Sunday, December 26, 2021

"It takes the whole village to raise this community"

Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Bridge
Skyline views at night mask the reality of neighbourhood life 
- photo Jeffrey Phillips Freeman Creative Commons Wiki

by Mateja Mihinjac

At a time when a rising tide of violent crime infects Philadelphia and so many other American cities, one small pocket in that city has discovered a different way forward. A few weeks ago, community teams from the HACE Livability Academy presented preliminary plans for improving livability in their neighborhood. It was like an early holiday gift to their city and their neighborhoods and I was enormously impressed with their plans. 

The HACE SafeGrowth Livability Academy has been underway in the Fairhill and Kensington neighborhoods for a few years and – although applied only to these two neighborhoods and severely challenged by the COVID pandemic – academy classes continued unabated thanks to the amazing work of HACE, the non-profit community development organization.

COVID has made life miserable for community development work. In 2020, we were forced to suddenly transition to a virtual environment that was not conducive to collaborative workshops. But a year later we’ve managed to better adapt to this new reality. Training from afar is not ideal, but the virtual environment does have advantages and we can now reach a wider audience.


Over the past two months, I had the pleasure of co-facilitating the latest online cohort of HACE Livability Academy participants. 

HACE has been successfully running Livability Academies twice a year since 2018. Last year, the HACE team modified the curriculum to run virtual-only sessions. This year we were able to offer both face-to-face and virtual modalities. 

The Livability Academy is a 6–8-week program developed by AlterNation LLC  – the company behind SafeGrowth® – in which local residents and community representatives learn skills in community leadership, SafeGrowth and CPTED, community organizing, and project management.

The Livability Academy is an integral part of the SafeGrowth philosophy and it provides a constant flow of community leaders into neighbourhood problem-solving teams to address local issues. I found it empowering to see the kinds of complex issues that the latest cohort decided to tackle in their project work. 

Team project planning from a previous Philadelphia Livability Academy class


During training, participants identify an issue and in work teams they tackle a small-scale, real-life project in their neighbourhood. In this training, the in-person, face-to-face team produced one project proposal while the online virtual team chose to divide into two project teams. 

This past week all three teams presented their preliminary plans of the work they’ve done over the past few months. All three teams created inspiring projects directly within their neighborhood and they tackled persistent problems that were made worse during COVID.

Cover of the project report from the Fairhill United for Livability team

Fairhill United for Livability 

The first team’s project focused on activating the neighbourhood park to create a space for people to come together and build connections. They envisioned a more united neighbourhood that fosters community pride, strengthens connections between residents, and partners with neighbourhood groups, schools, and businesses to promote livability. 

They divided their plan into 3 phases over the next year: outreach, clean-ups, and community celebrations. The goal is to create a movement of people to fix broken social connections, a problem made far worse by COVID. The team concluded with their slogan: “No one can do alone what we can do together”.

Literally Literacy (Increasing Adult Literacy)

This team chose adult literacy as a key liveability issue. They identified low levels of literacy as a key barrier to job access, high earning potential, and access to better healthcare. Illiteracy is one of the major contributors to overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. Illiteracy is an obstacle to personal growth and this team decided to do something. The main objective of the project is to empower adults to seek assistance with reading and increase their self-esteem while eliminating the stigma associated with illiteracy. 

Data from the Literacy team's research project

The highlight of this team’s presentation was their inspirational personal stories. 

  • One member shared how her aunt learned to read late in life because she was unable to visit school as she had to prioritise caring for her family. 
  • Another member shared the experience of returning to college in her senior years and helped her expand her knowledge and reading capabilities. 
  • Another member recollected how it was once illegal for African Americans to read and she had to self-learn how to read. 
  • Finally, one member shared a story about how she remained a single young mother when she left her illiterate partner who was unable to provide for the family aside from selling drugs. 

They summarized their stories with the phrase: “You can be all that you can be; all you have to do is take the first step.”

Teen Trauma

This team focused on the struggles of youth that (if not addressed early) can cause long-term damage to a young person’s life and the neighbourhood quality of life. They outlined multiple consequences of trauma such as emotional and behavioural issues, internalised stress, engaging in unsafe behaviours, substance abuse, and mental illness. 

They proposed a 6-week program with various topics to address traumatic events. They also proposed creating a safe space with a support group for teens experiencing trauma. Two young team members, who themselves went through traumatic events, were especially inspiring in their quest to help their peers turn a new leaf. The team summarised the objective of their program: “To go from dysfunction to function.”

Research chart on trauma from the Teen Trauma team


I was extremely proud of all three teams for the work they completed within this short time. It is amazing how a group of people who know little, if anything, about each other, were able to take steps together and share the common purpose of improving life in their neighbourhood. 

This is the true spirit of SafeGrowth and the Livability Academy. There is no better holiday gift to Philadelphia, to their community, and to themselves.

As one Livability Academy participant concluded: “It takes the whole village to raise this community.”

Congrats to Philadelphia's 2021 HACE Livability Academy grads!
(photo courtesy of Sierra Cuellar)