Imagining Philadelphia’s Energy Futures

Montgomery County Planning Commission

How do Philadelphians imagine a sustainable future for their city? How will people in Philadelphia produce and use energy in the future? And how might the personal histories of Philadelphia citizens shape the ways they imagine Philadelphia’s energy futures?

Those questions inspired Imagining Philadelphia’s Energy Futures, an oral history and public education project about energy, climate change, and the future of Philadelphia.

Imagining Philadelphia’s Energy Futures consisted of oral history interviews with a small but diverse set of Philadelphia citizens who were selected in collaboration with the project’s local partners. Each interview recorded a participant’s personal history. Interviewees then shared their visions of energy use and production in Philadelphia by imagining three periods in the future: the year 2067, 50 years from the time of the interview; the year 2140, nearly 125 years from the time of the interview; and the year 2312, nearly 300 years from the time of the interview. The years 2140 and 2312 were selected to complement Kim Stanley Robinson’s science-fiction novels New York 2140 (New York: Orbit, 2017) and 2312 (New York: Orbit, 2013).

The Science History Institute then hosted a public education workshop in October 2017, which used content from the oral history interviews to encourage further storytelling, future visioning, and deliberation. Public workshop participants reviewed anticipated effects of climate change on Philadelphia and discussed plans for the city’s energy future. Then, to help them explore their own visions for a sustainable Philadelphia, they played a science fiction–based storytelling game adapted from Situation Lab’s game The Thing from the Future.

The narrative framework for Imagining Philadelphia’s Energy Futures was based on sociological research that shows how formulating and sharing visions of the future can help individuals and groups make meaning of contemporary challenges they confront; it can help determine possible solutions to those challenges; and it can help individuals and groups consider ways that certain solutions might affect their lives and their community as a whole. Imagining and discussing Philadelphia’s energy futures allowed project participants to imagine—and inhabit in their minds—multiple, alternate visions of the future that may result from choices made today. When Philadelphians imagined ways of using and producing sustainable renewable energy in the future, they were not just imagining new technoeconomic systems. They were also reimagining the ways social relations and political power might work in their lives. And they were reimagining interrelationships to their local, regional, and global environments.

Oral History Interviews

Kirtrina Baxter

Kirtrina Baxter was born in 1969 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. She grew up in a diverse neighborhood in Willingboro, New Jersey, where her parents are Evangelical pastors. Katrina spent childhood summers in Philadelphia visiting extended family. After her college years she moved to Mt. Airy and then Northern Liberties in Philadelphia. Kirtrina’s spiritual journey—from an evangelical upbringing, through radical black cosmologies, to earthly goddess readings, and especially the experience of becoming a mother—all inspired her deep relationship with nature. After living with her daughter in upstate New York for many years, Kirtrina returned to Philadelphia in the early 2000s to build coalitions with urban farmers, especially within Philadelphia’s black community. Working out of the Law Center (formerly PILCOP), Kirtrina coorganizes the Soil Generation coalition. She also serves as a board member and farm manager with Urban Creators in North Philadelphia.

Go to Kirtrina Baxter’s interview >

Eileen Flanagan

Eileen Flanagan was born in Philadelphia in 1962. She grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Bala Cynwyd, just outside of Philadelphia. She attended Friends Central High School and graduated from Duke University. In the mid-1980s Eileen served in the Peace Corps in Botswana, in southern Africa. After returning to the United States she earned a master’s degree in African studies from Yale University. Eileen then moved back to Pennsylvania to become a writer and teacher who explores topics in spirituality, social justice, and environmental justice. Eileen married and in her early thirties became a mother to two children. Her religious affiliation, as part of the Society for Friends, is Quaker. Eileen lives in Philadelphia, where she serves as board chair of Earth Quaker Action Team.

Go to Eileen Flanagan’s interview >

Adam Garber

Adam Garber was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1983. He has three sisters, including a twin, and both his parents have PhDs. Adam and his family were very involved in their synagogue and Atlanta’s Jewish community. At the same time, Adam attended private Protestant Christian elementary, middle, and high schools. Adam studied philosophy at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. While working summers with Georgia PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) on air-quality issues, he considered himself politicized by politicians’ efforts to limit pollution controls despite public desire for clear air. After college graduation Adam worked for two years with New Jersey PIRG to help pass state-level clean-energy policies. He then accepted a position with PennEnvironment, an environmental nonprofit in Philadelphia, where he became deputy director and has worked for nearly a decade.

Go to Adam Garber’s interview >

Peter Handler

Peter Handler was born in 1947 in Brooklyn, New York, and spent much of his childhood in New Jersey. Self-described as an atheist-Jew, Peter spent his summers as a teenager at the Shaker Village Work Camp in New Lebanon, New York. Much of his life since has focused either on building or making himself part of communities. Peter studied political science at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where he spent winters skiing at Sugarloaf Mountain. On graduation in 1968 Peter applied to his draft board as a conscientious objector. He spent the summer of 1969 living near Acadia National Park and attended Woodstock Music Festival. For several years after he lived in a commune near Ithaca, New York. In the late 1970s Peter earned his MFA in jewelry-making and metalsmithing from the School for American Craftsmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Peter moved to Philadelphia in 1982 and became a furniture maker in 1984. He has remained in Philadelphia and still constructs custom studio furniture for people’s homes. Early in 2012 Peter helped found the Philadelphia chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby and became its group leader.

