A new generation of leaders has emerged to produce tangible impact across Philadelphia. This new energy is expanding economic, health, education and cultural opportunity, positioning Philadelphia as a must-visit destination and a place residents are proud to call home. Fairmount met with Michelle Feldman, the not-yet-30-year-old executive director of Keep Philadelphia Beautiful (@BeautifulPHL) in the third installment of Get2Know. This segment reveals the personal side of young change agents impacting Greater Philadelphia and beyond.
Fairmount: How long have you been in your role?
Michelle: About a year and a half. It’s been a great experience.
Fairmount: What would people be surprised to know about Keep Philadelphia Beautiful?
Michelle: I think people would be surprised to find out about our environmental education initiatives. A lot of people know that we organize cleanups and spearhead other community beautification events, but I’m not sure if folks know how much focus we put towards our environmental education work.
Fairmount: What are you trying to achieve in your education work in classrooms?
Michelle: We first and foremost want students to walk away knowing that littering is not an inconsequential act; that litter has real environmental, social and economic impacts. How we deliver that message depends, of course, on the age of the students. We also address recycling and waste reduction, and have done workshops that show the importance of reuse. We try to hit on these themes in as hands-on a manner as possible.
Fairmount: What advice do you have for new and young nonprofit executive directors?
Michelle: Having a mentor was really important for me. Before I joined Keep Philadelphia Beautiful, I worked for the Frankford Community Development Corporation in the Lower Northeast section of the City. My supervisor at FCDC was an incredible mentor to me. She went out of her way to include me in everything the organization did, from finances to grants to contract administration. If she hadn’t taken me under her wing and let me experiment, learn, and try things, I don’t know if I would have been ready to take on my current position. Keep Philadelphia Beautiful’s Board Chair, Dan McElhatton, has been a great mentor as well, and taught me an awful lot. I know finding a true mentor is much easier said than done, but I’ve found it so important to have someone to look up to and learn from who really knows what they are doing and cares about your professional development.
I also try not to be close-minded or have tunnel vision. A good idea doesn’t have to be my idea! If it’s a strong idea that has the potential to be impactful and help us fulfill our mission of cleaner and more vibrant communities, let’s do it!
I have also found it useful to really ask myself that tough question of how to best use Keep Philadelphia Beautiful’s limited resources. What can we do that would create the biggest impact? Keep Philadelphia Beautiful has one full-time staff member and one part-time staffer, so part of this role has been trying to figure out how we can empower individuals and neighborhood groups. How can we be a meaningful tool and resource?
Fairmount: Any takeaways for small nonprofits to be visible?
Michelle: I hope we have done a good job of raising our profile and brand both inside the nonprofit community and Philadelphia in general over the last year and a half. I think the first part of building your brand is being active and actually having a coherent story to tell, and the second part is doing the work of telling that story in new and creative ways. Effective communications takes time and work and dedication, which can be hard for understaffed and underfunded nonprofits. So the first step is deciding to dedicate the time and resources, and integrating it in to your daily work flow so that it doesn’t seem overwhelming or like a chore.
Fairmount: Any interesting projects coming up?
Michelle: Keep Philadelphia Beautiful is launching a couple of different education initiatives this school year, which I’m really excited about. First and foremost, we’re starting a volunteer teacher program where we’ll be asking five volunteers to give presentations on sustainability, litter, and recycling twice a month. The last year and a half I’ve been giving those presentations across the City myself, and we can reach so many more students with additional hands on deck. We have a few other things coming down the pike, too, including working in depth with a small number of students to help them identify, implement, and assess a community beautification project. Keep Philadelphia Beautiful is also looking for a research fellow to help compile best practices from nonprofits working on litter abatement in urban areas. In a similar vein, we’ll also be releasing a community beautification resource guide this month that we hope will be a useful tool for individuals and community-based organizations alike.
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