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This Germantown partnership is using storytelling as a means of community organizing

Germantown Avenue meets Chelten Avenue. January 25, 2016 Category: FeaturedMethod
In Germantown, a unique partnership is using art to spur civic engagement.

Using storytelling and other theater techniques to engage local residents, Just Act, an arts-based organization in Mount Airy with a mission to “ignite civic dialogue,” is collaborating with Germantown United Community Development Corporation for the purposes of “data collection and civic engagement,” said Andy Trackman, GUCDC’s executive director.

The partnership is fueled by a one-year, $25,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and aims to promote greater civic participation in the northwestern neighborhood.

The goal is to lay the groundwork for a long-term, comprehensive neighborhood plan specific to Germantown — a process last completed in the 1950s — that would include asset mapping and a “complete needs and market assessment,” Trackman said.

Together with Germantown United, Just Act will begin “building a core team of Germantown residents that reflect the demographics of the neighborhood,” said Just Act’s executive director, Lisa Jo Epstein. (Epstein was also one of the designers behind Chester Made, a 2015 initiative using arts and culture as a tool for community revitalization in Chester, Pa.) 

The Just Act Ensemble.

The Just Act Ensemble. (Courtesy photo)

The team will reach out to a range of small, siloed community groups and civic associations to begin the organizing process. One of the principal methods in Just Act’s brand of organizing is storytelling, Epstein explained.

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“We design this work to reach those who have not seen themselves as activists, organizers or people who are engaged in civic dialogue,” she said.

That means digging deep into the community, mining new voices and stories to shape a forward path for the neighborhood. But in Germantown, which is home to residents of mixed income levels and where skepticism for new and outside forces is not unheard of, building a foundation of trust is a sizable feat.

Epstein, however, is not worried. “When people are sitting in a circle and they are exchanging stories about what matters to them, it always works,” she said.

That creative process opens up new avenues of possibility that are ideal for city planning, according to Epstein, an outcome the nascent GUCDC is counting on.

While the organization has worked with local arts groups in the past, its deep collaboration with Just Act to drive the neighborhood planning process is a first. Focused on hearing and collecting stories from a diverse group of residents, the project will eschew more traditional modes of gathering data, such as surveys and community meetings.

“We really feel like this could be a model for other communities, specifically underserved communities, who may be cynical about the standard process for gathering information,” Trackman said. “We recognize creativity and arts and culture as a strength.”

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