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YOU NEED TO KNOW: Southwest Philly's Sister Alia Walker

Alia Walker at the Earthkeepers greenspace - 51st & Kingsessing

Walker inside the greenhouse

Fresh broccoli

Sister Wisdon discusses the Harvest with Walker

Clover replenishes the soil between plantings

Walker acknowleges the all important honey bee

West Philly native Sister Alia Walker is used to creating improbable, remarkable situations. The longtime community activist, erstwhile radical and urban farming advocate is a queen of action. To offer one particularly resonant example: she once helped bring 142 Philadelphia women—many low income and receiving public assistance—to Beijing, China. All it took was an idea.

It all started in 1995, on the Q&A line at an informational meeting on the Fourth World Conference on Women. Walker started chatting with Tahiya Nyahuma, another African-American woman in the mostly Caucasian audience at Moore College. "One of the women in the audience asked a question that made the [World Conference on Women] sound exclusive," says Walker. "It didn’t sit right. In that line, Tahiya and I decided we should do something—we should make it happen."

The resulting "Road to Beijing" program assisted unlikely attendants in obtaining travel documents, outlining their travel agenda and fundraising for the trip. They even offered basic classes in Mandarin.

Of course creating change in people's lives is not an occasional thing for Walker. Her main project is Earth's Keepers (featured in the October 23 issue of Flying Kite), an organization she cofounded and directs at 5100 Kingsessing Ave in Southwest Philly. The urban farm hosts a youth agriculture and entrepreneurship program where high school students learn to grow, pack and sell organic vegetables at an onsite farmers' market. Most weekday afternoons you’ll find Walker, an avid gardener, working right alongside her students.

She grew up not far from the farm's site, in a three story house at 60th and Arch with ten siblings. Her father was a preacher and building contractor, and her mother grew vegetables on a small strip behind the house. In the fifties, when Walker was a child, West Philly was a mixed race neighborhood, but by the time she was a teenager, it was predominantly African American. Despite the family’s size, Walker says they always had company. "My mother was always helping neighbors and neighbors' children," she says. "There was always more than us at the dinner table."

It was Walker’s older sister, Frances Walker-Ponnie, who became her role model and mentor. Walker-Ponnie, a lifelong community activist who has worked for several local and state political campaigns, was heavily involved in civil rights demonstrations, fighting for the admission of African Americans into Girard College in 1968. 

Growing up, Walker admired her sister’s commitment to political organizing. "In my early youth, I was more militant," admits Walker, an erstwhile Black Panther. "My sister showed me how to transition from being overtly militant to working within the system to the benefit of the people."

In the nineties, the sisters worked together to help organize Philly’s Million Women March, appealing to Winnie Mandela, Sista Souljah and Maxine Waters to speak in Philadelphia. They also served on the economic committee of the Empowerment Zone, which allocated $250 million in federal funds for economic-development in West Philadelphia. In addition, Walker, who has a BS in business administration from Philadelphia University, directed the Wharton West Philadelphia Project, a series of programs aimed at bridging the gap between the university and the surrounding communities: Young Entrepreneurs helped high school students create business plans and apply for funding; Penn Buy Local connected university operations to local vendors;  and the Skills Training and Employment Program funneled residents into on-campus jobs. She also founded Women of Peace, a neighborhood organization for spiritual and social services aimed at muslim women.

From 2000 to 2006, Walker worked at Children’s Services, establishing and directing the Family Center at George Pepper Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia. The program offers social services, referral services, drivers ed and GED classes for parents and neighbors, as well as an after-school program.

Through Earth’s Keepers, Walker teaches a new generation about community organizing. For the past two years, her students have participated in the Rooted In Community Conference and presented a Youth Food Bill of Rights at the Constitution Center in Center City. This past April, the conference was held in Iowa. When the students expressed an interest in going, Walker taught them how to fundraise.

"It’s so important that young people be conscious of what they eat," says Walker. "But they also need to understand the issues that make it difficult for people around the world and in their own community to have access to healthy foods."

At Martha Washington Middle School in West Philly, Walker helped students build their first raised bed garden on school property. "We’re planting seeds in their young minds; it will flourish," she says. "I come from a family of community advocates, so it’s important to me to nourish the next generation. I get great satisfaction out of doing it."

Earth’s Keepers continues spreading urban farming throughout the West Philly and Germantown communities—they even help residents build and farm small plots in their own backyards. Now in her mid-sixties, Walker is also organizing adult line dancing sessions paired with nutrition classes (part of a Temple University study on blood pressure and stress) held twice a week at Nicetown Community Development Corporation.

"Life’s still here," she says of her civic accomplishments. "I plan on continuing for a while."

DANA HENRY is Flying Kite's Innovation & Job News editor.
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