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Task force lays foundation for resident-driven civic association in Mantua

May 17, 2012

A group of 14 engaged residents have formed the Mantua Civic Association Task Force to begin laying the groundwork for a civic association in Mantua.

The goal of the task force is to create a civic association: an active body that would meet regularly and publicly to provide residents information about activities in Mantua. The civic association would also provide an opportunity for residents to give input and take action around issues affecting the neighborhood.

SCI-West is supporting the task force with the help of a facilitator. So far, LISC and SCI-West have worked to strengthen the We Are Mantua! Choice Planning Initiative by convening key neighborhood stakeholders and hiring a community organizer to engage residents in the planning process.

At a task force meeting, members worked to craft vision and mission statements.

Many Mantua residents, task force participants reported, have historically felt isolated from each other, closed out of the community decision-making process, and disconnected from information about changes in their neighborhood.

“We don’t get information about development in Mantua,” said resident Joseph Walker, who is participating in the task force. Without a civic association that has recognition from developers and the city, Mantua residents are left uninformed on development decisions. “When developers come in to the community they do not have a specific organization to come to, so they’re not sharing information,” Walker explained. “By the time we get the information it’s already been through zoning, and it’s too late for us to decide to approve it or go against it.”

Residents realized through recent planning meetings of We Are Mantua! that their individual frustrations were shared by many of their neighbors. “Everybody seems to be on the same page,” Walker added. “We are creating the civic association so that when developers come to the area, this will be the organization where they get permission, where community members can be informed.”

The task force is excited about the prospect of a resident-driven organization for other reasons as well. The organization could help the community address the needs of residents, advocate for community health, share the area’s vibrant history, and set a collective vision for the neighborhood. Youth member Brandon Pembleton said, “The civic association is supposed to be used for standing up for the rights of the community, to make sure that no one is misinformed, to make sure that everyone has the right information.” Through engaging residents, leading projects, connecting with city departments, and communicating with elected officials, the new organization hopes to address the priority issues and champion the recommendations identified by residents in the We Are Mantua! planning effort.

Speaking with one voice: What a civic association could do

The Mantua community faces significant challenges, from rampant crime to recent school closings, unemployment to a proliferation of vacant and abandoned land. Yet its location– its proximity to Drexel University and Center City, with connections to Fairmount Park, the Philadelphia Zoo and the Schuykill River—makes the area poised for redevelopment. The challenge is using community transformation to benefit existing Mantua residents, without pricing them out of the neighborhood or altering the community’s identity.

“There are multiple issues in Mantua: issues of poverty, low graduation rates, housing – you name it, we got it,” said task force member Gwen Morris. “All of these are urgent concerns. That is a challenge for whatever this civic association turns out to be.”

Morris decided to move to Mantua over 30 years ago because residents here were organized and empowered. Now she’s working with the Civic Association Task Force because she hopes the community association would allow the neighborhood “to galvanize our resources and organize our resources in a way that is effective for the entire community.” She envisions Mantua as “a community that is safe, clean and self-reliant, and empowered to make decisions in the best interest of all – those are the pieces that make a community viable.”

Residents participating in the task force are especially concerned about the availability of affordable housing. They worry about the proliferation of rental housing, the declining affordability of homeownership units, and the loss of existing homeownership as a result of debt, tangled title, tax delinquency, and other issues. “When people don’t know what to do, they can get their homes taken away,” Walker said, adding that a civic association could provide information and resources to help preserve homeownership.

The president of the neighboring Powelton Village Civic Association attended the last task force meeting, to begin sharing ideas, providing guidance and building a collaborative relationship. Residents learned that in the more well-off Powelton Village community, only 12% of the homes are owner-occupied – the rest is rental. “That’s our fear as a community – we see a lot of rental housing going up, but none for the people who reside here,” explained Morris. “It’s real clear that they’re for students: low- and middle-income families can’t afford them. There is no new development that addresses the issue of homeownership.”

An established Civic Association with widespread community engagement and support, good leadership, and appropriate recognition could ultimately help the community influence development decisions. “Part of what was standing in the way of progress in Mantua was the fact that they weren’t organized,” Morris explained. “I think its important for the community to be able to demonstrate that we are organized and we speak with one voice.”

We Are Mantua! organizer Donna Griffin is hopeful that this will allow the community “some input and negotiating ability and say-so about what’s happening in their community in terms of development.”  Griffin explained that the new Civic Association in Mantua will have the opportunity to become a Registered Community Organization (RCO) with the City of Philadelphia. With this new structure, any developer who submits an application for any kind of construction in Mantua would have to notify the local RCO within a seven-day period and present their intentions at a public community meeting. In addition to increasing community awareness, the RCO would be able to pass a resolution about the proposed development to influence the city’s planning decisions.

The Civic Association also aims to serve residents, providing them with information and resources, leading initiatives, organizing projects, and establishing a “central location” for residents to connect. Walker said, “It will be a hub for resources and information, and a center for our outreach.”

We make the road by walking: Setting up the civic association

In the meantime, the Civic Association Task Force is charged with shaping what the civic association’s roles and responsibilities will be, developing rules of membership and governance, and creating the overall framework and structure of the civic association.

“For a number of years, there hasn’t been a group that is resident-driven,” said Evette Banfield, who is facilitating the task force meetings. “There is a sense that in the past residents were more unified as a neighborhood and they want to rebuild that and reclaim that for themselves.”

The Task Force is working with Banfield to build capacity, exchanging information and ideas with other civic associations, and meeting regularly (every other week) to complete the structure and set of job descriptions before elections on June 19th. “We’re learning how the process works, what it takes to form a separate association, and who it’s supposed to benefit and how,” Walker said.

Banfield, who has worked to support various community building initiatives for over 10 years, says she tries to create opportunities for residents to express their views while also facilitating a process where their intentions and their ideas for an organization become a reality. Among other things, she is currently helping the residents identify a vision for their neighborhood and articulate a mission statement for the association.

The group will also work to get the word out among the community, informing residents about the Civic Association being formed in Mantua, responsibilities of the available leadership positions, and overall membership criteria. “We are very intentional in terms of determining how many youth should be part of the civic association, businesspersons, as well as residents,” Griffin said. “We’re looking for a comprehensive as well as full representation of community stakeholders on the task force.”

Youth from Da Bottom 4… (DB4), the youth advisory committee for We Are Mantua!, are also serving on the task force. As far as the age range, the civic association is a diverse group,” said Pembleton, who is part of the task force “to give youth insight and opinion.” So far the group has been very concerned with involving the youth, Pembleton said. “I was shocked to see we – DB4 and the civic association – have the same goals in mind.”

Finally, community residents will elect who they would like to be leaders among their Civic Association. Those selected leaders would then undergo additional capacity building as a representative body for Mantua in an attempt to minimize some of the challenges with setting up a new organization.

In for the long haul: The latest in a long process of organizing

A HUD Planning Grant provided the local public housing site Mt. Vernon Manor with resources to support a neighborhood planning process rooted in community engagement. In February, We Are Mantua! started bringing together residents from across the neighborhood to begin addressing community challenges. The diverse, inter-generational and multi-cultural group has since been developing a set of priorities and recommendations for community improvement.

In the long run, the Mantua Civic Association can work to increase resident civic engagement and improve the quality of life for all Mantua residents. “Many Mantua residents don’t believe that things will change here,” Griffin explains, “so this is a big step in communicating to the community at large that we can organize and become the voice of Mantua and influence what happens in our community.”

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