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Students join with North Philadelphia’s green economy initiative Serenity Soular

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On Friday, March 31st, members of Serenity Soular, the initiative to address social and climate justice issues and to make solar power affordable in North Philadelphia, met in the Intercultural Center to update the Swarthmore community on their recent actions and new aims, including a project to outfit Morris Chapel Baptist Church in North Philadelphia with solar panels.

Serenity Soular, spelled as such to ensure that people, relationships, and their inherent worth are acknowledged in the work being done, is a project of Sustainable Serenity, a larger program in North Philadelphia that also maintains the Peoples’ Garden at Serenity House and its co-op. The initiative began in 2012 when Professor of environmental studies Giovanna Di Chiro founded the group with O, the caregiver and a leader in Serenity House, which is an old United Methodist Church that now offers “Spirituality and Holistic Healing Ministries such as women’s and men’s support groups, Bible studies, book and film discussions, exercise and stress management sessions, and the development of a Serenity Garden in partnership with students from Swarthmore College,” according to the group’s website.

Since the group’s inception, Swarthmore students, although neither the founders or the drivers, have been important members in the process of different programs through Serenity House. Di Chiro notes how students have become involved since the partnership was made through different academic programs on campus.

“Serenity Soular is a campus-community collaborative that developed out of my environmental studies course, Sustainable Community Action, which was first offered as a Directed Reading course in Spring of 2013 [and] is now offered in the environmental studies major as ENVS 004: “Urban Environmental Community Action” recognizing its focus on community-based sustainability in inner-city, urban contexts,” Di Chiro said. “In the course, students work in action-based research clusters to address issues of concern to local urban communities, including urban agriculture and food sovereignty, renewable energy and community solar, environmental justice organizing for public health, community arts, and social change.”

This semester, the group has added many new members including attendees of the launching party, as the Facebook event titled it. Students that hosted the event with Di Chiro and O were Allie Naganuma ’20, Tessa Hannigan ’20, Nathan Anderson ’19, and Katherine Zavez ’17, as well as alum Nora Kerrich ’16.

Naganuma recounted how Serenity Soular and the issues it engages with are in dialogue with the curricula here at Swat.

“As students, we constantly notice parallels between our involvement with Serenity Soular and our academic lives when we learn about climate change in biology courses, when we discuss racial inequality in peace and conflict classes, and when we read about the importance of hearing underrepresented or erased voices and histories in my environmental studies classes,” Naganuma said. “Swarthmore engineering professors, like Carr Everbach, and students have also contributed to this project by sharing information about solar panels with the North Philadelphia community. This project also revolves around the ideas of the green economy, the creation of green jobs and the combating of gentrification, all of which have ties to Swarthmore’s economics and political science departments.”

Di Chiro spoke on Serenity Soular’s developments this year, particularly how the program and its partners collaborated in the growth of the green economy and training of community members in it.

“In the fall of 2016, a group of Serenity Soular members (students, alums, and North Philly community members) were selected as a part of the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance’s (PACA) program to support the development of worker-owned cooperatives in Philadelphia,” Di Chiro said. “This group is now working on developing a business model to launch a solar installation co-op in North Philadelphia that would be staffed by local youth trained in the green economy. Other members of our collaborative (including first-year students) are looking into working with North Philly residents to develop a local food co-op and a local bike sharing and bike repair business. Others are allying with local initiatives including the Earth Quaker Action Team’s campaign to demand that Philadelphia’s energy utility, PECO, source its electricity from local rooftop solar.”

The launching party focused on reintroducing the group and its efforts in North Philadelphia to the Swarthmore community members gathered in the IC. An essential part of that meeting was the announcement of a $30,000 campaign to equip Morris Chapel Baptist Church, across the street from Serenity House, with solar panels and to train two North Philadelphians in the growing green economy in the city.

Anderson highlighted how Serenity Soular has partnered with groups beyond Swarthmore students, including “people-funded renewable energy” nonprofit RE-volv and a renewable energy systems supplier Solar States.

“Serenity Soular’s connections to RE-volv and Solar States are important for the communities of North Philadelphia not only in that they provide the platforms and support for Serenity Soular to succeed, but in that these organizations are committed, and have been committed, to supporting the project in the long term,” Naganuma said. “Our collaboration with Solar States has lasted for two years now, and they have committed to the project for much longer into the future to help us realize our goals. We are also currently in our second year of working with RE-volv, with a third year anticipated, and so we see these stable collaborations as beneficial to working towards our success and our goals of promoting environmental justice in North Philadelphia.”

