Editor’s Note: For this story, the student reporter talked to block captains outside of Kensington to explore solutions for organizing block captains in the Kensington area and citywide.
When Deborah Fortune became a block captain in East Germantown 20 years ago, she and other nearby block captains would gather once a month for networking and support.
“Everybody just got together, bring like a little potluck or whatever, we would sit and chit-chat and talk,” Fortune said. “That way, we knew what each other was doing, how we can lend support.”
The meetings ended when the block captain who organized the gatherings passed away. Now Fortune only talks to one other block captain she met while walking outside a few years ago.
According to the City of Philadelphia, block captains can lead cleanups, help neighbors with home renovations, organize block parties, and inform neighbors about trash collection days and protocols. Block captains must request a petition from the City’s Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee (PMBC) and collect signatures from 51% of block residents to become official block captains.
Philadelphia has about 6,000 registered block captains, but their information isn’t publicly available. Although anyone can request block captain information from the PMBC, some requests are denied to prevent unwanted soliciting, according to Dawn Woods, the PMBC administrator.
“Block captains are relied on for so much,” Woods said. “I get asked for the block captain lists, like five times a day, every day, from many — many different organizations.”
Woods added that she doesn’t know if soliciting was a problem in the past because PMBC decided to stop sharing the block captain list before her tenure.
Often, block captains get frustrated with the PMBC rule because it slows down their community work. As a result, some block captains in Northwest Philadelphia are working together to increase the impact of their work.
In Kensington, many community leaders also take on the role of being block captains. There is a well-known group of block captains, including Brenda Mosley, the block captain of “The Village,” near Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street.
Encouraging transparency, participation
Olde Richmond resident Brooke Wells became a block captain in the 26th District three years ago and often feels like she’s figuring out the role alone. Wells didn’t receive guidance on being a block captain except for cleanup materials.
When Wells introduces herself as the block captain to new neighbors, most think it's a made-up title she gave herself.
“I’m like, ‘No, it’s a real thing. The City is doing it,’” Wells said. “People are very surprised. They’ve never heard of it.”
Wanda Walker, a block captain in Northwest Philly’s 39th District, said she wouldn’t feel nervous if her information was made public.
“That list is guarded like it's some type of ancient secret, so people wanting to get a hold of other block captains, you really don't have a way,” Walker added.
Philly residents can call PMBC at 215-685-3971 to get information about their block captain, Woods said.
However, not all residents know about their block captain or PMBC, resulting in low community involvement. In East Germantown, Fortune struggles to get her neighbors to volunteer for cleanups, even though she sends details about the cleanups over text and email.
Walker said she wants block captains to have more resources, like a website and an app, where they can find information, ask questions, and connect with other block captains. Walker also believes block captains should receive training for neighborhood needs, like CPR, First Aid, overdose reversal training, trauma-informed training, and Mental Health First Aid training.
Strength in numbers
Tina Collins, another block captain in the 39th District who frequently works with Walker, started the Newkirk Junior Street Keepers. It is a project where local youth get paid by residents to clean the street every two weeks. Collins is working with other block captains to spread the program model.
“They're excited,” Collins said. “I'm excited to see it grow because that program was so vital in unifying the block. It literally changed the block into a village where the residents, the seniors, the young adults, everyone pitches in to make sure that the kids have what they need.”
Collins advocates for increased unity amongst block captains because she believes they have power in numbers. She started organizing monthly meetings in September 2022, where about 15 block captains meet to raise issues in their neighborhood and strategize on solutions.
Collins and the other block captains also reach out to City officials about community concerns so that they can amplify their voices and get more attention to address neighborhood problems.
“It's that kind of communication and support that we need and that we have to be consistent with so our elected officials to take us seriously,” Collins said.
Supporting block captains is essential because the captains are liaisons between neighborhoods and representatives, said District 4 City Councilmember Curtis Jones, Jr. He hosts an annual Block Captain Bootcamp for the 4th District. Hundred of block captains attend workshops, receive emergency preparedness training, and meet other block captains.
“I can't be omnipresent on every block to know everything,” Jones, Jr. said. “Block captains are my fundamental building block of a good community. The block captains know more about their block than I will ever know.”
Collins encourages block captains to connect with residents on their block and build relationships with them. Once they’ve gotten to know their community, they should reach out to other block captains, councilmembers, City officials, and PMBC for support and resources.
“You have to establish that connection and rapport with the residents on your block,” Collins said. “Once you do that, the sky's the limit as to what you can do.”
Want to put a call out to organize Kensington area block captains? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.