Interview with Casey O’Donnell

Casey O’Donnell is President and CEO of Impact Services Corporation, a community development organization in Kensington. O’Donnell talked with PPR as part of our series on the Philadelphia Opioid Crisis. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Penn Political Review:  can you start by telling us a little bit about your background and what you do at Impact Services?

Casey O’Donnell: Impact Services has been in the Kensington Community for 42 years. Historically a work has focused on workforce development, so getting people back into the workforce. For the last 20 years, our work grew to involve formerly homeless veterans. So in our work getting people back into the jobs, you can imagine people don’t do very well at their job unless they have a safe place to live. So we started housing for homeless vets when nobody else really wanted to work with formerly homeless veterans, Specializing in dually diagnosed veterans — usually mental illness and substance abuse. And the last piece of the puzzle which is intertwined with the workforce and housing is community development, specifically in the Kensington area. So we’re trying to create a stable future for people in Kensington, and if you know this neighborhood, you know there are some very specific and intense challenges. So really the goal is to help people create different opportunities for themselves and to re-envision what this community can provide as far as opportunity and stability.

PPR: And what’s your own personal background?

CO: I’m a native Philadelphian. I worked in construction in a former life, and then I got into social services and ended up earning a doctorate in Clinical Psychology Focusing on the effects of trauma. I ended up working in child welfare and Leadership in nonprofits I’ve also done quite a bit of research with the VA and Yale University looking at post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans and implementation of evidence-based treatments. All of that, really makes you start to see the effects of trauma and abuse and neglect In different populations and different communities– and you see that the effects are the same.

So what started out as work with individuals and families I’m using now in systems and in neighborhoods. Impact is taking a trauma-informed community development approach to our work in this area.

PPR: We read the op-ed you wrote called “Don’t call Kensington a hellscape.”  Do you think the media attention that Kensington has been getting has been fair?

CO: That [article] was a reaction to the narrative that has been told by the media that really ignores the resilience and the strength of this community, and how adaptive and industrious the people are who live here. If you look at the rates of poverty and unemployment and some of the other challenges, to only focus on addiction and violence and the narcotics trade Is unfair and Is actually a mistake, right? They’re taking a deficit focused approach to reaching out to a community and helping in recovery. And when I say recovery, I mean recovery from addiction, recovering from some of the underlying problems related to addiction, and recovering from trauma. There are census tracts in this neighborhood that are essentially really poor, and yet people survive and figure out a way to try to be prosperous in this context, try to connect to the economy, And they’re working hard to do that.

So when it comes to the mischaracterization: while you can’t ignore how devastating the opioid epidemic has been In a community, to only tell that half of the story Is unfair, and I think it’s sensationalistic. And there is a component of voyeurism, to tell the same story over and over again. I think it is disgraceful that Doctor Oz came out here, and you can absolutely publish that. He is a physician that had taken an oath to do no harm. Having somebody inject heroin on camera for America to see in an effort to maybe shine the light to let people know what’s going on? that story’s already been told. So this idea that you’re going to use a term like hellscape I think is really sensationalistic.

I will say that the benefit of media coverage has been that a lot of this stuff [drug trade] can only really occur when people are not aware of it when people can ignore it. it’s the same as victimization. If it’s in front of people and people Shine the light on it enough times, we have to address it.

PPR: what would you want a Penn student to know about what’s going on and what they can do to be part of what you’re doing?

CO: The people at Penn are some of the smartest people in the world. Right? Like if you look at the big bell curve, you guys are in the tail. You’re a few standard deviations above the mean in income, in intelligence, and ultimately professionally in positions of power and have the chance to shift what this looks like. I just think there’s a tremendous opportunity to contribute socially, and it can be financially, but frankly for young people that are in their professional and intellectual growth, I think participating and problem solving — because that’s what we do as a community development organization– using their problem-solving skills socially would be a huge benefit. They could think through these problems in a different way, sometimes it takes fresh eyes.

