Young veterans organization takes on challenges in Philadelphia neighborhoods
When Matt Miclette and nine other young men and women dined together in Center City on Veterans Day in 2016, they had more than military service in common. They were graduating, building careers, starting families, and feeling the need to do more.
From the conversations around the table that evening at Fogo de ChÃ£o Brazilian Steakhouse emerged an organization that taps into the talent, spirit and ambitions of a new generation of American veterans. It’s called Action Tank (actiontank.us) for a good reason.
“Our first service project was to clean up a park in South Philly,” said Miclette, 33, an army veteran, registered nurse and executive director of Action Tank. âIt started with putting us on the ground and doing an act of service. “
Said Darrell Wisseman, 32, a Glenside resident who served in the Marine Corps and is a graduate student at Arcadia University: âAction Tank is the antithesis of a think tank because we are not seated in an ivory tower. We are in the streets to do good for the community.
The 20 young veterans from across the Philadelphia area who make up the Action Tank plant trees, harvest potatoes and distribute food. They volunteer with the Hub of Hope for Homeless People and with Prevention Point, the organization that seeks to minimize harm to people with substance use disorders. Action Tank is allied with two dozen frontline organizations across town, from Moms Demand Action to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
âOur role is to support nonprofits that are already doing a great job,â said Miclette, who lives at Point Breeze.
âWe don’t come trying to be experts,â said Emily Balog, Air Force veteran, graduate student and assistant professor at Rutgers University Camden.
“We provide our partner organizations with high level planning and thinking, and field starts,” said Balog, 37, of Stratford, NJ. “No conditions.”
Members of the Action Tank give inspiration to the Tillman Foundation and its mission of selfless service. The foundation offers leadership development and scholarship programs for veterans and their spouses and honors the legacy of Pat Tillman, the professional football player who put his NFL career on hold and joined the United States military after the terrorist attacks of September 11.
Tillman died at age 27 after being shot down by friendly fire while serving in combat in Afghanistan in 2004. Miclette, Balog, founding member Chris Diaz and member Daris McInnis are all Tillman Fellows playing key roles in Action Tank.
âWe were supposed to meet in Arizona for a Tillman Foundation national service project and a 9/11 souvenir, but it had to be canceled due to the [COVID-19] delta variant, âBalog said. âTillman is providing funds to local academics to carry out a project, and we really want to do something to support the Afghan refugees. So we’re looking to see how we can do it. “
Diaz, an army vet who hosted the founding dinner in 2016 (âthere was such energy at this tableâ) was the first Executive Director of Action Tank. He said the group contrasts with an all too common public perception that veterans are either heroic or tragic.
âWe just want to use our skills to build the community,â said Diaz, a 39-year-old Northwest Philly resident.
These skills include the same type of research, data analysis, political, administrative and managerial expertise involved in creating and maintaining the Action Tank itself.
“We decide what [issue] we want to focus on each year, learn more, create partnerships and share knowledge, âsaid Miclette. âThe first issue we focused on was the opioid crisis, but as we expand our portfolio we are not letting go. [existing commitments] behind.”
In addition to the opioid crisis, Action Tank is also working on food insecurity, gun violence, and restoration of the Philadelphia tree canopy.
âI was extremely impressed with the amount of research they did,â said Erica Smith Fichman, manager of community forestry for the city’s parks and recreation department. âI see their volunteers everywhere. It’s awesome.
Onika Washington-Johnson, who manages volunteers for the Philadelphia Share Food program, said she was struck by Action Tank’s “general sense of commitment” to the fight against hunger.
âThey do a lot of work on our urban farm,â she said. âThey bring a dynamic spirit. “
A 35-year-old city resident and military veteran, McInnis joined Action Tank in February. He liked what he heard about the group’s commitment to service – and wanted to work on community projects alongside other veterans.
âAction Tank is an opportunity to do something tangible,â said McInnis, who teaches literacy classes at West Chester University and is also pursuing a doctorate. in education at Penn.
âI am particularly drawn to Action Tank [way of] think about gun violence, and I’m a big supporter of having community organizations take the lead in tackling gun violence issues, âhe said.
A documentary by South Jersey filmmaker Tim Yingling titled Feed Philly focuses on Action Tank’s contribution to tackling food insecurity in the city. During the film’s first public screening on August 20 in the courtyard of the Betsy Ross House in the Old Town, the band members explained what it means to be able to continue their service.
Action Tank “is exactly what I was looking for,” said James Morris, 28, who served in the Marine Corps, lives in Old City and is a project manager at an investment firm.
âThere are a lot of different veterans organizations out there, and a lot of them are focused on helping other veterans, which is a big mission,â he said. “In Action Tank, veterans can use the skills we learned in the military and apply them here at home.”
In a previous interview, Navy veteran Mark Torres said his first action tank activity – helping provide meals at the Hub of Hope – confirmed his decision to join us.
âWe had a mission. We were in sync and got into a really good rhythm, âsaid Torres, 36, who lives at Glenside and works as a project manager. âIt was a simple mission, serve and clean, but we all fell into our roles. I realized that I had missed this sense of belonging and connection since leaving the military.
Miclette said, âAction Tank is focused on community and improving the city. But it also creates a sense of purpose and a sense of connection. It brings the veterans together.