We put the humanities in action to create positive change.
How do journalists, historians, grassroots organizations, and residents all contribute to telling a community's story and motivating meaningful change? What are the challenges communities face in sustaining a sense of place while also welcoming new members and exploring new opportunities—in ways that are inclusive of our differences and shared humanity? Our civic engagement partners Chester Made and Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul will address these questions and more this fall and winter, telling A Tale of Two Cities through a series of programs and activities as part of the national Democracy and the Informed Citizen initiative.
Take your artistic statement to the streets! Tactical urbanism helps everyday people re-imagine streets and public spaces in the communities where they live. Chester Made is offering competitive mini-grants to aspiring Tactical Urbanists to design and implement a project that tests a big idea for embracing the art of change in Chester. Learn more here.
When Erin Hoopes applied for a grant to bring Teen Reading Lounge (TRL) to the Philadelphia City Institute (PCI) branch of the Free Library, she was searching for a way to attract that notoriously opaque demographic: teenagers. As Branch Manager, she envisioned a thriving community of teens who felt valued and were invested in the library. “Teens were a largely forgotten demographic group at PCI because we had such a strong tradition of programming and services to adults and families with young children,” said Hoopes. “But I knew that if we could just make PCI a more welcoming place for teens, they would feel invited to attend programs and that the library was an important part of their lives.” The idea of a library bustling with engaged teens who put down their phones to talk deeply about books might sound a little utopian, but Hoopes, who was named by Library Journal as one of their Movers & Shakers of 2018, was undaunted. After receiving a grant from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) in 2015 to start Teen Reading Lounge, she quickly drew in teens for regular book discussions and activities. The bottom-up pedagogy of the program fostered the sense of teen-ownership she was craving and an authentic community began to grow. “The dynamic nature of the TRL program and the relationships it fostered has helped our teens experience that feeling of being deeply valued,” said Hoopes. Philadelphia City Institute is positioned next to stately Rittenhouse Square. The library’s upscale location belies its diversity of patrons who come from throughout the city, including the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. PCI provides a safe place for young adults from all backgrounds where they can build skills and explore issues inspired by reading books together. Hoopes has seen the teens’ confidence levels improving as they support each other in articulating their feelings about the complex ideas and current events that are important to them. Her observation supports a recent survey by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, which found that 80% of Teen Reading Lounge participants reported improving their communication skills and 77% said they strengthened in the areas of critical thinking, problem solving and creativity. Civic engagement is central to PCI’s approach to Teen Reading Lounge and over the months of readings and discussions the cohort of teens build up to a cumulative project. The latest one involved creating a video about gun violence and “fake news,” which had a few courageous teens approaching city residents in Rittenhouse Square with tough questions. The experience taught them firsthand about the difficulties and rewards of engaging the public in meaningful dialogue. “Those interviews became some of the most moving parts of the video they made and they were especially proud of each other’s bravery in asking tough questions to people without knowing how they might respond,” said Hoopes. These civic engagement activities are challenging and empowering -- a big part of what makes the program so popular with young people. “Miss Erin teaches us that we have a voice and that our voice is powerful,” said Timmy, a senior in the Philadelphia School District who helped create the video. “She's a great mentor so, of course, she's going to make a great program that's really going to open people's eyes.” Timmy and the rest of the group at PCI were recently asked to write a blog for the Young Adult Library Services Association about their experiences with Teen Reading Lounge. Reflecting on the impact of the program, the teens concluded, “Through TRL, we have become better, more empathetic individuals, and more conscious about the world we live in.” The youth community sparked by Teen Reading Lounge continues to be a benefit to PCI, initiating new opportunities for growth at the library. “The foundation I was able to establish with TRL was a great springboard for more teen programming and services,” said Hoopes. In July, PCI hosted the attention-grabbing Social Justice Symposium for Teens with workshops on subjects like youth homelessness and activism through art. It featured a talk by Husnaa Hashim, the 2017-2018 Philadelphia Youth Poet Laureate. Erin Hoopes’ spearheading of such compelling programming and innovative events leads the way for how libraries can meet the needs of teens -- and how developing a thriving community of engaged teen readers is no utopian fantasy. Teen Reading Lounge is made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services as administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education through the Office of Commonwealth Libraries, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, Governor. Additional support is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
For many veterans in the Penn VUB program, the trips to theaters and museums, supported by Pennsylvania Humanities Council, are wholly new experiences. They can be eye-opening and emotionally stirring, leading to conversations about culture, history and justice. This unique approach to putting veterans on track for college is often a catalyst for meaningful personal, and broader community, change.
