History of Civic House

Civic House, located at 3914 Locust Walk, operates out of one the oldest buildings on the Penn campus. The building is believed to have been built in the mid 1800s. It served as the rectory for the adjacent St. Mary's Episcopal Church from the mid 1800s until the early 1960s when the University acquired the property. In response to growing demands in the late 1960s, University officials offered the use of the building to African American students, faculty and staff who planned to establish a center on campus that would promote African American history and culture. In 1967, the Society of Afro-American Students moved into the building and named it the "House of the Family". The House of the Family encountered a challenge early in its operations as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibited public institutions from sponsoring any type of segregated facilities or activities . To circumvent this obstacle, the House of the Family was converted into a non-profit organization thereby eliminating any direct affiliation with the University. The nature of this event is discussed in the following excerpt from the University's Executive Board Meeting Minutes from September 12, 1969:    

Ad hoc Committee on Black Studies Mr. Russell reported upon the establishment of a center for black students which has been modeled after the facilities on the campus for the members of religious groups. A non-profit corporation has been created to provide an intellectual and cultural center to promote the meaningful exchange of ideas, philosophies and skills relevant to Afro-Americans and Africans. Students are raising funds from private sources to support the activities of the corporation, which will rent a building now owned by the University on Locust Street. The Center was not established through direct University channels because of the provisions in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other Federal and State legislation under which direct institutional support for a Center devoted solely to concerns of black people may jeopardize University eligibility for government funds.

After the House of the Family became a non-profit organization, African American students, faculty and staff as well as West Philadelphia residents formed a board that helped conduct several programs at the House such as daycare services, lectures and other educational and cultural events. In the early 1970s, the growing "radicalism" of the group and its activities prompted University officials to revoke their lease.

Shortly after the House of the People was closed, the University established the W.E.B. DuBois College House in 1972 that sought to provide both a system of support for African American students as well as a "hub" for Afro-American cultural events and activities. Meanwhile, the building at 3914 Locust Walk was converted into the Penn's Department of Public Safety. The Penn police occupied the building until the summer of 1998.    

During this time, Penn's commitment to the broader community grew, along with the institution's recognition of the need for support for burgeoning student involvement in these efforts. Through the 1980s, student volunteer efforts were coordinated by Penn Extension, an office that had a part-time staff person, and that worked closely with the Penn Volunteer Network (PVN), an umbrella organization for student groups working in a variety of community settings.

In 1990, a committee of students and administrators convened by then-Vice Provost for University Life Kim Morrisson, drafted a set of recommendations for student-community involvement at Penn that came to be known as the "White Paper". These recommendations formed the basis for the Program for Student-Community Involvement (PSCI), a new office that would carry on Penn Extension's duties, while also playing more of a role in areas including coordination, convening, and training of students involved in volunteer efforts. PSCI also assumed responsibility for the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project (WPTP) from the Graduate School of Education. The University also increased its commitment through staffing for the new entity, which varied from 1 to 3 full-time people. In addition to strengthening day-to-day support for involved students during its eight-year existence, PSCI was involved with the early stages of the Americorps program, developed the PennCORP pre-orientation program, Alternate Spring Break, and hosted one of the early national conferences for the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness.

In keeping with Penn's commitment to this work, student energy, and national trends, student-community involvement grew under PSCI throughout the 1990s. In 1997, a group of students recognized that the growth suggested the need for a new organization with more capacity - including space - that could better support students' community partnerships in the years ahead. At the same time, the University was focusing attention on the experience of Penn undergraduates, proposing, among other initiatives, the development of co-curricular, thematic "hubs" on campus. The first such hub was Kelly Writers House; Civic House became the second. Underscoring the University's commitment to this work was the speed with which Civic House was approved; the student committee submitted its proposal in December 1997, and the senior administration responded in January 1998 that there was a space available for the new program.  
In the January 27, 1998 publication of the Almanac, Penn's President Judith Rodin, Interim Provost Michael L. Wachter and Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum announced the plans to establish the "Community Service Learning Center". The announcement stated that the "new" hub program for students, faculty and staff interested in community service, is being established this spring, to be housed in the building formerly occupied by Public Safety, at 3914 Locust Walk. The offices for the University's Program for Student-Community Involvement (PSCI), now in Houston Hall, will form the basis of the new Center . In response to this exciting announcement, one student commented that, "I think this is a great chance to strengthen Penn's community service efforts and bring students together who share the same commitment and interests".

David Grossman, the Director of PSCI, was named the new Director of the Community Service Learning Center which was formally named "Civic House". In addition, as part of its new '"hub" status, Civic House was assigned a faculty advisor. English Professor Peter Conn assumed this position. Joined by Civic House students, faculty, and staff, Dr. Judith Rodin and former President Jimmy Carter signed Civic House's Charter at Penn's 242 nd Commencement on May 18, 1998. The following is an excerpt from the Charter:   

Civic House, the most recent example of the University's deep interest in service to the community, will promote service as a means of preparing students for their roles as citizens and leaders. In support of its mission, Civic House assists and administers service projects, offers opportunities to combine action with reflection and analysis, and encourages productive collaboration between the University and Philadelphia's community organizations.  

The establishment of Civic House enabled several longstanding service and advocacy programs to gain increased support, more effectively network with one another, and to grow in terms of membership and impact. In response to student interest and need, Civic House has also developed a number of programs addressing career opportunities in the public interest. To name a few, the Public Interest Internship Funds make it financially possible for students to pursue otherwise volunteer summer internships, internship and job postings help students to learn about opportunities, and alumni involved in nonprofit or government work regularly visit Civic House to meet with current interested students.  

Today, Civic House continues to carry out its mission by supporting over 40 student-led service and advocacy groups, hosting numerous training and education workshops and events throughout the school year and providing a comfortable atmosphere for students to meet, study or relax.      

-By Erin O'Connell GED'06

Conversation with Dr. John Lawrence Puckett, March 2006
University of Pennsylvania Online Archives
W.E.B. DuBois College House website