the first Black president, a year after I graduated from a historically Black college” – Spelman College in Atlanta.
Helping to implement ACA provisions in a series of health systems jobs, Jenkins found the purpose she had sought growing up in a Philadelphia family of public servants. She worked at AmeriHealth Caritas, Temple Health and KPMG before assuming her current role in June. Jenkins also serves as vice president of administration for NExT Philadelphia: Urban League of Philadelphia Young Professionals.
Consultants help organizations navigate change, but in the COVID era, “the way they do their work will probably never be the same,” observed Jenkins. Both she and her clients are adapting to an increasingly digital world. “That daily face-to-face interaction you would normally have has transitioned to virtual,” Jenkins observed, “so we’ve got to figure out how to solve problems and maintain relationships now.”
As the professional training specialist for the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the 27-year-old Michelle Kim describes her job as facilitating “professional learning, coaching and all things under the category of professional learning for various stakeholders across the district, predominantly teachers – our largest stakeholder group – as well as school leaders, parents and families.”
As a first-generation Korean American, Kim knows firsthand the value of DEI. “It’s something that resonates with me,” she says, as a way “I can support and uplift communities. From further back connection and desire to push through that way. A lot of the opportunities that I had, though I had obstacles that were working against me, allowed me to transform my own life trajectory. So now we push to make sure that other communities have that same access.”
Kim, who came to Philadelphia from Los Angeles to go to Penn, has dedicated herself to outreach, including with the Philadelphia nonprofit SEAMAAC, which works to improve the lives of the city’s Southeast Asian community, and the Woori Center.
“I really enjoy doing the behind-the-scenes work, whether that's the curriculum, or uplifting and supporting communities through programs, curriculum and support,” she says. “That kind of empowerment and advocacy portion is really what speaks to me.”
As the spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney and all of city government, Kevin Lessard carries the weight of nearly 50 governmental departments on his shoulders as he aims to streamline a unified municipal message through the mayor’s office. Lessard, who handles all media and marketing communications for the City of Philadelphia and the mayor’s office and joined in 2019, just after finishing a stint as a communications person for the city commerce department. In both roles, he has been responsible for spearheading crisis communications efforts related to COVID-19, gun violence prevention and other issues. In his current role, Lessard, who wrangled communications for more than 15,000 journalists covering the 2016 Democratic National Convention, says the bulk of his work revolves around ensuring all city communications are in sync. “We need to be transparent and accurate in order to build trust with the public,” he said, adding that he and his colleagues in city government are “doing that around a variety of different efforts on a ton of different fronts.”
With Kenney’s tenure coming to an end in January 2024, Lessard said he plans to stay in Philadelphia, but is open to opportunities in either the public or private sectors. Outside of work, Lessard loves to travel and read nonfiction books.
As a child in Mt. Airy, Ginene Lewis recalls her mother telling her: “Girl, you love to talk and you love to ask questions. You would make a good lawyer.” Lewis ultimately proved just how prescient her mother was, as seen by her current role as head of defensive litigation for Vanguard, the investment firm.
By 13, the socially conscious Lewis had already founded a nonprofit, Youth Action, which places students in community service and leadership programs. After law school internships at a public defender’s office as well as at Vanguard, Lewis clerked for the first Black woman on the federal bench, the Hon. Petrese Tucker, at the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, who told her the following: “The best lawyers walk through my courtroom. Don’t ever forget that you are also one of the best.”
Back at Vanguard since 2017, Lewis has spearheaded a recruitment partnership with historically Black colleges and universities (she is a graduate of Spelman College, an HBCU). Lewis serves on the board of the Barristers’ Association of Philadelphia, a Black attorneys’ group, and the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group. “As a Black girl, I didn’t see a lot of lawyers that looked like me,” she reflected. “But advocating to help people solve problems – that was a natural trajectory for me.”
“I’m as resilient as tungsten,” asserted Lindy Li. “There’s nothing that can keep me down.”
Certainly not two unsuccessful runs for Congress. At 24, Li became the youngest woman ever to run for a congressional seat, repeating her bid two years later. She put her hard-earned experience to use as a commentator on NBC News and MSNBC and as a Democratic National Committee fixture – serving as women’s co-chair and Mid-Atlantic regional chair.
