Building Bridges Project

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buildingbridges_fullcolorCommunity Gathering Report

For a nine month period, seven of Allentown’s nonprofit leaders participated in the Rider-Pool Foundation’s Collective Impact Action Learning Fellowship, and discovered ways to work together to impact positive change in the city of Allentown. The organizations represented by the seven fellows included Habitat for Humanity of the Lehigh Valley, Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Lehigh Valley, Lehigh Valley Health Network, Lehigh County Regional Intelligence and Investigation Center, Catholic Charities, and the Allentown Art Museum. At the close of their inaugural fellowship, they launched the Building Bridges Project; designed as a way to identify and document a range of the community’s needs through the interpretation of community-based photography.

Community members responded to the fellow’s invitation to “Show Us Your Allentown,” and shared photographs that revealed their personal views and experiences of the city. The photographs serve as a means to involve many in the community in conversations about the future of a city in immense transition.

It is the hope of this project to use the themes identified in the facilitated discussions to continue to engage individuals and community organizations from all sectors of Allentown in meaningful discussions about what Allentown is and can be. The Building Bridges Project was made possible through a community enrichment grant from the Provident Bank Foundation. The Provident Bank Foundation places special emphasis on supporting initiatives that help drive sustainable community enhancement and long-term change.

Project Description
During the Rider-Pool Fellowship, the fellows learned about Photovoice as a way to
reflect a community’s strengths and issues through the use of photography. This technique,id-2
developed by Wang and Burrows, has three primary goals: (1) to enable people to record and reflect a community’s strengths and concerns, (2) to promote critical dialogue and knowledge about important issues through large and small group discussions of photographs, and (3) to reach policy makers. Photo voice is considered a method that is used to bridge gaps and aid in starting dialogues. This project was designed to engage the community in facilitated discussions on themes identified in the photographs submitted by the community. Center city Allentown has undergone a recent revitalization that ushered in major businesses, entertainment, shopping, restaurants, and a demand in urban housing. This new development has occurred in what is referred to as the Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ), which is a special taxing district covering 128 acres in downtown Allentown and the Riverfront that encourages new development and revitalization. As this growth continues in and around the NIZ, the economic disparities along the fray have become more pronounced. In order to ensure long-term success and community-wide benefit of the NIZ, a broader audience needs to be engaged. This project was designed as a first step to help initiate these engagements through discussions of the photographs submitted to the project’s website.

Project Design
The project team worked together as a whole, and in smaller subgroups to conduct the                        id-4
work that they outlined in their logic model. The strategies were to engage the community to participate in photo voice, take photos, curate photos, facilitate group conversations, and distribute findings in a final report to stakeholders. One group focused on creating a website and Facebook page as a way to announce the project, collect photographs, and provide information on becoming a trained facilitator for community discussions. Another group worked on marketing, outreach, and community engagement, and a third group focused on curating the photos and their preparation for exhibit at the Allentown Art Museum. Each subgroup was responsible for ensuring that their inputs and activities were working toward the strategies and outcomes outlined in the logic model.

In trying to honor the collective impact principals and processes the team also incorporated additional project meetings into their schedule that focused on process, including effective communication and messaging for the group. The five conditions of collective impact involve a common agenda that must be agreed upon by action from the whole group, shared measurement for agenda alignment and accountability, mutually reinforcing activities to ensure the smaller subgroups were all working toward the same end goal, continuous communication to help update and motivate the group, and backbone support. While the team strived to find a project coordinator who in the end provided continuous support for the group; they were unable to secure that “backbone of support” from the beginning of the project.

Project Data
The motivation and backstory of the project were shared with attendees with an emphasis being placed on community and the need for all members to have a voice in the rapid growth of Allentown. A brief introduction to meaning making and the value of diverse perspectives helped to prepare the audience to view the 40 photographs on display. They were instructed to “notice what the picture is saying about the community,” and to write in 7 words or less on each 5×7 card what they saw as the strengths, challenges and aspirations of our community.

Four breakout rooms were used during the community discussion and as per design each room contained at least one facilitator and one scribe. Some rooms had two facilitators and up to three scribes. While each room had its own atmosphere based on those present, there were overall themes that emerged. Here, are the overall impressions of the discussions in each of the three categories.


Overall, the strengths seemed to inherently bleed into the challenges. There were a lot of things participants agreed were great about the city, but they were tied to some of Allentown’s challenges. The best example of this is diversity. Many people agreed that Allentown is a city with great diversity, but the conversation also indicated that the diverse groups don’t always interact and that the rapidly changing population has led to some divisions in the city.

Community was also seen as one of the greatest strengths. The people that make up our city show a deep commitment to others. Community organizations were also heralded for their deep and growing commitment to meet the growing and changing needs in our community.

