It can be a difficult task finding a direct pipeline for citizens to directly voice their concerns to their representatives.
On Feb. 23 at 6 p.m., the Penn Project for Civic Engagement hosted a forum at the Northampton Community College Fowler Family Southside Center titled “Your City, Your Voice.”
Sponsored by the Lehigh Valley Hispanic Center and lehighvalleylive.com, the forum invited any and all community members to engage in a conversation about issues relevant to the Southside, as well as to share what community members loved about the area. Residents were joined by city representatives including Mayor J. William Reynolds and Bethlehem City Council at the community forum.
Blank paper easels circled on the perimeter of the conference room with markers and sticky notes for participants to engage with.
One easle titled “You know you’re really from the South Side if…” was filled with sticky note responses including “if you identify houses by the family names that lived there,” and “if you can’t find parking on your block.”
Upon arrival at the event, every community member was given a name tag with an assigned number for which group they would split into to have their small conversations.
Joined by Pennsylvania State Representative Steve Samuelson, a ‘86 Lehigh alumnus, I was assigned to group six, which included community members ranging from business owners, to school counselors, to retired elderly.
Each member of the group had unique perspectives to bring to the conversation. Some were lifelong residents and some were newcomers to the area. However, they all shared one thing: their love for the Southside.
Participants shared their admiration for the area’s vibrancy, diversity and resiliency. They boasted about the restaurants, music and ArtsQuest. They loved that the Southside is welcoming to newcomers. With so many hearts invested in all that the Southside has to offer, it is no wonder that community members are also invested in the future of the Southside.
After sharing in their love for their community, the group was told to share either a hope or a fear for the Southside.
Community members expressed many hopes, including empowering youth, improving job seeking and job-keeping, improving the public-private partnerships and continuing to celebrate education opportunities.
Common fears included gentrification, lack of development when grandiose plans fall flat, student housing and crime.
What I found most interesting about this exercise was what the moderator said next – hope and fear are often the two sides of the same coin.
While one person may be concerned about a lack of development in their city, the next may be concerned about the impacts of gentrification.
The group was then given the hypothetical situation where the city is given $10 million to be used for any purpose that they chose.
What would best serve the city if given this sum of money?
The group had many ideas. Childcare support, mental wellness services and traffic and parking plans were just the beginning.
One idea that got attention was strengthening the partnership between public and private interests in the area.
What could this mean for Lehigh? How much could be done if we continued to strengthen the programs between Lehigh and public institutions, like the Southside’s public schools and programs?
Lehigh often partners with Bethlehem’s public schools, organizing programs such as homework help, community school and student-athlete coaching.
This partnership is strong and should continue to grow. How can Lehigh continue to support the Bethlehem Area School District?
As Lehigh finds its home on the Southside, the interests of the institution and the community are intricately tied.
There is so much that can be done when Lehigh partners with the greater community. Participating in collaborative conversations is a start in the right direction for connecting citizens directly to their representatives and other community members.
Lehigh students and faculty should continue to seek opportunities to be a part of community conversations and most importantly to listen to the concerns that residents have for the Southside.