Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Resource Squandered

Ageism: tendency to regard older persons as debilitated, unworthy of attention, or unsuitable for employment (  The population of older American adults (over 65) has continued to climb over time, as health care and awareness for proper care has continued to improve.  In fact, by 2030 more than 70 Million Americans- twice the number in 2000- will be 65 and older… older adults will comprise nearly one in five Americans (The Maturing of Americans).  Are we ready for this population boom?  Now that it has come to my attention, I realize how neglectful towards the needs of older Americans.  Most of my work and efforts have been geared toward children and youth.  In return for this emphasis has been an unconscious disinterest in older adults.   As I examine myself and whats around me, I can see that many programs and policies are designed to disregard the elderly over the young.  How can we serve older Americans?

Findings from The Maturing of America: Communities Moving Forward for an Aging Population report that the primary issues are:
•    Finances and funding issues
o    Living on fixed incomes
o    Burden of property taxes
o    Financial fraud and predatory lending
o    Decreased government funding
•    Transportation
o    Cost of transportation
o    Unsafe sidewalks and crosswalks
o    Unreadable signage
•    Housing
o    Maintenance and repair assistance
o    Home modification for safety
o    Targeted service delivery (backyard trash collection, sidewalk snow removal)
o    Subsidized housing

Recommendations include:
•    Finances and funding
o    Relief programs for living costs
o    Tax relief programs
o    Increase fraud education
•    Transportation
o    More accessible and affordable public and private trans- vouchers
o    Signage and sidewalks made appropriate for all ages
•    Housing
o    Provide services meeting maintenance and targeted needs
o    Appropriate zoning laws to make modifications possible
o    Government funds for modification and increased access to subsidized housing

Meeting these needs is certainly a way to serve older adults, but does meeting a need always involving receiving a service?  Can meeting the needs of older adults involving offerings ways to contribute? How can older adults serve other generations?  Do we view older Americans as assets, capable of offering valuable services to us?  From 2005-2010 there has been an increase in volunteering and opportunities for volunteering for older Americans.  With increased free time, older Americans are great resources for program assistance and volunteers!  Intergenerational activities are so important, especially as older Americans have life experience and wisdom to share.  Many times serving older adults does involve giving a service but allowing them to serve.  This is both empowering and beneficial for all involved.

Only 30% of respondents report having in place a process that solicits input from older persons, and just over half that many (17%) report having comprehensive assessments and strategic plans in place. (The Maturing of Americans).  Do older adults have a voice in our communities?  When I consider my own community, most of the population is either children or older adults.  There is potential for community organizing to bring members together, empowering them through involvement in the process and opportunities to connect with those from another generation.  I am encouraged at the possibilities of expanding programming to both meet the needs and empower older Americans.  Let’s take advantage of this population’s ability to contribute and not squander it; this will benefit not only older Americans but you and the people you serve.

The Maturing of America: Communities Moving Forward for an Aging Population. Rep. National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, June 2011. Web. 27 Sept. 2011. <>.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Do Vouchers helps low-income families?

Pennsylvania seems heading towards privatizing education, and the push for vouchers is stronger now than it has been in the last few years.  I grew up with 12 years of public education, and I felt that my education was one of good quality.  While I do recognize that not everyone’s public education is of good quality, I am still not in favor of moving towards privatized education.  My largest reason for this opposition is my belief that all children, regardless of background or circumstance have the right to free, quality education.  While vouchers have been a proposed solution to improving education standards, it inevitably ends the right to free education.

I first heard about vouchers as a college student, so I have no direct experience with them.  This challenged me to research, especially with Governor Corbett’s ambition to pass a new bill providing more vouchers.  In my research, I found what I suspected: They are not as beneficial to low-income families as is presented.  The primary misconception about vouchers is vouchers will provide enough money for any private education.  In reality, “The amount of money that a student would actually receive wouldn’t even be enough to afford tuition at most private schools” (Parker, 2011).   If families pursue vouchers for private education, they will most likely need to pay the difference of the cost out of pocket.  For low-income families and even many middle-class families, is this a realistic expectation?

