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Pictured: Penn student activist speaks into a loudspeaker at press conference. Photo: Carlos Nogueras / AL DÍA News
During the rally, students were monitored through gear that measured the decibel levels from the group's activity. Photo: Carlos Nogueras/AL DÍA News

Penn students hold press conference to talk climate, gentrification, and displacement

A student coalition made up of a number of activist movements at the University of Pennsylvania continues its efforts to get the administration’s attention.

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Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct endowment of the university's investment in fossil fuel companies. Additionally, the gear used was unique to Monday's event.

As chilly winds begin to settle in Philadelphia and residents welcome Fall weather, Penn student activists held a press conference on Monday, Sept. 26, in a continuing endeavor to reach the administration’s president, Liz Magill, to address matters related to the school administration’s involvement in fossil fuels and UC Townhomes. 

The coalition is made up of a number of organizations whose leaders took to the podium and delivered their demands, also supported by members of the UC Townhomes group, with the end goal of eliciting a response from the administration. Students set up camp last week at College Green, one of the courtyards on the university’s premises, where they gather night and day, surrounded by other students and faculty who use the space for regular activities. 

Pictured: UPenn student encampment for UC Townhomes
Photo: Carlos Nogueras / AL DÍA News

Encampments initially began back in April 2022, during the UPenn’s Spring term, to protest climate justice, in particular, the university’s fiduciary involvement with fossil fuel companies, in addition to canceling all current and future investments. 

Today, according to Fossil Free Penn, the administration’s endowment ascends to $20.5 billion, although the university itself has declined to disclose specific holdings related to investments. 

More recently, the student-governed coalition adopted the UC Townhomes effort to prevent the demolition sale of a low-income, multi-unit apartment complex previously subsidised by HUD, effectively rendering it unaffordable for the low-income residents currently inhabiting it.

Pictured: UPenn Student Coalition for UC Townhomes
Photo: Carlos Nogueras/AL DÍA News

The University of Pennsylvania played a symmetrical role in the development and subsequent disintegration of the historic Black Bottom neighborhood in West Philadelphia, today known as University City. The 1950s became the beginning of the end of the tight-knit Black community, virtually nonexistent today.

UPenn, along with Drexel University formed the West Philadelphia Corporation and along with City Planners, engaged in a process of eminent domain which displaced the historically black neighborhood known as the Black Bottom in West Philadelphia to make way for the newly named University City in the late 1960s.  Since then the University has promoted development in the area in a variety of other ways, which critics say lead to 'Penntrification' and displacement of low-income and predominantly black residents.

UC Townhomes has been subject to increased media attention, following the resident’s unwavering resolve to protect the apartment complexes from becoming unaffordable, and have proven themselves a challenge to both Bret Altman, the townhome's owner, and members of Philadelphia City Hall, who are currently involved in litigation over measures set forth by Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier. 

Several groups, including Philadelphia’s interfaith community, and groups formed by surrounding universities have joined the movement and have used their platforms to enjoin others to follow suit.

Sarah Sterinbach, one of the coalition’s organizers, said that whereas the encampment grabbed the administration’s attention, it didn’t prompt a friendly response. 

“We’re not leaving until Penn meets our demands. We’ve tried everything else,” Sterinbach told AL DÍA. 

“We’ve gone through the channels for divestment, we tried meeting with them. We were hopeful of the new administration,” added Sterinbach, who also went on to note some of the administration’s more forceful measures, including asking students for IDs and allegedly taking unsolicited pictures of those who use the grounds to study. 

In a disciplinary hearing, the institution found those measures to break with the civil disobedience guidelines, snatching a victory for the coalition. 

Lower scale successes have kept the movement in standing as the coalition works towards a sit-down with the administration to lay out demands. And while the administration has responded in limited regard, Sterinbech underlined inhospitable meeting conditions, like the ability to record the meeting, have prevented a meeting from coming to fruition. 

Sterinbach also noted the student’s overall meeting conditions were rejected by administration officials. 

Ongoing student-sponsored events have also prompted unease on the university’s end, who sends administration officials to monitor protest-related activities, namely, measuring decibels to ensure the institution’s civil disobedience guidelines are obeyed. 

Pictured: UPenn Student activist
Photo: Carlos Nogueras/AL DÍA News

“Specifically with this today [the concern] was around the noise levels. The guidelines state that the decibel level that amplified sound can exceed is 85 decibels. At that point, we would work with people to get it within range,” said Katie Bonner, of the Office of Student Affairs, who attended the event with the unique purpose of supervising sound compliance. 

Bonner added the sound concerns as the sole purpose of her presence and declined to comment on whether the university had flagged the coalition in the past. Students and organizers repudiated the university officer’s attendance over gripes with action being guided by supervision and monitoring, as opposed to an open door, according to some coalition organizers. 

Currently, both parties find themselves in a stalemate held together by administrative constraints. 

“Liz Magill’s a lawyer and [we hope] she will be receptive to what we’re asking. She’s good at working with students, her husband’s actually an environmental lawyer,” said Sterinbach, who remains hopeful Magill will be open to an open conversation with students. 

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