The Why: Philly Explained

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It was a movement born out of the George Floyd protests for racial justice: Hundreds of people who had experienced homelessness camped out on the Ben Franklin Parkway, on Ridge Avenue and squatted in empty houses across Philadelphia to demand affordable housing. Finally, after months of negotiations with the city and federal housing officials, the two sides have come to an agreement that will clear the encampments and provide permanent housing for residents. WHYY’s Susan Phillips says explains how this historic deal was struck, and whether it could make a dent in Philadelphia’s affordable housing problem.
Violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people has been on the rise for years. Here in Philly, three Black trans women have been attacked in the last six months — two of them were murdered. Michaela Winberg with WHYY’s Billy Penn explains their cases have called attention to the fact Pennsylvania’s hate crimes law does not include protections for LGBTQ people, and why advocates — including Kendall Stevens, a Black trans woman who survived a brutal attack this year — say that needs to change.
When the Philadelphia Orchestra paused live performances in March, violinist Booker Rowe didn’t expect it would be his final curtain call. Rowe, the first African American to play with the orchestra, retired in August after more than 50 years. He and his wife Dr. Patsy Baxter Rowe, a singer and musical scholar, discuss why his historic career illustrates that progress can be made to diversify the traditionally white world of classical music — and why that world still has a long way to go.
When Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Jonathan Tamari got a tip that Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey would be leaving politics after his current term, he was surprised. If he didn’t run for reelection to the Senate, Toomey was widely expected to run for governor. Without him, Pennsylvania Republicans are scrambling. Toomey still has two years left on his term, but his announcement comes just weeks before the presidential election. Jonathan explains why the pick to fill Toomey’s shoes could depend on how Pennsylvania swings in 2020.
With nearly three months left to go, more people have been murdered in Philadelphia this year than in all of 2019 and 1,655 people have been shot. The violence is tearing families and communities apart — but many Philadelphians are also stepping forward with ideas to root out the epidemic. WHYY’s Community Contributors and Engagement Editor Chris Norris shares his takeaways from “Neighbors in the Crossfire,” his recent three-part TV series that explores the causes and possible solutions to the city’s gun violence crisis.
Less than a month away from Election Day, there’s a lot of anxiety hanging over voters’ heads: an unprecedented number of people voting by mail,  the coronavirus pandemic and President Trump sowing seeds of doubt over the integrity of the election. WHYY political reporter Katie Meyer walks us through a practical guide to ease the mind of a worried voter: how to properly fill out and send in a mail in ballot (make sure it isn’t naked!), what’s up with Philly’s satellite election offices, the security of in-person voting and more. — Check out WHYY’s full 2020 election coverage here — including handy guides on key voting deadlines, how to vote in person safely, how to be a poll worker and what you need to know about your voting rights.
The pandemic has thrown SEPTA into a budget crisis. Ridership and revenue are both way down and the agency is considering service cuts. But that didn’t stop them from spending what experts say is an unusually large amount of money on overtime. One SEPTA police officer doubled his salary and made almost as much as the mayor of Philadelphia. Ryan Briggs with WHYY’s PlanPhilly and Michaela Winberg with WHYY’s Billy Penn uncovered this troubling pattern, which stands in stark relief next to SEPTA’s recent statement it can’t afford to pay additional death benefits to families of workers who died of COVID-19.
While surveys have found many Americans — particularly Black Americans — are wary of getting a COVID-19 vaccine if one were to become available soon, New Jersey public health doctor Chris Pernell has jumped in feet first, signing up as a subject for a Phase III clinical vaccine trial at Rutgers University. She says it’s important for Black people like her to be included in clinical trials to ensure the results reflect the general population, and because Black Americans have been hit the hardest by the virus. But her decision to enroll was also personal: a tribute to her scientist father who died of COVID-19.
During the deadliest months of the pandemic so far, Pennsylvania’s new electronic death reporting system was not ready for prime time. The state still relied on faxes — yes, faxes — from funeral directors, doctors and medical examiners to create an official death record. Sara Simon dug into the delays for Spotlight PA, along with WHYY’s Nina Feldman and Ryan Briggs. She explains that just when public officials were making tough decisions about how to allocate scarce resources, like COVID-19 tests and PPE, the state did not have an accurate count of how many people had actually died from the virus.
As we wait for scientists to produce a COVID-19 vaccine, contract tracing is one of the most reliable ways to stop the spread. Now, Pennsylvania and Delaware have also released a new “exposure notification app” to let users know if they’ve been near someone who’s tested positive for the virus. New Jersey is piloting its app on college campuses. WHYY health and science reporter Alan Yu explains this could help reach people traditional contact tracing isn’t — but there’s a tradeoff: The privacy protections put in place to convince more people to download the app could make it much more difficult to know how effective it is.
Pennsylvania is going to be one of the most important states — if not THE most important state — in determining the outcome of this year’s presidential election. President Trump won Pennsylvania by a narrow margin in 2016, thanks in part to a crucial number of Democratic voters sitting out the election. WHYY’s political reporter Katie Meyer explains that’s why this year, the question in Philly is not whether the Biden-Harris ticket will win the city, but by how much. One key group they have to convince? Black voters, some of whom feel the Democratic Party has taken their support for granted.
More than 1,500 people have been shot in Philadelphia this year, many of them children. Over the past 20 years, the city has tried all kinds of approaches to stop gun violence — broken windows policing, and programs with names like Focused Deterrence and now, Group Violence Intervention — but nothing seems to be working. What are we missing? Guest John Solomon runs Endangered Kind, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping gun violence.  Solomon, 28, did time in prison for shooting someone and has also been the victim of violence. He says hearing the experiences of young Black men like himself would be a good place to start getting answers.  
