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 this program also boosts local communication both via those pamphlets and flyers, and one-on-one 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
“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.