“‘Community development’ sounds so overwhelming, but stories are universal,” says Jessica Herzing, the dynamic Cameron County Project coordinator. In 2016, Herzing decided to stop complaining about local policy decisions from the sidelines and started listening to residents, attending community meetings, and learning more about what makes Cameron County tick. The stories she discovered opened her up to the diverse perspectives in her community and that eventually led her to help create The Cameron County Project in 2017, an organization whose aim is a “campaign of storytelling and resident-driven visioning.”
Last year, The Cameron County Project officially joined the network of Pennsylvania Heart & Soul communities, supported by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council in partnership with the Orton Family Foundation. Herzing’s role as coordinator is sponsored by her employer Judd Schager, CPA, who is also the treasurer for Cameron County Community Chest -- a local organization offering financial support to the project. Schager says Herzing is a “natural fit to head up the project.”
Tina Solak, Executive Director of the Cameron County Chamber of Commerce, agrees. “Jessica's passion about her hometown serves as a beacon for all of us, no matter what place we call home,” she said. “The coordinator of this project needed passion and analytical skills -- Jessica fills both of those requirements.”
In this Q&A, we caught up with Herzing to learn more about the exciting momentum of The Cameron County Project and how storytelling and resident engagement are being used to fuel this bottom-up approach to community development.
How would you describe the Cameron County Project?
The Cameron County Project is a grassroots community project with the goal of encouraging residents to re-engage with Cameron County. Its intention is to build a sense of pride in what makes our county so special. Sometimes in a small community it’s easy to focus on what you don’t have, and that can bring down the morale of residents. This project is about promoting what we love as residents and using that to create more positive conversations about Cameron County that help our decision makers better represent us all as they take on planning for our future.
We plan to create a Resident Visioning Study for the County and an Action Plan on implementing resident values and ideas that will work in conjunction with the 2019 Tri-County Comprehensive Plan. The raw data will also be available for use through a searchable database that can aid in future research, decision-making, and implementation needs.
Why did you get involved with this project?
For me, building the Cameron County Project has been a labor of love going back to 2016. Back then, I was a masquerading as an engaged citizen, complaining about the decisions being made on my behalf by our local government and agencies. I had this moment where I realized that if I really wanted to know what I was complaining about, I needed to dig in and start attending community meetings and join some local clubs. After spending time at township, school board, and Rotary Club meetings, I quickly realized what I thought I knew was wrong and if I was having that epiphany, other residents probably would, too.
In October 2016, I was invited to attend a Community Heart & Soul information session in Ridgway. I, along with Commissioner Lori Reed and Chamber of Commerce Director Tina Solak, left that presentation so inspired by the idea of activating the residents, lifting their voices, and inviting everyone to take a seat at the table. We saw this as a way to reinvigorate our communities and that’s when the Cameron County Project started.
What do you love about Cameron County?
It’s so cliché, but what don’t I love about Cameron County? I love that our communities rally together in a time of need or tragedy. I love that sense of belonging when you walk down the street and people wave and say “Hello” or call you by name. I love that people always ask, “Who do you belong to?” when trying to figure out how you fit into the community puzzle. If you don’t have a familiar last name, they follow it with “How did you end up here?” I love that my children are supported by our neighbors, who have become like family. I adore that we’re surrounded by opportunities to enjoy nature and all the recreation that comes along with that. I love that we boast some of the darkest skies in the state, but I can take a day trip to Pittsburgh, Erie, or Buffalo with little issue.
I moved away from Cameron County three days after I graduated from Cameron County High School, in 2005, with the intention to never come back. Having lived in Harrisburg, Greensburg, and the Pittsburgh area – I’ve gained this new appreciation for the slower pace of life afforded by living in rural Emporium located right in the heart of the Pennsylvania Wilds.
You often use hashtags like #MyCameronCounty and #CamCoProud. Why is it important for residents, particularly those in Cameron County, to take pride in their community?
There is a trend of focusing on what Cameron County lacks because we’ve seen some real downturns in industry and decreases in population over the last couple decades. More recently, some backlash has been felt over the blighted buildings that needed to come down which draws a very real contrast to our glory days. Nothing breaks you down more than feeling like you’re stuck in a community that’s dying around you, watching your history being torn down or sitting empty, day in and day out.
#CamCoProud is a way to show off what residents think is awesome here. When someone posts something they love; a place they visited, a news article about a positive thing that happened, a local organization that did something remarkable – it’s our goal they tag it #CamCoProud to highlight the awesome things we should be 100% proud of, the things that only Cameron County can offer. With a new pride-filled perspective, every empty lot, building, and house, can be an opportunity - for growth, economic development, or positive change.
