From 2018 to 2021, I had the chance to work and learn alongside an immensely creative, caring group of community members and project staff of the Free Library of Philadelphia as part of a funding initiative by the national Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
The story of their efforts over 3 years speaks to how organically the pathways of possibility, strengthening and delight never fail to emerge when a small group of people begins to look at a neighborhood and the neighbors who live within it with expectant eyes, through a lens of abundance… and then ask, together, “What can we do with this?”
This work stands out for their commitment to invest in positions of leadership and on-the-ground listening, connecting and celebrating of neighbors, by neighbors. Their courageous stewardship and transfer of authority and resources into the hands of residents can be instructional for any institution looking to precipitate groundswells of meaningful, people-powered change.
Below, you’ll find the first few “chapters” of their journey, with the full story linked at the end.
Philadelphia Neighbors Partner with Library to Uncover and Activate Local Assets
“When I was young, we knew who lived next door and people watched out, talked and were connected. We felt safe and it was a village. So, I hope that that village starts to really connect again, and my neighbor is my brother and I am my brother or sister’s keeper. We are all in this together and I hope that is lasting.”
– Chareese Ford, Neighborhood Ambassador and Consultant
“Do you like meeting new people, finding out who they are and what they like?” asked a 2019 ad in Philadelphia’s SW Globe times. “Then Paschalville Library needs you!”
Intrigued, longtime Southwest neighborhood resident Elvira Briscoe showed to her local Paschalville library branch on the evening listed in the ad. “I was curious.” Briscoe recalls. The sessions promised details on two new positions at the library called “Neighborhood Consultants” and “Neighborhood Ambassadors.” “After I learned more, it sounded like something I would like to do.”
LaShon Jackson, another Paschalville neighborhood resident, also attended. “I saw the information about the Neighborhood Ambassador at the Library. The information at the orientation got me glued.”
The sessions were like no job interview or information-sharing event LaShon or Elvira had ever experienced. Neighbors, sitting in a circle, were invited to talk about with each other about their “Gifts,” which were broken down as “Gifts of the Head” (things they know a great deal about), “Gifts of the Hand” (skills and talents they have for making, creating, fixing, etc.), and “Gifts of the Heart” (issues or things they care deeply about.) They shared about the resident-led groups of which they were members. They were then invited to apply for jobs going into their community to ask their neighbors the same things.
The experience resonated with LaShon. “It showed me that not only am I able to care about my community but that the organization itself cares about the community.”
“I’m a seasoned grant writer, and this project was unique in that it focused on community assets. Seldom does something make people so proud. We’re reminded that this is a neighborhood of people who are working hard to make things better.”
Donna Henry, Executive Director, Southwest CDC
Both neighbors got the job. They would be forever changed by the four-year journey they were to embark upon in creative partnership with a diverse mix of other neighbors, library staff and staff from a range of local organizations as they focused together on the gifts, talents, contributive activities and priorities the community served by Paschalville Library, located in Southwest Philadelphia at 70th Street and Woodland Avenue.
With support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ (IMLS) unique Community Catalyst Initiative (CCI) award, the project team would experiment together between October 2018 to September of 2021 with what it means to uncover and galvanize local abundance, drawing on principles and practies of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD).
Unlike most efforts to improve or engage local neighborhoods, this project’s starting point was unique: looking first to the existing assets, ideas, and initiatives already in the community, while also putting residents in the lead of project execution. Donna Henry, Executive Director of Paschalville Partnership member Southwest Community
Development Corporation (CDC), notes, “I’m a seasoned grant writer, and this project was unique in that it focused on community assets. Seldom does something make people so proud. We’re reminded that this is a neighborhood of people who are working hard to make things better.”
As the project wound down in late 2020, LaShon reflected on the “heart” she encountered through this partnership with the library, “Not only am I coming in with my own heart, the organization feels the same way, maybe five times more. It just blessed my heart to be a part of something that can likely change something within the community.” (Interview, 6/18/20)
Three years after launch, the neighborhood, neighbors, staff and partners have been undeniably changed. Their work experiences, learnings and impact hold lessons in how libraries and anchor institutions alike can play a pivotal role in contributing to the well-being of their neighborhoods as community connectors, conveners, and investors in resident-driven change while shifting an important narrative from one of lack and need for outside help to an enhances awareness of the richness of capacity, contribution and innovation within each neighbor, local business and neighborhood alike.
“Following the collective impact model, the library [had] served as the backbone operator and we had a common agenda. We had some successes but not as much as we had hoped for. Community Catalyst was a great opportunity for the partnership to step back and think about how we might do a better job incorporating the community.”
