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.”