Community Network Analysis Sparks Dialogue and Action

April 21, 2016

How well do you know your community? How diverse are the residents? What issues are they facing? Questions like these inform the work of PHC’s Pennsylvania Heart & Soul™ communities, and the answers are sometimes surprising.

Each of the four communities—Carlisle, Meadville, Williamsport, and the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia—has carried out a community network analysis (CNA) to identify population segments, social networks, and the links among them. The CNA is a critical part of the Community Heart & Soul® method, which PHC has brought to its grant communities through a partnership with the Orton Family Foundation.

Community Heart & Soul embodies PHC’s belief that people’s own stories should be at the heart of community development. Using the humanities-based Heart & Soul method, team leaders aim to uncover what matters most to their communities by gathering stories from and engaging as many residents as possible. One of the first steps is to develop a more comprehensive understanding of who comprises the community by conducting a CNA.

Williamsport’s Heart & Soul Team working on their CNA


For example, by digging deep to learn more about residents, Carlisle’s Heart & Soul leadership team unearthed small populations of minorities and immigrants they weren’t aware of. “Many of us found it interesting that some groups living in the region were not represented in the census data,” said the director of Greater Carlisle Project, Lindsay Houpt-Varner. “For example, there is a small Bosnian community in the region, but their representation in the data was not there,” she explained.

The Carlisle CNA also revealed that 26.7% of residents are living below poverty level, and economic and racial segregation are the community’s largest challenges. The leadership team found that there are huge variances between the rich and poor, with 4% of the population making under $10,000 a year and 4% of the population making over $200,000 a year. “It was fascinating gaining a greater understanding of the urban and rural parts of our region and how they are interconnected through services, schools, culture and recreation activities,” said Houpt-Varner.

Participants in Williamsport’s Heart and Soul project, known as Heart of Williamsport, found the CNA similarly revealing and valuable. “[The community network analysis] was helpful in understanding who we know in our community, who we don’t know in our community and who we can engage with to better understand how to make our initial connections,” said Alice Trowbridge from the Heart of Williamsport leadership team.

Work around the Williamsport CNA has helped to bring various leaders, groups, and stories to light; it has also revealed the severity in the number of residents living in poverty. On average 42%-60% of Williamsport residents live below poverty level, however, in certain neighborhoods that figure grows as large as 88%. “We were shocked by the high levels of poverty in so many neighborhoods surrounding our downtown,” said Trowbridge.


Poverty levels also surprised Meadville’s Heart & Soul team, which is focused on bringing together a community that has been fractured. Project leaders had been aware of the very homogeneous (90.6% white) population and that minority voices were missing from public processes. What they didn’t realize was that nearly 40% of the population lives below poverty level, and 60% of residents rent their homes. These issues cannot be solved overnight, and the project leaders know this. “It takes time for a program to invest,” said Jill Withey, the executive director of the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Meadville. Withey suggested that the city government’s tendency to target a new project every two to three years contributed to the lack of change accomplished.

Germantown’s Heart & Soul leadership team also found through their CNA that residents of the historic neighborhood tend to distrust their community and political leaders because of failed promises and inconsistencies. The large community of about 75,000 residents has a median household income of only $30,535; this is nearly $21,000 less than the median household income in the U.S. Contributing to these economic issues is the unemployment rate, which is about 5% higher than that of Pennsylvania overall. 


Network connecting by Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul at a Black History Festival

But while Germantown Heart & Soul team members were aware of poverty in their community, what surprised them was to find wealth. “Data on income levels in Germantown piqued the most interest from our participants,” said Emaleigh Doley, the corridor manager of Germantown United CDC. “We’ll be taking a closer look at the census tracts within Germantown that feature high concentrations of particular income brackets, including areas of the neighborhood with concentrated wealth and concentrated poverty.”

PHC believes the humanities can inspire people to come together and make a difference in their communities; Community Heart & Soul—which is based in the humanities—provides a path to increase residents’ participation in public processes.

“On our site visits to each community, residents told us not only about the rifts in their communities but about the need to motivate more residents and new leaders in making decisions and taking action for their community,” said Mimi Iijima, director of programs and special projects at PHC.

A thorough CNA can help community leaders engage all populations and prepare residents for the next step in the Heart & Soul process, but what else do leadership teams expect to come from this? Christian Maher, executive director at Crawford Heritage Community Foundation (a partner of Meadville Heart & Soul) says, “The promise of making leaders of people who didn’t previously have a voice.”

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