Happy Hour on the Fringe: Councilman Derek Green
During the global coronavirus pandemic, FringeArts is pivoting the focus of our podcast to checking in with our artists, our audiences, and our community partners during these unprecedented times. Since we can’t gather, we’ll chat remotely about how we respond to this crisis, and how the role of art during a pandemic shifts.
In this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, Marketing Manager Raina Searles chats with Philadelphia City Councilperson Derek Green. The two of them discuss Green’s efforts to provide more funding for the Philadelphia Cultural Fund despite budget gaps, his optimism for the future of the Black Lives Matter movement, interacting with his constituents on Facebook live, and what he thinks the green phase should look like in Philadelphia. To learn more about Councilman Green and the Philadelphia City Council, visit https://www.phila.gov/.
Raina: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. My name is Raina Searles, and I’m the Marketing Manager at FringeArts. In the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, many of us, especially those in arts organizations, have had to reflect on ways to do our work despite dramatic social disruptions. One thing FringeArts is excited to continue doing is connecting our artists and community partners with all of you listening through this podcast. We’re diving into how artists are responding to the pandemic, the intersection between art and public health, and how community partners are working to meet the specific needs of their constituents. You can learn more about what we’re doing at FringeArts by visiting fringearts.com/covid-19. And as always, enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence.
Today, we’re talking to Philadelphia City Councilman Derek Green, Esq. Councilman Green was first elected to city council in 2015 and was recently re elected in 2019. He chairs the Committee on Finance and Disabilities and serves as the vice chair of the Committee on Aging in Law and Government, and he is a passionate advocate for reducing poverty, improving education and promoting criminal justice reform. He is also the board director for the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and a known supporter for the arts. Welcome, Councilman Green.
Councilman Green: Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity to be on this podcast with FringeArts. Now, is this a happy hour podcast?
Raina: This is Happy Hour on the Fringe. We sometimes drinking alcohol, but we welcome any and all beverages at our Fringe happy hours.
Councilman Green: Wasn’t sure if it was alcoholic or non-alcoholic, I’m open to either or, I’m just curious, since it was [inaudible] I just wanted to ask, so what are you drinking, during the– or you’re the interviewer, so you’re probably maybe not drinking.
Raina: Oh no. That is totally fine. I’m having some tea. I know it’s summer, but I will just drink tea all year around. So I’m a big fan of that. And usually, if not tea, it’s water, especially because we’re not usually recording these during happy hour. What are you having to drink?
Councilman Green: Yes. I’m using my calm and soothing voice… sorry.
Raina: What are you having to drink?
Councilman Green: I had some Hint Water, which is a great water– and a little—It is a product which is just like as advertised, it literally does just have a hint of the flavor.
Raina: Oh, and what flavor are you having?
Councilman Green: We’re doing black cherry. I’m a fan of black cherry, raspberries, anything that’s fruit, like something that I definitely like. And there clearly is a hint of that flavor, so I have become a fan. My wife got me to try them because she’s a big fan of all the Hint Waters. It’s also good because if you are not not trying to stay– well if you are trying to stay away from, you know, diet soda, [inaudible] So those would have high calories and, you know, sometimes drinking water by itself is kind of challenging. So giving it a little hint of a flavor actually makes it easier.
Raina: A little sweet treat.
Councilman Green: Yes, but no calories, just a little hint of the flavor so…
Raina: That sounds awesome. So just to jump right in, you know, there’s so much going on in Philadelphia right now from the start of the pandemic to the ongoing, you know, protests and advocacy, and just this past Thursday, as of our recording, the city council passed a 4.8 million dollar spending plan. So just to kind of get in your head to start off, you know, what is on your mind right now? What are you focusing on and thinking about?
Councilman Green: Well, what’s been on my mind has been all of the real challenges that we’ve had in 2020 with covid-19 and people having to shelter in place literally. The impact has been a public health issue, but also an economic collapse to a number of businesses could not be open and just our normal routines were totally off. And you add to that the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and it just really made this year that much more… just challenging. Which is kind of the only what I could really think of this time because it encompasses all of the difficulties we’ve been dealing with these past number of weeks. And so we started with a budget that was 5.2 million and we had to reduce it to 4.8 million dollars. And so I was concerned about how all this will continue to unfold as a city, state and nation, I’m also really focusing right now on trying to get more money back into the budget. As you state in the intro, I’m a member of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, the cultural fund was zeroed out. Now we’re able to get more money back into the budget, about a million dollars. But I’m still pushing for more money for the cultural fund. And in addition to being at large member of city council, I do serve on the board of the nationally as cities, and we’ve been advocating as part of our cities are a central campaign to really lobby the Senate as well as the House in DC to revise some additional federal dollars that can help states and cities like Philadelphia with [inaudible] reimbursement. One of the main reasons why we had such a deficit– we have a 750 million dollar deficit. A good portion of it now seems to be in the city nonresident waste tax because people were working at home, when they would normally be working [inaudible], so we can’t collect that money, so that put a real big hole in our budget. And so the hope, then we’ve been getting a lot of [inaudible] from our staff in D.C. on the National League of Cities that we anticipate some type of revenue reimbursement that will come to states and cities hopefully before August, and that will give us the ability to make some additional changes in our budget, provided that we get additional money for programs like the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, which, you know, is an organization that provides grants to all kinds of organizations all around the city of Philadelphia from very, very small grassroots organizations to much larger institutions that really provide and make up the fabric of the arts and culture in the city of Philadelphia.
