What role can the humanities play in community development– and how can they foster a more democratic future for small towns and cities across America?
The Pennsylvania Humanities Council addressed these questions by partnering with the Orton Family Foundation in 2015 to bring Orton’s model of resident engagement, Community Heart & Soul, to communities across Pennsylvania. We introduced you to this program in this blog post from January 2016. Since October is Humanities Month, it is a great time to provide an update and show how history and historic preservation can work with the humanities in community development.
Community Heart & Soul™ is an award-winning, proven process that empowers people to shape the future of their communities by creating a shared sense of belonging that improves local decision-making and ultimately strengthens social, cultural and economic vibrancy. The model provides a rigorous structure and methodology to grassroots community organizing, and gives citizen planners guidance and support as they work to create positive change in their communities from the bottom-up.
Where do the humanities come into play in this model? Central to the process is the role of storytelling, as local voices guide the future direction of the community. The model revolves around the process of gathering and analyzing the stories of all residents in order to identify what the community values. This enables the community to develop a concrete plan of action that is based on what matters most to everyone.
Heart & Soul communities are hard at work all across the country. Here in Pennsylvania, we are currently working with the communities of Meadville, Williamsport, Greater Carlisle, and Easton, all of whom are working every day to put the humanities into action in their communities.
Glimpses of Communities in Action
The community of Williamsport is in year two of the Heart & Soul process, and many ideas for immediate community engagement are rising to the surface as the project is in the midst of drafting an action plan after a two-year process. Williamsport is one of Pennsylvania’s 45 Certified Local Governments.
One of these engagement projects has already come to fruition: Heart of Williamsport spearheaded a Second Street Community Garden Project, which is intended to help provide sustainable, healthy food to residents of a low-income housing community. A desire for this kind of project arose out of the stories and opinions gathered from the Heart & Soul process, and the creation of the garden was led by engaged citizens.
In June, Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul project coordinator Lindsay Houpt-Varner and I co-presented at the PA Statewide Conference on Heritage in Carlisle, demonstrating the strong connections between Community Heart & Soul and preservation. Carlisle is another of the commonwealth’s municipalities that takes advantage of the preservation-focused Certified Local Government program.
Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul’s emphasis on preservation arose from a series of stories and memories connected to a once vibrant African American community in an old mill town, which led to the “discovery” of a historic but neglected cemetery and African-American church. The residents were able to rally to preserve this vital part of their history as a result of the stories collected from residents during the process.
The City of Easton, another Certified Local Government, is our newest grantee and our first project launched in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Economic Development. Since the project’s launch in May, they have been working to initiate the process by working with the city government and integrating with existing community efforts.
As of June, the city of Uniontown is the first Pennsylvania community to receive a planning grant, which will enable them to access and cultivate community readiness for Heart & Soul.
My Meadville recently had their first community summit, and are working hard to keep the momentum and enthusiasm alive after diverse groups of people participated in sorting the data gathered over the past year. They have also been community partnership all-stars, working with organizations like the Meadville Medical Center Foundation as they work together on resources that will benefit the community.
Our partnerships going forward
Earlier this year we partnered with the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Planning Association to plan events and activities that highlight the impact of humanities-based community development and Pennsylvania Heart & Soul communities. In September we hosted a live call that broadly outlined Heart & Soul and the work that is being done throughout the state (check out the recording here!).
Following PHC’s presentation at the PA APA 2017 Annual Conference, we will be hosting a free webinar for planners across the state who want to learn more about Heart & Soul. If you wish to learn more about our work with the American Planning Association and our fall activities, see here.
Next round of Pennsylvania Heart & Soul planning grants!
Participation in the November 6 webinar is required to apply for the next round of Pennsylvania Heart & Soul planning grants. These grants, underwritten by the Department of Economic Development, will provide $1,000 plus technical assistance, valued at $4,000, to chosen communities around the state. Please register for the webinar to receive further information or contact us to find out if this opportunity is right for you.
We hope you will sign up for our e-news and check our website to keep abreast of the progress of our grantees. We are very grateful to PHMC and staff for supporting our endeavors, and we also want to thank the Orton Family Foundation, the PA Chapter of the American Planning Association, and Department of Economic Development for being terrific partners as we work to integrate the humanities into community development.
Today’s guest contributor is Mimi Iijima, 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. She is currently directing the overhaul of PHC’s grant program. In her previous position as PHC’s senior program officer, Mimi was instrumental in strengthening PHC’s capacity to evaluate humanities programs and in leading its civic engagement grants program, which supports humanities-focused approaches to community development throughout Pennsylvania.