Go to Peter Handler’s interview >

Tykee James

Tykee James was born on January 21, 1994, at Temple Hospital in North Philadelphia. He soon moved with his parents to the Fort Irwin Army Base in the High Mojave Desert of California. In 2000, after his parents’ separation, he moved with his mother and brothers to Racine, Wisconsin, where Tykee began Latin dancing. In 2009 his family then moved to northwestern Texas. In Texas, Tykee played football, competed regionally with a Latin dance team, and argued on the debate team. In 2011, just before his senior year of high school, he returned with his family to Philadelphia. On arriving in West Philadelphia, Tykee suffered a severe asthma attack that forced his hospitalization and ignited his concern for clean air. On recovery Tykee attended Motivation High School and, as a subcontractor with the Philadelphia Water Department, became a public educator and naturalist with Cobbs Creek Environmental Center. Now a student at Temple University, Tykee is pursuing a degree in communications with a focus on rhetoric and public advocacy. He also works as a legislative aid to the Honorable Donna Bullock, who represents Philadelphia’s 195th District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

Go to Tykee James’s interview >

Rasheedah Phillips

Rasheedah Phillips was born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1984. She moved to Philadelphia when she was 14 years old, the same year she became a mother. Four years later Rasheedah graduated with honors from Abraham Lincoln High School in Northeast Philadelphia. She earned scholarships to Temple University where in three years she graduated summa cum laude while working as a full-time parent and part-time employee. In 2008 Rasheedah earned her JD degree from Temple University Beasley School of Law. As an expert in subsidized housing law, she works as a managing attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. In 2011 Rasheedah created the AfroFuturist Affair, a grassroots organization dedicated to celebrating and promoting Afrofuturistic culture, art, and literature. Inspired by Afrofuturism, quantum physics, and African traditions of spatial-temporal consciousness, she established the Community Futures Lab, a collaborative art, ethnographic, and community outreach project focused on the Sharswood-Blumberg community of North Philadelphia.

Go to Rasheedah Phillips’s interview >

Damali Rhett

Damali Rhett was born in October 1977, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her name derives from a Nigerian praise poem and means “beautiful vision.” As an infant, Damali moved to Washington, D.C. During high school Damali was accepted into Phillips Andover Academy’s Math and Science for Minority Students summer program. Damali attended Dartmouth College, where she majored in social psychology and minored in theater. After college Damali worked in public relations and finance in New York City. Damali returned to Dartmouth and in 2006 earned her MBA from the Tuck School of Business. Then, based in Washington, D.C., she worked for several years as a consultant on energy and utilities. Damali now helps Philadelphians increase their renewable energy use for a sustainable future. In November 2016 she became executive director of the Energy Co-op, a nonprofit and member-owned retail energy cooperative that serves thousands of homes and businesses in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Go to Damali Rhett’s interview >

Pouné Saberi

Pouné Saberi was born in Tehran, Iran, and experienced the 1979 Iranian Revolution as a child. Her family left Iran in the mid-1980s during its war with Iraq and settled briefly in Boston. Pouné’s parents and younger sister returned to Iran in 1989, but Pouné stayed to graduate from Commonwealth High School and attend the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In 1999 she earned her MD and a master’s degree in public health from Tufts University School of Medicine, where she helped found Sharewood, a free medical clinic. Pouné then moved to Philadelphia where in 2002 she completed her residency in family medicine and community health at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Pouné later became the primary care provider at a federally qualified health-care facility at Sayer High School in West Philadelphia. In 2012, after increased concern about environmental toxins, she completed a second residency in occupational and environmental medicine. Pouné now works in Philadelphia as an occupational medicine doctor and serves on the national and Philadelphia board of Physicians for Social Responsibility, with whom she works on projects related to health and natural gas development in the Marcellus Shale regions of Pennsylvania.

Go to Pouné Saberi’s interview >

Jalyn Williams

Jalyn Williams was born in Philadelphia in January 2001. She has lived in West Philadelphia, in Upper Darby, and in Chester. Jalyn is an honors student at Central High School in Philadelphia, a four-year college preparatory magnet school consistently ranked among the top schools in Pennsylvania and one of the oldest public schools in the United States. When not studying or volunteering for local environmental causes, Jalyn enjoys playing video games and has a passion for equality.

Go to Jalyn Williams’s interview >

About the Project

Imagining Philadelphia’s Energy Futures was based at the Science History Institute (at that time, the Chemical Heritage Foundation) in partnership with PennFuture, PennEnvironment, Energy Coordinating Agency, Citizens Climate Lobby, and Planet Philadelphia on G-Town Radio. The project was funded in part by Philadelphia’s Climate and Urban Systems Partnership (CUSP). CUSP is a group of informal science educators, climate scientists, learning scientists, and community partners in four Northeast U.S. cities—Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York City, and Washington, D.C.—funded by the National Science Foundation to explore innovative ways to educate city residents about climate change.