Recently, over a period of several weeks, seventeen people from throughout the Pennridge community came together to experience a process called “A Small Group” (ASG).

ASG is designed to offer participants alternative ways to build community through structured conversations that focus on new possibilities to old situations. Hosted by the local non-profit organization, justCommunity, Inc., the ASG participants included five Pennridge High School students, 10 adults from the greater Pennridge community and two co-facilitators, Mr. Lee Rush, lifelong Pennridge resident and Executive Director and founder of justCommunity and Mr. Dan Joyner, a justCommunity consultant.

“Originally the idea of holding these conversations came about as a follow up to the event we participated in back in the fall of 2020,” recalled Rush. “Along with the Peace Center, the Pennridge School district and all five police departments serving Pennridge, (Bedminster Township, Dublin Borough, Hilltown Township, Pennridge Regional, Perkasie Borough), we participated in the online showing of the film, Walking While Black, L.O.V.E. is the Answer, which attracted over 160 pre-registered participants.”

The film has been shown to hundreds of Bucks County residents over the past 18 months and has engaged citizens and police officers in critical conversations about their experiences and interactions with each other.

“While there was much interest in the film, the key to any change has got to be followup,” continued Rush. “And it has got to be an inter-generational, inter-racial mix of people that come together to discuss what is possible, so I reached out to the Minority Inclusive Club at the high school to participate in ASG and asked for interested adults who viewed the film to be in touch if they wanted to continue the conversation."

“Then in January of this year I noticed a small announcement in the newspaper that our local bank, Penn Community Bank, was awarding small grants to non-profits and businesses, so we applied,” said Rush. “A couple of weeks later much to my surprise, I received an email from Mr. Bernard Tynes, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Communications and Data Analytics for Penn Community, telling us that out of 200 applications, our organization was one of only eleven recipients who was awarded the grant.”

Tynes explained in a phone interview, “We wanted to be impactful to the community. The work that justCommunity does aligns nicely with our focus around diversity, equity and inclusion, but more importantly, with our overall mission as a community stronghold in Bucks and Montgomery County."

The structure of ASG is based on the book Community: The Structure of Belonging, by Peter Block. Using a series of questions designed to engage people to focus on imagining “what’s possible” instead of “what’s wrong," everyone who took part in the meetings committed to attending four two-hour online sessions and to prepare each week by reading chapters from the book.

Dan Joyner, of Cincinnati, a community leadership consultant and veteran practitioner of ASG, co-facilitated the sessions with Rush. “I was impressed by how quickly people connected with each other. By the end of our time together, they formed a community of practice," remarked Joyner. “They began taking turns running the groups themselves. The best outcome was that people saw how they could take the conversations into their lives at home and at work."

During phone interviews, four participants shared their reasons for joining ASG and what they gained.

"I wanted to be a part of group that is looking for change," said Keeley Rosenthal, of Dublin, Bucks County Emergency and Court Services Coordinator and Mental Health Delegate. A mother and stepmother of four, she hoped the meetings would help create "a more diverse and inclusive community."

"We're all in small bubbles," said Don Crouthamel, of Sellersville. "We don’t see perspectives different from us. It was an opportunity for talking about things we're not talking about normally." A Sellersville Borough Councilman and a retired juvenile probation officer and Verizon engineer, Crouthamel is a father of three and grandfather of five, all in the Pennridge area.

"A lot of times, being in the Pennridge community it isn't always open, especially being a teenager," said Naima Brown, of Telford. A rising junior at Pennridge High School, Brown hoped the gatherings would be "a space to open up," adding, "Having the experience to cooperate with other people I think is very important." Brown is a member of the high school Minority Club and hopes to become a fashion designer.

"Last year, COVID pulled people apart," noted Robin Reid, of Perkasie, also a rising junior at Pennridge. "I want to help bring people together." She hoped the meetings would be a place to learn about building community. Reid is Youth Councilor for Perkasie Borough Council and plans to study political science.

Rosenthal appreciated how the group changed her preconceived notions about others. "Although our perspective and life paths have been completely different, we came to very similar conclusions when we talked about our ideas and what we'd like to see for our community."

"There is real concern about feelings of alienation within a small suburban community like Sellersville," noted Crouthamel, adding, "These issues are here, not just in big cities." He welcomed the opportunity "to understand them from the perception of African Americans in the community." He also gained "a real appreciation for the maturity level and sophistication of young people—high school kids. It gave me a sense of hope."

"I was surprised how much I bonded with certain people," remarked Brown. "Usually, I kind of stay to myself, but I found myself really opening up, and it helped me understand myself as a person more and know that I have some strengths I didn't know I had before."

"I got to know people from all walks of life that I didn't expect," Reid commented. "We came together over things we related to within our different lives."

When asked what’s next, Rush shared that justCommunity will be holding in-person ASG meetings later this fall in the Pennridge community. "We definitely will keep the momentum going. Part of what we are dealing with is social isolation. Many people directly talk only to others who are like-minded or generally agree with them on whatever issue. Or the opposite—they go on social media platforms to argue their viewpoints there or flame others who see things differently."

Rosenthal summed up the feelings of the group this way:

“I hope the process can bring communities together in a way where we could start to have difficult conversations. Looking at both sides, when groups of people disagree, because neither one — we talked about this in the small groups — are right or wrong. There are misunderstandings. And both sides want to come to a solution. But we can’t shut out anyone.”

“They're an opportunity for open, real, honest conversation. We can hopefully work towards change that's most needed. School board issues, political perspectives: All have to be done with respect for the other party and an open mind. People who differ can work together.

Maybe it's idealistic. But you can’t have goals without idealism and ambition.”

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