What does Philly’s Green Man want to bring to City Council?
Ogbonna ‘Paul’ Hagins wants a lot more than just a Green New Deal for the city. At the center of his campaign is also education.
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When he was 21, Paul Hagins officially became Ogbonna ‘Paul’ Hagins. For the Igbo people of Nigeria, ‘Ogbonna’ means “the image of his father,” and Hagins made the switch to honor his own father, who was murdered when he was two.
He wasn’t in his life for a long time, but a lot of what he heard about the man from his grandmother and other family members made a young Paul want to emulate him.
“I wanted to be like my dad,” Hagins said in an interview earlier this year with AL DÍA.
These days, Hagins goes by Philly Green Man, the city’s self-described “environmental superhero” who pushes the green economy in the city by promoting recycling. He’s also one of 29 Democratic candidates on the ballot in May for an at-Large seat on City Council.
Hagins’ platform touches on a plethora of topics — some more common to other candidates like public safety and the economy, while others are more unique to him and involve things like the environment, recreational marijuana and reparations.
"Education-first type of child"
But in his conversation with AL DÍA, one topic stood head and shoulders above the rest and found itself woven in one way or another through Hagins’ entire platform. That topic is education and for the Philly Green Man, it goes way back to before the moniker.
Education was something instilled indirectly into Hagins by his late father. Before his death at 21, Hagins’ dad was an army veteran and an aspiring actor.
Prior to the army, he was also into mechanical drafting and a dedicated student. Hagins can remember his grandmother relaying stories of his dad trekking through “rain, sleet, snow, it didn’t matter,” to get from Broad and Olney in North Philadelphia to Benjamin Franklin High School in Center City.
In the army, it was also his father’s intelligence that saw him promoted quickly to sergeant.
As for Hagins himself, he was “an education-first type of child,” and grew up primarily at 7th and Allegheny on the west edge of Fairhill.
At the time, Hagins’ family was one of the first African-American families to move onto a majority white block.
“Everything was good,” Hagins said of his early memories in the neighborhood.
He can remember often helping one elderly neighbor who struggled with mobility. She would give him money to go to the store for her and buy groceries.
In school, a young Paul followed in his dad’s footsteps by going into mechanical drafting, which he did in junior high before transitioning to architecture in high school. First, he went to Samuel Fels High School and when his talent was noticed by a teacher, they told him to apply to Dobbins Vocational, which was well-known at the time for its architecture program.
Meeting Joe Kuo
That reputation was thanks to a teacher named Joseph Kuo, who would become an early figure in Hagins’ life — especially as he would venture further into architecture.
“He taught us at a college level,” said Hagins of Kuo’s class.
In addition to the work, it also came with constant lessons about life, culture and building a career beyond high school. Like Hagins’ father, Kuo also put academics above all — if they were in order, the rest would eventually fall into place.
“Never chase after money. Let money chase after you,” Hagins remembers as one of Kuo’s early lessons.
On the career prep side, Kuo would push students to create portfolios of their work and encouraged them upon graduation to go to Philadelphia architecture firms and ask leaders for a review.
“They’re gonna ask what college you graduated from,” Hagins remembers Kuo saying.
He was skeptical, but tried anyway and found himself hired at the firm Davis, Poole and Sloane Associates the Summer after he graduated. Later, a fellow Dobbins alum got him a job with the Salkin Group. There, Hagins got his first insights working with the city, particularly how it issued permits and handled land and property.
Eventually, after working for bigger firms at the beginning of his career, Hagins started his own architecture and design practice alongside another Dobbins alum.
Teaching at Dobbins
In 1989, he got a call from his old principal at Dobbins, who asked Hagins to consider coming back to the school as a teacher.
“I never thought about teaching before in my life,” he said, but called his eventual decision to go back a “no brainer.”
In making the decision, Hagins also remembered another lesson from Kuo.
“Mr. Kuo always said to give back 10%,” he said. “No matter how successful you are, you gotta give back.”
Hagins took the job, and over the next eight years, passed his knowledge of life, architecture, design and mechanical drafting to the next generation.
“It was a godsend for me to even be able to go back and touch the lives of so many young people,” he said.
