by Mimi Ijima, Pennsylvania Humanities Council
In 2015, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council launched a partnership with the Orton Family Foundation to help Pennsylvania communities engage in meaningful civic and engagement and community planning using the Foundation’s successful Community Heart & Soul™ planning method. Community Heart & Soul is a tried and tested process that empowers people to shape the future of their communities. The “heart and soul” of this process are the humanities which unearths vital values and concerns and brings people together to create a shared sense of belonging. Key to the process is learning what matters most to the community through gathering stories from and engaging as many residents as possible, including those who don’t typically participate in public processes. Stories are data with soul! With storytelling at the heart of planning and development, local values and voices become the foundation for building communities that are connected, innovative, competitive, and strong.
Through PHC’s partnership with Orton, we have provided civic engagement grants to support planning and community dialogue processes in four diverse communities. The humanities can be an effective tool in bringing people together to make a difference, and we’re delighted that our grantees — Germantown United CDC, and Just Act, the Greater Carlisle Project, Susquehanna Greenway Partnership (Williamsport), and the Revitalization Authority of the City of Meadville — will show us how! They will work hand in hand with local government, community development organizations, cultural groups, other nonprofits and institutions, and individual residents to make their project community-wide endeavors.
What Matters to Our Communities
On our site visit during the application process, we were able to see common aspirations and concerns among our four grantees. Residents told us about the importance of preserving the unique character of each community, including its cultural, historical, social and environmental assets. They shared their commitment to responding to shifting demographics which are bringing new neighbors to their area. They also told us about rifts in their communities and, last but not least, the need to motivate more residents and new leaders in making decisions and taking action for their community.
Local Approaches to Storytelling
As Pennsylvania’s official partner for the National Endowment for the Humanities, naturally we are eager to see how each community will carry out the humanities and bring its distinctive strengths to storytelling. Greater Carlisle will capitalize on its area’s oral history resources and draw upon the Cumberland County Historical Society’s expertise in oral history. Meadville is planning to build on past work with community-based, dialogical arts projects involving youth. Many artists work and reside in Germantown’s diverse neighborhoods, so the team will mobilize artists to reach out to hard-to-reach groups. Williamsport will harness the know-how of the arts groups that brought life back to the downtown area to help revitalize surrounding neighborhoods.
The Year Ahead
Over the next year, we will work closely with all our grantee teams to help them run successful projects and enable their humanities work to make tangible difference. The smart and experienced staff at the Orton Family Foundation is collaborating with PHC to guide grantees and provide training for key activities. These include assessing the community’s demographic make-up and developing a leadership team as well as doing the work around the storytelling. We hope that our grantees will learn from one another too and help us start a network of Heart & Soul communities in our state. Our grantees are scattered across the state, so some of the trainings will happen remotely but we’re looking forward to an all-day workshop in the spring when we can bring everyone together.
We hope you will sign up for our e-news and watch PHC’s website for updates about our grantees’ progress over the next year. Before signing off, we extend our thanks to all who helped us get our civic engagement grants off the ground. We are grateful to PHMC and its terrific preservation staff for supporting us as colleagues in the humanities! And we are ever thankful to the folks at the Orton Family Foundation for recognizing the value of the humanities and expanding Community Heart & Soul in Pennsylvania!
Mimi Iijima is Director of Programs and Special Projects at the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC). She leads PHC’s program team in developing initiatives and resources that exemplify the humanities and their importance to Pennsylvania and in promoting partnerships, networking, and learning about humanities programming. In her free time, Mimi stays busy by renovating her old West Philadelphia home, volunteering for the local library, and raising a very active 12-year-old.