Dedicating time to side gigs for good in the community

The 11th piece in this series highlights a museum educator who also teaches people through an Afrocentric storytelling group, a research coordinator volunteering with an LGBTQ+ band, a nurse collecting children’s books, and a Spanish lecturer picking up trash.

Five pictures of Penn employees volunteering.
Left: Carolyn Vachani poses with a BookSmiles donation bin at her home. Top middle: Jean Knight lays atop trash picked up at the Isle of Jean. Top right: Emily Maroni plays clarinet with the Philadelphia Freedom Band. Bottom: Paul Best participates in a Keepers of the Culture event at the Penn Museum in the fall of 2019. (Images: Courtesy of Carolyn Vachani, Jean Knight, Emily Maroni, and Paul Best)

Since 2019, Penn Today has periodically profiled the volunteering, fundraising, and community work that faculty, staff, and students do outside their job description, in Philadelphia and around the globe.

This is the 11th installment in the Side Gigs for Good series, featuring a Penn Museum educator involved in the Afrocentric storytelling group Keepers of the Culture, an Annenberg Public Policy Center staffer supporting the Philadelphia Freedom Band’s efforts to raise LGBTQ+ visibility through music, an OncoLink director helping collect books for kids who need them most, and a Spanish lecturer coordinating trash pickups on the “Isle of Jean.”

Sharing Afrocentric stories

Growing up in Gary, Indiana, Paul Best was surrounded by storytelling. He would hear tales from church ladies. He would hear from his parents, aunts, and uncles about growing up on farms in Arkansas and North Carolina. He would hear the same story from his father three or four times, and it was always like hearing it for the first time.

Best has put his storytelling skills to work since becoming an educator at the Penn Museum earlier this year, working in a program that removes barriers to museum access for Philadelphia children from Title I schools. He also pursues his passion for storytelling and education through his involvement since 2016 with the Afrocentric storytelling group Keepers of the Culture.

Paul Best performs at Penn Museum.
Paul Best performs at at Keepers of the Culture event at the Penn Museum in the fall of 2019. (Image: Courtesy of Paul Best)

“The oral tradition from Black people has been a tool all throughout history, not just for learning everyday things,” Best says. Pointing to the impacts of chattel slavery and racism, he says “our storytelling was used to teach, educate, and give wisdom but also as a matter of survival.”

Best began going to open mic nights and telling stories about his life when he was living in Indianapolis, and, shortly after he moved to Philadelphia in 2015, the National Association of Black Storytellers held its annual festival here. A fellow Indianapolis storyteller came and introduced Best to people from Keepers of the Culture.

Best’s first storytelling performance with the group was at their Love Night, and he retold stories Langston Hughes wrote about love. In other performances, he likes recounting stories about his life and telling folk stories, especially ones with animals.

He served as president of Keepers of the Culture for five years, with a focus on understanding that storytelling can be anywhere, not just on a stage. In 2019, he kicked off Stoop Stories, a program to tell stories on people’s stoops across the city, with a pop-up storytelling show at what he called “the biggest stoop” in Philly: City Hall Courtyard. Best also started the group Black Boys Makin’ Noise, exposing kids to poetry and teaching them the skills of spoken word. They perform for Kwanzaa, Black History Month, and Juneteenth.

Marching (band) for LGBTQ+ visibility

Emily Maroni had recently graduated from Bryn Mawr College when she saw the Philadelphia Freedom Band playing in the Philly Pride Parade. It was the summer of 2015, just before Maroni started working at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, where she is now a senior research coordinator. 

The Philadelphia Freedom Band was founded in 1988 as a band for the LGBTQ+ community, marching in pride events and at the AIDS Walk for Life. The band became inactive in 1997 but was revived in 2008, and it now participates in the Disability Pride March, Glenside Fourthof July Parade, Philadelphia Holiday Parade, and pride parades and other events across the region.

Philadelphia Freedom Band.
Emily Maroni plays clarinet with the Philadelphia Freedom Band. (Image: Courtesy of Emily Maroni)

“I was really excited to see a band that was a Pride band,” Maroni says, and she “wanted to find a way to not end up with a clarinet gathering dust for many years.” The Philadelphia Freedom Band includes a marching band, concert band, and jazz ensemble, totaling nearly 100 members.

“One of our big goals is to provide visible active support for the LGBTQ+ community, so a lot of us are queer, and all of us are allies,” Maroni says. A couple years after joining, she began serving on the board of the nonprofit, doing the kind of web management and graphic design work that’s in her wheelhouse. She then served as president in 2020.