The experience also showed him firsthand the disconnect that can often occur between students and teachers in an urban school district like Philadelphia. It’s a disconnect that still exists today in the city.
“The teachers don’t get into the students’ culture,” said Hagins. “They don’t understand the music they listen to, they don’t understand the dances, they don’t understand the language.”
Hagins helped himself as a teacher by getting back into hip-hop, which was on the rise in the late 80s and would continue throughout the 90s. He would play it in the classroom as students did their work — keeping one as a lookout for whenever members of the administration would come by. Hagins was the “cool teacher,” but it wasn’t just because of the music.
“They realized that I cared for them truly,” he said. “It wasn’t just about a job for me.”
The other divide Hagins noticed was among the students themselves, and whether or not they came from families that valued education. That was often reflected in how they acted in school and their enthusiasm for learning.
“A lot of times, students don’t even know why they’re going to school,” said Hagins.
To answer that question, he quoted Malcolm X: “Education is the passport to the future.”
“And it belongs to those who prepare for it today,” Hagins continued, before emphasizing the need to instill more critical thinking in the students of today.
“Everything is not just about getting a job,” he said. “Critical thinking is desperately missing right now, and that goes right to the top of leadership in the city.”
“Don’t just go along with the same old stuff that every administration has done,” Hagins continued. “We gotta be able to think of some unique ways to manage this city, and to manage people.”
Philly Green Man
Politics for Hagins would come into his life around the same time he took up the mantle as Philly Green Man. He can remember then-presidential candidate Barack Obama talking about the “green economy” on the campaign trail in 2008.
With that in mind, Hagins drove around the city, saw the amount of things people threw away on a daily basis, and a “light bulb went off.”
“I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of stuff that’s thrown away that’s still usable,” he said.
Shoes and other articles of clothing only worn a couple times. Computers, furniture, and appliances. Hagins found it all on the curbs of Philly, and started flipping those discoveries for cash.
It became a source of income, but his Philly Green Man persona grew over the years into a movement to better the environment through recycling and repurposing. His initiatives have sent shoes and clothes to countries around the world in need.
“We are a wasteful society,” said Hagins. “The wealth of America is going to landfills every day.”
That waste, he said, also carries over to the government in the form of “wasteful spending, wasted energy, and wasted talent.”
“We gotta haul all that in,” he continued.
Early politics lessons
Hagins first ran for office in 2012, as he entered the race for PA State Representative in District 182. As a Democrat, he faced off with longtime State Rep. Babette Josephs and newcomer Brian Sims in the Democratic primary.
Inexperienced in the ways of Philadelphia politics, Sims got him thrown off the primary ballot for his petitions and went on to unseat Josephs in the general election.
“It’s not just enough to run. You gotta know how the whole game works,” Hagins said of the learning experience in that first campaign.
His next run would come in 2019, as he got on the Democratic primary ballot for an at-Large City Council seat. He came in 15th in a field of 32, garnering just more than 12,500 votes — 30,000 behind the lowest elected vote getter in Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson.
In 2023, Hagins is part of an equally crowded field, but hopes some of his unique ideas, informed by his Philly Green Man work and other experiences, will help him stand out.
“It’s about the people,” Hagins said of what’s at the center of those ideas.
Bringing government to the people
The first he spoke about to AL DÍA was making city government more accessible to the everyday resident. Hagins is a regular attendee and speaker at weekly City Council meetings, but admits they’re not the easiest to get to or offer the most welcoming environment to voice concerns.
Some people have to take off work to get to the 10 a.m. meetings on Thursdays, pay for parking if they drive, and navigate a building Hagins called “intimidating.”
Instead, he suggests hosting at least one city council meeting a month in a location outside of City Hall. Hagins said the city has plenty of venues like schools, big churches and concert halls that could play host in communities across Philadelphia. The planned meeting would also do away with the Thursday morning time slot.
“Why not, once a month — at least — bring the government to the people on a Saturday,” he said. “They can see their government at work and participate.”
Hagins went on to cite the city’s dismal overall voter turnout in local elections — just over 26% in the last general election in 2019 and just 23% in that year’s primary — as a by-product of its government’s current inaccessibility.
