Key Points

Beginning in 2014, PA Humanities, one of 56 state and territorial humanities councils across the country, drew upon the work of Orton Family Foundation to deploy the Community Heart & Soul method, which centers community planning and civic engagement around connecting people to each other, and to the many assets of the places they live, through individual storytelling and collective narrative building.

Between 2015 and 2018, PA Humanities awarded matching grants to three locations in Pennsylvania — Greater Carlisle, Meadville, and Williamsport — to pilot PA Heart & Soul, a humanities-based, resident-driven community planning process that cultivates a shared sense of belonging among residents, engages them in thinking critically and creatively about community life, and involves them in decision-making and development to strengthen the social, cultural, and economic vibrancy of place.

The PA Heart & Soul Learning Project, launched to seek greater clarity about the direct experience of participants, was structured as an appreciative inquiry into the model’s implementation and guided by a Learning Advisory Group of funding and implementation partners and community residents.

The Learning Project concluded that an emergence-focused and humanities-driven approach can produce sustainable community plans informed by resident voices, particularly those who have been historically marginalized. Perhaps more important, allowing emergent learning to shape PA Heart & Soul strategy led to stronger engagement by residents, improved funder–community relationships, and new ways of showing up for PA Humanities and its partners.

This article presents researchers’ findings about the impact of the model; describes how PA Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment of the Humanities, is reformulating its civic engagement strategy based on these findings; and explores potential lessons for place-based grantmakers seeking inclusive, peoplecentered community change.

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