Who is a ‘spark’ in your community?

     A man views winter ice on the Delaware River in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    A man views winter ice on the Delaware River in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    If there is someone in your community who fits the description? We want to hear about it.

    As a part of Keystone Crossroads “Five Questions with…” series, we’ve asked some of Pennsylvania’s top urban thinkers and doers to identify “sparks” in their communities.

    These “sparks” have been described as the town “superhero,” “do-gooders” and the person who sets the standard for those around them to strive for — all while appearing to be having fun.

    They come in all shapes and sizes. We’ve heard about artists, restaurant owners, nonprofit executives, city district leaders, deputy mayors, university chancellors and a bank CEO.

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    But hyperbole and titles aside, we’ve noticed some common attributes among the people identified as “sparks.”

    A “spark” is someone who champions their community. Someone who connects people.   Someone who inspires others to action.  Someone who is open to new ideas. Someone who energizes an idea and pushes it to a reality. Someone who is tireless and unaware of just how much they are willing to give to their community. Someone who reminds others of those who are often forgotten.

    Many leaders we interviewed, like Mark Fatla, executive director of The Northside Leadership Conference in Pittsburgh, acknowledged that it’s not about one person in a community making a difference, but many people who provide thousands of sparks. Fatla reminded us a famous quote from folksinger Peter Seeger: “Be wary of great leaders. Hope instead for many, many small leaders.”

    The “sparks” David Thornburgh, president and CEO of Committee of Seventy, identified were not elected officials, but rather “civic entrepreneurs who see and seek opportunity and act with a sense of strategic impatience.”

    Liz Dow, CEO of Leadership Philadelphia has been identifying “sparks,” or, “connectors,” as she calls them in the Philly region, for about 10 years. 

    The idea began with Malcolm Galdwell’s best seller “The Tipping Point.” He wrote about “connectors” as people who operate and get things done behind the scenes and because people trust them, said Dow.

    “It’s a different way of looking at leadership,” said Dow. “Most of these people had no idea what they were doing was valuable and didn’t think of themselves as leaders.”

    Dow added some fundamental characteristics of “connectors” include contagious enthusiasm, the ability to be trusted and to trust others and to see community service as a part of the job.

    What distinguishes them from others involved in the community, explained Dow, is how they connect people to help each other and then step out of the away, expecting nothing in return.

     Leadership Philadelphia is working with its fourth cohort of “connectors” through the Keepers Program, a two-year mentorship of 25-35 year olds with an emphasis on retaining the Keepers  in Philadelphia.

     Whatever you call them, “sparks”, “connectors” or “keepers” — is there someone in your community that fits this description? We want to hear about it. Email us at crossroads@whyy.org, tweet us @Pacrossroads or tell us in a comment below.



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