Swarthmore students, community groups bring solar energy to North Philadelphia
On Saturday morning in North Philadelphia, Serenity House, a satellite ministry of Arch Street United Methodist Church, celebrated its first day of being powered by solar energy.
Thanks to a collaboration among Serenity Soular — a collective of North Philadelphia residents and Swarthmore College students and faculty — plus Solar States, a solar-panel installation company, Re-Volv, a non-profit crowdfunding website for sustainable energy projects, and the United Methodist Church, Serenity House will see a drastic decrease in its energy costs.
“The utility bills will immediately be reduced by 40 percent,” said John Bowie, a community advocate for Serenity Soular. “And after seven years there will be no utility bills. So every dime they spend on electricity [will be] able to [used] toward something else.”
That something else includes support groups for men and women, stress management workshops, Bible studies, and other community outreach efforts.
Before flipping the switch at Serenity House, about 40 community members and advocates gathered at Morris Chapel Baptist Church, two doors down the street, to honor the people and organizations involved in the project.
Robin Hynicka, a pastor at Arch Street United Methodist Church, said the event was a celebration of unity, in addition to renewable energy.
“This little gathering today,” said Hynicka to the diverse audience, “is about sustainability at all levels, intersecting all issues, bringing us together to make a better world for everyone.”
Afterward, the crowd moved over to Serenity House, where Serenity Soular apprentices Ky Sanders, 23, and Robert Crawford, 24, both residents of North Philadelphia, untied a bow wrapped around the power supply, then flipped the switch.
Serenity House’s transition to green energy began in 2012 when Serenity House’s hospitality coordinator, who goes by only the letter “O,” was introduced to Swarthmore College environmental studies professor Giovanna DiChiro by another Swarthmore faculty member.
The two continued to build a relationship over their shared passion environmental justice, and drew interest from students and community members.
“So here we were crossing lines,” said O. “Black woman, white woman. I barely made it through 11th grade, [she was a] college professor. [I was] poor, [she was] resourced. So we were crossing lines and learning how to communicate our differentials and bring our resources together.”
In September 2014, the group, consisting mostly of Swarthmore students, then known as Sustainable Serenity, completed their first project for Serenity House when they installed solar panels, donated by Swarthmore’s engineering department, on the house’s garage to power a community garden behind the house.
The following December, they received an overwhelmingly positive response from local residents interested in green energy education and jobs. After seeing the potential of bringing the green economy to North Philadelphia, the group expanded to include local residents, and relaunched themselves as Serenity Soular.
“The vision for bringing solar [energy] to Serenity House, into the community,” DiChiro said, “started to sprout after the success of the community garden. We started reaching out to other partners and it started growing from there.”
Through a series of crowdfunding and grants, Serenity Soular was able to fund the installation and an apprenticeship program for young people in the community.
Crawford and Sanders were selected to receive training from Solar States through YouthBuild, a community-based program that provides education and job opportunities for at-risk youth.
“The training was good,” said Crawford. “They give you paid training. They [give] you [transportation] passes. It was beautiful. They keep you busy. They take you on a trip, conferences, learning new stuff. A lot of different things the world is trying to do.”
Since the completion of the training, both have been hired by Solar States.
“I was trying to get in to telecom companies, electrical union,” Sanders said. “So, this right now turned out to be a beautiful opportunity. Now I get to work in the field and do my part to help the energy be clean.”
Now that Serenity House’s solar installation is complete, Serenity Soular will begin installing solar panels on the Morris Chapel Baptist Church in January 2017 to keep the green energy momentum going in North Philadelphia.