Public Life Champions: Alex Peay


Public Life Champions is a new interview series by Gehl Institute, where we highlight leaders who are working towards a more just, inclusive public life in cities. Our first interviewee, Alex Peay, is the founder of Rising Sons and One’s Up Corps, and is helping with the planning of Gehl Institute’s Fall 2017 conference on public life in Philadelphia. 

Rising Sons began as a small discussion group for Black and Latino men at Ursinus College. As founder Alex Peay describes it, the young men were first brought together by an incident that sparked racial tensions on campus in 2007.

Ten years later, the Philadelphia nonprofit has engaged over 10,000 youth and young adults through its workshops and civic engagement projects. Its emphasis is building leaders in low-income neighborhoods of color — developing social and professional skills, cultivating a greater sense of self-worth among individuals, and strengthening community bonds — in addition to outreach programs such as clothing and food drives.

This winter, Gehl Institute spoke with Mr. Peay about Rising Sons and the connections he sees between his work and public life: the everyday social life of streets, parks and plazas, and spaces between buildings.

Gehl Institute: You’ve stated that Rising Sons helps its members reach their full potential while “rebuilding the communities they live in.” Could you describe some of the community projects you’ve worked on? 

Alex Peay: Our programming involves a number of signature and miscellaneous community projects. These include “Reason for the Season”: our annual holiday event that focuses on promoting family togetherness and provides an uplifting celebration for families who live in homeless shelters; and also “Family Day Cookout”: an annual event that brings together the Rising Sons family members, supporters, and the community for a day of activities, food, games, entertainment, and educational resources to prepare students to go back to school.

Rising Sons has additionally supported volunteer efforts following the water contamination of Flint, Michigan, with “#FlintRising.” The staff took a trip traveling in a U-Haul from Philadelphia with 10,000 cases of water, and spent time with residents and local community organizations brainstorming strategies to help improve the city.

When we talk about public life in Philadelphia, what do you think is currently working and how could public life be improved for everyone? What factors have led to this situation? 

Most areas in the neighborhoods we serve lack quality spaces for public life, which forces residents to go downtown to experience it. This economic gap prevents students from exploring and being exposed to the public life spaces their city has to offer. In order to bridge this gap, we make those downtown spaces more accessible and use them as teaching tools about history, civics, arts, and culture.

Philadelphia is improving many of its outside corridors, so families can enjoy the city’s waterfronts, parks, museums, and community recreation centers. I believe public life can be improved for everyone when those who design these spaces are being considerate of the people who live in the communities. They should be thinking: would this proposed space gentrify or unite the neighborhood? Do I have enough suggestions, thoughts, and ideas from people living or spending quality time there on what the space should be? Many public space developments have actually hindered communities, causing racial and economic divides and tension amongst neighbors. Some designers create public life spaces without any cultural competency of the neighborhood, making it hard to get community buy-in and leaving the space poorly maintained.

 What do you think urban planners and designers can learn from the sort of work you do?

I serve an army of the next generation of urban planners and designers. The challenge is, most of the population in these industries do not reflect the population I serve, and additionally there is not much exposure from these industries to the population I serve. Planners and designers can learn that the youth I work with are passionate about these industries. They have skills, talent, and ambition. However, due to the lack of resources, opportunities, and exposure coming from these industries, the youth will find it hard to gain access to jobs and explore their entrepreneurial spirit in these fields.

So what’s next?

We just received seed funding and technical support from a global fellowship called Echoing Green. With their assistance, we’ll be scaling up our program into an 11-month cohort called “Ones Up Corps”, for young adults ages 18-35. The program will drive economic mobility in low-income neighborhoods, helping corps members hone their skills, talents, and passions to become civically engaged and gainfully employed to build sustainable communities. Our model will, for example, allow corps members who are passionate about urban planning and design the opportunity to plan, create, and design spaces for public life in their communities. They can improve the quality of life of the people in the neighborhood as they gain the skills and expertise to obtain employment, further their education, and someday create their own venture.

With Vote4me, a Rising Sons project funded by the Knight Foundation, a group of middle schoolers visited Philadelphia City Hall to learn about civics and history. In addition to meeting with local elected officials governing their district, the students were able to use a real voting booth facilitated by the Commissioner of the City. In the above image, the students are voting for or against a gym uniform policy for their school.