The average voucher per student is estimated to be around $7,000.  Compare this to the average yearly cost of private institutions in the National Association of Independent Schools, which is $17,441 (  Even if students receive other scholarships, families will inevitably be required to spend thousands of dollars a year to pay the difference.  Most low-income families will not be able to afford this balance, so many children in low-income families will continue to attend public school.

Since vouchers are generated through public funds, I think it is safe to assume that public school systems will receive less government funds as voucher money increases.   As students begin to receive voucher funding, some will leave the public school system.  Thus the funding will follow the student, leaving a larger gap in budgets for public education.  Pennsylvania State Senator, Bob Mensch, argues, “public schools in fact will not be harmed by voucher spending, because the state’s funding will transfer with the student… Who is the funding to really benefit, the student or the school” (Stein, 2011)?  In fact, if you look at his logic, it proves that public schools will be further harmed by this change, as revenues will transfer.  If public schools were already receiving sufficient funding, this would not be an issue, but with insufficient budgets, it seems likely that problems in the public school will not improve.  Instead of fixing the current system, state officials are pushing to invest in a new one. 

The biggest question I have is who will actually benefit from this bill?  Intentions are presented as to help low-income families, but from the facts, I doubt these will be the families benefiting.  While some students will be able leave “failing schools” A.K.A. urban, low-income, ethnic minority schools, most will remain in an even more underfunded school.  The voucher solution does not leave room to see underfunding may be the reason for “failing schools.”  Instead, state officials choose to give up on the system, which in fact will harm the majority of the people they are “aiming to help.”  While I do not doubt this bill will benefit some, my question is, “who will benefit?”     

Parker, Daesya. "Students Say No to Vouchers." Philadelphia Student Union. Philadelphia Student Union, 23 June 2011. Web. 20 Sept. 2011. <>.

Stein, Linda. "Pennsylvania's Voucher Proposal Stirs Local Education Debate -" The Reporter : Serving North Penn, Indian Valley and Neighboring Communities. The Reporter, 21 Feb. 2011. Web. 20 Sept. 2011. <>.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Part Three: Dynamic Partnerships and Their Necessity

From my experience in urban communities, most non-profit organizations are hesitant to create partnerships, especially non-profits providing a similar service.   As government funding continues to decrease for human services and communities remain in decline, I grow increasingly confident that partnerships are the key to a thriving non-profit sector.

At the Dynamic Partnerships: The Arts and Community Development workshop, Megan Whilden made great points about why the partnership between the Storefront Artist Projects and Pittsfield’s Office of Cultural Development worked so well, but I was most impacted by her assertion that partnerships should highlight already present community strengths.

Some projects do not highlight present community strengths. For example, the creation of a community mural solely to improve a space’s attraction will not empower the community for real change.  The motivation of any project will be evident to community members by who is involved in the project, the project’s theme, and access to the planning.  When only outsiders are engaged in the project and community members have no part of the planning process, community empowerment will not happen.  Instead, the project will communicate to community members that their community is: ugly, dangerous, insufficient, etc.

The more effective and empowering project involves collectively planning and promoting a design highlighting positive community attributes.  Empowerment will happen when community members are engaged, in their areas of skill, to executive the project.  In order to accomplish this, partnerships with other community organizations in these projects are important: they provide both unity and positive reputation. 

I believe organizational partnerships help community members to see the broader picture in their community.  When organizations begin to function together towards a common goal, it becomes one community.  Competition breeds distrust, and community members can sense this distrust.  If organizations do not trust one another, why should community members trust organizations working on a community project?  In a project, positive reputation helps community members warm to new project and unity helps them feel comfortable enough to participate.

Non-profits resisting partnership are counterproductive and hurting their constituents.  The best projects are those approaching communities from a holistic perspective: just like a person, communities have multifaceted needs.  Community problems are usually much more complex than projects care to address.  The simple route is indeed to say that a community is not thriving because of _______ (a lack of jobs, you fill in the blank), but providing just _________ (allowing a new factory to be built in the community, a one-dimensional service) does not provide the whole answer (community members with the skills they need or remove the obstacles they have to succeed in a newly obtained job, other problems below the surface will exist).   When non-profits come together, they often are able to provide a more holistic project that successfully addresses the “whole” problem.