What events have you held so far and how have they been received?
We “ballooned” Cameron County to celebrate being designated as a Pennsylvania Heart & Soul Community, and to announce our partnership with the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and the Orton Family Foundation. That was fun! We tied green and silver balloons on all the parking meters in the Borough of Emporium, on the Emporium Welcome Center Train Caboose, and at local businesses in Sterling Run, Driftwood, and Sinnemahoning. Residents looked at us funny and were asking, “What exactly are we celebrating?” It created some really great conversations about the project and what we’re working towards.
We also partnered with our local Fair Association to hold the Cameron County Cookout last summer and had the best time talking with the residents that came. They had some fantastic stories and we were so humbled by the donations we received from local organizations.
We’ve been so fortunate to create partnerships with community groups that have opened doors for us to collect stories from our residents – we haven’t had to plan many events ourselves. This is especially true of the Cameron County Chamber of Commerce, the Cameron County School District, and the Cameron County Family Center. Through their kindness and support of our mission, we’ve been able to have tables and speak at big local events. It has opened up opportunities to teach kids about the idea of a community which has allowed us to collect so many stories from the children and teenagers in our county.
How is the Heart & Soul process getting residents involved in community development in Cameron County?
Like other small, rural communities, Cameron County has really low attendance from residents at decision maker meetings. It’s also hard for residents to get timely information -- we only have two newspapers that are published once a week and our local governments and municipalities don’t have a huge online presence or hold limited office hours. These factors can create a wall for residents to receive the information they need to be adequately informed and voice their opinions. The Cameron County Project’s ability to apply Heart & Soul to our residents means we can take the “collective idea bucket” to the residents, meeting them where they are, in a way that makes sense to them. By allowing everyone the opportunity to share their story and what they love about our community, we can have positive conversations about tough issues and make sure that everyone’s hopes, concerns, and ideas are part of how the county moves forward.
Why is getting people involved so important?
As a resident, I know that it can sometimes feel like your way of thinking is not in line with the decisions being made. When you aren’t sure how to go about being heard in a constructive way or feel like no one would care even if you did, it’s easy to fall into a habit of “nay-saying” those decisions to your friends, neighbors, or on social media. Community Heart & Soul is so great about overcoming that frustration and bridging the barriers to being heard. If you can’t attend a 10AM Commissioner meeting, that’s ok – we’ll meet you when your shift ends. If you can’t make it to the 7PM School Board or Township meeting because you don’t have a sitter – that’s ok, we’ll meet you when it makes sense for you.
If you want to be heard, and share your story, we’ll find a way to make it work so your voice is part of the greater conversation. Just because you can’t make it to a meeting, don’t know exactly who needs to hear your idea, or how to best get it where it needs to go -- doesn’t mean your ideas are less valuable than anyone else’s. This project’s goal is to reach those people, have a friendly conversation, remind them how awesome and important they are, and help direct them and their ideas in the right direction.
What role do you think storytelling plays in community development?
“Community development” sounds so overwhelming, but stories are universal. Our stories are what make us who we are and explain how we each view our communities. I think it’s through our stories that we see that my Cameron County is different than my neighbor’s Cameron County but each of our experiences and views is so vital to how we as a community come together to make decisions about our future.
If you can just share what you love about Cameron County then we can have a conversation about your past and your hopes and wishes for the community. There is so much powerful data about what you value and what you cherish about this place we share. People don’t even realize that it’s the things they love that our decision makers most need to hear.
The most interesting trend at this stage in the story gathering process is how different the Northern Tier and the Southern Tier are in their hopes and concerns within similar age groups. Bridging that divide has always been a challenge, but I’m excited to see how this project brings together both parts of our county.
Another interesting thing we found in our interviews was that the high school students said they most valued the feeling of belonging to a community. They really seem to value how much their neighbors care about them and how that makes them feel. They also have some pretty implementable ideas: a Teen Lounge for homework, more opportunities to pursue artistic outlets outside of school, even just answering the question, “How can we cover the cost to rent a local indoor gym for a basketball game once a week?” These are conversations we’ve been having with local organizations and businesses to see how we can act on their practical requests.
What change would you like to see in Cameron County in the coming years?
I’d love to see more people at decision maker meetings. I’ve attended too many where I’m the only person from the public. I always learn the most powerfully positive things at those meetings that change my point of view about a decision being made. I think of decision-making in a community like throwing stones into a pond. No major decisions are made overnight. An idea is “thrown” and it ripples through being presented, discussed, mulled over, and as the ripple hits the shore, it’s enacted. I’d love to see more people at meetings when the stone is thrown, rather than waiting until the ripple almost reaches the shore.