by Vanessa Philbert, CEO of the Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County
Long before the establishment of a formal community benefit sector, generosity has grown deeply in Lancaster County – an idyllic place woven through wandering farmland where farmers have nourished the bodies of their neighbors since its origins in the 1730s. A little more than half a century after the origin of the county itself, we see a first glimpse into the generous spirt of Lancaster County, when in 1793 it shared financial support and essential provisions with the City of Philadelphia amid an outbreak of the yellow fever.
After the turn of the century, community benefit organizations began to take shape. The Female Benevolent Society organized in 1816 when fifty-three women gathered together to provide for those in Lancaster who could not provide for themselves. In 1861, The Patriots Daughters, led by Lancaster native Rosina Hubley, collected and distributed bandages, bedding, and clothing to Union soldiers in Gettysburg during the Civil War.
Over time, this work for the betterment of the communit evolved with the needs of all Lancastrians. Through the late 1800s and early 1900s, we gained many organizations still serving the community, including the Lancaster Public Library, Lancaster Recreation Commission, Water Street Mission and Crispus Attucks Community Center. The sector grew through significant historical moments like the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement, and it continues to grow today.
Early on, much of the heart of this work in Lancaster was led by women who identified a need in their community and acted to meet those needs, a tradition that I am honored to carry on today as the first female CEO of Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County (CAP).
America was built on the promise that every family should have an opportunity for success. Yet, today’s uneven economy has put a good quality of life out of reach for many Americans.
Community Action was born from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and from the advocacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 created the national Community Action Network of locally-focused organizations that connect millions to greater opportunity to empower individuals, families, and communities to succeed. The nation’s 1,000-plus Community Action Agencies embody our spirit of hope and share a commitment to honoring people where they are while supporting them to realize the life they aspire to. Community Action Agencies look deeply into our communities, utilize data and elevate the voices of those we serve.
CAP of Lancaster is focused on creating a prosperity agenda that interrupts generational poverty with programs that assist families at every age and place in life. Founded in 1966, CAP has grown considerably, and today, more than three hundred CAP team members show up every day to support thousands of local families each year. Knowing that poverty is complex, and its contributing factors vary, CAP is committed to creating innovative, person-centered initiatives, to augment our many long-standing and successful anti-poverty programs that advance the social and economic mobility of families. We are committed to transforming generational poverty into economic prosperity so that all can thrive.
Life is a journey filled with high and lows – a journey laced with laments, lessons, and leaps. Our journeys are unique but there is much to learn from those who came before us. Growing up in my neighborhood in Brooklyn NY, I was surround by generations. My grandparents came to the states with their children from Puerto Rico, searching for place where there could access the prosperity promise made by the main land. They worked wherever they could with limited English and limited education, but they managed to provide for seven children. Their children took what their parents had invested in them and started their own lives producing seventeen grandchildren – each generation with access to a bit more than the generation before them.
What a legacy and what a responsibility. While generational poverty is an oppressive burden, generational prosperity is richer and deeper than just financial wealth. Its remnants are found in our communities, our businesses, our generosity, our compassion and in our commitment to continue to leave the world better than we found it.
As I think about my journey there are a few pivotal moments.
I began my career in the nonprofit sector over 25 years ago. Through the summer youth employment program, I worked at a career services center for individuals who were unemployed or underemployed. The Job Readiness Resource Center provided me with experience, exposure and with small paycheck to help alleviate the sting of poverty. The clients we served were showing up trying to push past survival to stability, and as the youngest of three to a single mother doing her best to provide for her family, I was no stranger to surviving. My mother navigated the world trying to push beyond survival so her children could see a path where they could do better and dream bigger. I was profoundly impacted by the laments I witnessed as a child.
My parenting journey started while in high school, and I made an intentional decision to move into the workforce. My connection through summer youth employment helped me to officially start my career in the non-profit sector. This was the moment where I began to understand the value of social capital. The connection from summer youth employment provided a domino effect for me to begin exploring the workforce, and a passion for helping people was ignited within me.
In 2002, my husband and I took a leap and relocated from NYC to Lancaster. We were a young family looking for a place to call home, a place to raise our girls and place where we could thrive. CAP was essential to stabilizing our family. The services and support we received allowed us the space to catch our breath, settle in and connect to our new surroundings. A couple of years later I would join the CAP team on the front lines supporting children and families.
To be honest, for many years I felt like I was bouncing between crisis and stability – living in the tension of laments and lessons. But one day I was pushed to take another leap – while working full-time and raising young children, I began my post-secondary career. Soon after graduation, I would make my way back to CAP, and in 2019, I took on the role of CEO believing that I made my grandparents proud and hoping my contribution to the world is evidence that nothing is wasted from the sacrifice of those who came before me.
As a sector and as community we have a responsibility to see people wholly – to see their families, see their struggle, and see their potential. When needed we undergird them, we walk alongside, and we celebrate every win along the way. That responsibility doesn’t belong to one sector – it belongs to us all.
If we have learned anything from the past, we know that people, businesses, and communities are impacted by each other, and at any point you can be anywhere on the prosperity continuum. The prosperity continuum moves through three distinct areas: from crisis, to stability, to thriving. It is often true that we tend focus on crisis response however, thriving communities refine the pathway to help and excel progress to prosperity.
As the Chamber prepares to serve Lancaster County community for the next 150 years, my hope is that the Chamber will continue to invest in the business and community benefit sectors. Knowing intentional partnership between both sectors is essential to the wellbeing of the community at large, this commitment should be deeply rooted in a reciprocal philosophy where the needs of the business community are informed by the needs of employees. I envision a business community committed to “sustainable employment” that provides immediate economic stability with a pathway from crisis to thriving.
My hope for Lancaster is to accelerate our commitment to building a thriving community which is:
- a place where businesses are thriving – large and small
- a place where the needs of both the employers and employees are intentionally met
- a place where families have access to and can make choices for living whole and healthy lives
- a place where children can excel because their gifts are nurtured and celebrated
- a place where young people have the space to explore the world and their place in it
- a place where those who are aging can reimagine how they can contribute to their community
- a place where collaboration and partnership across sectors is the fuel for Lancaster’s future
My hope is that the current generation and the generations to come live with conviction to take on challenges with courage and compassion. Lastly, in the spirit of the community benefit sector – my hope is to align our actions to benefit the entire community with a clear commitment to equity, to justice and to prosperity for all. To quote Nelson Mandela: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity, it’s an act of justice.”
The Lancaster Chamber is proud to be celebrating its 150th Anniversary this year, alongside our business community. In the month of October, our content theme will be focused on Spanish Heritage Month – raising the voices and stories of our Hispanic business owners and community leaders. This article was first printed in our 150th Commemorative Edition of Thriving Magazine, you can read more here: 150th Commemorative Edition of Thriving Magazine