The first woman to be elected class president at Princeton all four undergraduate years, Li, 31, has held that leadership position ever since. It remains the constant in a life that took Li from China, where she was born, to a childhood in the Philadelphia suburbs and a brief post-graduate stint on Wall Street. Now Li, a former treasurer for Pennsylvania Young Democrats, mobilizes Asian American communities for the DNC and champions Democratic candidates and causes.
“I personally left an authoritarian country, and America is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” said Li. “I live the American dream every day – so it has to be a gift that keeps on giving.”
Training to be a classical baritone is terrific preparation for a career in law and policy, according to Brian McGinnis, a seven-year associate with the law firm Fox Rothschild. “I’m used to being in front of people and reacting extemporaneously to things as they happen,” explained McGinnis, 36.
Those are both skills that McGinnis has regularly put into practice – both as an attorney and as president of the board of the Independent Business Alliance, the Philadelphia region’s LGBTQ chamber of commerce. McGinnis got his professional start as communications director for New Jersey General Assembly Majority Leader Louis D. Greenwald and Assembly Member Pamela R. Lampitt. Law was a natural next step, he explained: “I was already doing a lot of policy work around gun violence and LGBTQ issues.”
McGinnis took over IBA’s governance committee in 2019 before becoming board president last year, steering the organization through years marked not only by the challenges of COVID-19, but also by an increasingly fraught political climate around LGBTQ issues. At Fox Rothschild, McGinnis leads trainings for the LGBTQ & Allies initiative and has promulgated an LGBTQ-inclusive glossary for colleagues and clients. “People want to be supportive,” he explained, “but they don’t always know how to take the first step.”
Just 29, Amanda McIllmurray has established herself as one of Philadelphia’s most prominent progressive political organizers. McIllmurray was among the tight-knit band of field workers for Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign who regrouped to form Reclaim Philadelphia, of which McIllmurray is now the political director.
She served as campaign manager for another Reclaim co-founder, Nikil Saval, in his successful 2020 State Senate run. Prior to that, McIllmurray managed another successful progressive campaign, that of State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler. She is also proud of Reclaim’s efforts to elect progressive Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2017 and again last year.
McIllmurray grew up in a politically active Philadelphia union family, where labor activism was a regular event. She remembers her mother’s school district hunger strikes during a period of budget cuts, and her father, a truck driver, turning to union allies to pay for a family health emergency. “When struggles happen, we stand united and show up for our people,” McIllmurray explained.
That solidarity animates McIllmurray today – as she builds relationships voter by voter, ward leader by ward leader, knocking on doors and marching in streets to inspire social change.
Who knows what path Desmond McKinson would have followed if his mom hadn’t pushed him to talk with then-state Sen. Shirley Kitchen at an event 18 years ago? “My mom was always telling me to network,” recalled McKinson, 34, now the legislative aide and communications director for her successor, state Sen. Sharif Street. Kitchen hired a then-16-year-old McKinson first as an intern, and then as her full-time administrator when he graduated from Temple.
“She had one of the most impoverished districts in the country, and I internalized her passion about criminal justice reform,” recalled McKinson.
Now executive director of the Senate’s Crime Prevention Caucus, McKinson has advised the state on pardon guidelines and helped numerous formerly incarcerated Pennsylvanians obtain pardons – like a 60-year-old school district employee who was fired when a teenage shoplifting conviction came to light. In his communications role, McKinson mobilized opposition to defeat the state Sentencing Commission’s proposed 2018 risk assessment tool, which he said unfairly penalized defendants of color based on ZIP code.
McKinson is also a Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Democratic Party Committee member. “I want to elevate people, and ensure that government works for everyone,” said McKinson. Shirley Kitchen and his mom would surely be proud.
In an Eds and Meds locus like Philadelphia, companies look for every advantage possible to differentiate themselves and improve their offerings and position. That’s where Christine Medina comes in.
Medina, a principal at Deloitte Consulting’s Philadelphia office, handles large tech transformation in the health care space. As she explains it, “The work I do is really around looking at large technology initiatives that these companies work through and creating transformative and disruptive technologies that better enable them to serve their members.”
Her current position is just the latest Medina has held in the 15-plus years she has been at Deloitte. In addition to transforming the health care space, Medina is heavily involved in the firm’s volunteering initiative, Step Up. She helps lead the Philadelphia chapter’s work with seven local nonprofits. “You see the park cleanups and all that stuff,” she says. “But these organizations also need help: how do you manage your books? How do you do your taxes? How do you grow?”
