How the #RealCollege Movement and Philadelphia Institutions Communicate duringCovid-19 and in 2021 with Deirdre Childress Hopkins
In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel went on record with Deirdre Childress Hopkins, the Director of Communications at The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Deirdre is the former Director of Public Relations for Visit Philadelphia where she served as the communications representative for Latinx, African American, LGBTQ, and the Canadian tourism markets.
Prior to that, she was the Strategic Communications Manager for the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Deirdre also is the first person of color to serve as president of the Philadelphia Public Relations Association in its 75-year history.
A former journalist, Deirdre worked at The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Daily News, and United Press International. She also has served in many leadership roles for the National Association of Black Journalists.
Her community service includes the 2016 Philadelphia DNC’s Communications Working Group, 2015 Communications and Marketing Committee for the World Meeting of Families and Papal Visit in Philadelphia, and the social media team for the Pennsylvania Conference for Women.
Gina: I like that you are the first person of color to serve as president of the Philadelphia Public Relations Association (PPRA) in its 75-year history. Congratulations. I love that. Thank you.
Deirdre: It’s such an amazing and wonderful group. It’s 300 people that I really want to think of as my friends, which makes it bittersweet. Whenever someone says that I’m the first African American president of PPRA, I think of my friends. My term actually ended this summer, and it was really interesting and meaningful to hear that I was the first African-American. It was much like how clubs and organizations are formed — it’s among a group of friends, then their friends join until eventually there’s a group of amazingly diverse people. It just so happened that it came upon me to be president and I had a wonderful year. Philadelphia City Council acknowledged me last September with a proclamation.
Gina: Sheila Hess and I were in the same homeroom in high school.
Deirdre: She’s so amazing — she’s a bundle of energy. Much like you and me, Sheila just loves this region. Our love extends from Jersey through Philadelphia, down to Delaware. This is our home. We’re Philadelphians, we’re beach people, we’re “down the shore” girls. It’s amazing to see so many people care about a city as much as we do. Sheila’s a number one cheerleader. She’s also a tremendous member of PPRA. Whenever we tap her on the shoulder and say, “Hey Sheila, can you do this for me? Can you do that?”, if it’s representing our City of Philadelphia and our region, she’s down for the cause. She’s an amazing representative.
Gina: As are you, my friend. What’s so interesting is when we were at the 75th Anniversary party, I remember saying to Mark Tarasiewicz and Dan Cirucci, both long-time members, that I remember the 50th anniversary and we were all there, the three of us. I’ve been part of this industry a long time and it’s good to see you in the leadership role and in many leadership roles, representing Philadelphia and now the education community.
Deirdre: We have a great young president, London Foust. She’s interested in really keeping the organization going. We all came through a very difficult year where our in-person networking took a big hit, and I’m proud that PPRA came through with more than 20 programs and so much enthusiasm from our members.
Can you tell us a bit about your career in journalism?
This year I’ve thought so much about reinvention. Reinvention and innovation are hallmarks of who I am and what I’ve done. It’s interesting because you mentioned The Hope Center. This is my third industry in a certain sense. I realize that it’s all been about good communications. Being trained with the LA Daily News, doing some Hollywood stuff, working at the Washington Post and being in the center of politics, and coming to Philadelphia and really being in the region’s newspaper in that newsroom all prepared me for the things that I’m doing now. It’s been amazing to switch over. Everybody said, “Oh, are you going to the dark side? You’re going to PR.” But I absolutely love it. And it’s probably because a long time ago I was a cheerleader in South Jersey.
It’s the leader in us. I was pompom captain at Willingboro High School. I think cheering for our regions is helping us survive. There were hardships coming out of journalism. I went right over to the convention center. I was in meetings, tourism, and hospitality for the last eight years. I enjoyed representing various diverse communities and getting people interested in coming to Philadelphia. Doing international work last year is Canada was fun and it was needed. Amazing. I love Canadians. In fact, as soon as they let us come back, that’ll probably be one of my first trips. And then this year (2020), I had the opportunity to really shift into education. It’s important to me at a time when students are struggling.
How did you get into education public relations and communications?
