West Poplar: New Community Center Leader Unites Poplar Residents Through Art, Sports

Richard Austin, 54, worked in banking and insurance for almost three decades before making the leap to nonprofit work to connect with communities hands-on. After eleven years in the sector, the Cheltenham resident started a new position in September as the outreach program director at Saint Paul’s Community Center on Wallace and 10th streets.  

The community center is connected to Saint Paul’s Baptist Church and has a large indoor basketball court, a backyard and a courtyard. Austin wants to use these resources to work with at-risk youth in the Poplars by offering programs that build a sense of community through art, educational programs and sports.

What attracted you to working in nonprofits?

I was sick of corporate America. I learned skills that I needed out there, then I brought them back to the community.

What are your daily responsibilities in your new role?

I make sure individuals within the community know the community center exists and that we offer different programs and services for them. If there are things they want to do, they can use this space, whether it’s for weddings, birthdays, receptions. We are an extension of this community, so I make sure I’m available.

What are the main programs and services the community center offers?

The main educational program is the Freedom School, a national summer after-school enrichment program to develop skills for individuals from sixth to 12th grades. We’re looking to do some more things around art, developing individual skills, learning about music and producing music, and sports.

With this large sporting facility, do you have long term goals you’d like to accomplish with sport programs?

We used to have our own basketball league and our own soccer league that were housed within this organization. We’re looking to pull those things back together to get the neighborhood kids from the Richard Allen projects and the Spring Garden area to relate again and participate in the Poplar area.

Does the community center offer programs for adults too?

For evening programs, we work with the Philadelphia Sports League. That’s for individuals who work during the day and want to join an intramural sports league, like basketball, badminton or volleyball. Those are the three sports that we house within this community center.

How do you hope the community center’s work impacts Poplar residents overall?

We want to provide information so they can make better decisions about what’s going on in their community. If there are new stores coming in, we want to make sure that information gets provided to them, as well as education. We want to focus on voter registration and voting education to make sure the community knows why it’s important to vote and participate in that American right. If you don’t vote, then people don’t count you. If they don’t count you, they don’t think that you need services.

What are the main issues that need to be addressed in the Poplar neighborhood at this time?

I’m going to focus on figuring this out by doing a focus group with some of the community groups to understand the dynamics and needs. The community was predominantly African-American, but it’s so eclectic right now. There are Hispanic, Asian-Pacific, African-American and European residents. Once you understand the makeup of the community, you can put services and programs in place that will be more niche-oriented for each group.

What do you want to do differently than the previous outreach program director?

The community center used to operate under its own hospice and the church operated under its own hospice. With my role, we’re literally working as one unit and want to be open. If you want to talk to someone for counsel, that’s available at the church. But if all you want to do is sports, art and fun things, the community center has those programs. I want to make sure we merge and have that synergy in the community. I want to do jazz, music and movies in the courtyard to create more of a community environment and become a gathering place in this area.

What is your favorite part of the job and the most challenging part?

Every day I’m meeting someone different, which really makes my job fun. But who really has an understanding of what a gentrified area needs? I don’t ever want to make assumptions, so I want to have focus groups, bring people in and just talk to them to understand what they really want. That will be my challenge.

Is there something about Poplar you wish people knew?

It’s an up and coming neighborhood. Why can’t it be like the Fairmount area and Northern Liberties? It just depends on how well the small businesses create places where people want to gather. If you bring the right mix of good food, great restaurants and coffee houses, Poplar could be just like any other neighborhood.

Text and images by Laura Smythe.

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