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Philly's 'pastor of the hood' Carl Day weighs in as another election cycle kicks off

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: I'm Ari Shapiro in Philadelphia - specifically, the neighborhood of Kensington - in a building that used to be a candy factory.

CARL DAY: There's molasses still inside of the walls of the building. If it rains crazy, you'll get it, like, seeping through, and I had to clean up molasses before off the floor. And this is - I found out through the owners 'cause I was like, why do I got brown stuff? I thought somebody spilled, like, Coca-Cola on the floor.

SHAPIRO: That's Carl Day.

DAY: Father, husband, activist...

SHAPIRO: Community organizer and hardcore Eagles fan - in post-industrial Philadelphia, this old factory is now home to art studios, furniture makers and Pastor Day's ministry, Culture Changing Christians. He wears a baseball cap that says, pastor of the 'hood. In this echoey space, with a backing track of car alarms and sirens, Pastor Day runs programs to help young men escape the traps that catch so many people in this neighborhood - gun violence, poverty, addiction, incarceration. And he's aware that people are watching far beyond Pennsylvania. This is a swing state in a presidential campaign. Republican candidate Vivek Ramaswamy already showed up back in June.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: Just arriving in Kensington, pulling up on a street corner here. We're already seeing a lot of drug use on the streets.

DAY: He came, and he did a walk through Kensington. And he wanted it to sound good. People have talked about Kensington, Philadelphia, nationally, and the heart of, like, the opioid crisis, violence - a little bit of everything that goes on. And this is where we've chosen to be because we really want to impact and help change lives here - better serve as many people as we can - very diverse community.

SHAPIRO: During the last election cycle, Pastor Carl Day had tough words for Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Before the 2020 election, we spoke to Day and others who were not exactly excited about electing President Biden. They felt that his policy proposals didn't go far enough to address issues affecting people of color.

And so as another election cycle kicks off with likely the same two candidates for president, we wanted to check in with Day in person and hear his view from his neighborhood. Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate of any big city in America. So I asked him, what do people not understand about how Kensington and other struggling parts of this city got to be this way?

DAY: People probably miss the history that got us here - you know, how industry left Philadelphia decades ago - you know, how there's not a lot of industry that's coming into Philadelphia right now. I think that we see a lot of development, but we don't see a lot of industry come here. And again, I think that people are missing the lack of investment. People - we're right now in Philadelphia, where the schools are legitimately falling apart. Like, people don't have heat or air in schools. So if it's too hot, kids will get sent home 'cause there's no air in the schools. Schools have asbestos in it right now. Like, these are real issues in schools 'cause that's how dated and old they are. And don't even begin to get me started on the curriculum and the life skills that people have lacked. So those things are things that lead to poverty.

SHAPIRO: When the Biden administration has talked about programs that give money to communities, they've talked about equity. They've talked about racial justice. Do you think that's just talk, or are you actually seeing that in this community?

DAY: I wouldn't say that it's just talk. I think that they have taken calculated efforts to connect with community-based organizations. I've gotten to be a part of that. I see that they've hired really good people who know the national landscape of violence - who've done great work in violence prevention sectors. I will say, just to challenge that, though, you know, I'm not sure that it's going out - funds are actually going out as fast or as rapid as they need to.

I think that, you know, there's a lot of red tape - you know? - that's always dealt with. And it's always dealt with at the level of - you know, when Black lives are being lost - that, hey, you have to be able to fill out, like, an entire dissertation or 80-page application to be able to access funds. But, again, like, people had PPP loans and unemployment compensation. And all you had to do was fill out a one-pager, and it was done. So I do think that, you know, things like that, from an emergency perspective - 'cause this should be looked at as a public health and public safety crisis. I'll also say that, you know, while I understand the support of places like Ukraine and the war and everything else, in the blink of an eye, a finger can be snapped, and $25 billion go into Ukraine. But I don't think it has to be an either and or, but it can be a both. I think a greater sense of urgency and, you know, just a rapid investment can be made.

SHAPIRO: The last time we talked to you, 2020, was an election year, and now campaigns are ramping up again. And when we talked to you in 2020, you were feeling pretty disillusioned. Here's part of what you said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAY: ...Man in America who is very, very entrenched with the Black community, obviously, especially here in Philadelphia. I'll say that, you know, it definitely looks like pandering as usual. You know, let's do the polar opposite of Donald Trump, but still, let's pander to the Black community.

SHAPIRO: And now we're in another campaign season in 2023. So Pastor Carl Day, are you feeling any differently now?

DAY: I really feel like America really needs different voices. Obviously, we're not going to get that through this cycle. What I am afraid of is that we have so many old voices that represent so much of an old America where we're lacking the innovation that's needed - a lot of the same political playbooks are being ran. My fear is that people like Trump, who really, really represent a very, very bold bigot demographic and also are aggressive enough to do things like January 6 - that's why I even phrased the question when I spoke to President Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAY: You've coined the phrase "Make America Great Again."

DONALD TRUMP: Right.

DAY: When has America been great for African Americans in the ghetto of America? Are you aware of how tone-deaf that comes off to African American community?

But at the same time, there's also a level of comfort - for me, as far as I'm concerned, there's also a level of comfort on the side of the Democratic Party. I just feel like me, as a person that's on the ground - I'm wondering, how does it impact the everyday American? What happens when people say, you know what? I don't like Trump. But at the same time, Biden - I don't feel like anything changed, so I'm going to stay in the house this time.

SHAPIRO: Do you hear a lot of people saying that?

DAY: I hear people say it, all right? People are very agitated. That's why I said - I mean, people's conditions aren't changing right now. And then it's easy if we're, like, middle class, intellectual, you know, or upper-middle class, you know, intellectual Black person saying, oh, y'all dumb. Well, y'all don't get it, or why - why wouldn't you not vote? And then we try to break it down from, you know, an academic level or an intellectual level. But another person whose reality hasn't changed in their 20-something or 30-something or 50-something-year existence, and they keep hearing a lot of campaigning - they're like, convince me.

SHAPIRO: If I could pin you down, it sounds like the last time we talked to you, you said, I do not like this Trump guy, but this Biden guy has not won me over, either. Do I understand you correctly that you've now become so alienated by Donald Trump that you're willing to cast a vote to reelect Biden even if you're not a huge fan? Is that where you're at?

DAY: Yeah, I'm alienated from Trump - definitely - most definitely. There's no way that I could justify a lot of his rhetoric - antisemitic - his views and his thoughts on immigrants. And there's no way that I would cast a vote for him. Not to say that I'd be anti-Republican, but there would be no way that I'd be able to support him, like, at all.

SHAPIRO: So Biden would not be the candidate you would design from scratch, but if he's the one on the ballot...

DAY: I'd have to do what I'd have to do. But, yeah, he would - definitely wouldn't be the candidate I'd start from scratch, though.

SHAPIRO: Pastor Carl Day, thank you so much for your time and for hosting us in your space here.

DAY: Man, not a problem at all. The door is always open. The doors of the church is always open, as we've been saying for generations.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gus Contreras
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.