If you look at any of the stories in education because of the pandemic, students are struggling. I wanted to do something that had value. If you look at the stories because of the pandemic and where we are, you’ll see that we didn’t have as many freshmen entering college. Many of the students who are in school are suffering basic-needs insecurity. My job at The Hope Center allows me to really amplify the students’ voices and to uplift students who are struggling. I’ll bet you didn’t know that over a year a campus can have half of the students at some point be insecure about where their food’s coming from.
Twelve to 16% of students can be homeless. Couch surfing is not them having fun. It is a way for them to be able to just have a place to sleep at night. That’s just so concerning when you realize that we’re sending kids off to school, they don’t necessarily have the real price of college ready. A lot of our students need the resources that The Hope Center provides. We have hundreds of colleges across the country that we survey, that we try to offer technical assistance to, that we try to modify their resources and help them out.
What does The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia do and can you tell us about the #RealCollege Movement?
This goes back about five years. We have a very dynamic founder and president, Sara Goldrick-Rab. She and another educator, Katharine M. Brewton, wrote an op ed for the New York Times, Hungry, Homeless and in College. It was December 4, 2015. They talked about how hard it was to be hungry and homeless at college. That article sparked a movement called the Real College Movement, which looked at students as humans; as people who need to eat, as people who need a place to sleep. Think about it. How successful can you be academically if you’re hungry? Teachers were finding students sleeping in the class. It’s not that they were rude or couldn’t do any better. It’s that they literally didn’t have all the resources.
They were hanging by a thread and trying to be academically successful. So, Sara created The Hope Lab in Wisconsin. About two years ago, she decided to come back to Philadelphia and promoted the program here. It’s been met with tremendous support. This year we captured a new grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They’re very interested in education. We have funding from The Lenfest Foundation, also an incredible philanthropic organization right here in Philadelphia, among people we know.
We’re a grant funded, action-based research center. Each year we conduct surveys and write reports. We research these issues and in the coming year we’ll do reports on HBCUs; how historically black colleges and universities are doing. It’ll be the first big report we’ve done on that. For example, we’ll look at student athletes. Think about it. For many college athletes, their food source is the training table. If your sport is cancelled because of the pandemic, you’re not getting the same nutrition; you’re not getting the same access to food.
In the spring, we’ll have reports on these issues. We’ll look at what it really means. So being #RealCollege is a shift from the thinking that we’ve all gone to college and it’s a middle-class thing where we’re all eating. We think of college in a certain 1950’s kind of way. What we don’t realize is that there are people working hard and struggling to get the education that’s promised. They are trying to better themselves in their families. Every family doesn’t have the ability to pay for school. I like what we’re doing because it can be life-changing for young people and remembering there’s more parenting students remembering there’s more older students. We look at these segments and try to do our best to get them resources so that they’re successful, so that they attain their next level of degree.
Pre-COVID, of the college students surveyed by The Hope Center:
- 39% were food insecure in the 30 days from the time the survey was conducted.
- 46% were housing insecure.
- 17% had been homeless in that past year.
What can people do to help with the disparities and needs of college students?
Give to The Hope Center. Donate to food banks. Donate to places that you trust and that you know are working with people who are food insecure. A lot of students go to food pantries. We work with Philabundance. For example, Loree Jones is the new leader. Food insecurity and student homelessness numbers have been exacerbated in the last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
We try to help universities figure out what to do. In some instances, we’ve been able to help colleges start food pantries. We’ve been able to have them help with the emergency aid assistance. We’re looking at Congress right now saying, “Can you please put more money in for these students?” Higher education is having one of its worst years. There’s no money for anybody staying in dorms. There’s no money for food. We want a very educated America to survive this. It’s in our best interest. I’m not saying everybody’s a four-year traditional college person. I’m saying trade schools are valuable. Community college work is valuable. We just want to give people the supports that allow them to pursue their education. We want them to have basic dignities. How about breakfast?
That’s where you get this. That’s where you get real college students because students are humans first. That goes back to the dignity of being a human, of making sure that our young people are fed. You don’t realize until you have an event on a college campus, how important that is. Sometimes kids come from everywhere. I’ve done several events with all the colleges in the area. I’ve asked some of our leaders and some of our managers to step back and make sure that kids eat first, because a lot of times there is a need for food amongst young people that we don’t even realize. It’s rewarding to guide people to resources.
