Get personal with Fossil Free Penn

Within minutes, what started as the halftime show of a homecoming game turned into a massive student protest, as dozens of students stormed Franklin Field with three orange banners describing their requests from the Penn administration: save the UC townhouses, divest, pay the pilots. The disturbance, presented by Fossil Free Penn as their the biggest protest of all time– was the high point of the group’s activism 39 day camp outside the college hall.

Leading the protest, Gigi Varlotta (C ’23) stood tall chanting “Stop Penntrification!” in their favorite Phillies jersey. “We needed an escalation to bring our demands to the campus center, the administration center and to our alumni. We thought the Homecoming game was a great way to show our message and let people know what we stand for,” says Gigi. A lawyer at the head of campus coordination around the UC Townhousesmovement that is involved in a coalition of advocacy groups on and off campus, Gigi hopes to encourage Penn students to consider the community in which they live and how Penn as an institution has affected its neighbors. Protesting during the Homecoming game aimed to bring their message to the heart of conversations on campus. “It was really impactful to put the townhouse fight at the center of the throwback football game, which is really the fusion of everything about this university,” says Gigi.

Despite their fearless attitude on the pitch, Gigi admits they were afraid to see the heavy police presence in the stadium. However, “once we were on the pitch, I felt stronger seeing the people in the stands singing with us. [and] repeating requests,” they say. After the students occupied the grounds for about an hour, police forces advanced on the protesters and arrested 19 students, including Gigi. Before the match, Gigi was aware that they could be stopped, but even with that possibility, nothing prepared them for the experience itself. “It was an intense process, [and] I think I haven’t dealt with everything yet,” they reflect. Despite the reaction of the police and the administration about the students involved, Gigi believes the protest succeeded in achieving its goal of increasing the visibility of their demands: not only by increasing general awareness of these issues, but also by catalyzing constructive conversation. Indeed, after the action, they received messages from other students expressing their interest in the cause.

The fight is still far from over. The week after the Homecoming game, Gigi had already planned their next move; outside College Hall, people gathered to attend a college council meeting as advocates for college town townhouses and discuss housing equity. “I’m confident we can get Penn to meet our demands on the townhouse front, and I’ll keep fighting until that happens,” Gigi said.

On a personal note, last summer Gigi spent 32 days in a encampment at UC Townhomes to protest the potential eviction of residents as well as the gentrification of the community following the sale of the townhouse complex. They are passionate about the positive effects of joy and sense of community that come with belonging to local organizations. “We were painting, drawing, skating, rapping, dancing and really using the space in a beautiful way, making really deep and meaningful connections,” says Gigi. Despite the fact that the camp was demolished by sheriff’s department after a Philadelphia court order, Gigi said that “although the tents in the structures were gone, the relationships we formed were not”.

In fact, for Gigi, the townhouse community has grown into something bigger. ” I watch [many of] them like my brothers and sisters – they feel like brothers and sisters to me. I’m really grateful that the families there opened up their world to me, and I was lucky to be really so close to all of them. [of] kids, because they’re amazing. Gigi said.

After graduation, Gigi plans to stay in Philadelphia to continue to build on the community service they participated in during their four years at Penn. “I want to continue to organize myself around joy and political education with the children with whom I am already so close,” they say. Their next project is a band called “Sk8 2 Liber8”, an organization with a cause close to the heart of Gigi. “One of my dreams is to be able to start a [skateboarding] collective that has boards, instructors, food, resources and community programs for townhouse kids, as well as any other kids in town who want to learn to skate,” says Gigi, “because I believe that skateboarding is a tool for marginalized communities to achieve liberation. »

Photo courtesy of Gigi Varlotta.

Even amid such unprecedented homecoming disruption, Gigi wants to remind the student body that people don’t need to think of themselves as activists to advocate for important community issues. “There is this common rhetoric [of], ‘I’m not an activist’ or ‘I can’t do anything’, and that’s just not true,” says Gigi. “Anyone who cares about these issues can and should get involved. Little things like telling your roommates or classmates about these issues are really important. Then take the next step by talking with your teachers and clubs to see how you can incorporate what you are already doing to meet the needs of the community.

After the interview, Gigi attends a conference on preventing gentrification in Chinatown. After that, how do they end their evening? “[With the Phillies’] first game today,” they smile, thinking of their beloved baseball team. “Hopefully we’ll win this World Series.”

Because after all, whether it’s the Phillies or the Philly community, Gigi will never stop fighting for the underdog.

Christy J. Olson