The next challenge for the Philippines-born Medina: changing perceptions. “Those adversities and challenges I had to overcome to become a partner give me a different perspective as a leader,” she says. “Part of my bucket list is to use my influence and leadership” to make it easier for those who come after her.
Over a dozen years, Bryan Mercer has built Movement Alliance Project – formerly the Media Mobilizing Project – into a nonprofit engine of social action and grassroots political engagement. From its beginning as a nonprofit focused on digital inclusion and literacy, Movement Alliance Project has become a force for progressive policy in Philadelphia. Under Mercer’s executive leadership since 2013, MAP champions myriad local initiatives, from a bail fund that has helped reunite families to an effort to use federal stimulus dollars to subsidize online services for low-income Philadelphians.
Mercer is especially proud of his support for building the Alliance for a Just Philadelphia, an umbrella group that united dozens of community organizations to voice priorities to City Council around issues such as immigration, housing and racial justice. “The experience of growing up in Philly, in a Black working-class community, really shaped my perspective about the need to build political power for poor people, working-class people and people of color in the city,” said Mercer.
Mercer, who was drawn to politics following the 2004 presidential election, says he now draws inspiration from his 7-year-old son. “Parenting is a challenge and a joy, and it reminds me of why we need to keep fighting for a better world,” he reflected, “because we’re going to be passing that world on to others.”
Dom Miller knows it might sound cheesy – but she says it anyway. “I really just always wanted to have my life be dedicated to service,” she enthuses. “I really never had a lot of passions or things like that outside of knowing that I wanted to dedicate my life to supporting people and helping people and really at the highest level.”
For Miller, that sense of purpose led in only one direction: politics. During a career that would be impressive for someone twice the age of this 29-year-old Philadelphia native, she has worked on a number of successful campaigns, including the 2019 City Council run of Isaiah Thomas, where she was both campaign manager and communications director “and a lot of other things,” she is quick to add.
Her role in that win led Thomas to make her his chief of staff – the youngest woman of color to do so in a decade. For this self-described “random political theory nerd,” it’s just another way for her to make a difference in people’s lives, as is her other passion: running She Can Win, a nonprofit organization dedicated to training women of color to run for office. “We've been able to train over 1,000 women to run for office since we started,” Miller says.
How do you prepare for a career as executive director of the Pennsylvania Senate’s banking and insurance committee?
If you were a young Dustin Morris, you obsessively followed presidential campaigns starting in 2008. “The legislative skills of President Lyndon Johnson, the moral fortitude of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and the activism of James Baldwin” were also fertile ground to be explored, elucidated Morris, now 30. Ready to fully commit to life in the political realm, Morris seized the first available political opportunity that came his way: a position at age 24 with the 21st Ward Committee and a staff role with state Sen. Sharif Street.
In his Senate post, the native Philadelphian is making the most of his chance to weigh in on substantive issues. Morris helped establish Pennie, the state’s 2019 health insurance program. He assisted constituents in navigating unemployment and pandemic aid programs during the COVID-19 crisis, and has also worked on marijuana and election reform initiatives. This year, Morris championed legislation to divest state funds from Russian investments as a result of Russia’s Ukraine invasion.
“It’s our job to leave the country better off than we found it,” reflected Morris. “Politics offers an avenue to do that.”
Katie Nash, who oversees public policy and government affairs at the University City Science Center, realized many local children had never knowingly met a scientist. So she partnered with external researchers and secured a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to fund a fledgling mentorship program that pairs Philly scientists with students from local schools.
Building relationships around science and research is Nash’s goal at the University City Science Center, a nonprofit whose shareholders include 31 research institutions throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Nash works closely with city and state governments, overseeing advocacy and fundraising.
The State College native started her career in an Americorps-sponsored program, Philly Fellows, that cultivated nonprofit leadership in Philadelphia. Nash has also worked in communications at the University of Pennsylvania, the New York Lottery, the Pennsylvania State Treasury – where she helped launch the Keystone Scholars education savings program – and on several political campaigns.
“I learned early that I really enjoyed communications, marketing and mission-driven work,” Nash recalled. “It’s an investment in my community, and it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.”
Home care “is not a sexy subject,” acknowledged Laura Ness, 36, who oversees regional government affairs for the New Jersey-based home care company BAYADA. COVID-19, however, thrust home health care into mainstream discourse: “People are beginning to think about this as an important part of the health care continuum,” she explained.
