A year ago more than 200 people gathered at historic Zion’s “Liberty Bell” United Church of Christ to witness Mayor Pawlowski’s answer to one question: will you work with groups and organizations from the city to create a community benefits agreement ? A CBA is a written agreement between the community and developers that details specific and measurable benefits the community will receive for a project funded with tax dollars.
We told the mayor that we were pleased and hopeful about the potential benefits of the Neighborhood Improvement Zone for the planned hockey arena and other construction. We shared research data about the high poverty and unemployment levels in downtown Allentown. We asked if the mayor was willing to convene a meeting with “a longer table and more chairs” that would include faith-based organizations, neighborhood groups, non-profit and service agencies, who could collaborate with city officials and developers to create a community benefits agreement (CBA)? The mayor responded, “Yes.”
The following week he referred us to his Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED). We provided a list of groups and organizations that had expressed interest in joining the conversation and suggested that DCED invite others to that “longer table” for a truly collaborative discussion.
However, we soon learned that an open, collaborative process was not going to happen. A few CUNA leaders were invited to meet with DCED staff several times over several months. We explained that we already had talked with two developers who expressed interest in a CBA. We expounded the value of gathering groups and organizations in collaborative decision-making. However, we observed that this goal was not shared or valued, and to make a very long story short, it became obvious that they were not going to convene those “longer table” meetings.
So last summer, CUNA leaders began our trademark “one-to-one” conversations with leaders and members of other organizations. As a result, the Allentown Community Benefits Coalition formed. This broad-based coalition includes the NAACP, the Housing Association and Development Corporation of Allentown, the Hispanic American League of Artists, the Lehigh County Conference of Churches, Resurrected Life Community Development Corporation, the Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King Memorial Project, as well as CUNA and several downtown churches.
We created, distributed among our constituents and then collated a simple survey about priorities for community benefits. A month ago we presented the results to DCED, elected officials, the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Authority, and the press. As a bunch of citizen-volunteers we worked hard to be a catalyst for a fully collaborative process. The only response we have received from DCED is that they are working on their own statement.
As the pastor of this downtown church for more than 18 years, I often have been asked what I thought about the future of the city, and my answer for many years has been the same: there are so many good people working for the good of the city, good things are going to happen.
Good things are happening! But can you imagine how much more good we could accomplish around issues like job creation for Allentown residents, affordable housing, and quality education if we were brought together?
Who can bring us together if the city’s Department of Community and Economic Development is not willing to do so? Why is it so difficult for city officials to provide leadership for collaborative conversations about matters that affect so many people in Allentown?
Peter Block, consultant and author of “Community: The Structure of Belonging,” observes that in many of our cities, government entities, businesses, schools, social service organizations, congregations and other faith-based organizations, as well as neighborhood groups, function in isolation and aren’t brought together for the common good.
Sound familiar? Sadly, this fragmentation not only robs us of a true experience of community, it also prevents the development of synergies that could occur if these sectors collaborated about the problems and opportunities we have in common.
We now realize the question is no longer, “Can we talk?” We now want to know, “is anybody listening? Who will bring us together?”
c. 2013 Rev. Robert T. Stevens, Zion’s ‘Liberty Bell’ U.C.C.