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The Philadelphia Story

Jeff Seder with students in the studio

Jeff Seder '76 likes to brag that the only case he ever litigated involved a stolen pile of horse manure. That's just one reason he hasn't exactly been conventional most of the time, Seder says. After all, there's nothing conventional about pouring $2 million of your own money into saving inner-city kids through filmmaking.

Seder seemed set on a more traditional path (at least after a stint working as a truck mechanic in Rhodesia) when he graduated with a joint degree from HLS and Harvard Business School. He took a job with Citicorp in New York, intending to do international development work. But seeing a mural of Pennsylvania's farmland in his workplace's atrium made him realize he'd rather be out in a field himself. So he quit his job, packed up the horse he had bought in graduate school, and moved into an old Pennsylvania farmhouse, where he tried to figure out a way to make money off equines. He eventually created Equine Biomechanics and Exercise Physiology, a company that assesses young thoroughbreds' career prospects using statistical analysis.

In 1994 Seder served on a committee trying to find ways to improve Philadelphia and wound up helping on a campaign to publicize the city's unsung heroes. During a film shoot for the project, he noticed a group of kids hanging out on the corner. Instead of chasing them away, he put up a casting sheet. Ten signed up the first day and 15 the next.

Seder and Jared Martin, a former star of the television show Dallas, then created The Big Picture Alliance, which teaches Philadelphia teenagers how to write and produce short films. Eight years later, the organization has its own digital studio and has produced its 50th film. Its participants regularly beat out top film school students at festivals throughout the country. The alliance also creates workbooks and curriculums so teachers can integrate its films on topics like accidental shootings and teen pregnancy into their lesson plans.

Most important, Seder says, the alliance has helped hundreds of kids from African-American, Cambodian, and Latino neighborhoods who were dropouts or worse. Take Rigoberto Garcia, a Big Picture Alliance alumnus, now studying at Penn State while operating his own video production business. "It's the first time they've finished something and been proud," Seder said. "It's an eye-opener about how the world can work for them."

Not everyone can be saved. Pharoah Harris, 18, for example, was shot and killed in a gang-related incident shortly before completing a film he starred in and helped produce.

Seder mostly limits his role these days to fund-raising and management issues. He's thinking of selling Equine Biomechanics. Maybe moving to Hollywood and writing a few scripts of his own.

Philadelphia leaders would hate to see him go. As former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell said, "Every city should be blessed with a Jeff Seder."

--Seth Stern '01

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