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Education Myths, Black Self-Determination, and University Accountability to the City

An Interview with Christopher R. Rogers, PhD

Laura Wolf-Powers interviews scholar and community organizer Chris Rogers about his extensive work in Philadelphia. They discuss his journey to Penn and activism against the University of Pennsylvania’s “parasitic relationship to Black Philadelphia,” including policing on campus, housing struggles, and efforts for payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs).

Series: Black Power and Black Self-Determination in a New Time and New Spaces

I’m Laura Wolf-Powers, a professor of urban planning at CUNY (City University of New York) Hunter College and a member of Metropolitics. In October 2023, I spoke with Christopher R. Rogers (Chris), a Philadelphia-based literacy scholar and community organizer, and got his perspective on the University of Pennsylvania’s relationship with Black Philadelphia. As a former faculty member in Penn’s School of Design—and as the author of a book comparing university-sponsored redevelopment in West Philadelphia during urban renewal with present-day development projects and community partnerships—I was interested to hear Chris speak about his experiences with the institution both as a student and as an activist. During his time at the University of Pennsylvania, he has supported or been directly involved with efforts to transform the university’s police-centered approach to community safety; to advocate that the university contribute to the city fiscally through payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs); to protest the Penn Museum’s treatment of the remains of victims of the 1985 MOVE bombing; to demand reparations for the descendants of families displaced from the Black Bottom neighborhood in the late 1960s; and to preserve well-located below-market housing at 40th and Market Streets (until recently, the site of the University City Townhomes). Clicking on the hyperlinks in this interview will lead the reader to more in-depth accounts of these advocacy campaigns.
Chris previously served as Public Programs Director at the Paul Robeson House and Museum, and is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for the Preservation of Civil Rights Sites within the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design. He’s a founding National Steering Committee member with Black Lives Matter at School and has been involved with organizing Police-Free Penn, the Coalition to Save the University City Townhomes, and supportive of the work of Penn for PILOTs. The interview was updated in February 2024 ahead of publication.

I began by asking Chris about his own educational history.

Chris Rogers: I’m from Chester, Pennsylvania. I grew up in the Chester–Upland School District—long story short, an underfunded, virtually all-Black city. My mom was a schoolteacher in the school district, and, with her insider knowledge of how to navigate the school system, my siblings and I were all in gifted education. This status, reflected in the sort of opportunities and breathing space we were offered, often felt like we were part of a protected class, a sort of “model-minority”/talented-tenth expectation.

Figure 1. Cover of Politics and Prejudice: A History of Chester (PA) Negroes

Politics and Prejudice: A History of Chester (PA) Negroes tells the story of the Black population of Chester, Pennsylvania, starting with a few slaves in colonial times and ending with Chester as a majority-Black city in the 1980s. Author Richard Harris was an eyewitness to many of the dramatic events of the struggle for equality from the 1940s through the 1960s, when Chester was in the national spotlight. Credit: Chris Rogers.

The [state of Pennsylvania] attempted every “innovative” education reform experiment in that school district. I came up in the era of No Child Left Behind. It was like test prep, test prep, multiple choice. No one cares what you actually think. What you actually feel. I was one of the highest-performing students. I was told, “You just go to college. That’s what you do.” And was met with the challenge of accepting this individualized dream, being coached to be grateful whereas many around us were being left behind due to various systemic failures. We were taught that the way out was only about you. That was the poison pill of that whole situation, that sort of individualist narrative of, like, “Yes, you can make it out,” as long as you are willing to let go of your friends.

I performed well, so I ended up on a diversity scholarship at Villanova University. I busted my ass in the first year, it was a bit of John Henryism. I ended up joining the honors program. And that’s when I realized, “Oh, snap, this whole thing is a bit different.” In these courses, professors actually asked you questions about important things, like, what you think, what you feel. “Hold on, you care about my perspective?” I realized that I was being asked to claim a bit of agency in my own learning. Which is funny, because I was previously penalized for daring to do so at Chester High.

