James Burnett Takes the Mic on Capital, Cause, & Community Engagement

by Nikia Brown

Thirty years ago, James Burnett was a different person. He was a typical college student trying to navigate the uncertainties of life.

Today, he is the Executive Director of West Philadelphia Financial Services Institution (WPFSI). He also serves as a Board Member on a number of community organizations such as the Business Association of West Parkside, Philadelphia Parks Alliance, Mt.Vernon Manor, and Entrepreneur Works.

While thereare a series of events that led him to his current position, Burnett’s interest in finance and community development has not wavered. In high school, he witnessed the grave disparities that existed between poor and affluent neighborhoods and asked himself, “How can we make our communities more stable?”

Even at a young age, he understood that access to capital was the answer to that question. “Finance offers more flexibility,” says Burnett. “Having capital makes a difference.” In his current role, Burnett collaborates with key stakeholders in the community to generate greater economic sustainability for various West Philadelphia neighborhoods. He provides activity grants as well as scholarships for leaders seeking community development training. “I want to help the community impact itself,” says Burnett.

By providing resources and pertinent information, Burnett aims to help business entrepreneurs and community members make sound decisions. His institution offers seminars on budgeting, creating bank accounts, and the value of saving. His organization also runs a youth program known as Wes Gold Fellows—a paid high school internship that engages students in the areas of job readiness, financial education, college planning, and civic participation.

Mr. James Burnett speaks before an audience. (Photo: Parkside Journal)
Mr. James Burnett speaks before an audience. (Photo: Parkside Journal)

When asked about his greatest accomplishments as Executive Director of WPFSI, Burnett responds, “Watching people grow—getting young people to grow in their roles.” Currently, Burnett is preparing to launch a community planning and revitalization project in seven neighborhoods: Dunlap, Mill Creek, Cathedral Park, Carroll Park, Hestonville, and East and West Parkside. He stresses that this project is entirely collaborative as he will be partnering with CDCs, resident associations, and community stakeholders to assess and meet the specific needs of each community.

WPFSI is also collaborating with Global Leadership Academy, Discovery Charter School, and Philadelphia University to design a play space behind Lowes in Parkwest Town Center. Students from Global Leadership Academy and Discovery Charter School will brainstorm design concepts for the play space and then pass the baton to Philadelphia University students to develop a concrete plan.

Burnett approaches the community with a realist perspective and sees it evolving in either one of two ways: “People will begin to pay attention and get involved or our community will be developed around and over top of us.” He sees the potential influx of new residents as a growth opportunity rather than a threat. “We must engage quickly,” Burnett asserts.

He credits the resistance to change to a lack of trust from community members who have been taken advantage of or lied to in the past.

While he doesn’t negate the validity of these feelings, he says, community members “must be willing to have a conversation.” He encourages community members to be open to progressive change as well as take ownership of how their community expands and develops.

Burnett has come a long way from that “young college student,” but his appetite for people and development seems to only deepen with time.

According to him, the time to maximize land and capital potential is ripe and long overdue. To reach the offices of WPFSI call 215-452-0100.

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