How an Overbrook High grad went from jail time to a career in engineering

How an Overbrook High grad went from jail time to a career in engineering

Paul Johnson knows that it’s hard for people from the outside looking in to understand his story and his struggles. His life, he said, was never straightforward. Johnson, 26, attended and graduated from Overbrook high school and took a few college courses at the Community College of Philadelphia before dropping out. He soon took a path that led him to spending time in and out of jail before being sentenced to six months for missing court dates due to driving under the influence. Once released, he had trouble securing a job. No one really wanted to take the chance of hiring someone with a record, and he received a lot of rejections from employers after handing in his applications. Then his probation officer connected him to the PowerCorps program through the Philadelphia Water Department, where Johnson learned about the history and use of Green Stormwater Infrastructure, and was able to do work that included basic maintenance on drains, landscape and infrastructure work. He...
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Like Skype for prisons: How tech is used in PA for virtual inmate visitation

Like Skype for prisons: How tech is used in PA for virtual inmate visitation

Myra Gaskins’ life changed in 1989. Her son, LaFaye Gaskins, had been arrested for murder. Myra still insists her son is innocent, but a jury found him guilty in May 1990 of killing Albert Dodson, a drug dealer. LaFaye is currently serving a life sentence at the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy in Schuylkill County. The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, a nonprofit corporation housed at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, is looking into her son’s case, Myra said, with the goal of getting him a new trial. The only way Myra and LaFaye have been able to visit with each other over the last five years is through the Virtual Visitation Program, which allows inmates to communicate with their loved ones through a television, camera and internet hook up — similar to a Skype session. These visits may soon be interrupted as the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ends the contract with the company that provides these services. Myra and other families with incarcerated loved...
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A Game of Thrones-style swordplay class happens Sundays in West Philly

A Game of Thrones-style swordplay class happens Sundays in West Philly

Graham Meyer plays with swords every Sunday morning in West Philly. He carries them there in a golf bag, en route to a gathering of the Philadelphia Common Fencers Guild – students and teachers interested in learning the finer points of Historical European Martial Arts. Most of the swords in the bag are a mixture of wood and plastic. Only a few students, including Meyer, have actual bladed weapons. Meyer’s favorite is the steel competition blade called the Federshwert, a type of German fencing weapon. He also knows how to wield a rapier, sabre, and spear. On Sunday, despite chilly winds and melting ice soaking parts of the park, Meyer gathered his group of six disciples, urging them to grab a sword that they felt comfortable with. Instead of a quick warm up, Meyer went straight to drills. He started off with basic hand positions and footwork this weekend morning. His path to this point with his class is anything but straightforward. A Portland...
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The overwhelming joy of graduation day

The overwhelming joy of graduation day

Each morning and each night I look at my journalism degree from Temple University, I remember the challenges I overcame to get it, including the fear of never receiving it at all. The overwhelming euphoria I felt when it finally arrived in the mail is something I still carry to this day. It can never really be replicated or taken away. In the beginning, I never saw myself attending college. I never saw it as the important factor it would become in my life. I grew up in and still live in North Philadelphia. A college graduate is something not often seen coming from a low income household or an impoverished neighborhood. I remember walking through my neighborhood on graduation day, a cool spring day, twiddling my fingers as my gown blew in the breeze. This would actually be my second degree. The first came from the Community College of Philadelphia just a few years prior. Though I was older, and some things...
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I’m Joining Billy Penn!

I’m Joining Billy Penn!

Starting Monday, Feb. 6, I'll be working along side the awesome journalists at Billy Penn as a Knight Foundation Fellow. I'm really pumped as I will be working on stories for the Solutions Journalism Network’s Philadelphia project, a 16-organization group covering prisoner reentry and  recidivism in Philadelphia. It's going to be so awesome and I'm so pumped to get started.  ...
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How to fight the stigma of homelessness