Partnership promotes unity, positive engagement, and holistic solutions in communities.  When non-profits overcome their fears of partnership and need to compete, the result will be thriving organizations and communities.  

Friday, September 16, 2011

Part 2: Dynamic Partnerships and the Role of Art in Revitalization

While Pittsfield Storefront Artist project was not intentionally designed to promote economic development, the natural outpouring of their efforts was attracting businesses.  It seems as if beautification of the space gave people motivation to return downtown.  This is an example of how artists can become social entrepreneurs: those who create opportunities in their neighborhood while earning a living (SIAP, Cultivating “Natural” Cultural Districts).  

Keynote speaker, Megan Wilden shared that one challenge of partnership with artists/an arts organization is to encourage without destroying the purity of the art.  In other words, when involving art with community development, the focus must always be creating art.  The partnership between the City of Pittsfield and artists seemed to reach an appropriate balance, because artists were cultivated to continue creating art, not attracting businesses.   Around this premise, the partnership provided fertile soil, because in addition to the presence of art, a sense of community was created among artists.  I think this sense of community was an added attraction for residents and businesses. 

University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) promotes a model of development integrating neighborhood residents with regional economy and civil society through aiding a transition from creative economy to creative society (Seifert and Stern, Culture and Urban Revitalization).  One way to achieve this is to create opportunities for artists, amateurs, and residents to collide; artists’ centers are an effective opportunity for this collision to occur.  Artists’ centers provide the community open access to the arts, classes, opportunities to mingle with artists and art lovers, mentoring, and useful networks for resource sharing (SIAP, Culture and Urban Revitalization).  Artists' centers make it more about relationships than transactions; thus creative society rather than economy.

Practically, how do artist’s centers revitalize communities?  Artists’ centers are so are embedded in the lives of community members that it provides: youth development through classes and mentoring, increased neighborhood safety through heavier foot traffic in the community, and improves local economy, as more foot traffic leads revenue for local businesses (Seifert and Stern, Culture and Urban Revitalization).  Moreover, stronger community relationships always generates greater community security among residents.

Cultivating the arts through partnerships in local communities is very effective as the arts continue to become more open and accessible to the general population.  The arts are powerful expressions of culture and experience, so it only seems natural that community revitalization engages art to empower community members and tell the neighborhood story.  Increased access has also uncovered the presence of organic art in low-income communities through anything from graffiti, to rap and spoken word, to resident gardens.  As stories are told, these organic artists are empowered to embrace their talent and use it towards personal, community and maybe even professional transformation.  

Seifert, Susan, and Mark Stern. "Culture and Urban Revitalization: A Harvest Document." Social Impact of the Arts Project (January 2007). Web. 14 Sept. 2011. <>.
Seifert, Susan, and Mark Stern. "Cultivating “Natural” Cultural Districts." Creativity and Change (September 2007). Web. 14 Sept. 2011. <>.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Part One: Dynamic Partnerships and Pittsfield, Mass.

Last Thursday, I attended a workshop presented by the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations.  Entitled Dynamic Partnerships: the Arts and Community Development, this workshop began with a Keynote speaker who shared her experience in a partnership between city government and the arts.   Why are partnerships so important? In this three part Dynamic Partnership series, I will talk more about partnerships, and why they are important. To start, I will share the example given by keynote speaker, Megan Whilden.

Megan Whilden is from the community of Pittsfield, Mass.  Pittsfield is the largest city in Berkshire County and in the past, a center of thriving industry.  Like so many East Coast cities, the decline of industrial business brought about general city decline.  General Electric housed a large factory in town that employed about 10,000 residents.  When it closed in 1977, the population decreased by approximately 20,000 people (General Electric / Housatonic River RCRA Site NRD Settlement,  Decreases in population were accompanied by the closure of many downtown businesses, which left downtown deserted.  However, where residents saw failure, one artist, Maggie Mailer, saw potential.  Maggie decided to initiate a movement that came to be known as the Storefront Artist Project (

As their website states, “Following in the footsteps of its nomadic tradition, the Storefront Artist Project continues to find vacant commercial spaces in Pittsfield for artists to use for temporary projects” (  For a period of 6 months, artists from around the local area began to occupy empty storefronts and display their artwork.  The agreement between property owners and these artists consisted of: temporary use of the storefront, artists holding their own liability insurance, and artists paying utility costs, while there (Megan Whilden). 