Actually we’ve worked with Penn students doing a project at the bottom of Kensington and Tusculum On a Green Space. We’ve had Wharton students work with our Career Links Center. Penn has a one-year masters program in nonprofit leadership and they did a project with us. But I don’t even know that those efforts are shared among the student body or among the Penn community. The nonprofit leadership students helped me think through and solve  problems related to organizational development.

PPR: Is there anything concrete you would suggest to a student who isn’t part of one of those specific programs?

I would say awareness is a great start. I also think the generation of people who are undergrads right now might be more open to policy change than previous generations…for example, I think they could work to support policies like safe injection sites.

I also think that before people get too deep into creating families, there’s an opportunity to explore some career pathways that might be a little riskier, that don’t make as much money. I would guess the people that graduate from Penn have a higher earning potential and have access to higher income jobs than many. But when you’re younger in your career, it’s not as important that you make a quarter of a million dollars a year. You might be able to take a job that makes $50,000 or $30,000, doing social service work. And then when you do make a quarter of a million dollars, donate some portion of that to a non-profit that does the kind of work that you would like to see happen.

PPR: What is happening in Kensington that you’re excited about?

CO: The narcotics trade, as bad as it is, is an indicator of a larger social problem related to poverty. One opportunity in Kensington that’s really exciting, is this concept of equitable development. So instead of gentrifying neighborhood, we bring room for people to create opportunities for themselves, and have affordable rental. If you’ve been to Fishtown you know that that neighborhood has transformed dramatically and the top of that neighborhood is at Lehigh Avenue. Once you come over to this side of the street, the rent gets cut in half. If that gentrification continues above Lehigh Avenue, all of the people who live there are going to get displaced. Part of what I’m excited about Is the opportunity to bring change to a neighborhood that provides for the current residents, the people who are not part of the current narrative. They’re working hard, they’re raising kids here, and they want educational opportunities. We have data on this: people feel connected to each other, they help their neighbors, They work hard, they make a lot out of very little. And [we’re thinking about how] we make it so those people can stay, and how we can have diversity socioeconomically and racially. There’s an opportunity to do our community development work with the neighbors and with businesses. If you’re in the business of creating opportunities for people, Or making room for them to create options for themselves, It’s an exciting time.

PPR: Where do you see Kensington in 3, 5, 10 years?

CO: I think we’re going to see more higher-risk solutions like supervised injection sites for opioid addiction in the next couple of years. We might see that two years from now, but not before that. We’re going to see a crest of the opioid epidemic: there has been policy change, like how much a doctor can prescribe for pain medication at one time, and health systems have improved so that doctors can see if other doctors have prescribed opioids to a patient.

If we have the opportunity to start implementing our neighborhood plan, I think that we are going to see people having a greater voice in decision-making. By that I mean neighbors driving City policy. Part of the goal is to network strong blocks – we’re doing block-level engagement, and the idea would be to network web of blocks where there is great leadership and hope on the block.

I think we’ll see a cleaner neighborhood in three years. If you spent some time up there, you know the amount of trash that’s on the streets is staggering…. I think we’re going to see improvement on Kensington Avenue itself. I think we’re going to see a creative community move into Kensington. The maker community, small businesses that need cheap space. I think you’re going to see greater diversity socioeconomically.

I think we’re going to see a more stable Park system. ‘Rebuild in Philly’ is starting, so that investment in parks and recreation will be dramatic and I think some of that money will come to Kensington. So I think we’re going to see opportunities for kids to play in safe parks with rec centers that have heat and air.  I think we’re going to see greater stability in the neighborhood.

But these are long-term goals. It’s going to take a decade before there is real stability. But we’re also going to see displacement of drug trade, as long as there’s a demand of any kind, we’re not going to eliminate poverty or narcotics.

Also (Police) Commissioner Ross seems committed to evidence-based approaches to crime reduction, and he seems committed to community policing. I think we’re going to see a different kind of support for police officers. And all of this stuff is intertwined– there’s no Silver Bullet to this. All of these components are relevant.