Dinner with Monica Allison, neighborhood changemaker
By Misha Rodriguez, PHENND Fellow
At the most recent installment of the PHENND Fellow’s Dinner with a Civic Leader, we had the pleasure of sharing a meal with Monica Allison. During dinner, Allison, a West Philadelphia native, former president of Cedar Park Neighbors and co-founder of Cobbs Creek Neighbors, offered her perspective on changes in West Philadelphia and the importance of maintaining a grass-roots mindset towards civic leadership. Allison stood as an example of the heart, energy and passion that a successful civic leader and organizer must embody and left us all with a gentle reminder about who service is truly for.
Allison’s career as a civic leader did not emerge out of formal training in nonprofit management or politics but rather was shaped by her love for a park. Allison had always prioritized civic engagement and common good. For this reason, she went to school to receive her bachelors in Christian Counseling. However, it wasn’t until she became committed to Cedar Park, a public space in her neighborhood, that her civic engagement took a turn from attentive, caring citizen to full-time profession.
At first, Cedar Park was not safe for the kids. It was broadly agreed upon in the neighborhood that the park needed some serious reinvestment. Allison herself had always believed that the park could become a community asset if only it could be made for the community–particularly the youth–rather than maintaining its current status as a negative space.
A series of community meetings were organized and held by concerned citizens and the local neighborhood organization to gain support to revitalize the park. Allison attended these meetings out of interest; however, after a shooting incident between two neighbors on Father’s Day, Allison knew she needed to take greater action to make decisive change happen in the park. It was time to make the park a place for kids to play and a community hub. Allison was prepared to dedicate herself to the cause because, to her, this park was so much more than just a park.
Her care and investment in Cedar Park turned Allison’s career as a civic leader into full throttle as she went from being a concerned citizen to being on the board of Cedar Park Neighbors to the vice president and then all the way up to president. In these positions, Allison worked to successfully mobilize the community around issues such as education, development, infrastructure improvement and entrepreneurship.
After her time at Cedar Park, Allison moved to the Cobbs Creek neighborhood where she realized the glaring lack of a neighborhood committee. This was particularly evident after having been so invested and involved in the one at Cedar Park where Allison had come to believe that without a strong civic association there cannot exist a strong community. Therefore, unsurprisingly, after moving to Cobbs Creek she proceeded to establish her own neighborhood committee based off of her vision to help create a productive, vibrant, inclusive and sustainable community in West Philadelphia. This month, Cobbs Creek Neighbors will be celebrating their second anniversary.
During dinner, Allison also spoke to the importance of knowing your population and their specific wants and needs in order to shape programming and the organization’s focus. While her work with Cedar Park started as a way to make a safe space for area youth, now, her demographic at Cobbs Creek is largely seniors and returning citizens. These seniors, particularly, face unique challenges different from park safety.
For example, many seniors face difficulties maintaining their homes while also attempting to juggle other expenses. Particularly in West Philly, where the houses are large and drafty, heating costs in the winter can pose great financial burden. In this way, knowing her population and the specific challenges they face help inform and shape the services that Cobbs Creek Neighbors offers. Across the board, from her experience at Cedar Park and Cobbs Creek, Allison relies on and trusts the grassroots approach of looking at a community, identifying what they need and then making solutions based off of this to best serve them rather than assuming to know what is best and what the community wants.
Allison also shared her perspective on the development and rapid changes that have been occurring in these two West Philadelphia neighborhoods since the time she’s been involved. She sees the changes, new developments and businesses, around the Cedar Park area as neither good nor bad. Now living in Cobbs Creek, she misses the park, diversity and vibrancy of businesses along Baltimore Avenue that she had played a hand in bringing about during her time at Cedar Park Neighbors: “I love the fact that I can now go back to my old neighborhood [Cedar Park] and enjoy food, business and diversity.”
However, she emphasized how she had to move out of Cedar Park because of these very changes–increasing property prices and the disappearance of mom and pop stores. While she hesitates to use the word gentrification, Allison says she can see the transition also slowly coming to Cobbs Creek and speaks towards the frustration of the RCO process and needing actual tangible solutions for development without displacement.
Besides her current work at Cobbs Creek Neighbors, Allison also serves as the President of Pennsylvania Families for Public Cyber Schools, a board member of Ardella’s House and a board member of Friends of Blanche A. Nixon Cobbs Creek Library. Allison is also involved with Community Solutions CDC to help provide food to the neighborhood using a pop-up model and partnerships with Fresh Grocer and Panera. With the diversity of programming and dedication to all facets of improving life for her neighbors, Allison is truly an example of dedication to public service and commitment to community.
As PHENND Fellows and AmeriCorps VISTAS, in a year entirely dedicated to public service, our dinner with Monica Allison was an important reminder to always keep in mind and truly serve those you are positioned to help. Thank you so much Monica for taking the time to have dinner with us and congratulations for the birth of your new grandson (and still making the time to speak with us)!
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