Gina: I love that. It’s fascinating because when we talk about the year 2020 in general, the conversations are different. The issues are different. Everything is different. There was no playbook for any industry, let alone a university. I have so much empathy. My team has a lot of empathy because we understand that it’s not just how you keep the kids getting educated. It’s about sports and the whole athletic program. Income. Housing. Food. Security. Every university is an ecosystem in and of itself. It’s a mini city and you must think about how those play into the life of the student.
How else have college students been impacted by the covid-19 pandemic?
Having campus jobs, you don’t even realize that’s an income stream for them. They now are set back on their financial aid for the following year because they didn’t have a job this fall on a campus. They didn’t have a place to sleep on a campus. Many had to pivot through in terms of higher education. It has been good for me to focus on seeing where we can uplift other people in Philadelphia and the region, and in colleges across the country. We have a big coalition in California, a very significant group here in Philadelphia, but also another group. That’s a coalition of a Real College group in Texas. We’re also working with the United Way of King County up in the Northwest. We’re really trying to see this as a movement. It’s only five years old. The Hope Center is only two years into the movement, but I can see real progress and I can see real benefits for other people.
Can you tell us about some of your other accomplishments?
I am a new member of the Center City Proprietors Association (CCPA) in Philadelphia. I’m very excited to work with a business group focused on Philly. It’s expanded, it’s diverse. It has women in leadership. It has so many of the things that are a hallmark of my career. I’m also very excited because I feel that as the city goes so too does much of the region. It is a tough and a hard statistic, but we lost many businesses in downtown Philadelphia this year. They are not coming back, and I can say that, having come from the hospitality background of the last seven or eight years after journalism. It’s hard on the people I am talking about; Latinx folks who you might not see at a restaurant, the owners. I’m talking about business leaders. Our work to save Reading Terminal Market, which I never thought I’d experience, because I worked next to the market for seven years and knew firsthand its prosperity. You couldn’t get in there at lunchtime. You couldn’t even walk through there at Thanksgiving. It’s an important historic and cultural institution in the city that we want to make sure survives this.
Gina: I can’t imagine Philadelphia without it. When I was practicing law, I worked in City Hall. I worked in the Criminal Justice Center, and I worked in the Wanamaker Building. Every day I went to lunch at Reading Terminal Market. It’s the most iconic lunch location in Philadelphia.
Deirdre: When I was nominated for CCPA and voted in, I said, “Sure, of course I’ll find some time to really promote something that’s so important to our city, which is the business community.” We can’t survive without a strong business community and seeing it rally and knowing that there’s the possibility that we’ll have a stronger community gets my heart. I know from working in Center City, how vital the business community is to Philadelphia. It changes everything. City taxes relate to police and fire, which relate to property, which then relate to so many aspects of our life. They beacon out from the City of Philadelphia to the rest of the region. I’m proud of that. I’m new and excited to see if there are ways that I can help promote and market the city and use some of my PR talents to help other businesses survive. That’s very important to me.
It’s important, especially for people outside of Philadelphia who really don’t know Philadelphia demographics. We’re an extremely diverse city and there’s so much importance that business commerce and the tourism bring to the city.
Philadelphia loves Philadelphia. It has something for everyone. If you’re into it, you can find it in our city. We love and embrace pretty much everybody. You can do your own thing in our city and be happy and healthy and find some sympathetic folks to do it with you. That is the magic of this city, it is a “big small town.”
Gina: The magic of Philadelphia is its diversity at every level. It’s the diversity of jobs, the diversity of people, the diversity of religions, the diversity of food cultures, even down to the “South Philly” in our language. There’s just so much in Philadelphia. I know because I’m originally a South Philly girl. I went to St. Maria Goretti.
Deirdre: That’s where you were with Sheila Hess.
Gina: Yes. We were in the same homeroom all through high school.
Deirdre: She’s an amazing representative for our city. That’s what I mean—we are a tight community. I’ve been in the center, so I understand. Sixteen years at the Philadelphia Inquirer, I edited the editions for South Jersey, Burlington County, Camden County, and Cherry Hill. Then I went to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which is still the biggest economic driver in the state. And we need that center to fill back up with people and meetings. There’s some hopeful news that that we’ve been hearing lately. It will be great and wonderful to just see Philadelphia get back on track.
