Community 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.
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,
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.
The project team worked together as a whole, and in smaller subgroups to conduct the
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.
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.
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.