After graduating, I ended up coming back home to Chester and becoming a substitute teacher. And that feeling of every day going to a different school, and doing five periods, with 30 kids who are all bringing the baggage of their lives into the classroom, where you have no idea what has happened before you, where you have no idea what’s going to happen after you. You’re just there for 45 minutes, attempting to build some form of collective agreement that can create at one level, just on the first level, a safe space, maybe a space where folks can actually engage in some shared learning. The practice of failing at that every day for close to two years around Delaware County was probably the most important thing in my life in terms of discovering purpose and self-discipline.

LWP: How did you find Penn as a place to study?

Coming from a master’s program at Cheyney University to the Ivy League, you know, I learned that the strategy of surviving it is understanding that they will give you all the room for critical engagement—so long as you don’t try to do anything in reality to change the material conditions aggrieved communities face. As long as you don’t try to actually live this critical life, as long as you’re okay with just talking about it and theorizing about it, you’ll be quite fine and gain applause and favor. My experience at Cheyney was like, “This is how you keep and sustain a job.” Penn was like, “We just want you to think and enjoy the world of ideas.” In hindsight, I prefer the feeling of Cheyney, though I recognize I’m annoying within it; I’m an incredible fighter against the onslaught of being told to become a good employee for someone else’s benefit. At Penn, I had a great relationship with my advisor, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, so I decided to keep going. And by that time (2018, when I’m returning for doctoral study), I had some established community-organizing work in Philly, and that set the track for a lot of the activism that came after that.

LWP: Tell me about the activism you got involved with at Penn and in West Philadelphia.

Previously, I avoided a lot of student organizing at Penn, because a lot of it would just boil down to, “How can we improve this campus?” I was indifferent to campus life. I do care about improving Philadelphia, and especially about the fact that this university maintains such a parasitic relationship to Black Philadelphia in particular. So the challenge became even more fiery during the Uprising of 2020 to demand of ourselves: What are we doing within, against, and beyond campus to ensure that we are accountable to Black Philadelphia? The conversations around forming Police-Free Penn emerged from that space, inclusive of various Penn-affiliated and non-affiliated parties.

We are an assembly aiming to abolish policing and transform community safety at the University of Pennsylvania. Comprising students, faculty, staff, neighbors, alumni and others, Police-Free Penn demands that the university defund and divest from policing while at the same time engaging abolitionist thought and activism to develop expansive visions for a different future. For years, Penn Police have been asked to do racial bias training in response to their harassment of Black students and community members, but at Penn and campuses across the country, these kinds of neoliberal reforms have not worked. Our demands fall under the following interconnected categories:
  • Decriminalize Blackness, protest, and poverty
  • Divest from the prison–industrial complex
  • Defund the University of Pennsylvania Police Department (UPPD)
  • Disband the UPPD
  • Reinvest in community-controlled funds, in West Philadelphia and beyond
  • Redress the legacy of racism, colonialism, and slavery on campus
  • Reimagine police-free strategies for community safety and well-being, especially for the Black, Indigenous, POC, and LGBTQIA communities

We strived to utilize Police-Free Penn as a platform: use the resources and visibility that come along with being at an Ivy League university, a top-level university, a $20 billion wealth-extractive institution, where, by the nature of the privilege associated, folks feel like they should listen to these “smart” individuals in a way not accorded to those we struggle to uplift. And to be quite practical, to experiment with the afforded protection that goes along with that. The conditions of direct actions around this campus have more guardrails than is afforded to Black Philadelphians. We obviously shouldn’t cherish this, but it is a reality. How do we leverage these degrees of freedom and access to resources as a platform to be race-and-class traitors, to uplift and demand answers to ongoing Black Philadelphia organizing?

LWP: How do you feel like that’s worked?

