Lawyers on the Block

For a neighborhood full of Philadelphia families, Otis Bullock ’04 and Donna Johnson Bullock ’03 are known simply as “Mr. O and Ms. Donna” – or, alternatively, “the lawyers on my block.”

Their day jobs take them downtown – he’s the Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Services (MOCS), and she’s the Community and Economic Development Coordinator for Philadelphia Councilman Darrell Clarke. Both positions are focused on building communities. For Donna, that means literally building them, through work that entails assembling land for potential development, participating in neighborhood planning activities, providing technical assistance to community groups, and advising the Councilman on housing and economic development policies and legislation. For Otis, the work is more about the people who make those neighborhoods come to life; simply put, the MOCS is about using creative and innovative programming to help people. Current MOCS initiatives include Workwise, The Fatherhood Initiative, Foster Grandparent, and Community Engagement.

But it’s what Donna and Otis do when they come home each night that really sets them apart. Far from becoming attorneys to escape the neighborhoods they grew up in, Donna and Otis have chosen instead to raise their family in North Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. Donna explains: “As kids we were told that we were so smart, to go to school, get a job, and move out of the neighborhoods where we grew up. We realized that if we moved out of neighborhoods like Strawberry Mansion, and other smart and talented young people moved out, then these neighborhoods would be left with no resources.” Just being there, they’ve learned, can make a difference to the people around them. “In Strawberry Mansion, we can be an example for the children and young adults …. there’s a sense of pride because the kids know us and they can say “a lawyer lives on my block” but at the same time, it’s not foreign or distant to them. These are lawyers that they know and talk to everyday. It becomes more realistic— “Yes, I can go to school and be a lawyer, or a teacher, or a computer engineer, or a bus driver for that matter.”

But Donna and Otis have had opportunities to make a difference professionally as well. Donna, for example, has “been working on community development projects- such as affordable housing and retail plazas” – through her work with Councilman Clarke. Otis is on the board of directors of Friends Rehabilitation Program, Inc. which is building 25 new affordable homes for first time homebuyers. Through that project, they have even been able to work together representing different parties with compatible goals. They have also been able to serve as practical resources to the neighborhood, directing families in need to available city resources or helping them to navigate municipal services. The effort isn’t just altruistic, Donna explains. “By helping one family stay in their home, we actually prevent that building from becoming vacant, and help sustain the revitalization efforts in our neighborhood.”

There is a difference between “community service” and “community,” between being nice and being a neighbor. For Donna and Otis Bullock, they see the difference every day in the faces of the children and young adults who have a broader vision of what’s possible because of them. They have both achieved great things in their day jobs, and future successes are all but guaranteed. But take a stroll through Strawberry Mansion with either one of them and you will understand why their greatest accomplishment to date has been becoming “the lawyers on the block.”