Community action plan revealed during massive potluck in Meadville

By Mike Crowley

Diamond Park may not have served as the setting for a new world record Friday, but it certainly provided the perfect location for an event unlike any other in recent Meadville history.

Billed as “The World’s Largest Potluck (in Meadville),” the gathering organized by My Meadville lived up to both its tongue-in-cheek name and the community-oriented spirit of the My Meadville project.

“It’s not the world’s largest potluck, but as Mayor (LeRoy) Stearns said, it is the largest potluck Meadville has ever seen,” said Autumn Vogel, My Meadville project director, in a reference to Stearns’ introductory comments as visitors began gravitating toward the long line of tables heaped with food that bisected the park. “It’s more than a giant party. It’s a celebration of the Heart and Soul process.”

The My Meadville project, originally called Meadville Heart and Soul, was a collaboration of the Orton Family Foundation, Pennsylvania Humanities Council, Meadville Redevelopment Authority and numerous local residents. The project followed the Orton Family Foundation’s Community Heart and Soul model of resident-driven investigation into what matters most to everyone in a particular place.

The two-year undertaking, supported by a $50,000 grant and in-kind contributions of a comparable amount from community organizations as well as the volunteer efforts of many Meadville residents, is drawing to an end, Vogel said.

“The leadership of Heart and Soul will transition to a stewardship team that will ensure our values are being upheld in our community and that these actions are being implemented and hold our community accountable,” she said.

The actions that Vogel referred to were included in the My Meadville Community Action Plan booklet that she distributed during the potluck and that will be available online at mymeadville.org as well. After first developing, workshopping and revising eight key shared community values, the group went through a similar process to generate specific action proposals linked to each of the values. Each step along the way involved seeking input from community members to shape both the value statements and the action proposals.

As a result, many of the more than 300 people who took part in the potluck have already invested their energy into My Meadville’s success — they were “activated” during the process, as Vogel put it. Others learned about it just hours before when team members were distributing postcards about the meal in Diamond Park. Still others just stumbled upon the event.

However they wound up sharing a meal in the Diamond with other community members, both friends and strangers, nearly everyone there agreed that the result was impressive.

“Meadville surprises me sometimes,” City Manager Andy Walker said as he surveyed the scene. “As I was walking up, I was just impressed with the crowd. I’m pretty excited.”

Walker’s sentiment was shared by City Councilman Sean Donahue.

“This is what the park was meant for,” Donahue said. “This is a community event, and there’s all types of people here and they’re all here having a nice time.”

Like both Walker and Donahue, Uma Pansari has participated in a number of previous My Meadville events. The group’s potluck may not have surpassed the 3,264 people who attended a 2016 potluck in Ahmedabad, India, but for Pansari it achieved another superlative.

“This is the coolest thing ever,” she proclaimed to Vogel as the event was winding down.

Lorraine and Lou Rich shared Pansari’s enthusiasm as they enjoyed the live music emanating from the gazebo after having sampled several of the dishes spread across about 75 feet of tables nearby. Like Vogel, the Riches were thinking about what comes next for My Meadville.

Flipping through the Community Action Plan booklet, Lorraine said she would likely be interested in participating in the education proposals as they move forward.

“Everybody has really done a lot of work thinking out what the goals are to make it a little bit more doable,” she said, “so that people will hopefully be interested in signing up.”

The action plans themselves range from expanding trauma-informed training and launching a youth mentor program to establishing kayak and canoe rentals on French Creek and forming a tenants’ right program.

While ambitious and multifaceted, they also tend to emphasize specific, realistic goals and they link those goals to existing organizations that will likely be able and interested in helping.

With the enthusiasm evident throughout the Diamond, it was easy to see why Vogel was looking ahead even as the formal My Meadville effort was drawing to a close — and why she was too busy to have gotten a bite to eat despite being in the middle of the world’s largest potluck in Meadville.

“Now it’s up to all of us,” she said, “to make this the Meadville we want to see and live in.”

To read the My Meadville Community Action Plan click here.

Photo credit: Shannon Roae, The Meadville Tribune.