Annette Mattei, Project Coordinator Paschalville Partnership & CCI Team
The team sought the award as a way to evolve and expand work the library had been doing with jobs and employment. Project Coordinator Annette Mattei explained,
The roots of this go back to something called the Paschalville Partnership: a collaboration that the Free Library of Philadelphia formed in 2013 and I am the project coordinator of it. I’ve been involved from the beginning, but it’s a collective impact initiative that emanates out of one of the 54 branches that comprise the Free Library of Philadelphia. It’s [around] the Paschalville library, which is located in Southwest Philadelphia.
The partnership was brought together because the library wanted to do a better job of serving the many job-seekers who are coming in the door. I mean, there’s only so much that a librarian can do. They’re not trained in job-seeking services and such. So they brought together this partnership of community-based organizations and city agencies to serve this population better.
Following the collective impact model, the library served as the backbone operator and we had a common agenda. And for three years with IMLS funding, we were able to attempt to implement the common agenda. And we had some successes but not as much as we had hoped for or were expecting to see. (CCI Workshop, 1/16/20)
When IMLS announced its Community Catalyst funding opportunity in 2018, Mattei explains that “it was a great opportunity for the partnership to step back and think about how we might do a better job incorporating the community.”
The library also hoped that the project could strengthen community relationships because the Paschalville branch would be undergoing renovations in the near future. By engaging more deeply with the neighborhood, the library system hoped to find ways for residents to continue accessing important information and resources services, even in the absence of a physical branch.
A SHIFT TO LISTENING
After receiving the award, the team was connected with other awardees from around the country as well as a team of consultants from the Asset-Based Community Development Institute. Together, awardees explored asset-based concepts and practices for engaging with communities by centering and leadership and gifts, skills and priorities of community members themselves.
Encountering ABCD inspired the project team to re- evaluate the design of the work they were trying to build upon. Mattei explained:
I think of the ABCD diagram. The table was all triangles, no circles at all. Not even that – the circles weren’t in the back of the room, they were just not in the room. And we recognized that that was a real shortcoming on our part.
The Catalyst grant gave us the opportunity to basically go back into planning mode using the ABCD approach. And we decided, again, using ABCD that we would spend the time talking to the community, listening to the community. Not talking to them, but listening and asking two basic questions: What do they see as the assets in the community? And what do they care about? (CCI Workshop, 1/16/20)
Once the team encountered asset-based ideas and the tools for implementing them, they decided to fundamentally shift their approach and project. They abandoned their original focus on employment and, instead, switch their focus to listening to residents in a way that would uncover assets, discover what issues or possibilities neighbors cared most about. Their goal was now to spark a connection of assets, community members and organizational partners so that the community could mobilize itself. This involved giving up “a plan” as traditionally outlined in most projects, and being open to what might emerge.
Our overall goal at the end of this process is right now an action plan. We really don’t know what it’s going to be yet, but it’s something that’s going to articulate what the community told us is what they care about, something that builds on the assets that they see in the community and if appropriate, a supporting role for the partnership in this process or in this plan. We decided that while the roots of the partnership are in working with job seekers, that we would set that aside for now and open it up to anything. We’re just going to listen for two years.
Thanks in part to the early inclusion in the partnership of a staff-person from a local paper, the Southwest Globe Times, the community learned early on about the project’s launch in an August, 2019 article entitled “Library Partnership Catalyzing a Community-Led Future.”
In the article, Free Library southwest community organizer Andrea Lemoins observes, “the Partnership has been able to bring residents into the fold and engage with them in a very authentic way that puts them in charge.”
DESIGNING FOR RESIDENTS TO LEAD
The early project staff took great care to design the project with residents as the central drivers of the work. They began by forming teams of paid Resident Consultants and Neighborhood Ambassadors. The residents’ work would be complemented and supported by local organizational partners and the project coordinator and director who were employed by the library.
Annette explains the unique architecture they crafted for the project, beginning with paid positions for residents to lead the work:
First of all, we wanted it to have meaningful involvement of community members. So we formed a Resident Consultant Team. These are people who are community connectors. We are so pleased to have found them or they actually found us, but they’re guiding our project.
They’re helping us decide who we go talk to, how we talk to people. And when the information comes in, they’re also helping us completely redesign all the programs and events that we’re doing. Paschalville library and the other branches of the Southwest cluster, building it all on assets and what the community cares about. And in the end it will be the resident consultant team that [makes] the recommendations for this, what we’re calling a community action plan. They meet monthly.
Then we have also formed a band of Neighborhood Ambassadors and they are out weekly. They’ve been out weekly since January 2019 so it’s been a year now. They are out talking to the community, doing learning conversations and again, asking these two basic questions, what does the community feel our assets are and what do they care about? Local organizational partners were also welcomed to take part.
