More than 1,000 political advocates, educators and civic leaders from around the country convened at The Arena’s Philadelphia summit to discuss concerns stemming from the Trump presidency — and, more pointedly, how they could mobilize to ensure their voices and constituents are heard and heeded.
The two-day “Love + Action” summit, Sept. 7-8, tackled an extensive agenda that featured nearly 40 keynote speakers and seven breakout training sessions, bearing titles and objectives like “Economic Empowerment Through Entrepreneurship” and “Preparing for the Last Weekend: Getting Involved in 2018.”
Two Arena emcees, Jason Green and Erica Atwood, kept the crowd engaged as they facilitated and introduced the revolving door of speakers. Guests enjoyed wrap-up parties at The Franklin Institute and NOTO Philadelphia.
The summit opened with a performance by Play On, Philly, a symphony orchestra composed of local middle- and high-school students. The 20 young musicians, elegantly dressed in black, performed “The Star Spangled Banner,” with one of the students addressing the anthem’s controversial third verse, which glorified the death of slaves.
PoP performed the often-omitted verse — and added a hip-hop-infused fourth verse the students wrote:
“O say can you see the blood of our children
Who are slaughtered by those who vow to protect us
And from shackles to shame we still wear on our frame
Incarcerated; they enslave our men in a cage
And from whips to police, they keep us on a leash
No proof, no rights
It’s a battle we fight.”
Malcolm Kenyatta, the Democratic candidate for state representative in the 181st House District, applauded the students for addressing the issue.
“In 2016 on election night and in all the days past, we’ve watched our country go in a dangerous direction,” he told the audience in the summit’s opening remarks. “We have right now in office a man that does not believe in the principles of America.”
Kenyatta, who is expected to win the seat and would be the first LGBTQ person of color to serve in the state legislature, also addressed the handling of injustice.
“The moral arc of the universe doesn’t just bend because we think it ought to bend,” he told the audience. “It doesn’t just bend every two to five years on a cycle. It doesn’t bend because we tweet and Facebook. It bends because we get up and bend it. That’s why it bends.”
Mitch Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans, spoke about reclaiming patriotism, emphasizing the need for more “arenas” filled with forward-thinking leaders. The group’s name is a reference to President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 speech in which he famously asserted, “It is not the critic who counts … the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”
Also among the summit’s speakers was Danica Roem, delegate representative for Virginia’s 13th District and the first openly transgender person in any state legislature in the country. She moderated a panel titled “Running for Office Post 2016” that featured Pennsylvania state Rep. Helen Tai (D-178th Dist.), 34th District Democratic nominee Summer Lee and Philadelphia City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart. The panelists discussed their election wins against veteran Republicans and the significance of challenging longtime incumbents.
“My mere presence is a reminder that people from diverse backgrounds can succeed because of who they are, not in spite of it,” Roem told a PGN reporter following her panel. “I represent a number of LGBTQ people who need me to be the best delegate that I can be.”
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and Defender Association of Philadelphia chief Keir Bradford-Grey discussed the criminal-justice system and their shared ideologies, despite that they now sit on opposite sides of the courtroom.
“Mass incarceration doesn’t mean we don’t need jails,” said Bradford-Grey. “But it means we have an addiction … that we have locked up everyone.”
Krasner noted his office’s efforts to decriminalize nonviolent, low-level drug offenses.
“Locking up as many people as possible is making everything worse because it’s taking away our resources for things that prevent crime and reduce crime and heal societies. We need to go in a different direction,” he said.
Julian Domanico, a first-time summit participant, said the “summer camp for progressive training” was a refresher for why he’s involved in social-justice advocacy work. “I was inspired by other guests to dig my heels in more deeply and chase the work that I want to do.”
Domanico, individual-giving manager for City Year Philadelphia, said he attended the “Origin Story: Narrative Training for Leadership” breakout session so he could learn to be a better public speaker.
“I think I’m a decent speaker, but this made me so much more aware of my weaknesses and made me feel like I can grow in ways that I wasn’t even aware of. Hearing everyone’s progressive agendas made me realize just how strong we all are as individuals but that we are stronger as a collective.”