In 1982, Billy Joel summed up Allentown, PA by describing a rust-belt city picking up the pieces after factories and mills shuttered their doors. This is what economic development has looked like in the Lehigh Valley for several decades.
In 2014, state legislation passed that allowed state tax dollars to stay in Allentown and invested in economic development. Within a short period of time, the eight-block area of downtown Allentown evolved from an area that was desolate after 5:00 pm to a vibrant, growing destination.
But that’s just downtown.
Walk just two blocks away and you’ll encounter neighborhoods with significant health disparities, crime, underperforming schools and a shortage of affordable housing. Not unlike other urban areas around the country, these multiple complex social issues are barriers to local community development.
Seeing the epicenter of Allentown continue to grow and attract new residents and visitors, the Rider-Pool Foundation knew that the spark to get real work done in the community was on the horizon. In an area where the graduation rate was only 68 percent, 62 for a child of color, and only a third of its residents had an opportunity to enroll their child in quality pre-k, the need to build up community partnerships and work toward a common goal was immense. For the foundation, the goal was simple: how could they use the ongoing economic development to spur movement for community development, as well?
As a result, the Collective Impact Fellowship Program was created to address and improve complex quality of life challenges within neighborhoods through a new system of non profit leadership. The program aims to bring together local non-profit leaders from diverse sectors who all work in the same neighborhoods to undergo a rigorous 180-hour training program geared at building capacity to initiate and achieve collective impact and other multi-sector efforts.
Fellows were tasked with increasing effectiveness of community work, providing tools for meaningful collaboration, and creating win-win strategies driven by a comprehensive approach to community development. The program proudly boasts 34 fellows in year four of the program, well on target to reach the goal of 50 fellows driving cross-sector work in Allentown.
Each month, fellows from all cohorts are brought together to foster a community of practice, sharing dinner before diving in to explore complex issues like how to improve cross-sector partnerships, how to encourage the sharing of voice and power among the community, nonprofits and funders, how to better use data being collected in each sector, and how to use Community Commons as a way to share data and drive decision-making within collaborative groups.
The collective impact model reinforces the notion that data is critical at every level of a project. For cohort 2 alumnus, Samantha Goodrich of Lehigh Valley Health Network, the shift of the conversation surrounding data sharing was critical.
“Data used to be thought of as something that needed to be held on to internally rather than shared,” Goodrich said. “Now it is about how do we use all the data we have in a focused way to answer the questions we have. It has helped to break down silos, as the data piece creates a neutral playing field. Everyone can bring something to the table because they’ve been collecting it individually and can see the benefit of sharing it with others.”
Collective impact fellows have been involved at many level of community efforts in Allentown, from work surrounding suicide prevention and mental health in the court system, to promise neighborhoods and homelessness. Fellows played a pivotal role in building the trust needed to share law enforcement and health care utilization data, leading to efforts to improve care and support for people with mental illness. Trusted relationships among key people in various systems, as well as having a platform such as Community Commons to allow for data mapping and story sharing, have ignited a spark at the ground level to undertake meaningful work in the community.
“At the end of the day, we’re all working toward the same outcomes,” Goodrich said, “and that’s what matters.”