Hidden figures: These 'connectors' are a key to transforming community - Generocity Philly

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Feb. 23, 2021 2:35 pm

Hidden figures: These ‘connectors’ are a key to transforming community

Coordinating block clean ups, organizing food drives, fundraising, and building community gardens are just a few of the ways Impact Services’ community connectors show up for their neighbors and build trust in Kensington.

L to r: Neyda Rios; Erin Farrell; John Zerbe; and Sonja Binghan.

(Photos of Rios, Farrell and Binghan by Chris Peterson, Younger Brother Pictures; photo of Zerbe by Erin Blewett)

This guest column was written by Tiffany Hudson, marketing and communications manager for Impact Services.
Trust is an essential component of good community development. This is especially true in communities that have experienced the trauma of disinvestment, violence, poverty, racism, or the opioid epidemic.

It can be tough, understandably so, for residents to believe that anyone is there to serve the community, rather than serving their own business interests.

“Work is the only thing that can build trust,” explains Erin Farrell, one of the dozen community connectors working with Impact Services. “You can’t just come out to a neighborhood that’s been left behind, forgotten, and say “we’re going to come out and help you’ if you’re not backing that up with boots on the streets.”

With the help of the community connectors, Impact has been able to build trust with the Kensington community. “They see our truck going by and they remember us,” Farrell said. More and more, residents are showing up for civic association meetings or for block cleanups. Community engagement has a domino effect.

“Neighbors don’t always know each other,” she added. “When you are a connector, you are not only out there meeting people, but getting them motivated to go out and get to know their neighbors, too.”

Farrell is no stranger to community work. The daughter of an activist, her mother often dragged Erin and her sister to protests as kids. “When you’re young, of course, it’s a chore but as you get older you realize it’s a privilege to be a part of something bigger than yourself — to be able to work with others and be a part of a community that cares about what’s happening on its streets.” she said.

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Coordinating block clean ups, organizing food drives, fundraising, and building community gardens are just a few of the ways Impact’s community connectors show up for their neighbors and build trust in Kensington.

“Trust is everything,” says fellow connector Sonja Binghan. Being able to engage with her neighbors in meaningful ways has been inspiring.

“There really is a sense of community,” she said. “We’re all from different walks of life and our paths might not have crossed otherwise, but this work has brought us together.”

Since moving to Madison Street from East Kensington two years ago, Binghan has started a new chapter in her life. Now retired with kids in college, she has a chance to do work that she says feeds her soul. She knows change is coming to the neighborhood but is concerned about the existing residents when that change comes. A critical part of her mission right now is ensuring residents can afford to stay as economic change looms on the horizon.

As large scale development sparks fear of gentrification, the connectors are doing what they can to help elevate concerns in the neighborhood and push for more equitable growth.

“It’s important for longtime residents to have their voices heard,” echoed John Zerbe. “They have been ignored by the city for years.”

Zerbe is the newest addition to the connector team but has been living and working with Mural ArtsKensington Storefront for several years. “A lot of the work I was doing was in the harm reduction realm, and people dealing with homelessness and addiction. But what drew me to Kensington, despite the issues, was the big heart I found here.”

Zerbe has been assisting at cleanups and passing out fliers to support the other connectors as he gets his feet under him. He is looking forward to several projects that are in the pipeline, such as Gloria’s butterfly garden. Neighbors are working on plans to rebuild a new butterfly garden — a bigger and better version — after the longtime resident had her garden lot taken over by developers.

As a muralist, Zerbe understands the benefits that can come with beautification efforts. He believes not enough focus is placed on the positives happening in Kensington, and that breaking stigmas associated with the neighborhood is important to its continuing success.

Connector Neyda Rios claims that with enough education, neighbors can learn the power that they have to make positive changes in the community. If the zoning code does not allow dense development, residents have the power to support the project or to say no to another apartment building. Rios is concerned that many residents don’t know these rules or don’t know how to try to enforce them.

“People need to understand that speaking up is how we’re going to take control of our neighborhood,” she said.

Speaking up in civic association meetings, joining city meetings, and making 311 calls are all actions Rios hopes to empower her neighbors to take. “CLIP (Community Life Improvement Program), the Same-Day Pay initiative, and other programs have come from the community making their voice heard,” Rios said.

Ellie Matthews, Impact’s community engagement manager, knows the work the connectors are doing is key to furthering the organization’s mission of mobilizing people and resources to create thriving communities.

“The impact of a block cleanup may only last a day or two,” Matthews said, “but the relationships they are developing with and between neighbors when they organize and execute these projects has a lasting effect.”

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