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Connecting the dots in Philly's neighborhoods

Community Connectors in West Philadelphia

APM's Community Connectors at the Sugar Cane Festival

PEC's Community Connectors

The community bulletin board at 42nd and Lancaster

An event to celebrate the new public space at 42nd and Lancaster

Once a month, a young person comes into Leroy's Barber Shop at 4123 Lancaster Avenue and drops off a stack of supplies. Not pomade or shampoo, but information packets: announcements about community meetings, opportunities for local skills training, or information about federal assistance programs.

Leroy's is one of 174 dropspots scattered throughout the West Philadelphia neighborhoods of Mantua, Mill Creek, Saunders Park, West Powelton and Belmont, and the "bright-eyed, bushy-tailed" young people, as owner Leroy Robinson describes them, are Community Connectors from the People's Emergency Center (PEC).

Community Connectors are a part of a new initiative underway at PEC in West Philadelphia and Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM) in North Philadelphia. Supported by the Philadelphia Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), the program hires and pays local people to help with projects around the neighborhood and to serve as liaisons between development organizations and the residents they serve. Neither neighborhood has a local newspaper, and the Connectors are working to boost local communication not only with printed flyers but also through face-to-face interactions.

"They make sure the word gets out," says Robinson. "If you don't have e-mail, you can go up and down the avenue and, in a lot of stores, you'll find their pamphlets."

Ambassadors for the community
Of course, getting the word out is hard work, but it's work that the young connectors energetically embrace.

"It takes a special individual to be a Community Connector," explains Brittany Malone, a former Connector at PEC. "You can't just say 'Here, take this paper' and walk away. You take time to communicate. We have people who are illiterate -- even if you gave them the packet of information, it may not make sense to them. I don't go out there with a suit and tie, I go with a regular pair of jeans and a 'Community Connector' t-shirt so I can connect with them."

Malone worked in the neighborhood around Lancaster Avenue, an area that was recently designated a federal Promise Zone. There is a buzz of activity -- organizations like PEC, Mount Vernon Manor and LISC have helped bring hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants to the neighborhood. Drexel University is also expanding into the area and private developers are following suit. With all that activity, one of the primary responsibilities of the 20 Community Connectors working with PEC is to share information.
The dropspot project is one of their tools. The Community Connectors not only distribute their packets to businesses, but also to organizations and individuals. From there the information is further disseminated, reaching an estimated 2,000 residents each month. Community Connectors were also essential in the planning and construction of a public bulletin board in a vacant lot on 42nd Street and Lancaster Avenue.

And these young people aren't just a mouthpiece for PEC in the neighborhood, they're also taking the pulse of the community.

"It's not just about a job that pays by the hour," explains Cassandra Green, Manager for Community Outreach and Partnerships at PEC. "It's really about being engaged and being an ambassador for your community as a whole."

A few miles away, Community Connectors from APM are doing their part as ambassadors in their North Philadelphia communities. Since 2011, approximately 35 Connectors have supported a diverse range of programming at APM including voter registration drives, enrollment campaigns for the Affordable Care Act, health surveys and toy drives.

"What are they involved in?" asks Antonio Romero, Sustainable Communities Initiative Outreach Coordinator at APM. "Simply, anything that is going to really benefit and bring resources to the community that we all work and live in."

That community is loosely bounded by Lehigh Avenue to the North, Cecil B. Moore Avenue to the South, American Street to the East and 9th Street to the West. The APM Connectors generally live within this neighborhood, but come from all walks of life. Mostly Latino and African-American, the current group of Connectors includes two high school students, a health aid, a crossing guard, a computer teacher, a member of the Neighborhood Advisory Committee board, a waiter, and a stay-at-home mom. 

"It's neighbors talking to neighbors," explains Naida Elena Burgos, the Neighborhood Advisory Committee Coordinator and a former Community Connector herself. "That's one thing they're able to accomplish as opposed to other people from outside communities coming in."
Burgos worked for the program for almost two years after receiving her Master's degree in International Development and completing an internship in Equatorial Guinea.

"It was pretty transformational for me to actually put not just my studies into practice but really get into other areas I wasn't necessarily comfortable with," she recalls. "I really got to see and experience [things] on the ground. I was really passionate about serving and reaching out, and trying to help development work in the area."

Opportunities for Connectors

Besides offering a well-paying part-time job with flexible hours, the program can also serve as a springboard to full-time employment. At both PEC and APM, professional development is a key component of the program. Connectors have been trained and certified to use power tools, learned strategies for Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), taken classes on design and printmaking, and learned appropriate survey techniques. PEC and APM also collaborated on a three-month Community Connector Institute that focused on topics such as time management, organizational management, community engagement, and research and evaluation. Lastly, both organizations run LISC Financial Opportunity Centers, career and personal financial service providers, promoted by the Connectors.

"We look at it as offering a career ladder," says Romero. "You get those skills and they are transferable to other careers."

Brittany Malone became a Community Connector after two high school friends mentioned the program to her. A Connector was needed for a special project on early childhood education. Malone grew up in West Philadelphia, attended Overbook High School, and had returned to the neighborhood after graduating from Penn State in 2011.

"I was still trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life," she recalls.

Malone jumped at the chance to work on the West Philadelphia Early Childhood Education Initiative, which began in January 2014 in partnership with Drexel. The goal was to ensure that all children in the neighborhood can read by the time they reach third grade. The initial phase of the project involved working with the 23 childcare providers in the Promise Zone and surveying families about what quality childcare looks like to them. Malone helped collect over 440 surveys of parents of young children living and working in the area.

That first phase showed enough promise that the William Penn Foundation quickly agreed to fund the implementation stage, with an aim to raise the level of care at all 23 providers to 4 stars, the highest ranking given by the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning's Keystone Stars program. The implementation stage began in November 2014, and this time Malone was leading the project as Outreach Manager for West Philadelphia Early Childhood Education -- a full-time position at PEC.

"I never forget where I came from because the Community Connecting stage helped me get to where I am now," she insists.

Malone is already thinking about the next steps for the neighborhood. While conducting surveys, one of the things she heard from residents was the need for a 24/7 childcare facility. She hopes to see the facility built as part of the project, and has other ideas, too. She remains grateful for the deepened connection to her community fostered by the program.

"I learned I can't do this by myself," she says. "I need a team, I need the community, I need everyone to come together to reach this one big goal which is strengthening this neighborhood...Building relationships as a Community Connector you get to know your neighbors as you walk outside. They know you by your first name. That has really impacted me."

BRANDON ALCORN is the project manager for Global Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and a freelance writer whose work has recently appeared in NatureThe New Republic and Slate. Follow him on Twitter at @b_alcorn.

This story is part of a series on community transformation underwritten by Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a national organization dedicated to helping community residents transform distressed neighborhoods into healthy and sustainable communities of choice and opportunity.
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