In Kennett Square, PennPraxis helps build community, one leader at a time

While much community planning work is focused on limited interventions or short-lived programs targeting singular issues, PennPraxis partnerships focus on cultivating longer trajectories of community involvement.

Just before starting 10th grade, Elideth Navarro and her family moved from Guerrero, Mexico to the small Chester County borough of Oxford. After high school, she started working on the assembly line at a local manufacturing company. A supportive manager who’d grown up in Puerto Rico encouraged Navarro to learn computer skills, and she eventually became a manager of the production plant herself.

Sara Sterchak talks with someone at at the Juneteenth festival in Kennett Square
Design fellow Sara Sterchak speaks with community members at the 2022 Juneteenth festival in Kennett Square about the PennPraxis’ project. (Image: Katie Levesque)

Even with the Kennett Square area’s booming immigrant community—nearly half of Oxford Borough’s population is Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census—Navarro says her arrival in Pennsylvania was a disorienting experience. That’s part of why she co-founded Kennett Multimedia, a media and production company aimed at building connections within the area’s immigrant communities.

“I want to help to mitigate what I experienced, not having the guidance and help. Maybe I lost opportunities just because of that,” Navarro says. “I want to help others … to feel more safe and welcome.”

This spring, Navarro participated in a first-ever program for emerging leaders in Kennett Square, created through a partnership between PennPraxis and the Square Roots Collective, an organization that supports nonprofit and small-business entrepreneurs in the area. The pilot program, which included a cohort of nine and met on Saturday mornings between April and June, was aimed at expanding the community of leaders and decision-makers in the area, says PennPraxis managing director Julie Donofrio. While much community planning work is focused on often limited interventions in the built environment or short-lived programs targeting singular issues, Donofrio says, this program was focused on cultivating a “longer trajectory” of community involvement, diverse representation in local decision-making and creating an overall more inclusive social infrastructure.

“The goal of the program was to invite new voices and leadership into the spaces and conversations that affect the public realm, policies, and amenities in the communities in which they live,” says Donofrio. “While standard community engagement offers an invitation to participate, it became clear that new, younger community members, especially from diverse backgrounds, did not feel welcome, or heard, to participate in these ways, so more directed, focused outreach was needed. We needed to help emerging community leaders meet each other, and to cultivate the confidence to be in those spaces, and reinforce that they were valued community leaders with the power to influence things that mattered to them.”

PennPraxis’s work in Kennett Square began in the early days of the pandemic. Kennett Collaborative, a nonprofit group formerly known as Historic Kennett Square, enlisted PennPraxis’ help in reaching out to Spanish-speaking small-business owners in the area to help them apply for COVID-19 relief loans. The outreach was so successful that it piqued interest to broaden Praxis’ partnerships and work in the area.

For PennPraxis, the program was an exercise in new kinds of community engaged design and planning. Planners often have a hard time finding lasting, tangible ways to engage with residents, and community engagement is sometimes episodic and extractive, Donofrio says. But one of the goals of planning is to distribute more decision-making power to more people.

“How are we building organizational capacity? How are we actually shifting the balance of power in a community?” Donofrio says.

This story is by Jared Brey. Read more at Weitzman News.