Neighborhood Transformations!

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Last week Danielle DiLeo Kim of Locus Partners and I sat down for a conversation with two members of this year’s PGDG class, Karen Rohrer and Joyce Smith. We chose to speak to Karen and Joyce as a pair since these women are each leading positive changes within their own Philadelphia neighborhoods. Karen is a co-founder and co-pastor at Beacon, a faith community and shared neighborhood space in Kensington. Joyce is a co-founder and Community Development Coordinator for the Viola Street Resident Association (VSRA) of in East Parkside. We heard about their goals and what drives them to champion priorities for the communities in which they live. Karen and Joyce also shared their challenges and strategies for adjusting their sails when necessary to keep the positive momentum going.

Karen and Joyce share a “calling” to represent the unheard voices within their communities who share the goal of making their neighborhoods great places to live. Beacon and the Viola Street Residents Association were each formed because neighbors identified the value of a place that already existed. Karen explained that Beacon formed as a “start-up” in 2011 to revitalize the existing, dwindling congregation and to provide creative secular programing as well as worship to the transitioning neighborhood. Joyce’s East Parkside neighborhood struggles with vacancies and absent property owners. Long-term residents hold strong to positive aspects of each neighborhood that are worth protecting and strengthening. These two PGDG members work in creative ways to amplify that message and convince others to recognize the value as well.

At Beacon, Karen offers a place for community members to tell their own stories, and to hear the stories of their neighbors who may have a totally different experience. In particular, Beacon strives to engage the children of the neighborhood and provide a positive community and safe space in their lives.  Beacon offers art and writing studios with drop-in hours to encourage young people to share their stories. As the children grow up, the learned skills of supporting one another will be repeated on a larger scale.

The Viola Street Residents Association works to preserve and improve the neighborhood for both the long-time residents and future generations. Joyce acknowledged that changes may be imminent, so residents are working to solidify their vision for the neighborhood so they can be active participants in that change. Joyce and the VSRA worked with the Community Design Collaborative to create a resident-driven neighborhood improvement plan, “Project Reclaim,” that was approved by the City of Philadelphia Planning Commission. Joyce spearheads the effort to seek partnerships that will make the plan a reality.

Both PGDG women spoke about the challenges of communication and perceptions. East Parkside has been considered a less than desirable place to live; for Joyce, this is a negative identity that must be overcome. With many vacant properties, the first impression of Viola Street may be one of neglect. She answers the question of “why move to East Parkside?” by improving her own block to affect a ripple of change into the surrounding blocks. "I am committed to helping to create a sustainable, equitable development plan in East Parkside so we can preserve housing for indigenous residents while supporting an economically diverse neighborhood. So, long term affordability is the end goal and not just a transitional phase in an appreciating neighborhood. "

In Karen’s neighborhood, the communication challenge is inviting people to connect with each other and build a broader community. Her mission at Beacon is to create a safe space for people to share their stories, listen to others, and empathize. The changing demographic of residents brings with it the unknown, and a natural hesitation to trust. Given this, sometimes it is harder to perceive the commonalities among spiritual and human needs and aspirations. To forge connections and mutual understanding, Karen makes it a practice to be present with children and adults, to help navigate the latest challenges, and to participate in the trust and empathy she seeks to share with the broader community.

Karen and Joyce are both relative newcomers to the neighborhoods for which they advocate, each having lived there for less than ten years. To credit their own strengths in communication, they have each been entrusted in this short time to advocate and represent their neighborhoods’ interests. Joyce’s natural curiosity is one of her secrets for getting things done. She asks questions and seeks information until she finds the right people who have the answers. Karen listens to others and moves conversations beyond where they started. Her strategy is to allow people to be vulnerable and then provide an avenue for them to support one another.

Karen summed up what she and Joyce do best: invite the people in, communicate there, and then move outwards. We are inspired by their efforts to improve Philadelphia, one neighborhood at a time. Philly Girls Do Good!

—Kate Rutledge