A legacy of civic engagement

For more than 40 years at Penn, Walter Licht has crafted a career of equal parts renowned historian, teacher, and community activist, including creating the Penn Civic Scholars Program. Licht recently announced he is stepping down from his positions at Civic House.

Person sits on corner of conference table with wall of books behind them, smiling at the camera.
History professor Walter Licht, seen here in his office, is stepping down from his role at Civic House in June.

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, a baseball’s throw from Ebbets Field, history professor Walter Licht seemed destined for a life of civic engagement.

“I grew up in a family of trade unionists, socialists, communists, and political activists, and the key person was my mother,” says Licht, the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History. “I was in a stroller on picket lines.”

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, his activist mother went down South to organize African American workers in Atlanta, then worked on anti-lynching campaigns before becoming engaged in the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, the nine black teens falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama.

When he was 10, Licht helped his mother mobilize people for the first Civil Rights March on Washington in May 1957, where he heard the young Martin Luther King Jr. speak, and three years later Licht sat down at the New York City headquarters of Woolworth’s with his mother right after the lunch counter sit-ins erupted in Greensboro, North Carolina. 

Later as an undergraduate at Harvard in the 1960s, he joined and led protest demonstrations while also becoming dedicated to tutoring students in local schools. The tutoring led him to teaching in a public elementary school in Harlem for several years before deciding to pursue doctoral studies in history.

“My mother was also very much involved in community affairs, and I gained lessons there,” he says. 

A person sits behind stacks of papers.
Walter Licht, front, working for a community organizing group in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1966. (Image courtesy of Walter Licht.)

From those early lessons, Licht crafted a career of equal parts noted historian, teacher, and community activist. Among his many achievements in his 43 years at Penn is his faculty directorship of Civic House and his development of the Penn Civic Scholars Program. Licht recently announced he is stepping down from his positions at Civic House in June, part of what he says is a winding down of campus activities as he heads toward retirement in a few years.

“Walter Licht is one of Penn’s most extraordinary citizens,” says Provost Wendell Pritchett. “He has been a leader in our community for more than 40 years as a renowned labor historian, a legendary administrator, a mentor to generations of students (including me), and the guiding light of our University’s commitment to civic engagement. I am delighted that he will continue to be an invaluable colleague even as he steps back from his pioneering work at Civic House.”

Licht came to Penn in 1977 to teach history, moving into a house in West Philadelphia not far from campus. To get involved in his new neighborhood, he attended the Spruce Hill Community Association and was shocked.

“The antagonism of these neighbors with the University was so palpable. I couldn’t understand it,” he says. “That’s when I began to research and understand that the creation of the current campus with its known boundaries in the 1960s destroyed a great deal and antagonized people in the communities, and it was done without any real consultation.”

Licht committed himself to helping build bridges between Penn and the community of West Philadelphia, and key to that was working with student volunteer groups.

At the time, in the 1970s and 1980s, students who engaged in social advocacy or community service work had no central place to gather, and no way to broadcast their activities and events. Licht says he would lend his office to some of these groups for their meetings and would serve as a mentor. He connected then with a graduate student who shared his interests: Ira Harkavy, now associate vice president and founding director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships, established in 1992.

“Ira started his academically based community service learning course program, and I taught among the first of them. The students picked up on this new era of thinking about what is the University’s positive place in its urban environment,” he says. “A group of students petitioned to have a center which would serve as a way of broadcasting opportunities for social advocacy and community service work, to have a place for meetings, to have small staff to help them. And that was the birth of Civic House.”

Person with beard and glasses speaks to group of college-age students in front of old industrial buildings.
Licht, on right, gives Civic Scholars a tour of post-industrial Philadelphia. (Image courtesy of Civic House.)

Civic House is Penn’s hub for civic engagement, centering community organizations and social justice education and promoting mutually beneficial collaborations between Penn and Philadelphia community nonprofit organizations. Through social justice education, training, and workshops, Civic House prepares students for responsible community engagement and empowers them to become advocates for social change.

In the mid-2000s, taking inspiration from other four-year programs that Penn offers to nurture students with similar interests, Licht devised the Civic Scholars program. The idea started with a casual lunch chat with Harkavy, and before he knew it or was even prepared, the administration had signed on and was promoting the program, which he implemented on the fly without a penny, he says.

Licht says he’s most proud about helping to form the diverse community of Civic Scholars, many of whom stay in touch long after graduation.

“Just knowing there’s a collectivity of students who respect each other, feel committed to each other, and then go beyond the four years to stay connected, I feel very proud about that,” he says.

The program gives undergraduates, recruited out of high school, a four-year experience in civic engagement and scholarship, which includes a capstone project and culminates in certification upon graduation and designation as a Penn Civic Scholar on the student's transcript. The first cohort was admitted in the fall of 2007, and the 10th will graduate in May.

“As a member of the first class of Civic Scholars, I had very little insight into what would be in store for me. I was part of the guinea pig class,” says Ali Huberlie, who graduated in 2011 with a degree in urban studies and political science. “All I had to go off of was Walter Licht’s assurance that the program would be wonderful, and from our very first phone call he solidified my decision. Walter promised me that I would find enrichment, camaraderie, a sense of purpose, and lifelong friendships, and that’s exactly what I found.”

Huberlie is currently vice president in the education practice at EY-Parthenon, a consultant firm based in Boston. While a Civic Scholar, she was president of the Penn for Youth Debate.

For David Grossman, the director of Civic House and the Penn Civic Scholars program, what shines through about Licht is his tireless dedication to helping  students integrate their civic engagement experiences with intellectual discovery toward their growth as agents of social change. 

"Over the years, I have been constantly impressed with the zeal he brings to supporting students in these areas, and in their growth as citizens of the University and of the broader world," Grossman says. "Walter's dedication to the program has expressed itself in so many ways, from raising awareness to garnering needed resources, and from engaging faculty to attending weekend-long retreats. And through all that, the commitment he has to our students is a constant, and Civic House a space where he both derives and provides great energy."

Harkavy notes how Licht even managed to integrate his history research into his civic work, pointing to Licht’s book from 1993 called “Getting Work.” Licht used that very premise of how people found jobs in the past and integrated it into a high school in West Philadelphia helping students find work. 

“Walter has been a spokesperson for the central ideals of the University as stated by Ben Franklin, “an inclination…to serve mankind, one’s Country, Friends and Family,’” Harkavy says. “He’s not only advanced the civic development of students but also made a concrete difference in the community of West Philadelphia.”

Person leans in doorway, behind them is a classroom full of empty desks
Licht has been at Penn for 43 years.

Among his many initiatives in West Philadelphia was the creation of the Penn Alexander School. Licht has also served in many capacities at the University: as undergraduate, graduate and chair of his department, as associate dean in the School of Arts and Sciences for 10 years, and as a residential college faculty director. He also led the University’s two-year review of graduate education programs for reaccreditation. He remains involved as well in many public history projects in Philadelphia.

Licht is officially stepping down from Civic House on June 30.

“It’s bittersweet,” he says. “Sometimes the Civic Scholars can frustrate, but they never cease to amaze and inspire me. I walk in the door at Civic House and I’m immediately uplifted.”

Walter Licht is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently working on a book entitled “American Capitalisms: A Global History.”