Community Heart & Soul continues to grow in Pennsylvania, with new sites just announced along the Route 6 corridor. Overseeing this active and diverse network is Jen Danifo, PHC’s dynamic Senior Program Officer, who is helping communities prioritize equity in community planning.
The program uses the tools of the humanities – storytelling, community discussions, and analyses of a community’s history, culture, and trends – to build an equitable action plan for the future.
Danifo was recently certified as the first Community Heart & Soul® coach in the state but has been involved with the program since 2015. She leads in-person and virtual training sessions on understanding community demographics, identifying and connecting with historically marginalized voices, and using storytelling to engage all residents in planning and development.
The official Community Heart & Soul organization, based in Vermont, celebrated Danifo’s certification virtually, and included video submissions from some of the community members she worked with.
"We are so grateful for the connections that you've allowed us to make with other communities and for the love and support you've given us in these difficult times," said Autumn Vogel, past coordinator of My Meadville, in one of the celebration videos.
As a new coach, she is now responsible for guiding three Heart & Soul communities step-by-step through the program: Dillsburg, Upper Chichester, and Cameron County. During the pandemic, this has meant lots of one-on-one time in Zoom video calls but that hasn’t slowed things down.
“Jen is the best coach, mentor, superstar, and friend to all,” said Barbara Kelley, Upper Chichester Heart & Soul Coordinator. “She has resources in abundance, advice anytime of the day, and is a great asset to us.”
Danifo says she just appreciates helping people put the humanities into action to make meaningful changes in their communities.
“It’s been a real joy to see communities tap into their own assets to build sustainable, unique plans for their future,” said Danifo. “ PHC and the Community Heart & Soul program teaches residents to use humanities techniques to build a better understanding of communities, their history and to name and identify barriers to inclusive, equitable and sustainable resident participation in community planning and development."
See some of Jen Danifo’s most memorable Community Heart & Soul moments below in her own words.
Upper Chichester Heart & Soul Gathers to Discuss their Stories
“A major milestone in the process is the community coming together to review resident stories exploring lived experience in their town. Not only does this build understanding and empathy among neighbors, it allows residents to identify and discuss what a community collectively values. This becomes the basis for a community’s action plan. Over 100 residents came together in February 2020 – right before the pandemic hit."
Cameron County Residents Work Together to Include Everyone in the Planning Process
“Community Heart & Soul is unique in that it puts power in the hands of the residents and, in many ways, provides a crash-course on how decision-making power is shared (or not) in communities, and how residents can work together and with local government to forge a path forward. This is not easy! You need a dedicated and resilient team like the one pictured here in Cameron County."
Greater Carlisle Celebrates Hidden Voices
"The process of story-gathering – asking residents to share their history in a community and what they value about where they live, can be transformative for some communities. The group in Greater Carlisle discovered the story of the Gumby family, their connection to the Mt. Tabor AME church – literally hidden in a field for years – and a history of ignoring African-American experiences and contributions to the community. Openly discussing this hasn’t solved everything, but it’s led to some great efforts to celebrate the lives of Black residents. Recently, the borough issued a resolution apologizing for the historic marginalization of this community. The church was also added to the National Register of Historic Places."
Williamsport’s Lady of Light Project & Celebration
"Williamsport, one of our pilot communities in 2015, has continued to find ways to embed story-gathering into planning processes happening in the community. Local creative nonprofit, FactoryWorks, used the process to create a community mosaic in an old, repurposed factory. The team consulted with the Heart of Williamsport group to learn the process of interviewing and collecting stories and artifacts from local residents. This became the inspiration for the piece and the artifacts were incorporated into the physical design."
Ambridge Prioritizes Connection During the Pandemic
"Three communities in Beaver County launched Heart & Soul just as the pandemic shut down towns across the state. Despite this, the team in Ambridge found creative ways to engage residents at a time when so many people needed it. Building on a history of Ambridge “connection,” the team visited four parks with a huge chalkboard in early fall and asked community members to share what they loved and hoped for in their communities. "