State Rep. DeLissio and intern look to connect civics, increase participation

 State Rep. DeLissio has launched a blueprint to connect civic associations. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks, file)

State Rep. DeLissio has launched a blueprint to connect civic associations. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks, file)

There are approximately 13 neighborhood organizations in state Representative Pam DeLissio’s 194th Legislative District, and she is currently developing a proposal to attract new members and enhance communication among the associations. The project will also evaluate the role of technology and social media.

DeLissio, whose district includes Roxborough, Manayunk, and sections of West Philadelphia and Montgomery County, is being helped by Jen Wallace, a rising junior at St. Joseph’s University. Wallace will intern with DeLissio for a total of 20 weeks to help identify the issues unique to neighborhood advocacy groups and assist in developing best practices.

“It’s not directly related to state policy per se,” said DeLissio, “but keeping these communities viable and thriving is part of the job description.”

The birth of an internship

The idea first came to DeLissio last September after making rounds of the various civic groups, at one point hitting four different organizations in one night. 

Subsequent conversations with leaders revealed that most groups would like new members to share the work load with in addition to attracting interested residents and garnering a larger dues-paying membership.

“You hear this whether you are in West Parkside, East Falls, Roxborough, or Lower Merion,” she said.

A few months later, she had a meeting with SJU President Rev. Kevin Gillespie. During the conversation, DeLissio spoke about policy challenges at the state level, but also “grassroots” needs. Out of this conversation, Gillespie created the framework for an internship.

After interviews in April, Wallace, a Drexel Hill native majoring in political science, was selected. In May, she began working on the project’s initial phases.

While DeLissio said she sponsored undergraduate interns throughout her career in the private sector, this is the first such opportunity since taking elected office in 2011.

“You can have an intern and they’re just doing busywork, but that’s never been my commitment,” said DeLissio. “We’ve tried to provide internships with meaningful opportunities.”

Wallace added, “I can make a difference, and it’s easy to self-motivate that way.”

Reaching every resident

About halfway through the project, Wallace has observed one key component: “You have to cast a wide net,” she said.

DeLissio and Wallace sat down at the project’s outset to outline the project. To acquire the necessary information, Wallace created a survey that was distributed to the group’s leaderships, and conducted one-on-one interviews with civic group leaders.

The 194th District has approximately 60,000 residents, and Wallace explained that all demographics within a civic association’s boundaries must be courted. While some may be attracted through Facebook and Twitter, others will be reached by traditional avenues such as newsletters and door-to-door efforts.

As part of the project, Wallace is analyzing the websites of the various groups. While she has no mandate to alter them, she will make observations and recommendations where applicable and propose recruiting a social media contact for each group.

Beyond this, she hopes to create an intra-network platform such as a Google doc to facilitate communication between groups.

Connecting community groups

DeLissio is interested in making sure the basics are covered: that groups are announcing agendas, keeping membership rolls updated, and having membership applications available. To assist in this, Wallace is creating membership applications for groups without them, and creating print applications for groups that only have electronic versions.

A secondary effect of the project is breathing life into other neighborhood organizations that have been rendered inactive. As DeLissio pointed out, when there is a hot issue, communities need to have these groups in place to react.

“We don’t want the structure to go away just because people get burnt out,” she said.

DeLissio observed that civics generally don’t track membership data, so one tactic she hopes to encourage is examining local census tracts in order to have a more concrete idea of who they are serving. To complement this, she also hopes to coordinate civic groups with their community’s respective Home and School Associations.

“We’re trying to help plug some of these holes,” said DeLissio.

It takes more than a ‘like’

An initial email sent to the various civic groups early in the project’s existence gave DeLissio the green light she needed to go forward. Since then, she said that feedback from the groups have been overwhelmingly positive.

In Lower Merion, the Neighborhood Club of Bala Cynwyd identified one of their challenges as keeping residents informed of goings-on in their community.

“We have a good-sized membership,” said NCBC President Amara Briggs, “but we don’t communicate well with them.”

She’s hoping the blueprint will the group better engage with the over 600 members and businesses in the NCBC.

Manayunk Neighborhood Council President, Kevin Smith, said that while the blueprint might have less direct impact on his organization than other neighboring groups, he looks forward to the possibility to recruit additional members with diverse skills.

Smith underscored the importance of an active membership, saying “It’s not just how many ‘likes’ you have on your Facebook page.”

What’s next

In the coming weeks, Wallace will be manning a table at the Roxborough ShopRite in the hope of capturing increased public interest and drawing new members to the various civic groups.

Once the study in concluded and a draft is completed, it will be presented to the leadership of the various groups for review and comment. When this phase is completed and the project is finalized, a public presentation is possible, the final installment in Wallace’s internship before she returns to her responsibilities at SJU.

Some of these civic associations will no longer be in the 194th District come January — DeLissio stands to lose her West Philadelphia constituencies. Should her district pick up additional civics, she hopes a blueprint will be in hand to share with them.

“This is hopefully going to empower these groups to help them continue to grow and continue the good work they do for these neighborhoods,” said DeLissio.

“I like to think of civic groups as local democracy at its finest,” she said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.