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PA Humanities Council helps communities reclaim their stories

June 13, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
When Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) joined the national campaign “Democracy and the Informed Citizen,” supported by the Andrew J. Mellon Foundation and the Pulitzer Prizes, they knew they wanted to use the theme to dive deep into communities and unveil their history, struggles and achievements.

Branding the campaign “A Tale of Two Cities,” PHC launched a series of programs in two cities they had already been closely working with to help recover lost history and reclaim narratives: Chester and Carlisle.

Chester Made rises in opposition to negativity,” said Ulysses Slaughter, project manager for PHC’s Chester Made initiative, which organized the Democracy and the Informed Citizen events. “It says ‘let’s take the worst of what we have been through, reframe our story, tell a new narrative and battle creatively to change the landscape into something that will nurture and nourish the people.”

Chester Made is a community-driven initiative that gives residents a platform to shape their own narrative for the city. It runs a makerspace with Devon Walls at MJ Freed that allows people to take the community’s industrial roots in hand and learn how to build things like desks and toy chests. Chester Made also hosts community forums that provide a platform for residents to share their experiences and stories.

Chester Made: “Policing the Truth” panel event, part of Democracy and the Informed Citizen. Pictured l to r: Michael Chitwood, Upper Darby Police superintendent, Sara Lomax-Reece, CEO of WURD, Zulene Mayfield, Chester activist. (Photo by Greg Irvin)

For the Democracy and the Informed Citizen series, Chester Made organized two events: Chester: Whose History Is It, Anyway? and Policing the Truth. The events featured engaging panel discussions that included Pulitzer Prize winners Steve Hahn and Bill Marimow, as well as local journalists and activists.

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The series was a natural fit for Chester Made which collaborates with artists, activists, educators and businesspeople living in Chester. PHC’s Executive Director Laurie Zierer said cities already have the assets to create change living within them.

“We don’t approach our work from up high, but instead with people in communities. We find all across the state that people and their communities are tired of waiting for change to come to them and are ready to make the change themselves,” she added. “How you make that change is standing up and telling your story so you can change that preconceived narrative.”

PHC also supports Community Heart & Soul projects across the state. Like Chester Made, these resident-led initiatives look to the stories and experiences of everyday people to guide community decision-making.

Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul organized a series of community forums, panel discussions, and workshops as part of the Democracy and Informed Citizen initiative. Topics explored included recovering forgotten histories and implicit bias training, culminating in a large community potluck where residents shared foods representing their heritage. These events resonated with a community that is restoring a historic African-American church recently re-discovered in Mount Holly Springs by a Heart & Soul story gatherer.

Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul project: Jorden Hayes (right), assistant professor of Earth Sciences at Dickinson College, with her students doing ground penetrating radar scans around the Mount Tabor Church in Mount Holly Springs near Carlisle. The church was re-discovered when a Heart & Soul volunteer listened to the story of a local resident. (Photo by Heather Shelley)

“We wanted to figure out what our community really values and use that as a roadmap for the future,” said Lindsay Varner, project director for Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul. “We’re taking these voices and values to see how we can fill in the gaps in our community. Through this entire process, PHC has been there guiding us and helping us navigate.”

PHC also funds Heart and Soul initiatives in Williamsport, Cameron County, Meadville and Upper Chichester.

 Varner added that the humanities are a powerful tool to bring people together to make change, and PHC’s engagement with Heart and Soul has helped bridge the gap between community members.

“We are learning about who we are and how interrelated and interconnected we are,” she said. “This process has allowed us to build connections with the community that a lot of times we didn’t always see.”

"There are so many inequities in our communities and we have to change that starting on the ground floor."
Laurie Zierer

Zierer emphasized that through its programs, and initiatives like Democracy and the Informed Citizen, PHC is looking for people of all backgrounds to get involved in their communities and share their stories.

“What matters most to community members is the driver for positive change in those communities. There’s a need for more and more people to be involved in those conversations,” she said. “We want to identify the stories that are not being told by people who are not at the table. There are so many inequities in our communities and we have to change that starting on the ground floor.”

The best way to get involved, Zierer said, is by going to community forums, events, and activities like those hosted by Chester Made and Community Heart & Soul, or by engaging with PHC directly on their social media — @PAHumCouncil on Twitter and @PAHumanities on Facebook.

“Art and humanities help to magnify and illuminate what is going on,” Slaughter said. “Without PHC’s help to develop, communities like Chester can deteriorate. People should want to get involved because being a strong community neighbor creates strong communities.”

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