Side gigs for good, part three

The final 2019 installment in our series highlighting impactful work Penn faculty and staff do.

42nd St with a group of flowering hawthorn trees planted by UCGreen
In West Philadelphia, UC Green planted a group of hawthorn trees, seen here flowering, along 42nd Street. (Image: Steve Minicola)

Parts one and two of this series shared the story of surgeon who plays in a rock band that raises money for cancer research, a biologist who makes waffles to help fund Tourette research, a biostatistician who hosts families seeking medical care, and five other inspiring tales. 

Here are four more, in the final 2019 piece for this series. Read about Penn employees who care for the trees in University City, a money coach offering mentoring to those who need it most, a Wharton student-life professional who hosts World Café Live’s monthly Moth StorySLAM, and a studio manager who created a community print shop and zine library. 

Tending trees

In 1998, Penn launched UC Green, a volunteer group organized to plant and care for trees and landscapes in West Philadelphia. In the years since, its efforts have resulted in more than 4,500 new trees planted in the neighborhood. 

A person pounds in stakes to support a newly planted tree in an urban park in Philadelphia
Steve Minicola (pounding stake), director of web strategy and visual communication in University Communications, and Penn alum Ethan Leatherbarrow, are two of a number of people affiliated with Penn who also serve as dedicated volunteers for UC Green. (Image: Nao Minicola)

In the mid-2000s, the group incorporated as a nonprofit independent from Penn. Yet the connection to the University remains in the form of volunteers who collectively give thousands of hours to the organization.

Some serve in leadership capacities. Ed Datz, executive director of real estate in Penn’s Facilities and Real Estate Services (FRES), is chair of UC Green’s board of directors, while Karen Di Maria, a controller for FRES, puts her financial expertise to work as its treasurer.

A peek into the UC Green volunteer rolls turns up many other members of the Penn community: Angela Burns of Penn Community Practice at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Lowell Lysinger of Wharton computing, Steve Minicola of University Communications, Clara Cho of the School of Nursing, and John Weisel, a faculty member at Penn Medicine, among others. 

A Penn alum, Kiasha Huling, who earned a master’s of social work from the School of Social Policy and Practice in 2008, recently took the reins following the 2017 death of community activist Winnie Harris, the previous acting executive director and longtime volunteer coordinator.

Lysinger has given time to the group for nearly 20 years, doing everything from updating the website and setting up the office to pruning and planting trees.

“After a day of troubleshooting computer problems,” he says, “it is nice to get outside and do some physical work like trimming trees with other UC Green volunteers. The UC Green staff and volunteers come from every walk of life and are a great bunch of people.”

Fostering storytelling

Aman Goyal will never forget the story. On this particular evening, a man rose to give an account of having attended a camp for the recently divorced. The storyteller had met a woman, but the pair departed without exchanging phone numbers. Then came the twist: “During the last minute, the man shares that the woman was one of the people who died in the Challenger explosion,” says Goyal, associate director for student life at Wharton. “No one expected that.” 

A person in a suit and tie holding a freestanding microphone.
Aman Goyal is the associate director for student life at Wharton. Once a month, he also produces the Moth StorySLAM at World Café Live. (Image: Courtesy of Aman Goyal)

Goyal heard the tale at a Moth StorySLAM—an offshoot of the NPR podcast “The Moth”—which he produces a dozen times a year, swapping his student-life hat for one focused on story-listening.

“The Moth was the original podcast I got into, before podcasts became all the rage,” Goyal says. “Then I started going regularly to the event at World Café Live.” One of the producers noticed and invited him to volunteer. “That meant helping with tickets at the door, getting folks seated. I did that for about a year.”

When a producer position became available, he jumped at it. He knew the program well, having been a steady volunteer, and he also had a background in television production. He’s been a Moth producer ever since. 

Despite following the same framework, each month is different. Moth central selects the theme that all 26 cities use, then on the first Monday of the month at World Café, would-be participants put their names into a hat. Ten are randomly selected, then after the fact, recordings go to NPR for consideration in the program that later airs. 

“There are only 10 storytellers, but there are 300 story-listeners each month,” Goyal says. “That always inspires me, to see so many people engaged and listening to stories of strangers. It’s so powerful to learn from and empathize with each other. 