About two dozen Community Heart & Soul volunteers packed the Upper Chichester Township municipal building’s conference room on the evening of October 22nd. Representatives from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) and the Orton Family Foundation were there to celebrate Upper Chichester’s work so far and offer training for the second phase of the process. “You all really understand the people-centered aspect of the Heart & Soul process,” said Mimi Iijima, PHC’s Director of Programs and Special Projects, who led the training. In the short time since Upper Chichester officially joined PHC's growing network of Pennsylvania Heart & Soul communities, team members have organized a large base of volunteers into committees that represent neighborhoods and community interests. They also created a robust web site and became active on social media. Excitement has been building in the Township as was evident when over fifty people attended their first work day. The Heart & Soul process has fueled ongoing discussions about local assets, which has in turn strengthened networks and built momentum for the project. “Going through the first phase of Heart & Soul made it so clear that Upper Chi residents want to be a part of the planning and economic process,” said Barbara Kelley, project coordinator. “Everyone is working together to make a difference.” The evening’s training focused on the upcoming second phase of Community Heart & Soul -- the nitty gritty of story gathering. In a series of group activities and lectures, attendees learned ways of approaching people, how to ask questions, and how interviewers can be conscious of their own biases. The training for the second phase is intensive because the stories gathered will ultimately be put at the center of Upper Chichester’s future community development plans. “We are super excited about the second phase,” said Kelley. “The gathering of stories will really make the community come alive.” Related Content Upper Chichester Heart & Soul Community Profile Pennsylvania Heart & Soul Communities
The Pennsylvania Humanities Council has partnered with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and Orton Family Foundation to support Upper Chichester and Cameron County along the path to becoming stronger, healthier and more vibrant communities through a humanities-based approach to community development. Through this unique partnership among a government agency, a statewide nonprofit and a national foundation, PHC and Orton Family Foundation will provide training and technical support worth an estimated $60,000 to each community. In addition Upper Chichester Township and The Cameron County Project have each received $5,000 in combined funding from PHC and DCED, for a total investment valued at $130,000. “The humanities are a valuable tool for community and economic development in Pennsylvania,” said Laurie Zierer, PHC’s executive director. “We see so much positive change as residents build relationships, honor their homegrown talents and assets, and reclaim and reshape their communities.” Since 2015, PHC and Orton have been working together to bring Community Heart & Soul®, a community development model pioneered by Orton, to communities across Pennsylvania. Upper Chichester and Cameron County join Greater Carlisle, Meadville and Williamsport, which have Community Heart & Soul projects underway. “This alignment of interests: the humanities, the community and the economy makes perfect sense. We all share a common goal—building communities that are stronger culturally, socially and economically. We look forward to seeing positive change unfold as the residents of Upper Chichester and Cameron County embark on Community Heart & Soul,” said David Leckey, executive director Orton Family Foundation. A suburban southeastern Pennsylvania town of 17,000 residents, Upper Chichester is working to develop its commercial corridors and, with feedback from residents, further establish its identity and sense of place. The Upper Chichester Board of Commissioners has approved funding and staffing to develop neighborhood plans that will help create a comprehensive plan informed by residents through Community Heart & Soul. Located in rural northcentral Pennsylvania, Cameron County is the smallest county in the state with a population of 4,592. Residents there founded the Cameron County Project in 2017, inspired by a 2016 workshop produced by PHC and Orton and hosted by the North Central Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission in Ridgway.
“Surprising!” “Eye-opening!” “Interesting!” Three teens, Alison, Ha and Amanda, representing John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School, stretched out comfortably on an outdoor patio overlooking the Old City neighborhood of Philadelphia. They gave spirited responses to our questions about their experiences with Teen Reading Lounge (TRL), a book club developed by Pennsylvania Humanities Council that pairs reading with creative projects and thoughtful discussions.