Raina: Yeah, I know a lot of our artists are, you know, PCF recipients and FringeArts as well is a recipient of a grant from the Philadelphia Cultural Fund. So, you know, we’re definitely really looking forward to seeing more coming from that end, and so it’s great to hear that you are advocating for that.
Councilman Green: It’s just a concern, because of last year I was able to push through a draft ordinance for $250,000 to the end last year, to provide some additional money to some of the youth groups that we have traditionally not been able to support. So we’re looking to build upon that for this year and then covid-19 hit, and well, as you know, the George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubery. So I’m really hoping, and will push my colleagues, to get some additional money for the cultural fund so that for 2021, when they give out checks and we have a great event at City Hall where we give out checks to organizations, we’ll still be able to do that and maybe not on the same level, but close to a level that we have done previously.
Raina: Yeah, that would be amazing. So I know, you know, you are pushing for change on so many different levels, from affordable housing to racial equity to police accountability, and I want to talk a little bit, you know, broad strokes, because I felt like so much of America and in many parts of Philadelphia as well, people are both saddened to learn about these problems for the first time, but also still resisting change in a lot of areas. And so I’m curious, you know, what was your response to the learning process that is taking place and the conversations that are happening right now?
Councilman Green: Well, I am both hopeful and also pained, pained from the perspective that so many issues that you made reference to I think that we’re fighting for, that others have been fighting for for a long time, and people are now just starting to—when I say people on a much larger perspective—are just starting to realize these things have been going on for some time and they’re not just isolated incidents at one time or another, but there has been a continuum of these issues that have happened some time in our nation. But I’m also hopeful because so many people up all different ethnicities and backgrounds and ages have been really rallying for change in our city, change in our commonwealth and change in our nation. So that gives me some hope. And we have to contain this momentum. We’ve had over a month of rallies and protests, we’ve made some changes to the council, we’ve introduced legislation regarding better reforms, especially with our police, and we’ve also seen some changes in our city where we’ve moved the Rizzo statue and we’ve made other changes. But we have to remember that this is a moment that we need to make sure it becomes a movement and that it continues into the fall. So I’m making sure that using all the energy, all the passion– translates to people registering to vote and being engaged in our political process.
Raina: Yeah, I mean, I think I feel like I’ve seen almost unprecedented levels [inaudible], in my generation, unprecedented levels of advocacy and involvement happening right now. I think my social media feed has blown up and I’ve been trying to share as much as possible and get involved as much as possible. And I am curious from your end, because I don’t know that I’ve ever been this well briefed on the city budget, and you know where all of that money is going, but it feels like there is this huge push to read and to understand what is going on in the city and where is all of this money actually going. And I’m curious, you know, what has your experience been like receiving all of this feedback and getting emails and phone calls and rallies just around all of this work that you’ve been doing?
Councilman Green: Well, from my perspective, I’ve always tried to promote transparency as much as possible. I do a lot of Facebook live feeds from my office after council sessions, during the budget process. That’s something I’ve always done since I first came in council to really try to provide as much information as I can about what’s going on in the budget. I’ve often done a lot of different interviews, either podcasts or radio interviews or other types of interviews to let people know what’s happening, because I think that’s the best way that we can get interaction with citizens in the city of Philadelphia about what’s going on. I often say that I try to get out of City Hall as much as possible because you can’t really see what’s happening in the city if you’re in City Hall all day. So I could be in Northeast Philadelphia or North Philadelphia or Southwest Philadelphia or Germantown or Frankfurt or, you know, anywhere in the city trying to get a sense of what’s happening. So there’s a lot of different organizations. I do a lot of different tours to really get a flavor of what’s happening. And then I try to use that information during the budget process. And so this has been interesting with the covid-19, and I think because of covid-19 and people having to shelter in place, they have much more access, and much more time to see what’s happening in reference to our budget process. And then when you layer into that, all of the unrest in reference to the tragic killings we’ve had over the past number of weeks and the notoriety about these things, that’s only added to more information and focus. And to me, I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s good that people are engaged. I think people should be more engaged. One of the things I’ve often said during interviews or meetings or conversations is, like, hold us accountable, I tell people about how to use the budget process and how you can engage with city council members even before covid-19, how to lobby members of council by coming to our caucus session, and what’s the best way to contact a council member. So that’s something that I think has been good and it’s been only expanded with the number of emails we’ve received and the input that we’ve had. I think, at times, we’re not able to have the same level of dialog that we normally would have if we did not have covid-19, because traditionally someone may come to my office, or a group of people may come to my office regarding an issue and they raise certain points, and I will say, well, what about these other points, to kind of get their perspective, and I really believe in the marketplace of ideas and getting information from a lot of different sources for a lot of different people. So I think this is good for our society. I think it’s good for local government to have that type of input from people in the city.