Maroni left the board shortly after she started working on her master’s in environmental studies at Penn, but she still volunteers with graphic design, social media, web management, merchandise development, and the annual fundraising campaign. Maroni says the band is busy preparing to celebrate its 15th anniversary in 2024—starting with a nostalgia-themed January concert at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, near Penn’s campus—and putting in a bid to host the annual Pride Bands Alliance conference in 2026.

“The band has been really important because it’s a real source of community, and for a lot of people it’s like a second family, or for some people it just is a family,” Maroni says. And she likes having a queer space that’s not centered on bars and alcohol, saying, “We’re just coming together to make music, which I think is really great.”

Books abound

Carolyn Vachani, a nurse by training who works as innovation director for the cancer information website OncoLink, was in charge of community service for her child’s elementary school in Lower Merion when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. With nobody in the building, there wasn’t much to do, but she got introduced to BookSmiles.

The nonprofit, started by former Lindenwold High School English teacher Larry Abrams, has distributed more than 1.5 million books since 2017 to Philadelphia and New Jersey children who need them the most, according to its website. People can donate books or money, and teachers and social workers can pay $25 a year to visit the BookSmiles Book Bank in Pennsauken, New Jersey, and take books for children.

Vachani met Janet Edelstein, who coordinates BookSmiles activities in Pennsylvania, and Edelstein suggested Vachani do a book drive. Vachani says a few parents offered their front porch as a no-contact drop-off location for book donations, and they collected about 4,000 books. The dining rooms of Vachani and other parents were piled high with books, and they took the books to Edelstein, who organized a pickup from a BookSmiles truck.

Carolyn Vachani poses with books.
Carolyn Vachani volunteers with BookSmiles at an event at Children's Book World in Bryn Mawr. (Image: Courtesy of Carolyn Vachani)

“Larry always says we like to take books from areas of book wealth and deliver them to book deserts. I live out on the Main Line area, and obviously there’s a lot of book wealth out there,” Vachani says. But those books can be lacking in diversity, and so she used a Penn Medicine CAREs grant to buy a pallet of books that featured kids of color or were written in Spanish.

This past summer, she helped at a BookSmiles booth at Bryn Mawr Day, and she still keeps a box on her porch for people to donate books. Vachani also connected with Whitney Zachritz, a clinical practice leader in the intensive care unit at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, who started the program Books4Brains to promote reading to infants. Vachani says BookSmiles gets baby books donated frequently, but teachers don’t need them, so they started giving books to Zachritz.

Cleaning the Isle of Jean

Jean Knight, a lecturer in Spanish at Penn, says she has “always been an inveterate trash picker-upper.” She picks up trash while walking with friends, and when her daughter was in high school she picked up trash while waiting for the trolley to school.

In the spring of 2020, while getting drinks with friends outside at Cosmic Cafe on Boathouse Row, Knight would look out at the adjacent trash-strewn island on the Schuylkill River. After commenting, “Somebody’s got to clean that” every week, she realized if she wanted the 2.2-acre island clean, she had to clean it herself. She put up a sign telling people to show up on a certain day, and she has held such cleanups twice a year since, plus a less formal one in the summer.

“I have found that a lot of people want to clean, and they just need someone to direct them, to say, ‘It’s going to be this day at this time,’” says Knight, who has also gotten help with trash pickup from Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and the Philadelphia Water Department. “Then there’s tons of energy. Lots of people want to do this.”

She explains that trash ends up there because of flood events, with the trees and brush of the heavily forested island acting as a sieve for upstream flotsam and because there are no trash cans on the adjacent boardwalk where people picnic.

Knight found it tiring to keep referring to the land as “the island behind Lloyd boathouse,” and volunteers started referring to it as Jean’s Island. Knight didn’t think that sounded elevated enough, so she proposed the Isle of Jean, and it stuck. Another volunteer who also works at Penn said he would get the Isle of Jean on the map, and it is indeed now a park on Google Maps—with 16 five-star reviews. 

More than wanting additional help on the Isle of Jean, Knight hopes that people will adopt their own island. She says, “Once you put your name on something, you get rather possessive of it, and you don’t want people putting trash on your island. I hope other people adopt little sections of Philly, and name them after themselves or someone they want to memorialize.”

This is the eleventh article in a series on Side Gigs for Good. Visit the Penn Today archives to read parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten. If you have a side gig for good to share, contact Erica Moser.

Jean Knight participates in trash cleanup.
Jean Knight lays atop trash after a cleanup of the Isle of Jean. (Image: Courtesy of Jean Knight)