What does it mean to work with communities to make social change? “Sometimes you have to get off the bus. We cannot be tourists as program partners or grantmakers,” said Pennsylvania Humanities Council executive director Laurie Zierer, recounting how she first met Chester artist and entrepreneur Devon Walls.
“I remember launching the Chester Made project,” Zierer said. “We did just that—we got off the bus driving us through downtown Chester, and we talked with people. And that’s when everything started to happen for us. We began meeting artists like Devon who had long been working to revitalize the downtown and engage the community through the arts.”
Both Zierer and Walls made presentations Friday, June 19, during “The Story of a Block: A Tour of Chester’s Avenue of the States with Artists, Entrepreneurs & Urban Farmers.” PHC and the Barra Foundation coordinated with Philanthropy Network of Greater Philadelphia to produce this interactive site tour of Chester’s downtown.
Kimberly Allen of Wells Fargo Regional Foundation and Chester City Councilman Al Jacobs gave opening and welcome remarks. Andrew Frishkoff, executive director of Philadelphia Local Initiatives Support Corporation, facilitated the panel presentations, in which a mix of funders, artists, activists, and business owners explored the value of collaboratively funded projects.
Introducing the panel members, Frishkoff said, “It takes a village to accomplish the kind of work being done here.”
In addition to Zierer and Walls, presenters included Laura Koloski, senior program specialist at the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage; Chuck Lacy, co-founder of the Barred Rock Fund; Kristina Wahl, president of the Barra Foundation; Sharon Meagher, former dean from Widener University; and representatives from the Chester Made and Boundaries and Bridges projects.
Discussion topics included Chester Made, a humanities-based initiative to recognize and promote arts and culture in Chester and to harness their power as a force for community revitalization; Boundaries and Bridges, an initiative to strengthen ties between Widener University and Chester residents; and New Day Chester Inc., a mission-related investment partnership created to acquire and develop properties along Chester’s Avenue of the States.
Beyond the panel discussion, the event gave current and potential funders the opportunity to tour downtown Chester and experience firsthand the place-led efforts that are creating positive change there. As participants arrived for registration and breakfast, they encountered three different agriculturally-based projects initiated through collaborative funding: Chester Housing Authority’s Mobile Market, Sowing Good Seeds’ portable garden beds, and fresh produce from Fare & Square, Chester’s community grocery store.
After the panel, attendees were free to travel up and down Avenue of the States to participate in activities at the Chester Made pop-up makerspace with Alex Gilliam from Public Workshop, enjoy performances by local musicians and poets, and continue conversations in spaces that represent growth and development made possible through collaborative funding. Performers including Jerry Dukes, Kenneth Hunt, India Irvin, and Robert Young shared their talents as well as personal examples of the transformative power of the arts in their own lives and communities.
After the tour, David Bradley, founder of Live Connections, facilitated conversation over lunch from Shugar Shack Catering. Chester residents, project partners and the funders present discussed grantmaking practices, and together explored what it means to “let go” in order to develop local assets and organizational capacity with – not for – a community.
To close the day, Honorable Thaddeus Kirkland, mayor of Chester, thanked all present for forging valuable community partnerships that are bringing hope and real change to the city. He also noted that collaborative funding opportunities and initiatives like Chester Made have helped the city become nationally known as an arts and humanities hub, which has in turn worked to change the perception that all news about Chester is negative.
Kirkland advised all present to keep working together and—quoting Harry Belefonte—to “stop letting other people tell your story.”