Raina: And how have you seen your engagement change, from something like your Facebook lives like you were doing beforehand, have you had, you know, 10 more people tuning in and really kind of responding to that?
Councilman Green: Well, I think the engagement has been different, more so from people just sending emails. And my engagement has also gone from initially doing a lot of Facebook lives, to doing all of these Zoom calls. And then my wife and I joke that I think we are now up to 13 different platforms that we’ve used, from Zoom, WebEx, Skype, GoToMeeting, RingCentral, Blue Jeans, Slack, Stream Yard– and I got to a point where– Microsoft teams– I lost track. So I’ve gone from having, kind of, a Facebook live conversation to now a little bit more interactive because we have these various Zoom platforms and other platforms. So that’s been helpful. It’s also allowed us to interact in ways that look differently than we would have done before covid-19. But it’s been a challenge because you’re not able to have that in-person conversation. It’s not the same as a group of people coming to my council office, us having a conversation about issues, or someone coming to a council session and after the session they may raise a point during public comment, and after council I have a chance to talk with them, get some more feedback or information about the issue that they raised, and I can give them my card or connect them with a staff person. It’s that interaction that I miss that we don’t get a chance to have because of covid-19.
Raina: Well, we– right now, we’re recording this in the yellow phase for Philadelphia in terms of reopening. And I know that here at FringeArts we’re preparing for a primarily digital Fringe festival in September, but it also feels like, you know, you go outside and businesses are open and people are out and, you know, things are really lively and happening, but, you know, as you’ve seen in recent news, some of those same risks and infection rates that we were seeing back in March are, you know, still here or worse in a lot of areas. So I am curious to get from your perspective what you would like to see across the city as people begin to leave their houses and begin this process of a new form of socialization with social distancing and safety precautions.
Councilman Green: Well, from my perspective, I think the citizens of the city of Philadelphia and actually the Commonwealth have to be commended. For over a month, we were seeing reductions of new infection rates in Pennsylvania, compared to other states in the country, was in the top three of reduction, continuous reductions, of new infection rates. But we have seen a recent uptick. I think part of that is—you know we started covid-19 mid- to end of March, when we’re still in winter– so it’s a little bit easier to shelter in place during that time period. Now we’re into summer, and so people naturally want to be outside: they want to get vitamin D, They now enjoy the sunshine, and doing that, we still have to make sure that we are wearing a mask and physically distancing each other– from each other. I don’t like the word social distancing because I think we need to socialize. But you can socialize by being physically distant. I think we need to continue to encourage that even as we continue to move into these various phases because if we don’t we’ll see what has happened in some of the other states. You look at states like Arizona, Florida and Texas, they are reporting the past couple days– they’re breaking records every day for the highest infection rates in those states. And when you look at where they were in March to where they are now, and it really, the uptick started, May 31st, and just ramped up. And I think part of that comes from the fact that they were slower to shut down and quicker to reopen and they reopened without restrictions. Whereas here in Philadelphia, even us moving into a modified green– we didn’t just go right into green, it was a modified green– that we anticipate going into. So we’re still taking precautions and we all need to take precautions because covid-19, just because its warm weather, has not gone away. Just because you are a person that is maybe less seasoned, as my dad would say, doesn’t mean you’re not asymptomatic, it doesn’t mean that you can’t spread the virus to someone else. And so we’re still learning about this virus. We’ve all been dealing with this virus for a short period of time. When you think about other viruses and other type of pandemics we’ve had in our nation’s history, from Spanish flu, to other pandemics, to other challenges that we’ve had, those lasted for a year, 18 months. It does seem like we’re moving quickly towards a vaccine, probably the fastest I think maybe in human history, but we’re not there yet. So in order for us to continue to be able to reopen and continue to start getting back to some of things we were doing pre-covid, it would have to continue to embrace wearing a mask outside, and the mayor just recently put out a new order for mask wearing both indoors and outdoors as well as making sure we physically distance, because we don’t want to have a situation where we’ve seen other states had to go backwards. We’re just having now Arizona, Texas and Florida.
