Black, aging, and passionate about community in West Philadelphia

Election Day poll volunteering is just one piece of the work she does to keep her community together. But it’s a big one.

Sharon Joy Shoatz stands in front of a mural of her mother, Gladys, from whom she inherited an unofficial mantle as the matriarch of the west Philadelphia neighborhood she’s lived in her whole life. CREDIT: Alan Pyke/ThinkProgress
Sharon Joy Shoatz stands in front of a mural of her mother, Gladys, from whom she inherited an unofficial mantle as the matriarch of the west Philadelphia neighborhood she’s lived in her whole life. CREDIT: Alan Pyke/ThinkProgress

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA — Sharon Joy Shoatz is a flame-keeper.

Sure, she’s also a precinct captain for the local Democrats, the holder of multiple graduate degrees, an irrepressible pun-spinner —(“Call me Joy, I been Sharon too much,” she tells me right away) — and a former counselor at the high school she’s sitting in front of on Election Day.

But for the patch of west Philadelphia where the high-50s streets intersect Walnut, she is much more.

Growing up in west Philadelphia in the 1950s, she said, the Shoatzes were one of only a few black families in what was then a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. She learned Hebrew on the weekends at the local synagogue and went to school surrounded by people who didn’t look or talk like she did.


The small patch of the city’s west side where Shoatz, 65, sits outside a polling place on Tuesday has now been primarily black for decades. And Shoatz is its strong connection back to a legacy of close neighborly relations, solidarity, and multiculturalism.

Her mother, Gladys Inabinette Shoatz, is a local legend. Her portrait looks over the community garden she helped plant years ago, around the back side of the public school where her daughter tracks comings and goings at the polls on behalf of the local Democrats.

“She died in my arms,” Shoatz told ThinkProgress, “and I felt her energy transfer into me.”

Election Day is a special occasion within a much larger and seemingly never-ending category of work she has taken up on behalf of the neighborhood she’s lived in since before black people could vote in America.

Almost everyone who walks in or out stops to greet or tease her, or ask after the progress of one or another of Shoatz’s projects — reviving the garden, growing the small private school she launched for kids getting bullied at the public high, a funeral. She makes special note of the older folks coming in to cast a ballot.

“The elders, 80, 90 years old coming in stooped, climbing those steps — that’s when I really feel honored,” she says, “because they know what it means to vote.”


They are some of the few neighbors and friends who have been here longer than Shoatz herself. They have relied, in the past, on the community garden that now chokes under weeds beneath the mural of her mother. They have seen the same tide of economics that eventually carried the neighborhood’s Jewish denizens elsewhere start to loosen the hegemony of the black community here, a mix of gentrifying real estate developers and new immigrants from Muslim countries in Africa.

When Shoatz talks about how the neighborhood is changing, her sentiment is largely positive. Newcomers are eager to build bonds with old-timers. One voter who stops by, slipping between accented english with the neighborhood matriarch and French into his cell phone, turns out to be a minister at Shoatz’s church.

But there are also signs of fraying, she says. After kids started using a playground behind the school to do drugs, she put a padlock on the gate. When she got back from a missionary trip to Africa, someone had hopped the gate and stolen every scrappable piece of metal from the “tot-lot.” They even took the heavy springs of the rocking horses.

“Of course nobody saw anything,” Shoatz said, rolling her eyes wearily. As we walk back to her post in front of the polling place, we pass a niece of hers whose son was murdered earlier this fall.

Since she spent 15 minutes bouncing between lamentations about how her neighborhood is fraying and optimism about its future, it’s irresistible to ask: What did people around here think of Donald Trump’s characterization of black urban communities as a “hell,” not defined by violence and neglect but made up entirely of those malevolences?

“Listen, you should see the elders coming out to vote today,” she said. “He put a fire under them. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen them so determined.”


Shoatz says normally, she is somewhere in the first 20 or so people to cast a vote at the school. Tuesday morning, she was 159th.

No shennanigans, just large crowds. Maybe the Trump supporters who banged on about taking up their candidate’s call to go to “certain areas” in cities like Philadelphia to keep tabs on their fellow Americans today aren’t brave enough to try that out west Philly.

Or maybe the same spirit that powered her mother’s tireless advocacy for her community decades ago, and drives Shoatz onward even as she hits Medicare age, is looking over things on Tuesday.

“All I can say is, I’m asking almighty God for perfect peace today,” she said.