Estelle Richman has spent her decades-long career in public service, from working in city and state government to serving as chief operating officer of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under former president Obama. During her 13 years working for the City of Philadelphia, Richman has held roles as managing director, director of Social Services, commissioner of Public Health and deputy commissioner for Mental Health services. She came out of retirement to help tackle Philadelphia’s gun violence emergency as executive director of the Civic Coalition to Save Lives.
She will receive the lifetime achievement award at the PGN Stonewall Awards on June 4.
PGN spoke to Richman about highlights of her career, what’s kept her motivated to help communities in need and her work mitigating Philly’s gun violence crisis.
What are some accomplishments that you’re most proud of in your career?
For the time that I was in Philadelphia, I’m probably most proud of being able to get the HIV/AIDS system organized and functioning effectively. It was one of the reasons that Bob Ross left being health commissioner; he had run into any number of roadblocks which were difficult for him at that time to handle. The HIV crisis in cities like Philadelphia was probably at one of its high points, and this system here just wasn’t working. I used to describe it as a firing squad in a circle; People, rather than staying focused on the virus at that time, were much more focused on who was getting the money, what they were doing with the money, were the right people getting the money, and in the right way. Many of the functions of the system did not embrace, or actively include, people who were living with the virus.
As I stepped in as health commissioner, I began to look at what were innovative ways to begin having people work together, what were some of the innovative ways to focus on the right problems and to focus on clearly the people who were dying on compromise, as opposed to a perception of the strong providers in the system and not let that be the focus. I think over the course of about two years, we were able to change patterns, to change who was doing the planning and to raise the activity of the people who were most impacted to the highest level.
How have you seen the LGBTQ+ community change over the years?
The biggest factor of change has been the openness of the system. I knew when I started probably in Cleveland, where I came from, but certainly in Philadelphia, more people than not kept it quiet. I think there were organizations in parts of the city that were more open. But it wasn’t something that people used as a strong benchmark of who they were. The fact that Rue Landau [is well-positioned] to become a member of City Council, the fact that she’s the first open member, speaks to change. But look how long it took. The fact that we will [hopefully] have the first female City mayor in Philadelphia is – yes we’ve made it, but look how long. But we’ve made progress, and sometimes I think we just need to embrace the fact we’re making progress rather than lament about how long it took.
You’re a strong advocate for so many communities. What has kept you motivated to help so many over the decades?
I grew up in the south when it was very segregated. I was born in Wilmington, North Carolina and grew up in Virginia. I went to very segregated schools up through the ninth grade. So I grew up where people did not have respect for Black people regardless. My father was a doctor, my mother a college level teacher. You would think that would honor some level of respect, and it did obviously in the Black community, but in the white community in the south, we were second class citizens, period. [People thought] there was nothing good about Black people. You grew up with a mentality, particularly in a family that’s geared to giving back, like doctors and teachers, that you were one of the lucky ones. The fact that I had two professional parents [meant] therefore I had an obligation, not a choice, to give back to the community, to help other people achieve it. Everything was based around education and helping people either get into schools, finding ways to help people with housing.
So for me, it was natural. I think that many of the problems I have tackled are because I’ve been both exposed to, victimized and seen how systems hurt people. The job always became for me to find a level of the system where I can be an instrument of change.
Tell me about the Civic Coalition to Save Lives.
A group of civic foundation and nonprofit leaders came together and determined that the city needed help. All the numbers in the city were going in the wrong direction; there was a general feeling that the mayor had not exerted enough influence and that there needed to be a different level of support for the city and the mayor to bend the curve on gun violence. They set out to educate themselves, found a consultant out of D.C. from the National Institute for Gun Violence and hired him. As they learned more, a couple of the things that came to the forefront is that cities that had begun to bend that curve had a couple of factors that they were doing.
One was that every one of the cities were focused on a population and an activity that was coordinated. The data showed that the people most likely to die and most likely to do the shooting are young Black men somewhere between 25 and 30, and that the city should focus programs on that age group, identify them and track them, and begin to intervene with positive ways to get them involved.
It’s really back to what parts of the system aren’t working? How do we fix them? Now? How do we get all the right people at the table and maintain a laser focus on people who are dying and people who are shooting? There are any number of ways to begin to reach these guys; we just have to continue to identify them, and then use what we’re calling credible messengers – people who sort of relate to what they’ve been through and are more or less of their age span, to reach them, to give them options. They help them begin to learn how to make better decisions.