Interview with Joe Pyle

Joe Pyle is President and CEO of Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding and enhancing behavioral health in Philadelphia. Pyle talked with PPR as part of our series on the Philadelphia Opioid Crisis.

Penn Political Review: How is the Scattergood Foundation involved in helping with the opioid crisis?

Joe Pyle: As a foundation, we very much believe in a trauma-informed approach to care. People who have exposure to trauma when they’re young, their brain chemistry changes and are more likely to develop physical health problems as they grow older. What’s really important, at what needs to be a part of the solution in Kensington, is a focus not on what’s wrong with people but with what’s happened to people. What are the things that have happened in people’s lives that have led them to make the choices they have made? It’s not that there’s something wrong with them, but there have been experiences in their lives that have changed them.

We have to work with community leaders and empower them to reflect on where the community is and bring the community forward. We can’t just drop in as philanthropists and expect it to be different. So we work with organizations that are deeply embedded in the community, listen really hard for what the community needs, and then support those activities. Because that’s where the true change is going to come from. And I think that’s where the failure has been in the last decade or so in Kensington —  we’re not meeting people where they are. We’re not listening to their voice and having them drive the change. So for us it’s about empowering the community and then providing whatever support we can.

And this notion that the opioid crisis Is this new epidemic? I think there are parts of it that are new:  the drugs are probably more potent than they were 10 years ago, but this is not a new crisis for many people in this neighborhood and in Philadelphia. This is a crisis that has been happening for a long time. I think when it started to attract the suburbs and more rural communities, and communities of affluence, we began to talk about this.

PPR: What is the biggest bottleneck or barrier that you see to solving these problems right now? Is it funding, experts, Manpower, or something else?

I don’t think that first and foremost this is a funding issue. I think this is about how we address the issue, how we frame it up. Going back to: “Are we listening to the community? What do they need?” This is not a problem that we get ourselves out of in a quarter. In this country sometimes we think about how quickly we can solve a problem — this really takes a long view. You have to look at what’s happening in our education system, what’s happening in our employment system, in assisted housing. All the social determinants are going to play huge role in this. So I think this really requires leadership– And it requires leadership beyond the convenient.

PPR: What Can an institution like Penn, with so many resources, do to be helpful  in the work your organization and others are doing?

JP: There are an incredible number of smart people at Penn. It would be great if Penn could take a leadership role in finding practical solutions that could be brought to this; if we could take the talent at Penn and push it out into the neighborhoods. And I don’t mean for a three-month internship. We need Penn’s talent to make investments in this community over the long term. We need to take smart academic thinking and make it practical. There’s a lot of smart writing and thinking that happens at Penn — we need to find a knowledge transfer between an academic discussion about what’s happening, and a boots on the ground, practical approach. We need to take the smarts that are in the Wharton School, and the School of Public Policy, and the medical school, and drive that into those neighborhoods. Penn can help bring a higher health presence. A lot of smart folks at Penn could work on that problem. Students could do volunteering.

We all need to play a bigger role in this. Penn is leading in a lot of places. There are a lot of great contributions that Penn makes on a daily basis to this City. Could they make a better contribution in Kensington? The answer is yes, At least from my perspective.


Earlier you mentioned a “ Penn bubble.” Could we get the Penn bubble to cover Kensington?

And again, this is a problem that will only be solved by listening to the people who live and work in Kensington. So how do we bring that Penn talent to listen, and then provide solutions? This is not a Penn care package. That doesn’t solve it.

PPR: What are other needs in the community aside from addressing the drug problem?

JP: One thing that this city struggles with on the whole, not just in Kensington, is employment opportunities. Now that’s a huge problem, and there’s not an easy solution. The other question we have is, what are the related health services that are needed in Kensington? Are people getting the health care they need locally? So I think there’s this immediate issue of the opioid crisis, but that price is comes out of the needs of the community around housing, education, unemployment, the social determinants of health. Those are the things that the community needs.