Joseph K. Selvaggio
Many tributes have been written about the extraordinary life and career of Joe Selvaggio. With the Joseph Selvaggio Housing Initiative, the Phillips Partnership pays tribute in a different way, one befitting a man whose lifelong passion has been to “give a hand up” to the people of Phillips, quietly-one family, one house, one street corner, one budding entrepreneur at a time.

Born to an Italian-American family in 1937, Joe Selvaggio grew up in an apartment above his dad’s awning store on Chicago’s Division Street. He graduated from Fenwick High School, majored in math at Marquette University, and then devoted himself to eight years of seminary training, eventually earning a B.A. in Philosophy from Acquinas University. He was ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Dominican Order in Dubuque, Iowa in 1965.

As a priest, Joe went to work in the civil rights movement. After making several stops in the South, he later landed at Holy Rosary Church in the Phillips Community, where he served as parish priest. Joe left the priesthood in 1968 to apply the gospel more practically and directly to issues of peace and civil rights.

During those years he also helped organize Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers. There were also a few more conventional positions as an IDS mutual fund salesman (in 1969) and as the founder of Advocate Services, Inc. (from 1970 to 1972).

He founded Project for Pride in Living (PPL) in 1972. PPL’s motto, “give me a fish and I eat for a day; teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime,” expresses its – and Joe’s– commitment to the values of a strong work ethic, personal accountability and responsibility, and the participation of the disenfranchised in their own growth toward self-sufficiency. Despite the challenges of its inner-city neighborhood, PPL believed strongly in an asset-based approach: not focusing on problems, but identifying, developing and building from the strengths that do exist in families and the neighborhood.

In his 26 years as executive director, Joe was responsible for a $7.4 million annual budget for 13 programs, and completed a $4.5 million capital campaign in 1996. He retired in 1996, passing the leadership reins to Steve Cramer in a transition that was applauded by StarTribune columnist Leonard Inskip. Minnesota Monthly named Joe Minnesotan of the Year in 1996.

As a board member at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Joe has guided a renewal of the hospital’s community focus. He has advised the hospital and its parent, Allina Health System, on the appropriate approaches to community giving.

The Phillips Partnership’s newest initiative will help Phillips residents and property owners improve the housing and public spaces in the eight-block area between Portland and Chicago avenues and 26th and 28th streets. The project is an expression of the Partners’ commitment to Joe’s philosophy: to the belief that the people and homes of this neighborhood are themselves assets; that “help” means assisting people to help themselves; that revitalizing a neighborhood takes patience and a commitment to the long haul-in Joe’s words, working “house by house, block by block, business by business.”

The members of the Phillips Partnership could think of no better tribute to these ideals-and to Joe Selvaggio’s decades of service-than to name this project the Joseph Selvaggio Initiative. We hope the work we do here will be a living, block-by-block reminder that the ideas of one person can make a difference.