Di Chiro expanded this point by noting the green economy Sustainable Serenity hopes to bring to North Philadelphia.

“Collaborating with a national solar-financing organization such as RE-volv and with a successful solar installation business such as Solar States, encourages communities in North Philadelphia to see themselves as being part of the growing ‘solar energy revolution,’” she said. “The opportunity to gain skills, training, and living-wage jobs in the solar industry means that residents of North Philly can imagine what ‘sustainability’ can look like in their communities.”

By developing a green economy, Serenity Soular hopes to “launch a triple bottom line worker-owned solar installation company” and combat issues from food deserts and gentrification to climate change. This effort, although running along each level of society, is rooted in the local community and the growth of North Philadelphia. Anderson stated some proximate goals as those long-term ones come into view.

“Some of the current and upcoming projects in addition to helping support apprenticeships are the RE-volv solar installation projects at Morris Chapel and hopefully New Visions, as well as our continued collaboration with the People’s Garden, located a couple streets down from Serenity House,” she said. “The People’s Garden is a neighborhood garden that is managed and maintained by members of the North Philadelphia community, and the Serenity Soular team partly overlaps with the team managing the garden. By the end of this summer there is the goal of installing a more permanent structure with a solar feature that would be coordinated with help of Serenity Soular.”

Naganuma went on to describe the major milestone that Serenity Soular wants to reach: growing Philadelphia into a place of innovation for green energy and the protection and advancement of workers’ rights.

“If the installations and our other collaborations prove successful, then we anticipate that our goals won’t exactly change, but instead get broader and more grand in scope. Serenity Soular sees its ultimate goal as creating a worker-owned solar installation co-op that would train and hire members of the North Philadelphia community and also serve North Philadelphia by installing solar panels,” Naganuma said. “We see the installations and collaborations we are involved in currently and in the near future as important stepping stones to promoting environmental justice and making North Philadelphia into a ‘Solar Hub’ to eventually see our goal of a solar co-op become a reality.”

The establishment of these programs was through partnerships and community participation throughout the region. Di Chiro listed how Swarthmore students have participated in the program.

“[Students] have applied for and been selected as Solar Ambassadors from RE-volv and successfully crowdfunded one solar array on Serenity House and one current project on Morris Chapel Baptist Church to support local nonprofits to go solar. They have helped a block of 20 longtime, low-income, African American homeowners in North Philly to enter and win the city’s ‘coolest block’ contest, which provided homeowners with a host of home retrofits and energy saving benefits — weatherization, insulation, windows, white roofs, energy star appliances,” Di Chiro said. “They have applied for and received grants and awards to support local sustainability projects including a three-year Lang Center Pericles Grant, and a Penn State EnergyPath Award for building the People’s Garden and designing a solar-powered gazebo to provide lighting for community events and gatherings in the new garden. Students are now working with community members to envision a local food and community arts co-op to support ‘place-making’ activities in North Philadelphia neighborhoods to challenge ongoing displacement and gentrification in the city. There are many ways that students can contribute to these important efforts to advance social, racial, and environmental justice in North Philadelphia.”

Naganuma emphasized that Swatties were not the center of the project and that members of communities in North Philadelphia that are the drivers of Serenity Soular.

“As a recent Swarthmore alum and current Soular Serenity member has said, ‘Serenity Soular has been a partnership of really diverse individuals coming together at a table. There have been students, faculty, and staff from Swarthmore, and now from University of Pennsylvania, sitting alongside residents from North Philadelphia, seeing each other as equally valuable, and co-creating an alternative vision of the future,’” Naganuma cited. “We think this speaks to student involvement in its purest sense: we have acted as collaborators and community members first and foremost.”

Serenity Soular works to create a greener North Philadelphia while fighting systemic and interpersonal problems in the region, and their newest projects aim to build a green economy with the workers with whom they partner. Swarthmore community members have been a part of this initiative since its inception, and the group is collaborating with the people of North Philadelphia and partners across the operation to work against systems of oppression and to work towards the generation of new opportunities in the green economy. If you are interested in getting involved, contact kzavez1@swarthmore.edu, and to contribution to the Morris Chapel project, the crowdfunding campaign can be found through RE-volv at https://re-volv.org/project/morrischapel/.

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