Serenity Soular Campaigns to Solarize North Philadelphia

On March 23rd, 2018, Serenity Soular launched its $37,000 campaign to solarize The Village of Arts and Humanities, a North Philadelphia arts nonprofit. On March 29th, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation committed to match any donation from then until the end of the campaign.

Serenity Soular began as a collaboration three years ago between Giovanna Di Chiro, Professor of Environmental Studies and .O, a community organizer working with a men’s group at Serenity House. At first, the plan was simply to build a garden on the roof of the garage, but after closer inspection, it was ruled that the roof would not be able to support the weight of a garden. The group then began thinking about the future of solar. Carr Everbach, Professor of Engineering, taught a workshop about solar and then donated the solar panel to Serenity House to be put on the roof instead. After learning about and installing the solar panels on their own roof, the men and women of Serenity House began to envision solar all around the North Philadelphia area, ultimately forming the organization that is now Serenity Soular.

Allie Naganuma ‘20 says that while Serenity Soular’s story is grounded in entrepreneurship and community engagement, it is also  “at the intersections of environmental, social, and economic justice.” Naganuma became involved with Serenity Soular after taking an environmental studies course with Professor Di Chiro her freshman fall. She saw it as a project different than other social justice organizations; for her, Serenity Soular does more than “just go in, throw in money, and leave.” Rather, it actively works to revitalize the community while also projecting the voices of its members--a sustainability movement created and envisioned by the community members themselves.

For .O, Serenity Soular goes beyond revitalizing the community and tending to the global environment, “tending to the environment of the human.” Before Serenity Soular, .O had never done work regarding climate change and energy usage. She notes that the work she did and continues to do is concerned with how the environment affects mothers, especially pregnant women and their babies. As a community organizer, she is working to bring people together to envision what’s possible, or, in her words, “maintaining the soul part of Serenity Soular.”

.O emphasizes the need for collaboration rather than competition. She cites one example of another Philadelphia-based organization, Solar States, which is also committed to expanding the use of solar across the city and country. Instead of competing for business, the two organizations collaborate, providing apprenticeship programs for North Philadelphia residents who want to learn how to install solar panels.

Another point of contention .O works to diffuse each day is the inevitable conflict between Swarthmore students and North Philadelphia residents. As many students recognize, Swarthmore College is deemed by some to exist in a “bubble,” something that often can be seen as a criticism of higher education institutions as a whole. However, as .O sees it, this provides students the unique opportunity to “either maintain the systems or transform the systems.”

On the other hand, the residents of North Philadelphia, .O argues, have a certain type of power of their own, a power that has been suppressed for many years and that many do not realize exists. Nevertheless, as .O added, “for those who can see, who have vision, who can go beyond surface, when you put these two cultures together that look totally different, [you can] create something that has never been done before.”  

Underlying this belief is .O’s commitment to transforming the community rather than just changing it. For her, change is akin to only taking a triangle and turning it sideways so that it looks different but has not been inherently transformed into something new. On the other hand, Serenity Soular wants to take the triangle and turn it into a circle, something that bridges divides - class, racial, gender, and economic lines - at every level.

To achieve this, .O highlights the importance of conversation. “Everything happens in conversation - oppression and change,” she said. Rather than continuing to nominally create change, she stresses the need for having a different conversation. “Instead of hoarding resources, we can actually share resources and [allow for] community engagement for education. We need to change thoughts and beliefs to change external realities.”

Since its founding in 2014, Serenity Soular has run three successful crowdfunding campaigns for community centers and churches in North Philadelphia, one for each year, and is now well on its way to achieving its fourth with its current campaign. Naganuma sees the next location for their project as a “natural next partner,” one that illuminates voices and aspirations of North Philadelphia residents by creating art and beautiful murals throughout the neighborhood. The panels are estimated to provide for over 70% of the building’s electric bill, allowing them to save money for their various programs.

Looking ahead, Serenity Soular is working to gain official nonprofit status, giving them legal rights afforded to other 501c organizations. Both Naganuma and .O stressed the importance of the organization being a fully worker-owned cooperative, one that places the voices of the residents in North Philadelphia at the center of the conversation. Even beyond these immediate goals, everyone involved in the project imagines the endless possibilities for the future.

As someone who always remembers to center the “soul” of Serenity Soular, .O wants to focus on continuing conversation around green jobs while also building on soul and soft skills like job readiness, relationship skills building, interrupting violence, and listening skills to reclaim community. She sees Serenity Soular as a “holistic opportunity of self reclamation while doing a job that’s reclaiming the earth.” In her imagination, the ideal scene would be having ongoing educational programs and bringing in practitioners that teach other skills like yoga, gardening, and parenting to tend to the whole person.

Even with the idyllic image of both holistic personal and environmental development, she hopes to one day create, .O remembers to celebrate the transformations already created from Serenity Soular. “It’s absurd,” she laughed, “Talk about miracles.” According to her, there was no positive buzz in the community about solar in 2012. “Now it’s a global, national, city-wide movement,” she said, citing the pledge by the city of Philadelphia to switch to 100% renewable energy by 2035.

For Naganuma, success means building involvement. Right now, Serenity Soular has total reach of 30-40 people deeply involved but she wants to see hundreds and hundreds of people. “I think it’s possible because there are so many Philly residents and nonprofits we haven’t reached yet,” she said enthusiastically. “I’m committed to working on this project until I graduate.”

Serenity Soular’s fundraising campaign for The Village of Arts and Humanities ends tomorrow, May 4th. Donations can be contributed here.