The conversation about strengths also centered on arts and the history present in the buildings and events in the city. In particular, the group talked positively about the aesthetics of Allentown and how that set the city apart from others. While the growth of the city was seen as a strength, several respondents noted that the development seemed to help those from outside center city more than those already living here. The impression was that many who live in the city surrounding the growth cannot enjoy the new attractions and restaurants because of the prohibitive costs.


Aspects of this conversation were tense in most breakout sessions. It seemed clear that participants had thought about challenges facing the city for some time. The participants agreed that perception plays a large role in the challenges Allentown faces; there are good aspects that people don’t realize exist, there is a strong perception that Allentown is “dangerous” and has a high crime rate which “scares” people. Some rooms discussed the crime (real and perceived) in the city. The crime conversation seemed to naturally connect with Allentown’s education system, as participants brought up the existence of the school-to-prison pipeline. Education was repeated in other rooms as a challenge but also became a dominant discussion in several conversations about aspirations.

There were also conversations about structural issues, the quality of life for people living in Allentown and social capital-equity. These are deep-seated challenges that respondents felt had no easy fix but many agreed that community members need to work towards a solution for the good of the city. Most groups that addressed this issue seemed to be in accord when discussing the idea that the city itself is progressing, but that many of the residents were getting left behind. Members offered up questions like “how do we develop the whole city?” and “how do we all move forward?”

One room spent a great deal of time talking about the lack of jobs in the area that could provide a living wage. This group was angered by all of the new establishments being built and still no “above minimum wage” jobs to be found. A woman, who was a teacher, said it was heart breaking listening to her students explain how difficult it would be to find a job, so “why bother wasting time and money on a college degree.” Many of the conversations in the breakout rooms and the conversation when we gathered back as a large group summarized that diversity was both “our biggest strength and biggest challenge.”


By this point, all of the groups were pressed for time. In some of the groups, there was also a peak in tensions here – one scribe noted “it felt like we reached the climax our conversation was building towards.” The topic that dominated this section for some was education and the future for

Allentown’s youth. There was a divide here about whether the school district is preparing students to be successful or not. Some members of the group cited their own or their children’s success as a sign that the schools are doing well; while others felt that there is a need to boost graduation rates and increase the number that pursue a college education.

The final moments of the education conversation in one room came with two moments of consensus: (1) that there really are two worlds when it comes to Allentown’s schools (the experiences aren’t all equal); (2) that public schools should be improved, although this was a tense agreement and conversations did not reach the point where groups could talk about solutions.

Other aspirations were for wealth to be spread throughout the city so that all of the residents would benefit. And, participants also wanted all residents to be a part of the growth and not to have to watch it from the sidelines. Another group concluded that they would like to see a 21st century community that would be vibrant and accepting. This concept was very much reflected in the group itself, many of them from different backgrounds, educations, careers and experiences yet they found solidarity and had constructive discussions. The overall sentiment in many of the rooms was, as one participant so eloquently said, that we need to find a way to “move from they and them to we and us.”

Project Impact, Outcomes and Next Steps
This project has always been considered as a first step toward dialogue within the community between residents, business leaders, non-profit agencies, school personnel, and other stakeholders, so that each other can acknowledge, honor, and even understand a broad range of perspectives on issues facing our growing region.

The community gathering event at the museum to discuss the themes identified in the photos achieved the short-term outcomes. During closing remarks at the museum event, it was suggested by several attendees that more people need a voice at the table, that more people should become involved in these discussions. To carry the discussions forward in the community, one attendee offered to host a community discussion at his coffee house, another offered to host in a church, and a third member offered to create a LinkedIn Group to carry the conversation online. Since our gathering one of those attendees has made good on his word and created a LinkedIn Group to help keep the momentum and spirit of the discussions going.

The long-term outcomes and next steps of this project will depend on how best future groups can help move the discussions forward into the community. The themes identified in our discussions focused on, the beauty of the city, the strength of our diversity, the division caused
by our diversity, the socio-economic disparity, crime rate and the perception of crime, and education. Questions echoed by the attendees on how to best develop the entire city to be all inclusive and move everyone forward, will hopefully continue in future discussions with even more varied groups.

For those that may use this model in the future, we would suggest having a social action plan for after the dialogue built into the timeline of the project. While the dialogue was deeply moving to those present at the community gathering, key stakeholders were not present and while some thought that the gathering would be the culmination of months of work, it appears to only be the beginning.

Collective impact initiatives focus on being sustainable longitudinal projects that have multiple layers. The Building Bridges Project was the first layer in engaging the community through a specific technique to help identify discussion points related to the revitalization in downtown Allentown. It will be up to future groups, community members, nonprofits, the business community, local government, and possibly future Fellows to develop the next steps
for this project; using the themes identified in this project as perhaps a place to start.

Click here to read the full project report.

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