In 2010, a 7-inch long LEGO® space shuttle rocketed out of Earth’s atmosphere aboard the Discovery, a tiny plastic symbol of the big, new partnership between The LEGO Group and NASA and their shared effort to bring science education to a new generation of young people. Uncommon alliances between expressly different organizations, like a space agency and a toy manufacturer, can happen at those curious places where missions dovetail. Think: Burger King and Mental Health America, Hyundai and Prada, and UNICEF and Target.
The Pennsylvania Humanities Council’s (PHC’s) partnership with the Vermont-based Orton Family Foundation looks similarly implausible at first glance. The latter was founded in 1995 by Lyman Orton of the Vermont Country Store, and is best known for creating the Community Heart & Soul model of community development. State humanities councils are traditionally focused on giving grants for cultural events and to historical societies, art centers, libraries, and other local groups.
“At first we thought it was a bit of a head-scratcher,” said David Leckey, executive director of the Orton Family Foundation. “Why would a humanities council want to work with a nonprofit focused on community development, like comprehensive plans and downtown plans?”
The path to the unusual relationship was paved by PHC’s strategic shift towards civic engagement and education initiatives in 2013.
“We decided to take the humanities back to their classical roots, connecting the pursuit of knowledge to action,” said Laurie Zierer, PHC’s executive director. “We wanted to change the conversation about the humanities, demonstrating that they are relevant to everyday people for making change in their communities and building up assets and relationships.”
Since joining forces, PHC and the Orton Family Foundation have brought the Community Heart & Soul model to small towns and cities across Pennsylvania — with more on the way. Everyday people are coming together to participate in the life of their community at local events. They are sharing their stories and hopes, helping to steer planning and development efforts towards more inclusivity.
In Carlisle, Heart & Soul volunteers re-discovered an historic African American church, leading to a preservation effort that has rallied the community together. In Williamsport, city officials are relying on the shared values developed during storytelling workshops to guide planning efforts. Pennsylvanians are starting to feel their voice actually matters and that they are empowered to make a real difference.
The two organizations found common ground in the model’s emphasis on involving everyone, especially those who are often missing or overlooked in community conversations, to shape their community’s future.
“Our missions were similar,” said Zierer. “We both wanted stronger, healthier, more vibrant towns. Community Heart & Soul has a large story-gathering component and that aligned with our humanities work.”
After its initial strategic shift, PHC began branching out into applied humanities work, most visibly with its successful Chester Made arts and culture based community revitalization program in the city of Chester. At the time, one of PHC’s consultants for its Civic Engagement grant program suggested contacting the Orton Family Foundation to learn more about their storytelling-based community development approach.
The recommendation was prescient.
Fast forward to 2015 and the board of the Orton Family Foundation were on a plane en route to Pennsylvania to develop a strategic plan and a vision for how to work with PHC. It was a rare moment for both sides.
“I was amazed how quickly they bonded, how quickly they spoke the same language,” said Leckey. “From then on, when we speak about the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, my board intimately knows the people, the effort to structure the missions that we both share together.”
Staff from PHC later journeyed to Vermont and have since joined together for regular meetings, trainings, and site visits. Zierer and Leckey have a monthly scheduled phone call and program staff are in almost daily communication.
“As I was putting budgets together for my board, I called Laurie and said, ‘You know, as I’m looking at our travel budgets I’m thinking about just opening up an office in Pennsylvania because it will be cheaper for me,’” joked Leckey. “The benefit of working with Laurie is how well-connected she is.”
“Together we leveraged each other’s strengths and collective talents,” said Zierer. “We were able to cross sectors and form new partnerships and new funding collaborations — it opened doors for us.”
The remarkable synergy has piqued the interest of humanities organizations in other states and at the national level. Zierer and Leckey were asked to share insights about their partnership in a highly attended Humanities Council Master Class webinar organized by the National Endowment for the Humanities, PA: Forging Strategic Partnerships
But there were challenges too. Boards needed to be convinced. The case for the partnership needed to be made to funders and communities. Co-branding had to be ironed out. All are issues that both organizations look at as learning opportunities.
“We’ve learned to let go of some of the control we thought we needed,” said Leckey. “Our program and our approach is even better by making sure that we’re conscious of how much we think it has got to be done our way instead of the way best for communities in Pennsylvania.”
For Zierer, it is all about the bigger picture of changing the conversation around the humanities, positioning them as something relevant to everyday people to make meaningful changes in their communities.
“As a state humanities council we are the voice for the humanities in Pennsylvania,” said Zierer. “We see our programs, particularly Heart & Soul, as a way to demonstrate the difference they can make. With our work with Orton, people are seeing themselves — and their stories — as the very fabric of their communities, and they are building the humanities skills, ability, and motivation to make a difference.”
The curious partnership between Pennsylvania Humanities Council and the Orton Family Foundation may not have resulted in anything so dramatic as rocketing a LEGO shuttle into space (yet). But by helping communities tell their stories, uncover lost history, and articulate new visions for the future, they are showing Pennsylvania residents how to reach for the stars.