What is happening with the Philadelphia Flower Show in 2021?
The Philadelphia Flower Show is going to be outdoors at FDR Park in South Philadelphia.
What about the Philadelphia Auto Show?
I haven’t heard where the Philadelphia Auto Show will be this year, but I know that everybody at the Philadelphia Convention Center, which generates over a billion dollars in revenue a year, is waiting for people to come back. And I think they will, to a good extent. I think we all miss in-person touch. We all miss in-person networking. People are tired of learning from a monitor and want to learn together. Just having lunch or being in a meeting together, hearing a presentation together, is important. There are so many cool things that come from the Convention Center.
Gina: I took the Pennsylvania and New Jersey bar exams there. There’s a certain energy when several hundred people are sitting in a room taking an exam together. There’s just so much about Philadelphia and the Convention Center and Visit Philadelphia and the universities. I want to get back to the universities because we’re a college city. We have Temple University, where you are. We have Drexel University, which is my alma mater. There is the University of Pennsylvania, St. Joe’s University, LaSalle, Community College of Philadelphia, and others.
What is the extent of the higher educational community in Philadelphia?
Deirdre: We have more than 80 educational institutions. We are working with about 11 in the city, and then we have another ring out in the suburbs such as Delaware County, Bucks County, and some of the community colleges. Many people don’t realize we are a “meds and eds” city. We have great people working at Jefferson. I was just working with global Philadelphia and they honored some of the medical workers who have really made a difference in Philadelphia during the coronavirus pandemic. One of them is Dr. Ala Stanford, who started the Black Doctors Covid-19 Consortium. We have an incredible medical and research community, and that research community is based in our educational institutions, which are making such a difference.
One thing getting attention recently at Temple University is the inroads with HIV AIDS within the Lewis Katz School of Medicine, which also houses our program because we realized that basic needs are a wellbeing issue as well as mental and physical ones.
Philadelphia is just an amazing city and the longer you are in it and around it, the more you love Philadelphia. We can handle the bad rap from other people, but we would love for people to just come and experience it. We have so much beauty, like the Mural Arts Philadelphia program, the Barnes Foundation and all the museums. You can just stand in there and look at Renoir and other Impressionists. You can immerse yourself. It is a beautiful area. We have so much, and then we have the Jersey shore in one direction and the Poconos and its mountains in the other. We have the beach and the mountains and a great city in between.
Gina: Let’s go back to #RealCollege for a moment. I want to encourage our listeners to go online and check out #RealCollege, think about how they can support that, but also have a better understanding of what is happening because of coronavirus on college campuses.
In fact, my team at Furia Rubel hosted a candid conversation about coronavirus, college campuses and communications, because there are so many challenges now. You’re not only facing the challenges of food insecurity, but now the food programs have had to change because there aren’t as many students going, there aren’t as many students living there. There’s so much we need to learn. I have to say there is great agility at the college institutions that I am familiar with, such as at Temple University and at Bucknell University, where my daughter is a student. They have had to shift the way they communicate to make sure that all students are getting the messages, including those who are homeless. I cannot help but wonder how homeless students get the information they need about their classes, about food, about shelter, about closings, about all the things that go along with coronavirus.
Do you think every institution, whether it’s a “meds or eds” or PR agency, should they be updating their crisis plans?
Yes, because we couldn’t have predicted the pandemic. We came home thinking it was going to be two weeks. It’s been almost a year. Vice President Pence said in December that it’s going to go even longer. Hopefully, in less than a year we will be back and celebrating and being with people. But for college students, it’s really caused a change. We did a couple of experiments with trying to get food outside of the campus, trying to get it closer to the apartments where students were staying. It’s a challenge. And if you don’t have access to resources, the problem becomes exaggerated. I can go to the computer and look up where I can get my next meal and I can look for housing. I can look for a shelter. If you don’t have access to a computer, this is a very difficult time. Winter months in the north are even harder for some people.
Go to https://hope4college.com/donations/ and donate. Read the statistics and information about how to help students and how you can be helpful to the community. Remember, part of our name is “community” and that is important. A strong community needs its basic needs met. It needs to eat. It needs to have a place to sleep, but it also needs a good education so that we can stay competitive.
