Buoyed by a sense of hope

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Here is my post about the experience I had last Saturday, attending a Great Expectations community forum as a observing blogger/citizen journalist. This is also up on the Great Expectations blog. Albert Yee was also there and has posted his thoughts (and some terrific photos) on his blog and Philly Future.

Walking into the John M. Perzel Community Center in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia last Saturday morning, I had little idea of what to expect. I was there to attend a forum of neighborhood leaders and listen in as they brainstormed ways in which a new mayoral administration could help Philadelphia overcome some of the challenges that prevent it from serving all its residents effectively.

After signing in, I was pointed towards the far end of a double-wide basketball court. Ten round tables were set up around the sectioned-off area, covered with white tablecloths and multiple sheets of clean white butcher paper. Pens, note cards and crayons were set in the middle of each table in order to encourage creative thinking and the taking away of ideas.

Grabbing a bagel and some coffee, I settled in as Chris Satullo and Harris Sokoloff introduced the day’s agenda and the goals for the gathering. They set a hopeful and positive tone from the very beginning, stressing that the point of the day was to share experiences, create networks and generate momentum. The intent was not to solve all the problems that neighborhoods face but to start conversations that will hopefully lead to solutions further down the line.

In the first roundtable the participants were asked to discuss the current relationship between civic organizations and City Hall. More specifically, what works, what doesn’t and what should be preserved. Jeff Friedman, a member of the East Falls Development Corporation Board summed up the status quo neatly, “Currently it’s a structure of special deals.” If a neighborhood has a good relationship with their city councilperson, then they receive good service. However, all it takes for neighborhood services to go down the drain is for a civic leader to have a falling out with their councilperson.

Marc Stier from Neighborhood Networks added that the point that if you’re a new civic leader, there’s no institutionalized way of learning the ropes. There’s no resource book that can guide a leader through the process. He said that he finally sat down with his councilperson in order to get the names of people at City Hall who actually had the power and ability to respond to his neighborhood’s needs.

At this point, the table facilitator asked the group to focus on things that they liked about the city’s delivery of services. There was a long pause as people looked at their hands, doodled on the butcher paper and quietly cleared their throats. Finally Rodnell Griffin from the Hunting Park Neighborhood Advisory Council said, “Quiet frankly, I don’t like it.” She explained that there are no resources at their fingertips. They do all the work and the councilperson gets all the credit. Others started chiming in that it requires an enormous amount of work to get the day-to-day stuff, like trash pick up, leaf removal and street plowing accomplished. They all agreed that if those things could be done without monumental effort on the part of the neighborhood organizations, they’d be able to turn their attention to planning and development. Right now there isn’t the time or energy available to take on those larger issues because everyone is focused on making sure that the basic needs are taken care of.

Turning their attention to the last prong of the original discussion prompt, they tried to come up with the strengths of the current system and identify a few things that could be preserved. Marc Stier offered that one of the strengths of the status quo is that it has taught him how to mobilize his community in order to stop things that could do harm to the neighborhood. Someone later commented that it seemed sort of problematic if the greatest power a community group possessed was their ability to put the brakes on an issue or proposal.

This first conversation soon came to a close and the civic leaders were asked to shuffle themselves around the room so that they’d get an opportunity to talk with other people during the next conversation. During round two I learned about new and developing communities within the city and the ways in which they are being allowed to slip through the cracks of the city services. I watched as connections were forged between representatives of different agencies and found great hope in the idea that this forum, which was designed to be the start of a larger conversation, was already serving to deepen the discourse and bring people together.

The final roundtable raised issues of accountability, transparency in City Hall and the idea that neighborhoods need to lose their myopic focus on their own small localities and turn their attention to the larger community. This idea that there is strength when groups bond together persisted throughout this final conversation and left me with an overwhelming sense of hope when the group broke for lunch.
In the afternoon, we broke up into four groups, each with a different discussion topic at hand. I sat in on the conversation about accountability in the delivery of city services. It was universally agreed upon that the current structure of accountability isn’t working and that the city needs to establish a better way to establish goals and measure growth and achievement. Helpful suggestions included moving some, if not all, City Council and Zoning Board meetings to the evening so that it would be easier for a greater number of people to attend and establishing an ombudsperson for the city.

The day wrapped up with a short question and answer session with the current mayoral candidates. I was impressed with how well Michael Nutter and Al Taubenberger worked the stage together, each building on what the other had said and rarely actively disagreeing. I’d never had the opportunity to see two opposing political candidates co-exist so pleasantly.

Throughout the course of the day, as I listened to the issues and concerns, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly fortunate to live in a city where so many people are engaged in crafting a better future. I left the event buoyed by a sense of hope, knowing that for all the problems that Philadelphia faces going forward, it is also blessed to have such an informed and passionate population engaged in the conversation and deeply committed to finding resolution.

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