Then the final thing we’re doing is we have many of our original partner organizations involved. I’m calling them research activities, but that’s a poor term for it. We’re talking to the community but we’re trying to do it in creative ways. So, one of our partners is out there talking to businesses, and these are big businesses. The resident consultant team has identified community-based businesses that are doing interesting things and are very community minded. That’s been really exciting uncovering those assets.
We have another partner organization that is convening what we’re calling community chats as we identify different areas that the community cares about. We’re convening community chats to talk about them and delve a little more deeply.
And then lastly, we have a partner, an arts organization that’s convening story circles where we’re bringing in community members, again, through the learning conversations, we’re identifying different themes, related particularly to the community members themselves and their gifts to the community and we’re bringing them in and having them share their stories within a circle, which has just really been a fun and exciting way to engage with community members. (CCI Workshop, 1/16/20)
“We decided, using ABCD, that we would spend time talking to the community, listening to the community. Not talking to them, but listening, and asking two basic questions: What do the see as the assets in the community, and what do they care about? We formed a Resident Consultant Team [of] community connectors. They’re guiding the project.”
Annette Mattei, CCI Project Lead
To recruit the resident consultants and ambassadors, the team fashioned an alternative to traditional interviews in the form of “info sessions” at the library. They spread the word through ads in the local paper, organizational partners’ communication networks, and flyers posted the library branch and neighborhood. They took care to conduct the sessions in a way that was welcoming, warm and informal, yet also structured.
Attendees were led through in a series of ABCD-inspired activities with one another focusing on the “Gifts” (skills, talents, abilities), relationships and passions in the room.
These sessions yielded more than the original goal of revealing the most qualified candidates for the resident consultant and ambassador positions. They also built relationships, joy, and a strong sense of pride. It also inspired them to imagine what more might be possible.
“For the people in the room,” reflected Neighborhood Ambassador Elvira Briscoe, “it was interesting to see all their different gifts and talents. When you put it all together, things can happen. You don’t realize what you have until you are in a group.”
“It was interesting to see all their different gifts and talents. When you put it all together, things can happen. You don’t realize what you have until you are in a group.”
Elvira Briscoe, Neighborhood Ambassador
LAUNCHING CONVERSATIONS: RESIDENTS LISTENING TO RESIDENTS
Once recruited, Neighborhood Ambassadors began venturing out into their neighborhood to hold Learning Conversations with their fellow neighbors. The teams would meet regularly to share what they were discovering and to document the assets they were discovering. Ambassadors held their intentional learning conversations with fellow neighbors in a variety of settings and spaces, including local events where residents were already gathered as well as individually scheduled meet-ups. As they held these conversations, the Ambassadors’ and Consultants’ understanding of the richness within their neighbors and community began to grow in ways that moved and surprised them.
“When I did the learning conversations,” Elvira Briscoe recalls, “people shared their thoughts and concerns. One lady was homeless and I didn’t realize she was homeless. As she talked I realized everyone has thoughts to share. It was important to hear what she had to say. I was doing more listening than talking.”
LaShon found the conversations illuminating.
When I was a Neighborhood Ambassador, this approach helped me to get to know people. It made you feel more friendly. When you ask these questions about gifts, people will tell you so much, an entire story: what they can do, have been thinking about, what they have been talking about around the block. You’ll not only get an idea of who the person is but an idea of what they want to do for their community. People will speak from their heart. When I asked about concerns they will share what they can dream of for the community. (CCI Workshop, 1/16/20)
And despite COVID shutting down programs, businesses and activities across the community and country, the Neighborhood Ambassadors had conducted over 120 learning conversations. “Just a wealth of information has come in,” reported Annette Mattei. “We’re learning a lot, as [the Resident Ambassadors] discover what the community sees as assets and what they care about, and we’re also starting to build some really meaningful relationships with the community members.”
Annette also noted one unanticipated benefit of the conversations for the library. “The neighborhood ambassadors have just been so invaluable in publicizing our programs and events to the community. That’s something that, at the library, we haven’t done so well in the past.”
Read the full story here to learn about the team’s experiments with connecting, celebrating and investing in the abundant gifts, skills and good work they uncovered.
- Libraries and Museums Partnering with Community Members (Baron)
- Library Partnership Catalyzing a Community-Led Future (Globe Times)
- Free Library of Philadelphia Director Siobhan Reardon Resigns After Criticisms of System-wide Racism (Library Journal)
- Libraries and Leaders as Creators of Community (Schlak)
- Libraries Leading Community (Fulton)
- Our Work: Museums and Libraries (ABCD Institute)