We’ve had some precedent-setting strategies. The Townhomes Coalition is one of the big ones. It was great to be able to witness the residents recognizing the conditions of accumulation by dispossession that comes down the pike to a formation of building their own self-determined, resident-led council for a vision of housing transformation for all oppressed peoples. They committed themselves to leading months and months of direct actions that called out the universities, the city, and HUD [the US Department of Housing and Urban Development]. Saying, “Not only are we not taking this—we also have our own solutions for what should happen in this space.” The resident-led council was at the heart of the Townhomes work, which is a lesson we’d hope Councilperson Jamie Gauthier would champion and not co‑opt. I think that one of the beautiful things about their fight is, yes, there were concessions around the promise or the pledge of material support. I wouldn’t… you can’t call it a complete victory. There were some material concessions, which I’m still not sure have been realized in this moment, right now. The parking lot [on the University City Townhomes property] is supposed to be a protected space. We’re still working on that, but the resident-led council continues to struggle to be a part of (or a force against) every stage of that process of planning and determining what’s going to be there.

Figure 2. A Townhomes Coalition protest

Photo: Joe Piette.

LWP: Can you talk about how the history of activism in West Philadelphia informed recent organizing?

Dr. Walter Palmer was certainly around [the Townhomes work]. You know, the work that he does with Sid (Gerald “Sid” Bolling), the Black Bottom Tribe, those folks were around at various points throughout the struggle. There’s that legacy that we’re drawing upon, like reactivating this relationship between the role of Penn-affiliated people and their responsibility to local community. The relationship that catalyzed the 1969 sit-in.

The Penn Museum work was trying to make a connection with that. The message was, “This colonial institution remains, and no public-relations narrative can save it. The only thing that can save it is reparations.” This is why we at Police-Free Penn remain indebted to and in solidary with the organizing of Finding Ceremony, led by Philadelphian Abdul-Aliy Muhammad and supported by Dr. Lyra Monteiro. Their reparations work is deeply interconnected to the housing reparations work, the work to get reparations for the erasure and displacement of the Black Bottom.

The [Penn] administration’s strategy has been to obscure direct community power and pull it back into institutional processes that the community has no decision-making power within. Administrators, their whole role is just to pull us into meetings, to simply say in their most convincing faux voice that “we’re working on it.” It’s obviously a ploy to slow us down so that we don’t actually go out and organize. Most of these institutional representatives that are doing social-justice work, they’re institutional apologists, the folks who create and maintain the assembly line of task forces where demands of institutional accountability go to die. And that’s their job. That’s why they are rewarded with some promotion until they can be blamed for the next crisis. So if we, at Police-Free Penn, were to only focus on our relationship to top-level administrators, we realized we’re not materially doing anything, we’re just simply spinning our wheels, looking good losing. Yes, there’s some immediate material things like the $100 million “gift” to the School District of Philadelphia, but it must also be about how decisions are being made. If you don’t change that, we are reproducing the same mechanisms of extraction and oppression. To me, it’s not just about the ways the university is extracting resources from the communities, but the ways the structures of it are limiting us from assembling a community-driven counterforce that can stand up against the hedge-fund-backed power of the university. As we look at the fallout from the ousting of Penn President Liz Magill, I believe we are winning many more over to recognizing this essential truth.

LWP: Where do you see the PILOTs work heading?

There is the significant point of winning PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) as a measure of institutions advancing responsible public investment. I think the estimate is that if the university pays 40% of the assessed value of its land in PILOTs, that will generate $250 million over 10 years for the city. That’s important. I want to see PILOTs done because it’s one way of saying, “You have a responsibility. There’s something outside yourself that you must be accountable to.” That’s a start. But it won’t be enough. It requires that we think critically about how those decisions are made, and what happens afterward. Because otherwise it just becomes an algorithm calculation of, “All right, we will send this money and we don’t have to think about our responsibility outside of sending this money.” The other side of that is also it behooves something of us in municipal budget organizing. Right? If the PILOTs money does come to the city, what’s the local struggle to ensure it goes into actual material needs of Philadelphia’s underclass and not into subjecting them to more violence via inflating the Philadelphia police budget? Our work continues.

Figure 3. A Penn for PILOTs rally

Photo: Joe Piette.

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To cite this article:

Christopher R. Rogers & Laura Wolf-Powers, “Education Myths, Black Self-Determination, and University Accountability to the City. An Interview with Christopher R. Rogers, PhD”, Metropolitics, 8 March 2024. URL :

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Journal supported by the Institut des Sciences Humaines et Sociales (Institute of Human and Social Sciences) of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)