By Karen Price
Recently, several members of the PA Humanities staff visited our PA Heart & Soul partners in Dillsburg, Carlisle and Mount Holly Springs to hear about the powerful impact the humanities and storytelling are having in their communities.
Representatives from Dill’s Tavern, Dillsburg Borough, the Mt. Tabor Preservation Project, Hope Station, and the Cumberland County Historical Society joined our Heart & Soul team members and gave us a tour of the important spaces in their towns and shared their history and heritage. We learned so much through their stories and were excited to see the positive influence that the Heart & Soul process is having where they live.
Across the state, our PA Heart & Soul communities are enjoying the rewards of the citizen-led process that centers story gathering as a way to learn what people love about their towns and their hopes and dreams for the future. Here are five examples of the positive impacts from Heart & Soul, from encouraging greater civic engagement among residents to helping towns plan for their future to creating opportunities for new business and educational ventures.
The old coal town of 10,000 residents located in northeastern Pennsylvania is nearing the two-year anniversary of beginning the Heart & Soul process. They recently shared how the program has inspired community interest in local government, demonstrated by the 18 applications received for one empty council seat. In the past, city clerk Michelle Bannon said, council members often ran unopposed because no one else wanted the responsibility.
“One of the things we’ve seen change since we’ve incorporated Heart & Soul is people feel as if their opinion matters,” Bannon said in a video about the benefits of Heart & Soul. “With Heart & Soul we’re able to communicate with people, ask them how they want to get involved and how they want to be a part of it. They ultimately feel valued and that their opinion matters in how we run our city.”
You can learn more about how Heart & Soul is working in Carbondale in this video.
Meadville completed all four phases of Heart & Soul but found it to be so worthwhile that team members have now reengaged the process with new partners and leaders. Residents and organizations have taken the action plan developed through the Heart & Soul process and used it to enhance life in Meadville in a number of different ways.
For example, residents said they wanted to be a healthy community where everyone has access to fresh food. They wanted the city to change its zoning ordinance prohibiting urban agriculture, including community gardens, within city limits. The city is now considering a new ordinance that would allow both community gardens and for-profit farming in a way that would still preserve the unique look and feel of their neighborhoods. Other projects and ventures underway include creating community hubs, reactivating the city’s Beautification Committee and increasing summer learning opportunities for students.
You can learn more about My Meadville here.
This has been a big year for Upper Chichester’s Heart & Soul team as local officials have recognized not only their hard work but also its merits. On June 9, the Board of Commissioners passed a resolution adopting the Heart & Soul value statements that came from years of community members’ input about what they loved about Upper Chichester and what they wanted for the future of the town. The statements were incorporated into the town’s planning documents in order to guide future policies and decisions.
Then on Sept. 22, the township planner presented a neighborhood preservation and enhancement plan based on Heart & Soul value statements to the town’s planning commission. That same day the team presented the final draft of the community report to the planning commission. One thing Heart & Soul has done, said team member Dr. Judith Stang, is to create a legacy for the community to continue to work together.
You can learn more about Upper Chichester’s experience with PA Heart & Soul in this video.
Cameron County became a Heart & Soul Community in 2018. From conversations with more than 450 residents over a number of years, they identified seven values that were most important to the community at large: a sense of community, nature, local economy, arts and culture, safety, accessibility and youth well-being. These value statements became the bedrock for crafting the Resident Envisioned Community Action Plan, which was adopted by the Cameron County Commissioners at the beginning of April. It is now part of the Northern Pennsylvania Tri-County Comprehensive Plan of Cameron County, a guide to short- and long-term decision making for county initiatives and investments.
The team is also helping to develop a free, publicly accessible cloud database of all the information collected during the Heart & Soul process. With it, anyone will be able to go online and access information that can help in business growth and expansion plans, development and planning, grant-making, securing loans and other ventures.
Williamsport’ Heart & Soul journey began in 2016. Their value statements, gathered after the story gathering process, included the environment around them, educational opportunities, economic opportunities and community well-being. From there, they developed a Peer Report and Action Plan as well as project recommendations, both of which were approved by the city in 2021.
These project recommendations, all suggested by town citizens, will now be used to inform planning decisions and ensure that the interests of all community members are centered in the process. Some of the project ideas include developing walkable and bikeable trails to connect different parts of the community, supporting local farmers through “buy local” initiatives, developing and furthering youth programming including Junior Achievement, Boy Scouts and mentoring opportunities, and creating a marketing proposal with reasons for people to invest in the city.