The Hope Center also embodies justice. I would think that you also saw a great deal around and continue to see a great deal around justice, as it relates to Black Lives Matter and those things that we witnessed in 2020. What are you doing in that space?
One thing that we have done at the center is to make sure that we have resonance. Our founder has really worked to diversify the staff to get more people’s voices on the staff and into our advisory committee. This week we announced new members of an advisory committee that are very diverse. We embrace Asian-Americans and we’re really trying to get African Americans uplifted. We’re trying to embrace this, all the diversity that we can, so that we are reflective of that pro-diversity mindset. That really speaks to the prong of justice. What is important about justice goes beyond the opportunity — to where you’ve got to get everybody on the same page to start with that equity quotient. Our mission of justice is about making sure that college students with these needs get that uplift and get to be on the platform where their education and resources are equal to their peers.
2020 made us examine things. We’ll see it in the HBCU study that comes out in the spring. We’ll look at some of those issues in that way. Most of our team is highly degreed. They’re doctors, they’re researchers. They’ve studied some of these issues across the country. We have brought together people; we have staff members in D.C. and Pittsburgh. We have a team looking at California. We’re trying to bring together a research community that takes action for justice and takes action for community and takes action for students. You’ll hear from us a lot of emergency stimulus issues and other issues that affect people’s long-term debt, which is another key and critical issue for us.
We don’t believe that students got into loan debt by accident, and we also understand how crushing it is for a generation of young people. If there is some help and assistance in that area, we are going to be supportive of it. We work hard to bring the thread of community and good and justice for everybody through all our work and all the research, and we’re hopeful that our research is something that will be noticed in Washington so that it will help shape policy and uplift people. We’re focused right now on the policymakers and how we can bring about change.
Gina: I’ll be very focused on quoting the research in my own writings and keeping an eye on it more readily because it’s the data that speaks volumes, and it’s what we do with that data that makes change. I like what you said about equality. A lot of organizations talk about diversity and inclusion, but they forget equality and/or don’t focus enough attention on it. I like the way Reggie Shuford defines it. I interviewed him for the podcast, and he says that everyone should have a sense of belonging where they are and should feel like an equal. Belonging in that sense is created by the equality. People need to see others who look like them, whether it is age, disability, color, religion, however you identify. I mention that because I am sure you know Reggie as well, from the Pennsylvania ACLU. There’s so much that brings it back to Philadelphia.
What are some books, resources, or podcasts that inspire you that you would recommend to others?
I’ve been reading a lot of essays lately about identity. I was looking at something last week by Michael Crawford about his battle with being an educated person who worked at a think tank versus his happy side, which made him a mechanic. That is the message of life in a lot of ways.
I’ve been reading a lot about self-identity and how we are defined, how labels affect us and how labels contain us, which is a very difficult thing to experience. I sit here as an African American Black woman in public relations, in a city and educational community that are diverse. I ask how we identify ourselves and how we’re going to identify ourselves moving forward in 2021. Being home has given us time to think about that.
I was comparing a couple of essays (listed below). They made me think about where we are now. They help you think about where you are right now and then where you want to go and how you want to help other people.
- The Case for Working With Your Hands
- Crazy Rich Identities
I also read a lot of reports because I’m starting to look at the research that we’re going to put out in the spring. We do have things that are about 90 to 100 pages that my team works to bring down to about five or 10 pages. I’ve been reading obviously a lot about education, about education equity, and about education funding and where we are with it as a country, because we don’t want to leave a generation of people in debt.
I do have a book club that wants to read something by Walter Mosley next, and that’s just my fun side. I don’t want everyone to think that I’m just into community and justice, because there are just so many beautiful things that you can experience and explore.
Gina: I encourage people to read everything about education funding, education equality, any of those topics. The more educated we all are, the better we can do, the better we can be. The more we can support something like #RealCollege. I look forward to supporting you in your continued journey. I love the PR community and all the change we can make if we work together. I am grateful to you. I wish you a healthy 2021 and beyond, and I look forward to all the great things you are going to be doing. Deirdre, thank you for joining me today.
Deirdre: Thank you for having me. I’m going to stay as close to John Lewis’s legacy as I can and try to keep making good trouble.
Connect & Learn More
Deirdre Childress Hopkins
Email Deirdre at Deirdre.firstname.lastname@example.org
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