Reading, Pa., didn’t wait for national leaders. It led the way.

Rich Harwood, The Fulcrum


I’m on the road nonstop these days. In just the past few weeks I’ve been to Ohio, Florida, California, North Carolina and Michigan. Everywhere I go, I love telling the story of Reading, Pa. I never tire of it.

Why? Because I can think of no clearer example of what it looks like for a community to come together and build, especially at this time of such division, mistrust and lack of hope in our nation.

Ten years ago, Reading was declared the poorest community in the United States. It used to be predominantly white and is now around 65 percent Latino. It suffers from persistent poverty, fragmentation, a lack of hope and youth violence. I’ve heard folks say Reading will never amount to anything. That it’s a dying city, too beset by problems, not worth saving.

The Harwood Institute started working in Reading back in 2021 in partnership with Centro Hispano, a local community organization. Together, we undertook a deep community engagement process with the goal of producing a shared, community-wide education agenda. This was at the height of debates over critical race theory, school board recalls and book-banning efforts. Everyone told us education was too divisive an issue around which to create a shared purpose.

But Reading did it. After months of conversations with residents and community leaders who represented the area’s full diversity and lived experiences, the community arrived at a series of nine agenda items that were documented in a joint report with Centro Hispano. Once the agenda was in place, the doubters raised their voices again to say no way would the community take action.

So a group of four local partners — who all knew each other but had never marshaled their collective resources in such a way before — stepped forward to fund and lead the next phase of the work. Doubts were raised once more that people wouldn’t engage. Or at least not enough people to move this work forward and make a difference,

But when we held an initial Public Innovators Lab to equip residents with the Harwood approach, it filled up quickly. Not only that, three action teams formed after the lab — English as a Second Language, After- and Out-of-School Activities, and Early Childhood Education.

Today, 18 months later, each team has unleashed a chain reaction of actions that is addressing what matters to people, shifting the community’s civic culture, and building momentum day by day. Every step of the way, Reading proved the doubters wrong.

The English as a Second Language team has dramatically increased the supply of ESL teachers and classes to meet community demand. And they’ve engaged the faith community to host recurring “Practice Potlucks” that bring English and non-English speakers together to practice language skills, which is forging new relationships and networks that cross language barriers. This effort is now spreading throughout the faith community and jumping to other civic-minded organizations. All of this has happened in conjunction with the local Literacy Council, which itself has innovated to deliver ESL learning opportunities to hundreds more community members through a free learning app and a resource hub that connects people to both digital and in-person classes.

The After- and Out-of-School Activities team has broken down silos to reduce service duplication and ensure that what they provide meets the community’s aspirations. The team has created movie nights that provide a safe haven for young people and connect families to key resources. 

Meanwhile, a collection of organizations forged entirely new relationships and are working to implement new federal grant dollars to deliver more comprehensive after-school enrichment. Today, leaders are having the hard conversations they have long avoided, and are in turn creating a new sense of shared purpose and norms for doing business.

The Early Childhood Education team started out thinking the issue in their community was low supply of programs and too few early childhood teachers. It was true. But after listening intently to community residents, they realized they also needed to build awareness about the lifelong benefits of early childhood education. And in fact, what families wanted most of all was a deeper sense of connection with their neighbors. 

So the team developed block parties held in partnership with the Reading School District and the Early Learning Resource Center began referring families to resources beyond just child care. What’s more, library programming is becoming more connected to the community, with grocery stores and bodegas and barber shops now serving as information hubs about what the library has to offer.

Better yet, the work of each team has jumped to new areas like food insecurity and youth violence and suicide prevention. It is spreading like a positive contagion.

I was just in Reading a few weeks back to meet with and encourage leaders as they advance the work. Toward the end of our time together, we were reflecting on the past 18 months and the progress they have made. I asked them: “What are you creating together?”

The answers flowed quickly, freely. Pride. Belief. Trust. New relationships. Systemic change. One gentleman, an early skeptic of the work, said, “I thought this was another initiative that would come and go. I know it’s early, but I have come to deeply believe in this work. We’re doing something real here.”

One woman told me the narrative is changing too. Reading used to be a place for people to flee. Today? She said, “It’s a place you want to be.”

Reading has said, “Enough.” They are building together.Ten years ago, who would have thought this kind of transformation — this kind of hope for the country — would have come from Reading?

Rich Harwood is president and founder of The Harwood Institute. This is the latest entry in his series based on the “Enough. Time to Build.” campaign, which calls on community leaders and active citizens to step forward and build together.

Publisher’s Notes: This story comes from The Fulcrum, a platform where insiders and outsiders to politics are informed, meet, talk, and act to repair our democracy and make it live and work in our everyday lives.

Reading, Pa., didn’t wait for national leaders. It led the way was originally published in The Fulcrum and was republished with permission.

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