Latinos in Philadelphia make up 15% of the city’s population — but only 6% of those who’ve gotten tested for COVID-19. In fact, they’re getting tested at the lowest rate of any racial and ethnic group in the city, despite contracting the virus at high rates. When WHYY health reporter Nina Feldman spoke to Latino residents and community leaders, she learned there are several reasons why, including language barriers, anti-immigrant policies and sentiments, as well as limited job security and access to health insurance.
Antibody-rich plasma from people who’ve recovered from COVID-19 is one treatment being researched to help those still battling the virus. But an estimated 360,000 people willing to donate their plasma are not allowed to do so — despite the fact it could save roughly a million Americans. WHYY’s Zoe Read explains why a relic of the 1980s HIV epidemic still limits gay men from giving blood. She says Philly area politicians and LGBTQ advocates are pushing back.
Union membership is at a historic low in the U.S. while public support for unions is on the rise. And in Philadelphia — long known as a blue-collar “labor town” — the kinds of workers organizing has been changing. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Juliana Reyes, who covers labor and unions, explains why millennials in particular are driving that shift, which started before the COVID-19 pandemic gave workers’ rights issues new urgency.
Having a safe place to live has never been more important than during the COVID-19 pandemic. But as the economic fallout forced millions of people out of work, many of them struggled to pay their rent. Now, the state’s moratorium on evictions has expired. The CDC has stepped in with its own federal moratorium and renters in Philly recently got a temporary reprieve, but neither offers a longterm solution. Ryan Briggs of WHYY’s PlanPhilly explains why as many as 100,000 households in the city are still at risk of eviction.    
Nationwide, 20% of people in jails have a mental health condition — which means there are a lot of people like Kim, who end up incarcerated instead of in treatment. That’s exactly what happened to a Bucks County woman named Kim Stringer. WITF health reporter Brett Sholtis digs into what happened to Kim to explain why a Pennsylvania law meant to fix the problem hasn’t made a difference yet.
The pandemic and the George Floyd protests that followed brought to a boil long-simmering issues of inequity in the Philadelphia restaurant industry. Now, as COVID-19 has cut into restaurants’ razor-thin profit margins, workers are demanding change. Alex Tewfik, food editor for Philadelphia Magazine, who also worked in the industry for a decade, explains how some restaurants are now rethinking their business models and culture — and what it could mean for diners.  
Avante Reynolds was a new mom with a growing YouTube following when she was killed in a hit and run on Cobbs Creek Parkway in West Philly a few weeks ago. But the driver is not the only one responsible for her death. Michaela Winberg, reporter for WHYY’s Billy Penn, dug deep into the long history of racist policies that have led communities of color to live near dangerous roadways like the Cobbs Creek Parkway and their calls for change to be ignored.
Here’s one good thing that’s popped up in Philly during the pandemic: community fridges full of free food to help people who have been struggling to make ends meet. It turns out the fridges are an example of something called “mutual aid,” which is a tradition in Philadelphia stretching back more than a century. WHYY’s Emily Scott digs into that history and explains how the tradition has shifted in response to different crises over the decades from helping free Black people after the Revolutionary War to COVID-19.
In the final installment of our series Why Didn’t I Go There?, The Why co-host Shai Ben-Yaacov and his 10-year-old son Gil take a virtual tour of Belmont Mansion in Fairmount Park. Our guide is Janice Sykes-Ross, the mansion’s director, who tells the story of how the site became a significant stop on the Underground Railroad and a critical refuge for enslaved Black people who sought freedom in Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania has one of the country’s highest unemployment rates during the pandemic. And while things have gotten a little better as some businesses have reopened, people in industries that rely on interacting in person — many of whom have spent decades building their careers — don’t know when their jobs will re-materialize. Keystone Crossroads’ Laura Benshoff spoke to workers about why that wait can be particularly painful, thanks to dwindling unemployment benefits, and the kind of damage longterm unemployment can cause a career.
Philadelphia is hurting. Not only is the city fighting a global pandemic, but it’s also battling an escalating and deadly epidemic of gun violence. The number of people shot in Philadelphia continues to rise to historic levels, and many in that number are children. On top of it all, it’s largely affecting Black people who are at a greater risk for getting COVID-19. WHYY criminal justice reporter Aaron Moselle, explains how these two public health crises may be related, what the city is doing about it and how families are coping.
When the pandemic started, most doctors seemed to think that COVID was an illness that typically lasted about two weeks. Now, we know a lot of people are still experiencing sometimes debilitating symptoms weeks and months after they were infected. A University of Pennsylvania clinic is trying to figure out why they are still suffering and how to treat them. WHYY health reporter Nina Feldman talked to several “long haulers” in the region about their experiences which range from physical problems to mental health concerns.
Ranem Atia works as a contact tracer and case investigator for the Philadelphia Department of Health, playing a critical role for understanding where and how fast COVID-19 is spreading and ultimately, for saving lives. It’s not an easy job. To do this work effectively, Ranem and her fellow contact tracers need to be be good detectives, social workers and telemarketers. She takes us behind the scenes to explain how she breaks the news when someone tests positive and how she builds trust with the people she follows through their quarantines.
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Podcast Details

Created by
Podcast Status
Apr 14th, 2020
Latest Episode
Oct 19th, 2020
Release Period
3 per week
Avg. Episode Length
17 minutes

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