Raina: Yeah, I think we’re all definitely hoping for the best there and hopefully everyone is staying safe out there. I want to take us through a little bit of a positive note, because I know there’s a lot of negative things to focus on, but have you seen any little victories or successes that you’ve had either working with constituents or, you know, with city council or even just personally that you want to share?
Councilman Green: Well, I have seen victories, and victories in a sense that when you have something that’s been so tragic, like covid-19, or the unrest that has happened in our nation, you really start to see man’s humanity towards each other. And I was downtown the day after some of the unrest in our city. And I was on Chestnut Street and I saw people from around the city, all different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, coming out to just this cleanup center city. And that was a positive note because I was really depressed in seeing the images and just seeing all the impact and then seeing people from all over the city–and for me as an at large council member– it definitely was something positive. And then that next day we had some additional unrest in the neighborhoods. And so that Monday morning I was out at 52nd and Jefferson at that shopping center and I saw the same situation: people from all over the city coming out to help clean up 52nd and Jefferson, because people had respect that this is our city and we’re going to come through this together. And then when I think about people that just decided to do something like Dr. Stanford, who was a member of my parents church, who is a surgeon, and they said there needs to be something done in reference to the impact of covid-19, especially on the African-American community. And she just pulled together some doctors, messaged [inaudible] physician. She’s known Ella for a number of years, and they just pulled people together, created this entity called the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium. And out of their own pockets, working along with a friend of mine and the pastor of that church, Rev. Marshall Mitchell, have been able to organize this consortium and have tested thousands of people in the city of Philadelphia who needed testing at the beginning of this pandemic when it was a real challenge to provide all the testing all throughout the city of Philadelphia, especially in African-American communities. And they’ve done testing outside the city of Philadelphia as well, in Camden and Pottstown. So seeing the work that they’ve been able to do—and just bringing people together and how people have been able to just come together and try to help their fellow man, from Dr. Stanford and Rev. Mitchell with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, to Jeff Brown, and [inaudible], and the PA 30-Day Fund helping small businesses get grants during this time period. And also the PHL covid-19 small business grant and loan fund that I worked on with our city Commerce Department and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Incorporation. So just seeing people come together and try to help in the midst of all of these challenges that we have in our city, has been positive and it gives me a little hope that we will get through this and we’re going to continue to get through this together.
Raina: Yeah, I hope so. And it’s really amazing to hear about all of those instances of people coming together. I think there’s been so much, you know, negative rhetoric about, you know, sacrificing and, you know, people kind of opening up at the risk of others. But it’s always been really great to see people rallying around the support that, you know, we’re all in this together and we can really only get through this together. And so I’m hoping people to definitely take that message to heart.
Councilman Green: And I guess from my perspective, I’m happy to hear that FringeArts is prepping for its Fringe Festival in September, which is something that we can all look forward to.
Raina: Yes, definitely. More information will be coming out about that very, very soon, and we’re excited to announce what so many artists have been doing. And I will say, you know, we had come into this festival thinking that we weren’t going to get a lot of engagement and that, you know, artists were gonna find it difficult to create during this time. But what we’ve seen is that so many people are using these different tech platforms like Zoom and Twitch, and, you know, the more familiar ones like YouTube, to create art that is not just, you know, a video prerecorded and, you know, streaming, but really playing with the different functions and trying to get creative, to find ways to get people outdoors so that it’s not all just screen based work but something that you can listen to and can interact with in different ways. So I know I’m real excited to see what comes out of the Fringe Festival. And I’m also excited to say—I can say this– we have over a hundred and thirty shows registered for the Fringe Festival, so we’re really excited to see what this September will bring.
Councilman Green: Yeah, I think the you know, the creative community has been doing what they normally do, which is be creative in a time when you have to do things differently. I had a chance to participate in The Love for Philly Online Music Festival, in the early part of May, really trying to provide some support to workers in the entertainment industry that, because a lot of our venues are closed, have not been able to work and receive compensation. And so, you know, after participating in that online three day online festival– and I know recently the Roots picnic also happened– so people are being creative. And I think that’s the great thing about arts and culture, that people can use even the very minimum of resources to create something that is outstanding, invigorating, and something that just stirs our soul. And that’s why arts and culture are so important not only for us individually, but also for the fabric of our city.
Raina: Absolutely. Well thank you so much, Councilman, for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe.
CM Green: Thank you so much, it was a pleasure to be here. I think I need to get another bottle of Hint water.
Raina: Yes. Stay hydrated. And to all of our listeners at home, stay safe and stay well.