Emerging leaders program highlighted at Kennett Square forum09/27/2022 04:45PM ● By Richard Gaw
Photo by Richard L. Gaw Christina Norland, Community Engagement Lead for Square Roots Collective, far right, moderated a “How We Build Matters” forum on Sept. 22 that introduced panelists who attended the Kennett Emerging Leaders Fellowship Program, an eight-week fellowship to cultivate and support new community leaders in the Kennett area. The panelists included, from left, Elideth Navarro, Mayra Castillo and Lee Sausen.
By Richard L. Gaw
The entrance to the fortress that provides leadership opportunities in the Kennett Square community, once ominous and intimidating to underserved populations, continues to be flung wide open by way of inclusion, initiatives and individual voices.
Three of those voices were shared at the “How We Build Matters” speakers series event at the Kennett Square Presbyterian Church on South Broad Street before a 100-member audience on Sept. 22. Sponsored by Kennett Collaborative, the event invited three local residents to share their experiences at one such initiative -- the Kennett Emerging Leaders Fellowship Program -- an eight-week fellowship to cultivate and support new community leaders in the Kennett area.
Designed by PennPraxis, the non-profit arm of the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania in partnership with Square Roots Collective, the program intends to serve as a blueprint for building a more inclusive future for the Kennett area through community engagement and coalition building.
The panel discussion, moderated by Square Roots Collective Community Engagement Lead Christina Norland, introduced panelists Elideth Navarro, Mayra Castillo and Lee Sausen, who were among the nine local residents who attended the emerging leaders program. Over the course of several sessions, area leaders were asked to facilitate discussions with those in the program. Among those local stakeholders who participated in the program included Norland, former Kennett Square Mayor Leon Spencer, Sara Dickens-Trillo of Mighty Writers and Kristin Proto, executive director of The Garage Community & Youth Center.
The Emerging Leaders Program coincided with the release of the findings of the two-year Kennett Square Engagement & Evaluation Project -- highlighted by the results of a 2022 survey that measured the degree to which local residents felt engaged in their community. Among its principal findings, the survey revealed “relatively low feelings of empowerment in community decision-making” across all segments of Kennett’s population who participated in the poll.
The survey revealed major disparities across demographic lines; more than 75 percent of white respondents say they feel included, while less than 40 percent of Latinx or Spanish-speaking respondents felt the same way.
The Emerging Leaders program, the panelists said, began to puncture the long-held belief that the Kennett Square area is, in fact, two separate communities – one that is included, and one that has remained marginalized.
Navarro, the vice president and assistant director of Kennett Multimedia, arrived in the United States from Mexico when she was 14. She said her arrival in the U.S. was “shocking and traumatizing,” largely due to her not being able to speak English. After 20 years in the U.S., she called her participation in the Emerging Leaders Program her first official “welcoming” experience to the U.S. that provided her with a safe environment.
Navarro urged the community to “listen to our stories, our backgrounds and break the barriers,” she said. “On the first day of our sessions, many barriers were broken. It didn’t matter about our job titles, or what we did in life, or the color of our skin.
“We recognized ourselves as human beings.”
‘I belong here’
Castillo, the vice president of Casa Guanajuato in Kennett Square, has been in the U.S. for nearly 30 years after arriving from Mexico when she was 12. Over the past three decades, she has had to adjust to her life in the U.S. while in the process she has lost much of her cultural lineage to her native country. Consequently, “I’ve felt that I didn’t belong here or there,” she told the audience.
During her first exercise with Emerging Leaders facilitator Daniel Egusquiza from Barrio Alegria in Reading, Pa. however, Castillo said that a theater-type exercise gave her the power to recognize who she was and where she was.
“Daniel gathered all of us together in a circle and he said, ‘You have to say it and you really have to believe it,’” Castillo said. “’I belong. I belong here.’ To me, that was the moment when I realized that I do belong here.”
Castillo said that over the past 30 years, she has begun to see progress toward inclusiveness in the community.
“I see growth and I see potential because I do feel that we are being included a bit more each time,” she said, “and every time that we are given the opportunity to have a seat at the table like we were given at this program, we do get to meet new people and people get to hear us and give us opportunity.”
In all of these small steps, however, Castillo said she still sees large discrepancies, mainly in the growing lack of housing affordability in the community that continues to price out much of the Hispanic population. She said she discussed the topic at a meeting about the issue of attainable housing earlier that day.
“I feel that there is progress, there is change,” she said. “I know it will take time, but 30 years have flown by, and I finally have gotten to a point where I say that I belong and I can create changes. Hopefully, those changes will affect my children and my grandchildren one day.”
Sausen, public accountant and associate director of investment and taxation at Longwood Gardens, said that the Emerging Leaders Program was “motivating” for him.
“I am surrounded by my peers who care about where they live, who are just as busy as me, even more so,” he said. “I admit that I was nervous in the beginning, not knowing exactly what to expect and being in a room with strangers and asked to open up. As someone who leans toward being an introvert, it was tough in the beginning but I surprised myself at how quickly we all got comfortable with each other.”
Sausen said that there are many ways a local resident can get involved with helping to affect positive change.
“Volunteering for a non-profit is a way of getting involved but I think it can also mean something less formal that joining a board or a committee,” he said. “It could just be showing up to events like this, talking to or introducing yourself to someone you’ve never met before, and sharing an idea about a way to make Kennett better and preserve what’s great in Kennett now.
“Knowing what forward progress and preservation looks like for everyone means talking about it, with people you know and are comfortable with, and also with strangers, who also happen to be passionate about where they live but may have a different perspective.”
‘Our places shape us, but we shape our places’
Discussing PennPraxis’ collaboration with Square Roots Collective, Katie Levesque, research associate and project manager for PennPraxis, said that the initial mission of the Kennett Emerging Leaders Fellowship Program is to strengthen the social infrastructure of the Kennett Square community. It will be about shifting the status quo, she said.
“We understand the power that our environment holds on every one of us, and we truly believe that the everyday people who live, work and play in any space should have the agency to shape those environments, because they do have an impact on each other and themselves,” Levesque said. “They should have a say in what happens and should be able to advocate for their own needs and desires.”
The forum was in keeping with the overall theme of the “How We Build Matters” series, said Bo Wright, executive director of Kennett Collaborative, the sponsor of the event.
“Together, these activities underscore the importance of recognizing that how we build Kennett’s future really matters – not just what we build, but how we do it and perhaps most importantly, whether all segments of our community are invested in the process and the results,” he said. “Our places shape us, but we shape our places, so the question is, ‘What kind of places do we collectively want?’”
To learn more about Square Roots Collective, visit www.ksqroots.com. To learn more about PennPraxis at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, visit www.design.upenn.edu/pennpraxis.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].