That’s been Ness’ message for years – both at BAYADA and as an executive committee member of the Pennsylvania Homecare Association. Ness earned a degree in political science and government before honing her knowledge of health care, Social Security and disability as a Pennsylvania-based congressional district representative. “Those were the years when the Affordable Care Act was being debated,” Ness recalled, “and I saw its impact on constituents.”
Since joining BAYADA in 2011, Ness has promoted legislation to increase access to home- and community-based services, and has lobbied for rate increases for home health care services throughout Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, where she set up a government affairs office. “Home care is different from other organizations,” observed Ness, who co-chairs the PACs and grassroots committee for Women in Government Relations. When it comes time to lobby Congress, she explained, “your competitors are actually your partners.”
Depending on which statistics you’re looking at, by the time the average American hits age 39, they will have changed jobs anywhere between seven to 10 times. Sofia Nicot, who has been with Bank of America for more than 17 years, definitely didn’t get that memo.
Of course, Nicot hasn’t held the same position all that time. “I’m very fortunate I've been able to have a lot of different jobs within the same company,” she says. “I've also found opportunities that allowed me to grow in my career, so I have never felt the need to leave.”
As vice president of commercial banking, Nicot helps her clients with their banking needs and growth strategies, but her dedication to helping people succeed extends far beyond this role.
In addition to founding the Philadelphia chapter of HOLA – a Bank of America program that aims to attract, engage, develop and retain its Hispanic/Latino employees – in 2006, the Chile-born Nicot serves on the board of the Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce supporting the Young Professional Network.
“I think it's important to have a mentor,” she says. “When I was moving up and when I worked with mentors, It was so helpful that I wanted to do that for others as well.”
For Nicholas O’Rourke, championing the Working Families Party – a perpetual also-ran in America’s two-party system – is an act of literal faith. O’Rourke is a pastor at the Living Water United Church of Christ in Philadelphia’s Oxford Circle neighborhood – and his politics and piety have been intertwined from childhood.
“The prophetic tradition I come from has that liberation aspect – public witness that is looking to be an accountable, moral voice for society,” reflected O’Rourke, 33. “My mom was kind of radical, and she was a union steward, which shaped my political worldview early on.”
After a peripatetic childhood, O’Rourke settled in Philadelphia and became state organizing director for the Working Families Party three years ago. He is proud of the party’s momentum, including championing successful progressive Democrats like Philadelphia City Council Member Helen Gym and, most notably, the election of a WFP candidate, Kendra Brooks, who won her race to become the first third-party council member in decades. “People didn’t believe it was possible, being able to secure a minority seat on the council,” said O’Rourke. Having proven that it is, O’Rourke plans to continue supporting progressive candidates – Democratic or otherwise – “to build real political power for the multiracial working class.”
It’s a cliché, but architect Jeffrey Pastva was indeed obsessed with Legos as a child. “Legos are the first foray into learning spatial design,” explained Pastva, a longtime Philadelphia-based architect and immediate past president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the 3,000-member American Institute of Architects.
Last year, Pastva transitioned to real estate by joining Scannapieco Development Corporation, a multibillion-dollar firm, as vice president of development. Pastva previously served as a project architect/manager for more than 3,000 housing units, more than a third of them affordable. They include major developments in Camden, West York and Chester; the latter, Birchwood at Pentecostal Square, won an AIA Philadelphia Honor award.
Pastva has been amply recognized for his contributions to the field, including being named AIA Nationals young architect in 2017, a year after he won the AIA Pennsylvania’s emerging professional award.
Pastva wants ambitious architects and developers to know that Philadelphia has advantages over more expensive markets like New York. “Developers are willing to experiment here,” he reflected. “You have some wiggle room. Not everything is tied just to what makes the most amount of money.”
Throughout his legal career, Marcel Pratt has toggled back and forth between the City of Philadelphia and the firm of Ballard Spahr, where he returned last year as managing partner.
Pratt, a Philadelphia native, began his career with the City as a public service fellow before beginning a six-year stint with Ballard Spahr’s litigation and antitrust group. He was recruited back by the incoming Kenney administration in 2015 to lead the city’s 70-lawyer litigation practice. Two years later, at 33, Pratt became Philadelphia’s youngest-ever city solicitor. He steered the administration’s litigation through legal flashpoints like the soda tax, the wage equity ordinance, the sanctuary city designation and the closing of Hahnemann Hospital.
