As a board member of the South of South Neighborhood Association (SOSNA), technologist and educator Brandon Washington works in community outreach, implementing initiatives to better his neighborhood. In seeing a lack of access to technical resources, the South Philadelphia native came up with the idea of a collaborative workspace that could meet hyperlocal needs.
He’s raising funds to launch 1901, a collaborative workspace for South Philly residents to be based out of the same space as SOSNA’s office at 1901 Washington Ave.
The hub would provide residents with access to high-speed internet, computers and the direction and education to help them better use those resources. Washington aims to mimic REC Philly and PhillyCAM’s models of offering members access to audio and visual equipment, which he believes will allow them to build community online via content. 1901 will be different from South Philly community centers like the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in that it will be governed by the community instead of the City of Philadelphia, he said.
Washington also has plans for 1901 to function as a communal space that could offer orgs in nearby Point Breeze the resources they need to work with at-risk youth online. He said the Philadelphia Chapter of Frontiers International, Young Changes Foundation and Kiwanis Club of Philadelphia are among the organizations that would provide programming at the workspace.
Washington’s goal is to raise $5,000 via GoFundMe by Dec. 30. That $5,000 will go toward securing the space now, with $20,000 being the eventual goal to raise in order to secure the space for a year and properly outfit it in accordance with COVID-19 guidelines.
Establishing a collaborative workspace has been Washington’s goal for the past five years. While previously working in IT and installing surveillance systems in Philly’s public schools, he noticed that many of the schools’ students were African American and looked like him. Instead of seeing As being celebrated as the standard for grades, Bs and Cs were frequently mentioned as goals. It was a standard of less-than-excellence he felt obligated to help change.
Washington applied for and participated in the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship, through which STEM professionals receive financial support to study for their master’s degrees in exchange for working in education for three years. He’s now a graphic arts teacher in South Jersey.
His late father, Ron Washington, a community activist and the owner of South Philadelphia eatery Ron’s Ribs, instilled the value of community service in him. Brandon Washington grew up in Graduate Hospital when the neighborhood was poorer, in stark contrast to what it looks like today.
“My parents had good jobs but I wasn’t the richest kid,” Brandon said. “What I had as a benefit was great role models. My dad didn’t have the most financial capital but a lot of social capital. I feel like creating this hub is a safe space for individuals to learn and get exposure. If they’ve never seen someone [be] successful, how can they fathom it?”
Washington has also started his own youth nonprofit focus on STEM education (plus robotics and art), STREAM Engine, and plans for it to operate as a co-tenant in the space with SOSNA.
“I’m really focusing on various donations to get this off of the ground,” he said, with plans to establish a membership model after the workspace’s launch.
Through teaching, Washington has noticed that many of his students are not computer savvy. He is concerned that without proper education, students will struggle later as professionals in a world highly dependent on computer use.
By providing a hub where South Philadelphians, and especially young people, can better understand how to use technology, it can help give them a better chance at future success.
“You got kids in these communities that have maybe been downtown three times in their life at 21,” he said. “That was the reasoning behind the logic. I want to create a proof of concept in [the] space and see it reproduced through the city.”
Michael Butler is a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. -30-