How to fight the stigma of homelessness

Dysfunctional families, distrust of the system, the lack of affordable housing — there are so many situations that could influence why a person can become homeless that others might not consider as they walk past those experiencing it. “I think we tend to look for easy answers because homelessness is horrible and scary and you want that easy fix,” said Sarah Erdo, volunteer and community engagement manager at Bethesda Project. “The easy answer, I think, is the lack of affordable housing and the cycle of poverty.” Bethesda Project and other local homeless services organizations hosted a panel at the Legend Galleries called “Bringing Homelessness Home” last week as part of Young Involved Philadelphia’s State of Young Philly event series. The panel discussed the many challenges and aspects of homelessness that laypeople may be unaware of while, appropriately, surrounded by artwork reading encouragements such as “Perseverance with Dignity” and “Signs of Hope,” part of the gallery’s National Homelessness and Hunger Week exhibit. Often those who are experiencing the cycle of homelessness have stigmas...
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Some Of Our Favorites From TEDxWilmington

Some Of Our Favorites From TEDxWilmington

Have you ever wondered what it was like to live in a time when live music was as commonplace as smartphones? Or ever considered that one of the founding fathers could be thought of as a data nerd? Information is power. That’s what TEDxWilmingtonSalon celebrated as part of Delaware Innovation Week 2016 at the Wilmington Public Library on Thursday. The event series is organized by Ajit George, whom we profiled earlier this month. Check out some of the highlights below. ### A doomy take on music Instead of keeping to the normal TEDx routine, Vincent James, founder of Keep Music Alive, played a few songs on his keyboard. “We hear music every single day of our lives and maybe, just maybe that’s why we take it for granted,” James said. But the quality of music is in danger, James said. He went on to discuss what he calls the three disturbing trends that are killing the future of music. First is music education. He asked: have you noticed that schools across the...
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Wilmington is having a moment

Wilmington is having a moment

In a way, we have the Wilmington tech scene to thank for Delaware’s newest brewery. Dew Point Brewery, a playful take on DuPont, opened in August just outside of Wilmington in Yorklyn’s historic Garrett Snuff Mill. It’s owned and run by Nick Matarese and his family. Matarese is a Wilmington tech fixture, the founder of branding agency The Barn. Dew Point’s launch is just one of the ways that the state’s tech and entrepreneurship community is bringing the cool to to Wilmington. Because real talk? Wilmington has historically not been cool. It’s not been of the Brooklyn or Philadelphia ilk, places where young people flock for the nightlife, beer gardens and artisanal shops. But the tide is turning. Millennials are driving the real estate boom in downtown Wilmington, according to Jones Lang LaSalle’s 2016 Wilmington Skyline Review. Still, Will Minster, director of business development at Downtown Visions, is candid about the pace of this change. “To be honest, it’s really been kind of a slow process,”...
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This new giving circle funds struggling Philly schools

This new giving circle funds struggling Philly schools

It was about a year and a half ago when Andy Toy read an article about a school in Germantown that was struggling with funds. The principal, Toy recalled, had only $34 and couldn’t afford to purchase many amenities for his students. However, within a few days of the article being published, the school received thousands of dollars in donations and the principal was able to move forward in buying the things that his school needed. That’s when the idea of the Philadelphia Public School Giving Circle (PPSGC) took hold. “To me the lightbulb kind of went off and was like, if we could get everybody out there and do the same thing, people would give because people are interested in giving,” said Toy, development and communications manager of Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition (SEAMAAC). “There is a big need out there.” With PPSGC, there is a strong focus on regular neighborhood public schools, especially those in low-income areas and have limited fundraising capacity within their communities,...
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Struggling to understand

Struggling to understand

I must have watched the video of Alton Sterling’s son cry on the internet five times when it first appeared on my Twitter feed. I could not help but watch it over again, and try to understand what just happened and why. To see Cameron Sterling become the man of the house so suddenly, and in such a terrible way, was heartbreaking. I wanted to be one of those men patting him on the back, embracing him and offering some kind of comfort. This young man would remember Tuesday, July 5, 2016 not only as the day that he lost his father, but the day when he would never trust a police officer again. Still, after watching the video a few more times I found myself trying to understand the “fear.” That fear of a darker or lighter skin, that seems so ingrained. Is it ancestral? Is it taught? Or is it something more? I waited and watched the barrage of news coverage, the media...
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