Because of the nature of participant selection, Goyal never knows quite what a night might bring. “We have no idea whether a person will tell a story on theme, whether it will be inclusive,” he explains. “We’ve had people do standup, which is not what the Moth is about, but it’s a gracious audience. People are kind to whoever goes up there.” Like the divorcee tale, some stories just stick.

The work is now coming full circle. This past October, Goyal hosted the first ever storytelling event for Wharton undergrads. The theme was “failure,” but the experience itself? A great success.  

Coaching on finances

Financial planning and money coaching are different, says Altagracia Felix, a financial coordinator at the Annenberg School for Communication. The former, she explains, focuses purely on how people spend their money; the latter is a behavioral approach that gets at the root of why people spend their money how they do.

About a year ago, Felix started offering free or low-cost money coaching services to people who might not be able to afford it—precisely those who likely need it the most.

“My whole mission is to make this more accessible to people in lower-income brackets, to help disrupt the cycle of poverty and struggle,” Felix says. “We focus on why you do money the way you do. We take you through your entire money history, all the way back to your childhood, to pull out any stories you can remember relative to money.”

Two people sitting on an L-shaped couch amidst four pillows. The one on the right is holding a clipboard.
Altagracia Felix (right) is a financial coordinator for the Annenberg School for Communication, but she also has a side gig as a money coach. Her aim is to help “disrupt the cycle of poverty and struggle,” she says. (Image: Courtesy of Altagracia Felix)

Sometimes the link is counterintuitive. “When I was 4, my dad would take me to the fancy neighborhoods and let me take pictures with the statues,” she says. “It may not sound like it, but experiences like that begin the foundation for the relationship we foster with money.” 

The idea for the side gig came to Felix after she saw a young mother walking with her 11-month-old son late at night. It was clear the woman was struggling. First Felix got angry—couldn’t the woman see where her path was leading?—then she began thinking about ways to help. A little research led Felix to money coaching, which she liked for its combination of life coaching and financial planning. 

Today, she works with single parents, victims of domestic violence, small business owners, many people whose lives might benefit from understanding and changing unhelpful behaviors around money. In the near future, she’d like to offer the services to Penn grad students, too.

“If music matters to you, you have a music coach. If you’re a sports player, you have a coach. For anything in our lives that’s important to us, we have a coach,” she says. “Why not for money? That’s what drives me.”

Engaging makers 

A decade ago, Mary Tasillo looked around Philadelphia and saw a lack.
“There’s this community of people here who are involved in bookmaking and letterpress printing, and there was no place outside of an educational institution to go and use this kind of equipment,” says Tasillo, whose day job is as studio manager of Common Press, a letterpress and book arts studio housed in the Fisher Fine Arts Library in partnership with Penn Libraries, the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, and Kelly Writers House

A person demonstrates the use of a letterpress machine while three others observe
Mary Tasillo, studio manager at Penn’s Common Press, demonstrates letterpress printing at The Soapbox, the nonprofit community print shop, book and zine making center she runs. (Image: Courtesy of Mary Tasillo)  

Tasillo started talking with others in the city, trying to figure out how to fill that gap. By 2011, together with Charlene Kwon, at the time a Penn grad student and staff member, Tasillo opened up her home in West Philly for the first event of The Soapbox: Community Printshop and Zine Library. In October 2018, she moved Soapbox into its first dedicated space in an old church building at 47th Street and Kingsessing Avenue, offering more room and expanded hours. 

The Soapbox encompasses “anything that falls under the umbrella of the handmade book or handmade magazine,” Tasillo says, including papermaking, binding, printing, letterpress, screen printing, and more. Tasillo and partners teach workshops that introduce these techniques, offer membership that provides access to equipment, and keep a growing library of more than 3,500 zines, self-published booklets on a variety of topics for visitors to read when visiting. They also rent six private artist studios.

“We are serving people who are active, practicing artists,” she says, “but we are also serving people who don’t consider themselves artists who are still interested in making things.”

This is the third article in a series on “side gigs for good.” Find Parts one and two here and here. This is the final installment for 2019, but if you have a side gig for good to share, contact Michele Berger.