New project aims to identify, document, and preserve the history of Philly’s underrepresented communities

By: - May 17, 2021 2:00 pm

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — The city’s cultural resources overwhelmingly spotlight white history but a new project aims to flip that script and take a more inclusive approach to documenting the diversity of the city’s past.

The Kenney administration and nonprofit Mayor’s Fund are embarking on a two-year community-led survey project tasked with developing and testing a pilot plan to identify, document and preserve the city’s history, with a focus on African American and other underrepresented communities.

The project is funded by a $250,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation.

Martha Cross, deputy director for the city’s Division of Planning and Zoning, recognized that the city has traditionally preserved a “pretty narrow view of history.”

“It’s been a pretty white view of history and it’s not been fully capturing all histories of all Philadlephians,” she said.

The initiative is aiming to create a new kind of survey that goes beyond the traditional identification and preservation of physical structures and objects in order to include intangible and often overlooked things, like stories and cuisines, that “contribute to the way that culture is passed down,” Cross said.

Communities also will provide input about how they want preserve elements of their cultural heritages.

For African Americans, Cross said the project will offer an opportunity to “tell their own story in their own words and have a role in deciding how that history lives on.”

The city is looking to assemble a collection of individuals for the project — rather than a single firm — who have a range of lived experiences but have traditionally been left out of city contracts.

On Monday the city will post a request for qualifications (RFQ) on the Mayor’s Fund website.

The RFQ will require people to provide a letter of interest and a summary of their skills and experience, which could span community engagement work, surveying, and advocacy and outreach.

The deadline for RFQ applications is 5 p.m. on June 21.

In order to assist those with the application process, individuals can submit their questions about the RFQ to the city until June 1. The city will provide written responses to those questions and post them online by June 7.

The city also will hold a virtual question-and-answer session about the RFQ between 10 and 11 a.m. on June 3. Register for the virtual session by visiting

Based on the RFQ responses, the city will determine qualified individuals to participate in the project and provide them with the request for proposal (RFP), which is expected to be issued this summer.

Cross said the RFQ process is expected to “open the door to individuals, advocates, folks who’ve been working on community engagement and otherwise working in cultural and historical preservation … to get qualified through the process and then be eligible to be on the team.”

The project is expected to start this summer.

Over the next two year, the assembled team is expected to conduct community outreach, identify cultural resources, develop a survey plan, and test that plan in an area of the city. A final plan is expected to be completed by the summer of 2023.

The proposal for a pilot program sprang from a 2019 set of recommendations from the city’s historic preservation task force following an 18-month process aimed at expanding preservation efforts in the city.

The assembled team will work with the Philadelphia Historical Commission. The level of compensation for those selected to participate has yet to be determined.

The pilot project will serve as a roadmap for the city to conduct an ongoing survey of Philadelphia’s cultural resources and how to better partner with communities on the effort, Cross said.

In a statement, Mayor Jim Kenney said the “history of Philadelphia is about more than the buildings we’ve built.”

“It is about the places we go, the experiences we have, the cultures we celebrate,” he said. “I am pleased that we are beginning the process to recognize that history through a community-focused effort.”

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared

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