In 2020, Pratt faced a legal issue without precedent: defining essential businesses during the pandemic lockdown. “I was tasked with supporting the city’s public health goals while protecting civil liberties,” Pratt said. Back at Ballard Spahr since January 2021, he is investigating the FBI’s handling of remains from the notorious 1985 MOVE bombing, as well as allegations of school district discrimination against Black-led charter schools, which he is doing pro bono. Whether in the public or private sector, Pratt emphasized that “I want to give back to the city that raised me.”
Not many state senators hold doctorates and are also published authors – but then, Nikil Saval, who represents the state Senate’s 1First District in Philadelphia, isn’t your garden-variety pol. The Los Angeles-born Saval has always been a multitasker, and he comes by it honestly: His parents were Indian immigrant scientists who opened a chain pizza franchise restaurant.
Saval got involved in labor organizing while earning a doctorate in English from Stanford, continuing his work when his now-wife moved the family East for graduate school. “Growing up in a small-business environment, I saw the importance of solidarity with working people,” he explained. Saval co-founded Reclaim Philadelphia, a progressive organization that was born out of the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, and which made its first splash when it played a key role in getting Larry Krasner elected as Philadelphia’s district attorney in 2017.
By 2018, Saval was himself an elected official as he became Philadelphia’s first Asian American ward leader. A state senator since 2020, Saval is best known for championing the Whole-Home Repairs Act, legislation that would grant residents and small landlords funds for essential building upgrades. Having narrowed his focus from the national to the extremely local, Saval says he is inspired by “talking to neighbors in my own city – and finding out that there is a desire for progressive change.”
If Raymond Smeriglio’s voice is familiar, there’s a reason: Smeriglio used to be the Philadelphia Eagles’ pregame emcee. “And then for about five or six years, I served as the in-game host for the Temple Owls football and basketball teams,” said Smeriglio, a Temple communications grad. “I’ve always been an extrovert.”
Smeriglio specializes in relationships as chief of staff for Rebuild, a $425 million city initiative that oversees investment projects for 400 neighborhood parks, recreation centers, and libraries. Originally from Harrisburg, Smeriglio “fell in love with what Philadelphia represented – acceptance and diversity,” said Smeriglio, who appreciated this as a gay man. He worked as a fundraiser for Temple’s athletics department and for Villanova’s law school before moving to the Philadelphia-based coffee chain Saxbys, where he headed communications and university partnerships.
During the pandemic, Smeriglio had what he calls “an inflection moment,” which led him to vow to pursue a role with more social impact. He landed a director of communications role at Rebuild, building a team and launching social media platforms before being promoted to chief of staff. In addition to helping Rebuild’s executive director oversee Rebuild’s 72 neighborhood projects, Smeriglio also serves on the board of directors of the Fairmount Water Works.
When attorney Shohin Vance litigates a contested election or holds his peers accountable as a member of the State Supreme Court’s disciplinary board, he does so with a big-picture perspective on his societal role. Vance, 31, was born in Tajikistan, a poor, post-Soviet state in Central Asia, and came to Harrisburg at age 12. “I realized there’s nothing inherently superior about the people here,” he said. “But we’ve set up a political system that facilitates a prosperous society – and our legal system is a crucial aspect of maintaining that.”
Vance originally thought of law as a springboard to politics, but fell in love with the profession in law school. After a stint at Long Nyquist and experience in the public sector – most notably as a clerk for Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Saylor – Vance found his niche at Kleinbard, a Philadelphia law firm where he specializes in governmental, election and white-collar cases. His recent work has included litigating 2020 election challenges around mail-in ballots and Pennsylvania’s congressional redistricting. Vance is also known for providing legal representation for the Senate Republican Caucus.
Like many young people drawn to politics – in her case, via a passion ignited by an AP government class – Brianna Westbrooks originally thought about a career in national politics. But a year-long research and policy college internship with then-Philadelphia City Council Member Ed Nielsen set Westbrooks, 26, on a new trajectory.
“It made me realize how important local government is,” reflected Westbrooks, now a policy adviser at Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies. “There’s a pothole in your street? Trash isn’t being collected? So many of the everyday issues that impact people are local.”
Westbrooks gravitated toward lobbying, and her clientele has indeed been local. As government affairs manager for the Pennsylvania Apartment Association, she helped landlords secure $210 million in government funding toward COVID-19 rental assistance. After three years of balancing the priorities of pandemic eviction moratoria and landlords’ income streams, Westbrooks was attracted to the diverse clientele of Cozen O’Connor, which includes the Community College of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Zoo, the United Way and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. “We represent some awesome nonprofits and cultural institutions that are very important to the city,” Westbrooks noted, “and all of them have been hit hard by the pandemic.”
