The Netter Center for Community Partnerships: 25 Years of Making a Difference in the Community

In 1983 two important organizations were created: the West Philadelphia Partnership, a 501(c)(3), and the Office of Community-Oriented Policy Studies at Penn, the predecessor to the Penn Program for Public Service, established in 1988 in the School of Arts & Sciences. Then, in 1985, the seeds for academically based community services courses were planted when four undergraduate students proposed a summer job training corps for their honors seminar class at Penn. The project, known as the West Philadelphia Improvement Corps (WEPIC), became an after-school program at a local elementary school. Over the next five years, WEPIC grew, evolved and thrived, and the idea of the university-assisted community school was born.

In 1992, with these initiatives indicating the potential for success, the University announced a commitment to focus its resources and energy on the revitalization of West Philadelphia. The Center for Community Partnerships was formed to direct this large and important effort. The Center’s work has created a new vision for university-community relations. Each semester hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students go into West Philadelphia to teach and to learn. Working with faculty, they tackle critical community issues around the environment, health, the arts and education. Enduring democratic collaborations, now in place with public schools, community organizations and communities of faith, are generating new areas for mutual efforts.

In 2007, the Center was renamed the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships in recognition of an extraordinarily generous commitment (Almanac October 2, 2007) from Barbara Netter, Penn parent (’83), and her late husband Edward Netter, Penn alumnus (C’53) and parent (’83).

The Mission of the Netter Center:

The Center is Penn’s primary vehicle for bringing to bear the broad range of human knowledge needed to solve the complex, comprehensive, and interconnected problems of the American city so that West Philadelphia, Philadelphia, the University itself, and society benefit. The Netter Center is based on three core propositions:

• Penn’s future and the future of West Philadelphia/Philadelphia are intertwined.

• Penn can make a significant contribution to improving the quality of life in West Philadelphia/Philadelphia.

• Penn can enhance its overall mission of advancing and transmitting knowledge by helping to improve the quality of life in West Philadelphia/Philadelphia.

The Netter Center, which is housed in the Office of Government and Community Affairs, works to achieve the following objectives:

• Improve the internal coordination and collaboration of all university-wide community service programs

• Develop democratic, mutually beneficial, mutually respectful partnerships between the University and the community 

• Create and strengthen local, national and international networks of institutions of higher education committed to engagement with their local communities.

Through the Netter Center, Penn engages in three types of activities: academically based community service (ABCS), direct traditional service, and community development. ABCS is at the core of the Center’s work. It is service rooted in and linked to teaching and/or research, and encompasses problem-oriented research and teaching, as well as service learning emphasizing student and faculty reflection. Approximately 200 ABCS courses have been developed to link Penn students to work in the community, with 60-65 offered each year. A steady increase in the number of ABCS has occurred since 1992 when only four were offered.

The Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a Conference on November 16-17, Higher Education-Community Partnerships for Democracy and Social Change, which has been the focus of the Center since founding director Ira Harkavy began the Center (Almanac July 14, 1992).