The following document is the culmination of three years of story gathering, data analysis, and collective visioning. Included are ideas for action that are rooted in our eight identified common values, which were crafted and vetted by our community. -- Introduction to the My Meadville Community Action Plan Declared an "event unlike any other” by The Meadville Tribune, more than 300 people showed up to the World’s Largest Potluck (in Meadville) on a warm July evening -- but not just for the free potato salad and green bean casserole. Hot off the press was the long-awaited Community Action Plan, the aggregate of a multi-year civic engagement project led by the folks at My Meadville. Busily passed out to curious visitors, this summative document charts the course for future community development. “It was great to hold the finished product in our hands and to get to share it with our friends and neighbors,” said My Meadville Coordinator, Autumn Vogel. “So much hard work had gone into the plan -- from our Leadership Team, our volunteers and the whole community.” My Meadville’s Community Action Plan (CAP) is a thick, colorful and photo-rich booklet that lists a series of achievable action items like “launch a youth mentoring program” or “implement participatory budgeting.” Each action item is tied to respective solution partners, partner organizations and also to the core community values that the action reflects. The CAP has an accessible, easy-to-read format because it is not meant to be stuffed into a file cabinet in the back of a city planner’s office. It was carefully designed for use by the residents of Meadville, who are encouraged in the introduction to “contribute what you can” and “find your place.” The à la carte approach allows people the freedom to pick and choose ways to help that meet their unique skills and interests. How My Meadville achieved something so practical for non-professionals, with keen attention to the voices of residents, has an appropriately grassroots origin: community storytelling. Their approach was to implement the humanities-based Community Heart & Soul® method of community development, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and the Orton Family Foundation. The program had the My Meadville team hosting a series of events and activities designed to bring to light the needs, memories and hopes of the residents of Meadville. The crux of their efforts has been exploring creative ways to encourage residents to talk with each other and tell their story. Starting in 2015, My Meadville mined over 1,400 unique data points from social events, story-collecting booths, film discussions, recorded interviews, community surveys and story circles. “These stories revealed a great deal about the realities, both good and bad, of people's lives in our town,” said Vogel. “They told us what we needed to change in order to make this a good place for all to live, and they told us what we need to maintain, what is central to our community identity, what makes Meadville Meadville.” The process of collecting stories through resident engagement drew on practices from disciplines across the humanities, including history, communications, anthropology and art. The vast data is an achievement in itself, having historical and cultural value, while the events and activities strengthened community bonds by building connections between residents and fostering a shared sense of place. But the final Community Action Plan, a work of applied humanities, took that amassed cultural treasure chest and used it to produce something more tangible -- a clear path to make meaningful change in accordance with the will of the residents. This was not done behind closed doors but at two well-attended public events. The first was the My Meadville Community Celebration in October of 2017, where eight community value statements were developed and refined. The second was in June of 2018, at the Ideas Summit, which honed these values into the actions seen in the final plan. The CAP, and the process that produced it, demonstrate a way the humanities can be wielded to place residents at the helm of the planning process by lifting up voices -- especially those that are often marginalized. This new dynamic has been embraced by local authorities and developers. For example, at the latest Economic Progress Alliance of Crawford County event, the keynote speaker, in his address about Meadville’s French Creek corridor development, said that My Meadville is “part of the team… if this is going to work, it is going to be all us." To ensure the future accountability of the diversity of stakeholders, the Community Action Plan’s implementation will be guided by the My Meadville Stewardship Team. Much has already been accomplished by My Meadville leading up to the potluck that can give residents confidence that their voices will be heard. The City of Meadville received a $25,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to update their zoning ordinance and their Comprehensive Plan with the data collected by My Meadville. In response to community feedback, the local Redevelopment Authority has started new programs that offer grants and low-interest loans to downtown businesses and entrepreneurs. A new coffee shop, Tarot Bean Roasting Co., was launched with the support of resident fundraising, when it was identified as a need at the beginning of the story-gathering process. Changes to existing laws are now being considered, such as an ordinance to allow urban agriculture like community gardens and urban farms. My Meadville has even inspired new local organizations like the HYPE Squad (Helping Youth Promote Excellence), who created a bright mural on the side of Cobblestone Cottage, a downtown Meadville business. My Meadville describes itself as a “community-based initiative that identifies what people love most about where they call home and translates those values into a plan for the City's future.” In practice, the group’s work has extended far beyond this. From story circles to the bustling World’s Largest Potluck (in Meadville), they have shown that there is a way to make the community development process exciting and engaging by placing the humanities at the core of the process. This has empowered residents to shape their future equitably and encouraged deep, meaningful participation. “The work is by no means complete, but it's clear that folks are feeling more connected now than they were before -- to people and place,” said Vogel. “That's really exciting to see.” Related Content Meadville Heart & Soul Community Profile
Beginning this past fall, I have had the pleasure of being PHC’s communication’s intern. Given my rhetoric and public advocacy background, I’m interested in exploring community development and the importance of creating transparency among a group of people. A peer exchange weekend with the Chester Made initiative gave me the opportunity. Chester Made is a civic engagement project that brings together various residents from artists and local leaders to entrepreneurs with a common goal of changing the perception of Chester and building a stronger community.
Each year, the statewide nonprofit Preservation Pennsylvania puts out a call for nominations to its Pennsylvania At Risk list, made up of sites determined to be among the commonwealth’s most endangered historic resources. In 2018, four remarkable places that are part of Pennsylvania’s history were added to the list and will become Preservation Pennsylvania’s work priorities for the year. Together, these four sites represent approximately 635 years of Pennsylvania history. The tales they tell are about slavery, creating community after the Civil War, taming the Pennsylvania wilds, industrial growth and railroad history, craftsmanship, and the ways that people form strong connections to local places they love.
Learn how youth organizations and libraries can promote positive youth development skills through the humanities and civic engagement through this latest recorded installment of the Teen Reading Lounge webinar series.
The Williamsport Sun-Gazette has reviewed the new film, From the Heart of Williamsport, which premiered February 9 to a full house of more than 300 people at the Community Art Center. The film was created by the Heart of Williamsport team, who describe it as "a storytelling film that celebrates what we love about our community."