Growing up as the son of two politicians, Kellan White, 36, thought he’d go into sports marketing. “I wanted nothing to do with government,” explained the deputy city comptroller for the City of Philadelphia.
That is, until he worked as a youth director at Philadelphia’s Christian Street YMCA, where an up-close look at urban inequities compelled White to first volunteer for then-City Council Member Blondell Reynolds Brown and to subsequently serve as her community engagement manager. Training with the New Leaders Council, White realized that “I could make an impact in my community through public service – not because I was the son of officials, but because I had a passion for uplifting others.”
White later served as Philadelphia City Council’s national political director, as well as political director for several Democratic campaigns, including Rebecca Rhynhart’s upset victory in 2017 in the race for city controller. As her deputy, White serves as liaison with other government agencies and works with constituents around issues like gun violence. He’s especially proud of his work with the Pattison Leader Ball, which grew from “a scrappy underfunded party” to bring young people into politics to an event that has hosted Gov. Tom Wolf and other prominent candidates. “Once I am passionate about something,” White said, “I lean all the way in.”
There are certain careers that have always been more of a calling: You know from an early age that that is what you’re going to do. Doctor, religious leader, inventor – for Jeremiah Woodring, it was architecture.
The product of a difficult childhood, Woodring had decided as a teenager that the discipline would afford him the future he wanted. “I came out of high school thinking that whatever career path I chose, I wanted it to be design-oriented,” he says. “And then I fell in love with architecture in college.”
Today, the 32-year-old architect at HOK specializes in health care and as one of the very few Certified Passive House Consultants in the U.S. The work is a core part of his personal philosophy: Innovate, Educate, and Advocate. He fulfills the other two tenets by teaching at his alma mater, Thomas Jefferson University, and at Drexel University, and by mentoring students interested in pursuing an architecture career. He is also the secretary of AIA PA’s Government Affairs Committee and the advocacy director for its emerging professionals committee.
“These three action verbs helped me set my mind on goals,” he explains, adding that the watchwords help him “stay focused on making the biggest impact that I can.”
Sam Woods Thomas has a gee-whiz crush on Philadelphia. “It just keeps growing on me,” reflected Woods Thomas, who, in turn, keeps Philadelphia growing as senior director of business development for the city’s Department of Commerce. “It’s a city with a tremendous amount of personality.”
Originally from Pittsburgh, Woods Thomas earned a degree in urban studies before moving east “to help build communities.” He worked at an air quality nonprofit, at Friends of the Riverfront and at the New Kensington Community Development Corporation before moving to the Department of Commerce, where his focus has been on life sciences. “They’re companies that spun out of university research labs and are developing disease cures,” Woods Thomas noted. “It’s the next big industry.” Woods Thomas envisions a Philadelphia dotted with biotech headquarters and a support infrastructure that includes local manufacturing and community development. Through programs and incentives, his office lured Amicus Therapeutics to University City and Imvax to Old City, where the latter established the revived Curtis building as a biotech hub. “It’s exciting watching the life sciences community develop a local identity,” Woods Thomas said, “and working on the opportunities that will ultimately bring sustainable, equitable jobs to everyday Philadelphians.”
A longtime legislative aide to the only Republican holding a district seat on City Council, Bobby Yerkov is responsible for researching, drafting and monitoring legislation for Philadelphia City Councilmember Brian O’Neill, as well as handling communications for his office. He started out with O’Neill as a college intern, working days in City Hall and taking night classes at Temple University. This led to an opportunity for Yerkov to take a semester abroad with Temple’s Rome campus, working at the Italian Parliament, where he learned more about government.
Asked what it’s like being a Republican in Philadelphia in 2022, Yerkov said that when many people think of politics today, they have a polarizing paradigm of a “radical Right” and a “radical Left,” but for him, it is much different.
“Philadelphia couldn't be more opposite,” he said. “It's such a localized level … We're not dealing with big-picture policy items like abortion or voting rights … (It’s) quality-of-life issues that impact people … As a Republican working in City Council, it's interesting because while we are the minority party, I've learned a lot about working with people and working together.” A devoted surfer, Yerkov spent a lot of time during the pandemic sharpening that skill set down the shore.
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