On Wednesday, May 16, Philadelphia LISC and its partners celebrated the graduation of three teams of ”Community Connectors” – 40 individuals in total – at City Hall.
In April, teams of residents in Eastern North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia came together to learn how to reach out and engage their neighbors effectively in community development. These “Community Connectors” will form Street Teams who go door-to-door to connect face-to-face with community residents, bringing them valuable information about resources, events, and services in their communities and gathering invaluable data and feedback from a grassroots perspective.
The Community Connectors program was initiated by Philadelphia LISC and will be implemented in its two Sustainable Communities Initiative neighborhoods: West Philadelphia (SCI-West) and Eastern North Philadelphia (SCI-Eastern North). The graduation will signal the end of the Community Connectors’ training, and the beginning of their community engagement work.
Cristina Gutierrez, a teacher and resident of Eastern North Philadelphia who is participating in the Community Connectors training, explained, “The whole purpose of this is to prepare the community members and give them good resources on how they can engage others and try to achieve common goals for the betterment of our communities.”
The program grows out of a model Community Leaders street team pioneered by The Enterprise Center CDC in SCI-West. By knocking on every door in Walnut Hill, TEC_CDC’s street team has helped residents stay engaged during the neighborhood’s planning process and beyond. Street team members have also helped residents sign up for programs and services to help improve their lives.
“People need to get more involved,” said Taylor James, a 22-year-old Community Connector from the Belmont neighborhood in West Philly. “Going out and talking to people is a good way to start giving out information that could really help people. I am making an effort to try to change my community,” The program does not solely benefit community members; street team participants receive part-time income and an opportunity for personal and professional development.
In SCI-West, the team will begin their outreach by completing a door-to-door survey throughout the Mantua community, supported by the People’s Emergency Center (PEC). The survey will collect invaluable information for the community-driven HUD Choice Neighborhoods planning efforts and the ongoing community engagement strategies of SCI-West and PEC.
“The Community Connectors team informs residents about changes and resources in their community. Even more importantly for us, the connectors offer a tangible way to learn from the community,” says SCI-West Director Iola Harper. “Anyone can give out information, but getting feedback from residents is what is really exciting.”
The Community Connectors team in Eastern North Philadelphia will help implement the Quality of Life Plan that residents and organizations throughout the target area put together last year with support from LISC and Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM). The team will engage a diverse group of residents to develop committee structures and activities and implement action-oriented campaigns and projects.
“This community has put together an incredible vision for a better future and is ready for action,” says Marangeli Mejia-Rabell, the community organizer for SCI-Eastern North. “With the Community Connectors, we can engage more residents and support them to build a better neighborhood.”
In both of LISC’s Sustainable Communities target areas, the Community Connectors street teams are part of a larger resident engagement strategy supported by the Knight Foundation. This strategy, called Connecting Citizens, aims to maximize the availability of relevant and credible information, enhance the information capacity of individuals, and promote public engagement by strengthening an information infrastructure.
“People need access to credible, relevant information in order to improve their lives, better their communities, participate in the process of governance, and feel a sense of connectedness with their environment,” says Jamie Gauthier, Program Officer at LISC. “Community Connectors will provide one piece of a comprehensive information infrastructure that will give communities more power to choose and help build a brighter future.”
Components of this strategy are underway in both SCI neighborhoods. LISC and its partners are building on the successful SCI projects that serve to connect and inform residents, like Digital Connectors and the existing SCI social media tools.
Both SCI sites will employ a comprehensive social media platform, using accessible technologies in coordination with computer labs and digital literacy training. The project will link residents with SCI’s organizing efforts, information, and resources in real-time – on the SCI website, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, Flicker photo-streams, and YouTube accounts.
The training will be completed by April 12, and the Connectors will start work almost immediately in their neighborhoods. Gutierrez said, “I envision a place where the children that I teach have a safe place to grow up.” She is looking forward to getting started: “I am excited to learn how to encourage and motivate people to just get together and do things… It is our community. This is something we have to do together.”