Marcus Allen (in blue suit), CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters Independence and leaders from the Coalition Against Racism celebrates youths with $5,000 scholarships at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church for their participation in their communities. The Coalition included activist groups, the Philadelphia NAACP, the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, Black Women’s Leadership Council, Reverend Dr. Alyn E. Waller, Enon senior pastor, National Action Network, Philly NOW, and the Father’s Day Rally.
Photo courtesy: ENON/ Coalition Against Racism
Since 1915, the Big Brothers Big Sisters Independence [BBBSI] has worked continuously to create and support one-to-one mentoring relationships among adults and youth throughout the city of Philadelphia. One of their initiatives over the years has been to provide access to merit awards and scholarships, which holds true to their mission to ignite the power and promise of the city’s youth.
This year, BBBSI sponsored a scholarship program that was not only geared toward uplifting local students, but also served as an opportunity to stand against racial injustice.
To further support students along their academic journey, BBBSI selected five students from its youth program to participate in this year’s Union League of Philadelphia’s Good Citizens Day. However, after the organization presented its highest award to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in February, BBBSI withdrew from the event.
“Our organization values inclusion and social justice,” said Marcus Allen, CEO of BBBSI. “The Union League’s granting of its highest award to Gov. DeSantis, with no regard for his current intentions to limit discussions of race and gender in public schools and businesses, is at odds with these values. The majority of youth in our programs come from Black and Brown neighborhoods, and it is our responsibility to represent their best interests. We are responsible for uplifting communities of color, and providing them with partnerships that share their values.”
DeSantis was honored by the Union League with its highest award despite his recent political actions, which include dismissing Black history and African American studies from public education and moving to send South American asylum seekers from Texas to Massachusetts under false pretenses. This choice led activists, the Philadelphia NAACP and the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, Black Women’s Leadership Council, Reverend Dr. Alyn E. Waller, National Action Network, Philly NOW, and the Father’s Day Rally, to form a coalition against racism, and to publicly call for the organization to reconsider their decision. Their next step was a call for citizens and businesses to divest in the institution.
The action birthed a coalition of local community leaders whose mission is to continue to persuade other institutions and peoples to refrain from partnerships and use of the private club until a conversation is had with the Union League of Philadelphia’s executive stakeholders about being a better neighbor to the citizens of Philadelphia — especially its 44% of Black residents.
“As a citizen and a community leader, I, along with the groups joining our Coalition Against Racism, cannot and will not stand silent to the blatant disrespect the Union League committed with awarding DeSantis its highest honor. We will continue to bring attention to the Union League’s policy to disregard the opinion and values of the more than 100 African American dues paying members who opposed the decision to honor DeSantis and their silence to our written and verbal request to meet with them. I applaud Marcus Allen of Big Brothers and Big Sisters Organization for standing on their organization’s values and the call not to support the Union League at their dinner this year. We ask that other organizations and businesses do the same,” said Catherine Hicks, Philadelphia NAACP Branch president.
“By awarding Gov. DeSantis, the Union League sent a clear and concise message that they do not honor nor respect the lives of Black people,” said community advocate and City Council-At-Large candidate Melissa Robbins. “They awarded a man who has denounced the history of Black people and the teaching of it. He [DeSantis] along with the Union League have both rendered Black people and our LGBTQ brothers and sisters irrelevant and invisible. Many of the participants in the Big Brother Big Sister program are Black, and more than likely have family members of the LGBTQ community,”
“This is America, we welcome and celebrate people from all walks of life, “she continued. “We have to be very intentional about the messages that we send to our young minds. By affiliating with the Union League, it clearly sends conflicting messages around race, gender, and sexual orientation.”
Robbins said that she was asked to assist with organizing the coalition after being informed of the League’s intentions concerning the award.
“I was informed that a group of people were coming together collectively,” Robbins said. “I was asked to organize, connecting the organizations. I’m an organizer and an activist against racism.”
Robbins volunteered to take the lead role in the effort, she said.
“When an organization or an entity represents themselves in a way that is counterproductive to society or hurtful to any group, you must stand up and speak out,” she said. “Most organizations do not hear nor see you unless economic sanctions are involved. In this case, losing revenue also sends a clear and concise message.”
The Union League in Philadelphia is known to many as a prestigious private club. According to their website, it was founded in 1862 as a patriotic society to support the policies of Abraham Lincoln.
However, the club also carries a reputation as a high society, predominantly white “boys club” that has struggled with obtaining true diversity and inclusion for some time.
And yet, after receiving controversial media attention and outcries from community members for their decision to honor Gov. DeSantis with the Gold Medal, a prestigious honor first presented to Abraham Lincoln, the Union League went on with its program as scheduled in February. A representative from the League has yet to meet with anyone from the coalition about their concerns.
“While they are a private club, and we know that they’re Republican, this really isn’t about Ron DeSantis, the Republican — it’s about Ron DeSantis the racist. It is about his continued actions that show his disdain towards Black people and disrespect towards our history,” said Rev. Alyn E. Waller, senior pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church (Enon). “So, when they decided to give him the highest award, that suggested to us that they identify with that, and so we decided we needed to speak up about it in general.”
“And so, this coalition of leaders — political civic business leaders — first we stood outside the Union League and challenged them to rethink their position,” Waller continued. “Then we decided that as a part of the strategy, we want to call attention and call on all organizations of goodwill to divest in the Union League to pull their programming away, and their membership, if they would.” The Union League of Philadelphia’s Good Citizen Day started in 1946 to recognize high school students who demonstrate good citizenship. At the end of the program, each student receives a Good Citizen Award and is to apply for a college scholarship provided by the Union League worth at least $5,000 a year.
Waller was eager to partner with BBBSI in recognition of five students who would have been eligible to apply for the Union League of Philadelphia scholarship in light of BBBSI’s withdrawing their students from the Good Citizen Day program.
On March 12, BBBSI and Enon awarded five $5,000 scholarships — which were a result of donations from the coalition and other concerned community members — to youth enrolled in Big Brothers Big Sisters youth mentoring programs at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church.
“When BBBSI pulled their applicants from the Union League’s Good Citizen Day event, that literally meant that some of the kids were going to lose out on scholarship opportunities, and we wanted to make sure that his [Marcus Allen’s] integrity didn’t cost the kids any money,” Waller said.
“We wanted to make the statement that we’re very serious about divesting from the Union League and calling attention to what they did,” Waller said. “What we ultimately want is the Union League to meet with us to talk about solutions, [and about] what they can do to be better neighbors.”
Through the partnership, BBBSI and Enon hope to empower young people by providing them with the resources they need to achieve their educational goals.
The scholarships will be awarded to students who have demonstrated academic achievement, leadership potential, and a commitment to making a positive impact in their communities.
The effort is part of a growing movement of Black and Brown communities coming together to support local youth and provide an alternative to the youth violence plaguing Philadelphia.
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