Residents of the neighborhoods in the Northwest section of Philadelphia came together to discuss important issues at the Community Café. About 100 people gathered at the Mt. Airy Presbyterian Church to enjoy coffee and food while talking about the topics that matter most to them in five different focus groups.
The free event, sponsored by Northwest Philadelphia MARCHinG for Change and Philly Neighborhood Networks gave area residents the ability to learn about the issues concerning them as well as the opportunity to contribute to in-depth discussions that took place after the presenters first talked about the matter.
Following a short time to informally discuss the issues, Northwest residents were then able to take part in two workshop sessions of their choice. The workshops were lead by presenters who are experts in the topic being addressed. The subjects included the mortgage and foreclosure crisis, campaign finance reform and co-housing. The creation of a job bill to get Americans back to work and also the local food movement were other workshop topics that the community members engaged in.
The cohousing workshop, lead by Gloria Hoffman of the Philadelphia Cohousing Initiative educated Northwest Philadelphia residents on the organization and goal to establish a cohousing community in the Mt. Airy area. In cohousing, residents participate in the design of the community so that it meets their needs. Residents manage their own communities and also perform much of the work required to maintain the property. They participate in preparation of common meals.
General Manager of Weavers Way Coop, Glenn Bergman, enlightened his workshop on the advantages of keeping food local and how Philadelphia could benefit from making locally grown food a priority.
Alex Kaplan from Common Cause of Pennsylvania discussed campaign finance reform while in another group, Ben Sears of Jobs with Justice got people thinking about a jobs bill for Americans to get back to work. This workshop brought together a group of people passionate about the issue who are now planning on meeting in the future to work on getting a bill passed.
Tim Styer of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project educated people on the problems he sees with mortgage foreclosures and the effects they have on families, especially children.
“It’s more of a human crisis than a financial crisis,” Styer said to the attendees at his workshop.
Styer said he was also glad to dispel the myths that most people have about the mortgage crisis in America today. Out of the 194 clients he dealt with this year facing foreclosure, he said only eight of those families have actually lost their homes. He went on to discuss the roles banks and investors play in the mortgage crisis and the assistance opportunities that are available to those facing mortgage problems to a fully engaged crowd.
“I’m always surprised of the amount of people who don’t know about some of the benefits and services,” he added.
Rep. Mark B. Cohen, D-Philadelphia, attended the home foreclosure workshop and said he learned a great deal even though he was active in setting up Pennsylvania’s Homeowners’ Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program.
“I’m very enthusiastic about what I learned here. I’m very enthusiastic about the dialogue,” he said.
After the success of the first Community Café, which took place in November 2009 at the Sedgwick Theater, organizers tried to make this year’s event even better by spreading out the discussion groups to ensure people got the best experience possible.
Rev. Aisha Brooks-Lytle, the pastor of the Mt. Airy Presbyterian Church, was elated to have the Community Café held at her church. She said, “I think creating safe spaces to have conversation. To say that you can’t just talk and complain and gripe, you have to participate together.”
At the end of the event the attendees and organizers reconvened to sum up the ideas that were explored in each workshop. Every workshop also presented an action item or a suggestion that the group felt should be implemented by the government. The individuals attending the local food group said the group wanted a fresh produce section in every market in the city to be mandatory.
Rep. Cohen said: “I think the community challenge here in Germantown, Mt. Airy and throughout the city is to come up with new ways to solve old problems. There’s very little that’s new in terms of problems in Philadelphia. What we need is things that are new in terms of solutions and I think activities like these are good in terms of finding solutions.”
Event organizer Margaret Lenzi said she hopes to continue holding Community Cafés on a somewhat regular basis. She also said the forums have been successful in educating area residents and expanding dialogues on the issues discussed because they gather people in one place to discuss important topics. The discussions also help bring people together to work on solving problems.
“There are a lot of issues and challenges, but it’s a lot easier if we come together and talk together as interested people,” Lenzi said.
The Community Café allowed people to connect with those who share similar interests who they might not have had the opportunity to meet otherwise so they can form and join groups so they can affect change on the matters that mean the most to them.
Lenzi said, “If we see that other people are interested in the issues that we are interested in that we can create a movement that can make a real change in the United States, but it all starts at the local level and it moves up from there.”