Finding her home at the World Affairs Council

For Lauren Swartz, work, family and community all seemed to line up perfectly in the perfect landing spot.

The current president and CEO of World Affairs Council of Philadelphia made South Philly her home in 2008. And with a job that is dedicated to educating and connecting Philadelphians with influential figures around the globe, what better place to live than a melting pot filled with heritage and strong community values?

“Just look at South Philadelphia,” Swartz said. “We are the landing place and chosen home of so many diverse populations. I think it’s awesome that my neighbors are Indonesian and Cambodian and Mexican or from Honduras. We’re the boring ones on the block who don’t speak enough languages. And the food doesn’t smell nearly as good coming from my house as it does from theirs.”

Swartz lived in six different states and three other countries before arriving in Philadelphia in her early 20s. Although she was once an outsider, she has raised her children in South Philly, even choosing to have a home birth there. She immediately knew South Philly would become the place to grow roots.

“The community is very strong,” Swartz said. “Your neighbors become your friends and family in a way that it’s fun but also in a way that there’s an accountability to it. You have to clean up your property and go to the block party and shop at your local stores and I like that there are local businesses and stores. All my kids know the owners of the stores on (East) Passyunk Avenue. They can go see Amanda at the bakery or go into A Novel Idea and buy a book on my credit card. There’s also a really rich food culture of immigrant-owned restaurants that are some of the best in the country. And they are also my neighbors.”

Swartz’s employer is undergoing big change and celebrating big accolades as the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia has unveiled a rebrand while acknowledging its 75th anniversary this year. On March 12, Swartz helped unveil the organization’s new brand and office on John F. Kennedy Boulevard while sharing global experiences with local students from Parkway Middle College and Bodine High School. It’s the kind of interaction that wasn’t exactly on the table when Swartz took on her current role in the fall of 2020.

“We thought it was the middle of the pandemic and it was just the beginning of the dark ages,” Swartz said. “It was a little bit creepy to come over here in September of 2020. All of our programs, except for one that was born during the pandemic, were face-to-face first. Because of that, we pivoted very quickly into virtual programming. We didn’t have a choice.”

World Affairs Council adapted and still managed to provide valuable international experience to local residents. Swartz adapted, too. In her three years helming the nonpartisan group, she has completed a merger with Citizens Diplomacy International Philadelphia, increased revenue by nearly 50 percent and grown corporate membership more than 25 percent. Her role at the council builds on a career in international diplomacy, having served as the City of Philadelphia’s deputy commerce director for international business and global strategy previously.

“Ninety-five percent of the world lives outside the United States and over 75 percent of world economic growth comes from outside the United States,” Swartz said. “So for Philadelphia and our regional communities to thrive in the way that we can to build our future, we need to understand the world around us. The pandemic was a good example. Nobody thought much about supply chains and how viruses travel the world until that happened. So we are all affected all the time by the world around us.”

Swartz travels the world as part of her job. She recently returned from a trip to Finland and Estonia, taking her above the Arctic Circle during the trip.

“The World Affairs Council takes about 30 international trips a year,” Swartz said. “We saw northern lights and lead dogsleds through the Finnish forests and midnight snowshoe hikes. It was a trip of a lifetime.”

A few favorite destinations so far have been Chile and Argentina in South America. She’s also lived in Denmark and has traveled most of the countries in Europe. Her job requires tons of communication and hard work, but the time on the plane is used for other necessary things. “Absolutely nothing,” she said with a laugh. “I love airports. When you’re on a plane, there’s nothing to do besides watch all the crappy movies you missed over the last two years and wear comfortable clothing. Nobody is texting or calling. I’m totally against WiFi on planes. I use it as a time to reset.”

And she somehow still finds time to be a great mom and wife.

“I’m very good at scheduling and making lists and prioritizing,” said Swartz, who is now in her 40s. “And that’s been helpful to me in trying to take advantage of opportunities to build a family and a career at the same time. Part of it is living in South Philadelphia with how close it is to downtown. I can always get home or to my kids’ school quickly. Keeping a tight geography in a tight community has really helped me be able to make space to do things in my professional career but still stay close to my family and my community.”