At 24, Logan Philon has helped lead the long process of helping low-income families climb out of poverty.
He never considered himself an entrepreneur, but he has earned himself a spot among Winston-Salem’s most enterprising business leaders for the project he launched in 2016. It may end up being the most important and impactful socioeconomic project ever in Winston-Salem.
“Starting this was more about me seeing a project that needed to be done than a personal characteristic,” says Philon of starting the Piedmont Renewal Network from his dorm room at Piedmont International University. “Originally, I looked to make a difference volunteering at other organizations, but I didn’t find one that really addressed this issue.”
The issue was — and still is — a severe lack of economic mobility in Winston-Salem, a problem laid bare by a 2015 Harvard University study on the issue nationwide. It called out Forsyth County as the most difficult place in America, excluding three American Indian reservations, to escape childhood poverty.
Philon noted five key areas cited in the study that trapped local low-income families. Low-achieving public schools, high levels of segregation, and a lack of networking opportunities across racial lines are three big factors. The collapse of the low-skill labor economy and transportation issues are the others.
“It’s really the perfect storm here,” says Philon. “The more I read the study, the more it made sense to me.”
And the more Philon was determined to make a difference. Despite being an effective social activist on campus at PIU, he couldn’t sell government leaders and potential donors on the Piedmont Renewal Network at first.
“No one believed this 22-year-old kid could start something serious,” says Philon. “We also have a lot of other nonprofits here already. People were asking whether we really needed another one.”
A couple years later, Philon doesn’t face those doubts anymore. He and his growing team are focused squarely on addressing education based on their research here and elsewhere of other models that promote greater economic mobility. The Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI) run by the University of Southern California really stuck out.
“They take kids living in low-income situations in the sixth grade, put them through a seven-year college prep program that includes after-school tutoring, summer programming, and a social emotional health program,” says Philon. “At the end, any kid who qualifies to go to USC goes tuition free.”
Since its first graduating class in 1997, the NAI has put nearly 1,040 students through the program. Of those, 83 percent have enrolled as freshmen at four-year universities.
The Piedmont Renewal Network is building a version of the Academic Initiative here, but with multiple local colleges and universities involved instead of just one. Piedmont International University and Winston-Salem State University are already on board.
Philon says he expects more by the time the Network’s first wave of students is ready for college. The Piedmont Renewal Network is partnering with the school district on a data analysis study to see how impactful its efforts are. The results, however, will take years to show up.
“This is a multi-decade–long game, but we have a pretty young staff all in their 20s and 30s,” says Philon. “We all see ourselves doing this for the next 10 to 20 years. We want to move the needle. It will take the whole city and dozens of nonprofits working together, but this is one project that alone can positively affect economic mobility in this city.”