Posted: March 21, 2022

Suzanne Weltman, an educator with Penn State Extension’s Food, Families, and Health unit, sees her role in this complex city system as a facilitator, linking communities to resources that they may not otherwise know about or have access to.

Photo: Rachel Zimmerman

Photo: Rachel Zimmerman

By Effie Palacios and Justine Lindemann

Cities in any part of the world can seem overwhelmingly large and disconnected across their sprawling urban expanse, despite the closeness and population density that they create. The diverse populations and neighborhoods of Philadelphia are no exception. An aging infrastructure in the city means that certain neighborhoods or zones lack access to key resources that may ensure a community’s quality of life. Like in many cities, this disparity in access falls along socioeconomic and racial lines, and dates back to historical practices of housing segregation which were created in part and then amplified by financial institution lending practices (Logan and Bellman, 2016), legacies of industrial production, and patterns of migration into the city over time (Eichel, 2018).

Suzanne Weltman, an educator with Penn State Extension’s Food, Families, and Health unit, sees her role in this complex city system as a facilitator, linking communities to resources that they may not otherwise know about or have access to. She is adamant that her position is one of facilitation, not creation. Communities have the capability to build systems themselves: it just sometimes requires a catalyst.

“(Everything) is community driven. It's not extension driven. We're facilitators, conveners, connectors.”

These linkages are foundational in the process of resilience building in two fundamental ways. The first is the increase in access to resources and educational opportunities which build knowledge within communities on critical issues like family nutrition and health and how to look for and utilize existing resources. Building capacity of and relationships in communities means that members typically have more ready access to the resources and amenities that improve the collective quality of life (regular transportation, childcare, and shared knowledge about community events are a few examples).

Weltman gave examples from a food and nutrition program for teen parents and expectant mothers with low incomes. While good nutrition was a pillar of the program, learning to buy and cook food on a budget is one aspect of building greater self-determination for these young people with limited resources. Suzanne argues: “We don't just go in and say, ‘Well, you need to eat this much broccoli.’ No, it's like, ‘Well, look. This is how you can buy a chicken and get five meals out of it. It’s positioning them with the nutrition fundamentals they can use to plan and design their own food priorities.” Access to resources and knowledge supported by urban extension helps to play a role in the socioeconomic stability and growth of individuals, families, and communities and, ultimately, contribute to their resilience in the face of instability.

The second and interdependent aspect is capacity building across the range of community groups that exist in a city. The fundamental issue is about people understanding the system and the interdependence and connections among and within various parts of the system. Over the course of our conversation, Suzanne brought in a wealth of examples of the diverse populations of Philadelphia with which she has worked over the course of her 13-year career: teen parents, faith-based organizations, health clinics, and immigrant groups, particularly the large Latinx populations that have come to form alarge part of Philadelphia. For Suzanne, building relationships with these groups is of singular importance, in part to gain a better understanding of how they approach the various issues they may be facing and  to learn what needs could be met through collaborations with extension.

“English might not be your first language and you're trying to understand a social services system. I remember speaking with one person who had moved here from another country, and they said, ‘When we came to this country, we didn't understand the resources that were available to us because we don't have that in our home country. We had to learn an entirely new system.’ So, it's not just language and culture differences. Part of our role is equipping people to adapt and code-switch as they navigate US programs and systems."

For these immigrant families in Philadelphia, learning English is only half of their battle to establish themselves in a new country. Extension has the potential to act as a guidepost for them and other populations across Philadelphia, providing information on resources that help support them along the way. The more communities that have access to knowledge and resources, the more redundancy there is in the overall urban system:

“There are some people who think about resilience as needing to have redundancy so that if one or another part of the system stops working it's redundant enough that other aspects of the system continue to function.”

Redundancy as a concept is most prominent in urban engineering and supply chain resilience literature (Giezen et al, 2015; Jun Tan et al, 2019; Mackay et al, 2020; Kamalahmadi et al, 2021) but the fundamental idea of having multiple nodes of resources can be adapted to discussions of urban community resilience. While only one location or group holds most of the knowledge or resources, communities cannot be as resilient as they might otherwise.

Individualist notions of resilience don’t always scale up to push back against larger system-wide inequities; however, approaching resilience building at multiple levels (individual, community, municipal, city, region) has the potential to connect individuals and communities with necessary resources while also (re)shaping the systems that inform peoples’ everyday lives. That is, working across geographies and at many different levels builds interdependence and stronger connections between the many parts of these systems.

Weltman sees community capacity building as the heart of resilience in urban centers. When more communities across the urban landscape build knowledge, establish new organizations or opportunities for their members, and learn from one another, they increase their individual and collective ability to face challenges locally. Extension has the potential to enhance their collaborations with and in urban spaces. To help establish and build up networks, relationships, and urban community initiatives through practices of facilitation, convening, and authentic community engagement.

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