Eventually, due to the success of the Storefront Artist Project, they partnered with the City of Pittsfield’s Office of Cultural Development to promote economic development.  One project they began was 3rd Thursdays, a monthly event that provides evening access to downtown businesses and artists.  As a result of the work by the City and artists, 50 new restaurants and businesses have opened (Megan Whilden).


"General Electric / Housatonic River RCRA Site NRD Settlement." Mass.Gov. Energy and Environmental Affairs. Web. 14 Sept. 2011. <>.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Vacancy and Dilapidation Part 2: What can we do?

Philadelphia is a rich Mecca of community development corporations (CDC) and community organizations, some which have placed a great deal of effort into transforming vacant lots.  One such CDC is New Kensington CDC, which was featured at this year’s annual Flower Show.  "From Blight to Blossom" is the name of the exhibit, and its conception was the result of a partnership between the New Kensington CDC and Philadelphia's Office of Housing and Community Development. Its intention, according to a press release describing the project, is to "tell the story of an urban side-yard transformed from a vacant lot into a garden" (   Instead of allowing blight to fester in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, New Kensington has viewed vacant lots and abandoned homes as areas of potential beauty.  

What can be done with vacant lots?  One potential use of such space is to create new affordable housing sites, the foundation upon which Habitat for Humanity has built their organization.  Other possibilities include using the spaces for parks, community gardens, recreational centers, and even centers of community art.  Some projects such as New Kensington Vacant Land Management Program and Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s Community-Based Vacant Land Maintenance Program have dedicated their efforts towards cleaning and creating parks and community gardens throughout the city.   While the end result is transforming space, the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s project partners with nine community organizations, including Ready, Willing & Able and SELF, Inc. to employ individuals making the transition back to work after experiencing drug addiction and homelessness.  The Mural Arts Restorative Justice program has also helped with these efforts by employing ex-offenders in cleaning and transforming vacant lots.  The great aspect of these projects is people are given the opportunity to transform themselves through the process of transforming the land.

The Village for the Arts and Humanities is another organization that has transformed a great deal of space in North Philadelphia.  On their campus alone, they’ve transformed over 150 vacant lots into gardens, green spaces housing collections of community art and a two acre farm.  In this particular community, the Village for the arts and Humanities has worked organically by recruiting the help of community residents.  As the Wallace Foundation states: “With a phantasmagoria of mosaic sculptures, murals and gardens glimmering with giant angels and creatures no zoo has ever seen, the Village offers vibrant testimony to the role that art can play in bringing a desolate urban landscape back to life and engaging youth and families in the arts.”  As a result, neighbors are given the opportunity to connect and build relationships, while working together towards a common goal.  In addition, the two acre farm has given the community access to fresh and healthy food options.  

 The Southwest Community Development Corporation also provides a community beautification project that includes a community garden.  One of the 2011 graduates from the MA in Urban Studies, Regina Broomell-Young, assisted the Southwest Community Garden by facilitating research investigating is it was needed in the community: Her researched concluded that the garden was absolutely needed in the community for both health and community organizing purposes.  

While the potential for transformation is available to each of Philadelphia’s 40,000 vacant and abandoned properties, it is a large endeavor from start to finish.  Before starting, there is often the task of acquiring land or permission from owners, which makes the process a laborious one, especially in the cases of those lots privately owned.  For those ready and able for the task, the Philadelphia Horticultural Society has developed a guide entitled Reclaiming Vacant Lots: A Philadelphia Green guide. This guide not own provides practical tips on gardening and landscaping but also highlights steps for the project from beginning to finish.
Steps include:
  1. Resolving Ownership Issues
  2. Mapping Community Resources
  3. Assessing Site Conditions
  4. Developing a Site Plan
  5. Outlining a Maintenance Strategy
  6. Cleaning the Site
  7. Implementing Site Improvements
  8. Performing Ongoing Maintenance
From start to finish, there is much to be accomplished in terms of physical space, but let’s expand our view and see the potential in also lives of community members.  While funding has been cut back for many of the above mentioned projects, hopefully they will be able to endure and continue to impact this generation as well as many to come.