Cultural coalition will work to address numerous issues and work toward improvements
By Susan Shelly
With a goal of advancing economic revitalization in the City of Reading, Alvernia University’s O’Pake Institute for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship has organized a cultural coalition to address issues and work toward improvements in the areas of arts and culture, community and neighborhood revitalization, and education and workforce development.
Represented in the coalition are businesses, nonprofits, educators, arts organizations, the City of Reading, the County of Berks and others. Adonis Fleming, graduate assistant of community outreach at the O’Pake Institute, and Maritza Loaiza, special assistant in the Office of the Managing Director of the City of Reading, serve as co-chairs.
Fleming and Loaiza grew up in Reading and are passionate about advancing the city and its residents.
“Being a son of Reading, I feel it’s my responsibility to make the city a better place for everyone, especially our young people,” Fleming said.
The coalition is bringing groups and individuals together to maximize efforts to improve the Greater Reading community, according to Dr. Rodney S. Ridley Sr., Alvernia’s vice president of research, economic development and innovation; dean of the College of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Mathematics; and COO of the O’Pake Institute.
“There were already a number of people and groups in the community doing good work, but we discovered they were all trying to do it by themselves,” said Ridley. “The challenge was to get them working together.”
Joining forces to discuss their missions, plans, goals and challenges has enabled coalition members to identify ways they can work together for the good of the community.
“The level of engagement has increased tremendously as people have gotten to know each other,” Ridley said. “There’s a lot of beautiful synergy happening that wasn’t there just a short time ago.”
Nick Johnson, president and CEO of TEM Behavioral Health who serves as leader of the Education and Workforce Development Task Force, said it was important for coalition members to learn what others were attempting to accomplish.
“We realized we didn’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Johnson said. “We just needed to understand what everyone else was doing so we’re able to support one another to move forward.”
The focus of the Education and Workforce Development Task Force is partnering with area organizations and institutions to make jobs and higher education more accessible.
“We recognize that not everyone will go to college, so we need to make sure there are post-secondary jobs available,” Johnson said. “And for those who do want to attend college, we need to be sure there’s a way for them to do so. We want to be cognizant and inclusive of everyone.”
The Arts and Culture Task Force, led by Levi Landis, GoggleWorks Center for the Arts executive director and president, is tasked with promoting the vast cultural diversity found in Reading and Greater Berks County, as well as celebrating and bringing together local artists.
It’s currently utilizing a co-design process to create a collective communications campaign intended to galvanize support from the creative community and increase representation from typically marginalized groups.
“We want to advance city pride; capture the unique look, voice, and vibe of our community; and lift the proverbial tide for creative people working and living in Reading,” Landis said.
Lizette Epps, executive director of financial services and internal operations for the O’Pake Institute, who leads the Neighborhood Revitalization Task Force, is working with community representatives to assure improvement of the Penn Street corridor and its surrounding neighborhoods.
The task force is collaborating on a block captain and stewardship program that will appoint Alvernia students as block captains to serve as liaisons between business owners and the City of Reading. It also has introduced the Financial Lending and Innovation Collaborative (FLIC), a micro-grant program for early-stage entrepreneurs.
In addition to working toward its goal of having every building on Penn Street occupied, the task force is creating new opportunities and services for residents as it assures them that Alvernia and its partners are committed to the good of the greater community.
“We’re all actively working together to improve the city,” Epps said. “We want to be a neighborhood resource that residents can come to for direction or advice.”
Loaiza, who works closely with Reading Mayor Eddie Moran, said the mayor is enthusiastic regarding the coalition’s work and appreciative of Alvernia’s efforts to help improve Reading by supporting its small businesses and nonprofits, youth initiatives and neighborhoods.
“He recognizes that Alvernia values the community it has moved into and sees the importance in bridging the gap by connecting residents and neighborhoods to each other and the Penn Street corridor through art, education and entrepreneurship,” Loaiza said. “We all want to see the city continue to succeed and thrive, and this kind of collaboration helps that happen.”