“They don’t feel a part,” he said of residents’ attitudes. “People have all kinds of problems, they shouldn’t have to come to us. We should be going out to them, [and] identifying what their problems are to make this city better.”
Education is the key
On the education front, Hagins touched on a number of different angles. He emphasized history (especially in the African American community), entrepreneurship, arts and culture, and STEM and STEAM.
For history, Hagins said the African American community in Philly is one of the only demographics that doesn’t know its history and the result is a disconnection from its culture — rooted in Africa, but also how it evolved upon reaching the New World.
“Knowledge is power at the end of the day,” said Hagins. “If you don’t know where you’re coming from, how are you going to move forward?”
In his own experience, he credited learning about his father as key for him to be able to set a path for himself in life and accomplish goals.
On entrepreneurship, Hagins spoke to the power of people learning how to financially support themselves with their ideas-turned-businesses.
“Put them in a position from an education perspective to be able to make their own money,” said Hagins.
The policy side for Hagins looks like further investment into STEM and STEAM education in the K-12 curriculum — especially the green economy. A product of trade school himself, Hagins also emphasized an expanded basic Career, Technical and Employment (CTE) training for all schools. For arts and culture, Hagins also sees it as a big moneymaker in the city ($4.1 billion to be exact) and a key part of a “well-rounded” education.
“People need to be trained,” said Hagins. “We don’t have the training necessary that people can have the opportunity to get a job.”
In the long run, Hagins believes more concerted efforts would lead to a reduction in the violence seen growing across the city over the last few years.
“We gotta have a heart and understand that all this violence is not necessarily the criminal’s fault,” he said. “Yes everything starts at home, but there are a lot of things that occurred because of government to make these homes so messed up. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Guns and economics
On the city’s previous $155 million spend on anti-violence initiatives (it’s now $208 million in Mayor Jim Kenney’s new budget), Hagins said the funding is misdirected.
“They put money into the pockets of those who are running the programs, but what about putting money into the peoples’ pockets?” he said. “We have to figure out a way that people can have money in their pocket.”
As a solution, Hagins cited former presidential and New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang’s idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI), as something Philadelphia could consider. With the extra income, Hagins said, people will take less risks and it could spur more entrepreneurship within communities.
On guns themselves, Hagins did say he supported a mandatory minimum five-year sentence “no questions asked” for possessing an illegal gun and monitoring ammunition, but again, went back to the importance of dealing with whatever made an individual pick it up and shoot in the first place — things like education and job training.
“How do we get people not to shoot?” said Hagins. “You’re never gonna stop the violence. It’s definitely gonna continue to happen. But we can substantially reduce it by dealing with people’s minds.”
Opioids and a Philly Green New Deal
When asked about the opioid crisis, Hagins said the city should target the doctors who write prescriptions for patients that end up hooked on opioids with legislation. He was also not in favor of safe injection sites.
Another part of Hagins’ campaign delves into creating a Green New Deal for Philadelphia.
“We need a serious waste management plan,” he said. “Don’t just throw all this stuff away.”
Some aspects of that plan Hagins discussed with AL DÍA included a buyback program for plastic bottles, only producing plastic that can be recycled, and a widespread education program around what and how the city recycles for residents.
The final part of Hagins’ campaign he talked to AL DÍA about involved reparations for Philadelphia’s African American community.
It’s a discussion that’s built steam across the country since 2020, as states like California and municipalities like Evanston, Illinois and St. Paul, Minnesota are trying to create models for the rest of the country.
Hagins’ plan for Philly involves first creating a committee on reparations within City Council to sift through historical data and piece together a plan and identify who qualifies for reparations. In his eyes, it would be African American families that can trace their lineage back to the 1850s, when slavery was still in place.
As for how the reparations would be doled out, Hagins said it could be cash-based, land-based or education-based. The cash would be direct investments into Black entrepreneurs, community business corridors and families to create wealth over time.
“Imagine in these communities, if we had the economics, we had the ability to pass down money from generation to generation,” said Hagins
Land would be based on land that was historically owned by Black individuals, and education would involve some sort of free option for those that qualify.
How would the money be raised? Through taxes, particularly those created upon the legalization of recreational marijuana — another part of Hagins’ platform.
Philadelphia’s Democratic primary is on May 16, 2023.
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