After a national furor over the 2018 arrest of two black men sitting at a Center City Starbucks without purchasing anything, Philadelphia agreed to a settlement with Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson.

Each man got $1 and a pledge from the city to spend $200,000 on a program dedicated to teaching Philadelphia public school students about financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and the impact small businesses can have on a community.

“I’m proud and humbled by the determination and hard work Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson demonstrated in implementing this new program,” Mayor Jim Kenney said at a news conference announcing Project Elevate, the product of Robinson and Nelson’s vision. “They experienced something very wrong, but they took that experience, turned it around into a program to give back to the Philadelphia community to have a real impact on our students.”

The program was piloted last spring and summer with a group of students at Paul Robeson High School in West Philadelphia and Bartram High School in Southwest Philadelphia. It is run in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, which was already operating Bridges to Wealth, a financial empowerment program. The city resources will fund the program through January 2021; its resources should pay for more than 100 students’ entrepreneurship education.

Robeson and Bartram were chosen because Nelson and Robinson wanted to target West and Southwest Philadelphia. Nelson is a graduate of Bartram.

Jill Bazelon, Bridges to Wealth’s director, said Nelson’s and Robinson’s is “a story of resilience.”

“Donte and Rashon illustrate the power of moving forward,” Bazelon said. “Instead of getting stuck in bitterness and division, they focus on elevating themselves and the most underserved communities in Philadelphia.”

Project Elevate is the reason Siani Ross said she knows about marketing, social media, financial literacy, and building a business. Ross, a Robeson senior who is interested in fashion, wants to go to college to study business because of what she’s learning, she said.

Ross, who got to meet and interview Nelson and Robinson over the summer, thinks a lot about what the two went through with their arrest and the subsequent public attention, and she said she feels both proud and awed to be one of the first students to benefit from their settlement.

“It’s a really big deal,” said Ross, who is part of a team that is rebranding her school’s social media accounts.

Sam Palmer, a senior who’s just beginning Project Elevate — which includes a year’s worth of weekly classes and extracurricular events — said she never knew how to budget her money, but now her eyes have been opened.

“I like that they’re pushing us to do better,” Palmer said of Robinson and Nelson.

Sam Palmer, a senior at Paul Robeson High School, participates in the Project Elevate entrepreneurship and financial literacy program.
Raymond W. Holman Jr.
Sam Palmer, a senior at Paul Robeson High School, participates in the Project Elevate entrepreneurship and financial literacy program.

The program targets students but also reaches families. Parents have the opportunity to participate in classes designed for them.

Clissita Daniels, whose daughter Kayla Daniels-Redden is part of the first cohort of Project Elevate students, has taken advantage of classes and is “so grateful for this,” she said.

Daniels, 40, a community health-care worker, said she wishes she had had the chance in high school to learn the things that now seem like second nature to Kayla — budgeting, creating wealth, debt management.

“I’m climbing out now,” said Daniels. “These kids know so much about finances.”

Paul Robeson High School students Amirah Scott, Tariq Rhodes and Mu'awiyah Graves hear about Project Elevate, the financial literacy and entrepreneurship program.
Raymond W. Holman Jr.
Paul Robeson High School students Amirah Scott, Tariq Rhodes and Mu'awiyah Graves hear about Project Elevate, the financial literacy and entrepreneurship program.

Richard Gordon, Robeson’s principal, oversees a school where virtually every student graduates, and half go to college.

“The question for us is always, ‘What about the other half?’” Gordon said. In conjunction with some programs already operating at Robeson, Project Elevate will take students into the community to visit and learn from business people. They will write their own business plans and get feedback from professionals.

“We need them to understand the difference between a job and a career,” the principal said.

Richard Gordon, principal of Robeson High School, talks about Project Elevate.
Raymond W. Holman Jr.
Richard Gordon, principal of Robeson High School, talks about Project Elevate.

Nelson and Robinson, who also received financial settlements from Starbucks, visited Robeson Monday but did not speak and preferred to remain in the background. Still, Kenney said the program they made happen should cause ripples.

The city is coming off what the mayor described as a “violent, heartbreaking weekend,” where two young children were gunned down in separate incidents in Kensington and North Philadelphia.

Kenney said policing will in part calm the violence.

“But this is the bigger part,” the mayor said, looking out at a roomful of Robeson students. “I’m thankful for all these young people here who are committing to what they’re doing to make our city a better place. Hopefully the weekend that we had will never be repeated in the future.”