What does “home” mean to a refugee family fleeing war in Syria?

On the night of December 14th, Pam Prell sat in her minivan in the cellphone parking lot at Philadelphia International Airport, waiting for the arrival of the Dahans, a family of four, refugees from the war in Syria. As a representative of the Refugee Resettlement Ministry at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, she’d signed on to drive Sameer, Majidah, eight-year-old Ayman and Iman, almost 2, to temporary housing the church had found in Mt. Airy.

This story, told in images and music, documents the family’s first 90-days in the city.

The young, the involved and the hopeful

What happens when you bring dozens of students from an Ivy League university together with dozens of students from a Christian college to talk about the Presidential election?

As a producer for the Committee of Seventy’s popular podcast 20 by Seventy, I had the opportunity recently of listening in on conversations between students at the University of Pennsylvania and Cairn University, formerly Philadelphia College of the Bible. Gotta say it gave me hope for the future. Dialogue experts Chris Satullo and Harris Sokoloff provided the safety net that made civil conversation possible. Listen to this snippet from a recent podcast and see if you, too, come away feeling encouraged.

Lydia for President

Is it too soon to be thinking about the Presidential election of 2042? According to our Constitution, that’s when my 10-year-old friend Lydia would be able to run for President.

She and I spent time together on MLK Day pulling invasive vines off trees in nearby parkland. Afterwards we sat down and talked about the state of the world. It all starting by talking about trees.


Remembering Otto: the “second founder” of the Morris Arboretum

For the past three years I have been privileged to serve as interviewer and producer for Arboretum Voices, the oral history project of the Morris Arboretum. The project is a collection of audio vignettes, gathered, edited, mixed and posted on the Arboretum’s website, with transcripts of the full interviews saved to the museum-quality archive. I’ve traveled to Presque Isle, Maine to meet with the granddaughter of John Tonkin, Lydia Morris’s gardener. I’ve recorded Mintern Wright, who describes going to the “Big House” as a child to visit Miss Morris — a “forbidding, rather severe woman dressed entirely in black.” And I’ve marveled at Paul Meyer’s stories of plant expeditions to China, Japan and Korea. You can hear them all here.

Recently I was fortunate to meet with John and Janet Haas, who lovingly describe John’s father Otto Haas, referred to by many as the Arboretum’s “second founder.” Their memories reflect a gentle, unprepossessing man who left a rich legacy from his 17-year tenure as chair of the Arboretum’s Board of Advisors.


Using play to improve school culture

Twice a week during Independence Charter School West’s after-school program, Teacher Parrish teaches “junior coaches” games developed by Playworks parrish-hana , an organization that uses play to improve school culture.

In this episode of Growing Independence — the weekly podcast I produce for the school — we hear from Teacher Parrish; Coach Hana, the Playworks liaison; and students who are reaping the benefits.

Who knew play could build leaders?!!

Growing Independence: The story of a school

What happens when a successful, established charter school wants to clone itself in a new neighborhood, where the demographics and culture are entirely different? And what if the leader of the school is a first-year principal who has the job of hiring a whole new staff? What’s it like to get the project off the ground? Do parents buy in?

These are questions I wanted to explore in Growing Independence–a weekly podcast that documents Independence Charter School’s bold experiment in the high needs community of Southwest Philadelphia.

Every week I stroll the halls and playground looking for stories, told by staff, parents and, increasingly students, who this year span Kindergarten through 3rd grades. I’m learning a lot — Spanish, for one, since this is a language immersion school. Can you pronounce the Spanish word for the color yellow? Or sing the days of the week in Spanish? I can . . . now.

shannons-kids To listen to other episodes of this weekly story, check out Independence Charter School West’s Soundcloud page. Maybe you’re like me; you want to hear what happens!


“Are we going to be on the news?!!”

This summer I interviewgun-violence-fisted a number of Philadelphia public school teachers and kids for a series of audio slideshows that were featured at Need in Deed‘s September Teacher Soirée. Drove all over the city. Didn’t surprise me to hear the same message consistently: student-driven problem solving surpasses drill and kill learning every time. You can look at pie charts and analyze test data and . . . you can ask kids what they got out of a richly conceived, yearlong service-learning project. Want to hear the difference? Just listen to their enthusiasm!

You can hear teachers talk about their experience, as well. To underscore the points they made, we found research that supports the value of learning grounded in student voice. Makes for a more compelling story.

“People had never seen anybody like me before.”

paul-on-green-roof What an honor it’s been to accompany Paul Meyer, the F. Otto Haas Director of the Morris Arboretum, in the Way Back Machine as he recalls memorable experiences throughout his 40-year tenure at the Arboretum.

As he reminisces, he embodies several roles: botanist-explorer, during the early years when he was Curator of Plants; fundraiser, after he accepted the job as Director; and visionary leader as he imagines the next phase in the Arboretum’s growth.

I was particularly enchanted by his stories about plant exploration in China and South Korea. Listen and I bet you’ll see what I mean.

When you hear “immigrant,” who do you see?


I was standing in Kitty Bancroft’s studio several years ago when I saw the first of her portraits of Ellis Island immigrants, interpreted from old black and white photographs. It was the eyes that got me, the piercing stares.  Romanian Man with Blue Eyes and Fur Collar by Catherine Bancroft Woman from Lapland by Catherine Bancroft

Then this spring, when I attended her “Ellis Island Series” exhibit and saw the images all together, I knew I had to do something with them – give them voice in some way – particularly given the current world crisis developing around Syrian refugees. Fortunately, Kitty was more than open to this idea; she was very enthusiastic.

I wonder what image comes to mind for you when you hear the word: “immigrant.” You can see these stunning portraits and hear what others said in response to this prompt.

Visit Kitty’s website to learn more about this ambitious project.

Photo: Catherine Bancroft

Meet Momo: A Girl with Grit


Momo, West

Refatun Momo, who emigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh at age 16, is known to her friends as Momo. They also know her as a young woman of tremendous strength and fortitude. You might call it “grit.” That’s what Fran Melmed and others on the JMB Award committee call it. They presented Momo with their annual award at West Philadelphia High School in early June. Listen to Momo’s story to find out why.

Jill & MomoMusic: Pianochocolate, “Promenade”

Photos: BDundon; Conrad Benner, www.StreetsDept.com