Humanities-Based Community Development in Pennsylvania:
Insights from PHC's Heart & Soul Project

Written by: Elizabeth Myrick & Rachel Mosher-Williams

In February 2019, PA Humanities launched a learning project in collaboration with researchers at Elizabeth Myrick + Associates seeking greater clarity about the direct experiences of PA Heart & Soul participants at our three pilot locations: Greater Carlisle, Meadville, and Williamsport. We wanted to discover how connecting residents to each other through stories, ideas, and experiences changed lives and transformed communities, as well as how participants were championing and redefining the role of the humanities in our communities. The research revealed a series of field-relevant themes and lessons for practitioners and funders looking to put the humanities into action.

“Humanities play a huge role if you are going to work in a community. I never would have thought so before.”

Key Research Themes

  1. PHC’s Heart & Soul pilot communities are examples of the humanities in action.

  2. Inclusive, people-centered, humanities-driven community change is happening in the three Heart & Soul pilot communities.

  3. The Heart & Soul model has been pursued successfully in each community, maintaining the model’s structure while adapting specific Heart & Soul techniques in ways that “fit” the character and culture of each pilot community.

  4. Fiscal sponsors each played an instructive, albeit different, role for the pilot Heart & Soul communities.

  5. Sharing power among and across civic entities, anchor institutions, private and public sectors, individuals, and resident groups is both essential and one of the biggest challenges for the Heart & Soul pilot communities.

  6. The Heart & Soul pilot communities raised the importance (and challenge) of attracting and deploying resources (financial, human, technical assistance) for people-centered, humanities-driven community engagement.


Lessons for Practitioners

  1. The humanities have an essential and on-going role to play in people-centered community engagement, authentic and sustainable community change, and overcoming setbacks and resistance.

  2. People-centered community engagement is an investment in inclusive, sustainable community change.

  3. Setbacks in and resistance to the power-sharing aspects of Heart & Soul implementation are inevitable; pursuing equity explicitly and transparently is essential when faced with setbacks and resistance.

  4. Humanities-driven community change requires financial, human, and technical assistance resources, including: credible structure and skilled leadership; equitable and responsive investments (long-term, flexible, well-structured); and diverse investors (local, regional, national, public, private).



  1. Activate the humanities in ways that communicate PHC’s and the humanities’ explicit role in community engagement and the Heart & Soul process.

  2. Pursue people-centered community engagement.

  3. When facing setbacks and resistance, assess power dynamics and pursue equity explicitly.

  4. Understand all the resources needed for humanities-driven community change while providing more flexible financial support.

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