He and his neighbors are changing Mantua from the inside out. Their base of operations? The local park.
By Amy Kunz
Published April 1, 2023
De’Wayne Drummond comes from a long line of optimists. In 1942, when his grandmother’s home in Roanoke, Virginia, was slated for demolition to make way for a new highway, she didn’t despair. She, and later her close relatives, took a leap of faith and moved north in search of a better life. The family landed in West Philadelphia, where they’ve been ever since.
For the past 43 years, De’Wayne’s optimism has been a fixture and a catalyst in his West Philly neighborhood of Mantua. Although the area has high poverty and crime rates, De’Wayne says it’s known for something positive too: a deep appreciation for history and the immense pride and hope of its residents.
To turn those good attributes into tangible resources for his community, De’Wayne helped found the Mantua Civic Association and has served as its president since 2012. The group has a simple motto: “Plan or be planned for.” Because as De’Wayne notes, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re gonna be on the menu.”
It was that attitude that drew De’Wayne, his wife Robyn, their two daughters, and several local residents to community meetings where Trust for Public Land sought input on a pocket park and playground. He says the meeting drew an impressive turnout from residents of all ages and life experiences. One group that showed up and offered great ideas was The HUB Coalition, a group of formally incarcerated men who wanted a dedicated space where they could mentor community youth through basketball. Other neighbors’ vision for the space included new play equipment, safe surfacing, and a place for parents to sit while their children played.
Completed in 2017, the 37th and Mt. Vernon Playground is an asset to Mantua not only because it provides the community with a park where there previously was none, De’Wayne says, but also because it reflects what the residents wanted and needed. They were heard, De’Wayne says, so now they feel like the space is truly theirs.
“The community has to own and [steward] a space,” he says. “If you own something, you are not going to let nobody damage it. It is just not about one person owning it; it’s about the village coming together collectively and leading the process.”
To that end, De’Wayne and Mantua Civic Association have become recognizable, ever-present figures in the park. He says many people think he’s paid to be there all the time. “People think I’m, like, the maintenance man because I go out there with brooms and stuff, sweeping up, dumping the trash, and sometimes people ask me, ‘Do you work here?’”
Although he doesn’t get paid, De’Wayne and the MCA do, indeed, work hard to activate the park in service of the community.
As was the case in many U.S. cities, Philadelphia’s playgrounds, parks, and other green spaces turned into safe outdoor gathering places and essential distribution centers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 37th and Mt. Vernon Playground was no different. Mantua Civic Association volunteers passed out hot meals, canned food, bottled water, vaccines, masks, and other staples there for well over a year.
But the space became so much more than just a place to pick up supplies. It was a place where people could safely connect at a time when fear and isolation were rampant. “People felt like prisoners in their own home because of the pandemic,” says De’Wayne. “They would talk about their insecurities, being alone, about not being able to see their mothers because they were afraid to pass on COVID-19. But you had to exercise and sometimes you need somebody to talk to. We would stand in a circle in the middle of the playground and have a conversation. A lot of people had stuff built up in them, and they had to release it before they exploded; they needed to let it out and that healing circle was the key.”
From one of those healing circles, a support group called We Embrace Fatherhood was formed to help men learn from each other how to be responsible parents. The park hosted Get Out the Vote drives and socially distanced group fitness classes. People of all ages came for basketball skills classes led by Wali Jones, a Philadelphia native and former Philadelphia 76er. De’Wayne says a new mural is planned for the playground that will depict neighborhood kids learning from Jones.
For all the service De’Wayne and the MCA have delivered to their community via the 37th and Mt. Vernon Playground, the space has also had an indelible impact on them. It’s helped De’Wayne know his community and his neighbors even more deeply, inside and out.
Through his work with the Mantua Civic Association and other roles in the community—as a father, a school crossing guard, and a volunteer classroom aide at his kids’ school; a leader for the Head Start Policy Council; and a community organizer—De’Wayne’s gained insight into what’s in store for his neighbors and what hopes and plans they have for themselves.
In Mantua, he says, those hopes and plans sometimes face pushback from the realities of food insecurity, lack of affordable housing, low employment and graduation rates, and a specific kind of predator De’Wayne calls poverty pimps. “These are people who will make money off of other people’s hardships,” he says. “It’s things like convincing people to take on high-interest or unfair loans or tricking people into handing over the deeds to their houses. It’s taking advantage of someone who is worse off than you are.”
And that doesn’t sit well with De’Wayne, who envisions a future as a decisionmaker at the highest levels of government, where he can scale the impact he’s had in Mantua. “Five years from now, I will probably be sitting somewhere in Harrisburg [Pennsylvania’s capital] or even Washington, DC,” he says, that innate sense of hope and optimism shining through.
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Partner Organization: Equipo Verde
Community/Hometown: South Los Angeles, California
Local Project: Los Angeles Green Alleys
Superpower: Spreading hope through action and growing pride among her neighbors
In Her Words: “A hero is person that you value, who is there with you for good times or bad times. I tell people all the time that I hope they understand that you play a very important part in someone else’s life. How you treat someone determines how that person sees themselves. You have the power to make someone shine or make someone feel lost. “
Partner Organization: Parque Padrinos
Community/Hometown: Wenatchee, Washington
Local Park: Kiwanis Methow Park
Superpower: Helping her neighbors realize the power of their voices to make meaningful and representative change in their community.
In Her Words: “I remember myself in community meetings as a child. It makes a difference to be involved as a young person. Kids need to see and experience the fruits of their labor and organizing. Now that I see the Parque Padrinos leading on our own, I’m confident we have begun a movement that will impact lives wherever our people take this experience. I’ve learned that you don’t have a movement unless it can move without you.”