First Lady Lisa Nutter Is Rockin' Her Platforms

By Reginald Hall Jr.
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 20, 2011

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Photo by Jeff Fusco

It’s 7:15 a.m. and Lisa Nutter is at Starbucks on Third and Arch streets already having her second interview of the day. “Excuse me, sorry to interrupt, but are you Lisa Nutter?” interjects a middle-aged man.

“Hello, yes I am,” replies Philly’s first lady.

“I just want to tell you that I voted for Michael,” the man says excitedly. “And I think he’s doing a great job!’

“Well, vote for him again!” quips Nutter, reinforcing her reputation as humorous, intelligent and approachable.

There’s no question she has her husband’s back, but it’s evident the first lady also has her own game plan. “I came into the role with an agenda, which is with youth development,” she says. “If anything my role has given me a platform because people want to listen more than they did before. I didn’t have any expectations. What I did have is a sense of things I wanted to accomplish.” 

Part of that platform involves advocating for increased quality of education. Over the past several weeks she’s taken part in a live interview with NBC at the National Constitution Center and appeared at the NBC News Education Nation Job One Panel. She even did a joint interview with the mayor with CNBC’s Chris Matthews for Education Nation, in which she playfully told her husband at one point: “I’ll start, you finish. That’s the way it is at home.” 

And whatever she starts does get finished. “I am actually a really competitive person. I was a high school athlete,” says Nutter. “Once you are an athlete you are always an athlete. I know how to lose, but I don’t like to lose. I will compete hard to achieve my high expectations for myself.” 

Growing up in Mt. Airy and later Bensalem, Nutter saw the impact both her parents made teaching in public schools. Later, she earned a B.S. in psychology from Penn State University and an M.A. in city planning from the University of Pennsylvania. Those experiences solidified her belief that education contains the power to positively shape children’s lives. “Kids inspire me … I wouldn’t do this work if I didn’t feel we could make a difference,” Nutter says. “We can make our kids resilient.”

Nutter has been the president of Philadelphia Academies Inc. since 2005. The nonprofit prepares Philadelphia students in large public high schools with skills needed to gain access to higher education while developing internal motivation and resiliency. “Our organization has evolved and my role has evolved in the city, so our role is to really partner with industry and public high schools to provide career readiness,” Nutter explains. “Kids need to have high expectations and positive relations with us and with their peers. And kids need a link to opportunities—a sense that their education is relevant.” In 2010, 4,500 students, which make up about seven percent of School District of Philadelphia high school students, were involved with her organization. 

No doubt she’s got her passion cut out for her. The Philadelphia School District is in shambles, facing a $629 million budget deficit. In June, 3,000 district employees were sent layoff notices, including more than 1,500 teachers. (Layoffs are at a standstill while the union wages a legal battle with the city). Still, Nutter remains hopeful. “We can’t change every circumstance [for our children], but we can change their resiliency … that’s the message that I’m trying to convey,” she says. “That this isn’t hopeless.”

As for being first lady, Nutter says, “When I reflect on the past few years, what I think most about is how much we’ve grown in terms of how you get things done in a climate where there’s no money. You walk in with a set of aspirations and goals and it’s not that you have to dial them back but you have to be realistic. It’s a period where we’ve all had to learn to adjust ... It’s been a complicated couple of years, but I’ve learned a lot and have enjoyed every minute of it.”

“You’re given at least four to five years in an influential space, so you need to use it well and that’s what I tried to do.”

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