Meet Project Coordinator Debbie Moreno, Galesburg on Track

By Rebecca Susmarski

Galesburg on Track is the name of the Community Heart & Soul® project in Galesburg, Illinois. The project’s name and its railroad track logo symbolize an important part of the Midwestern town’s identity and legacy. Galesburg, three hours southwest of Chicago, is a major rail hub in the region, and BNSF Railway is a major employer.

For the past 18 months, the Galesburg on Track leadership team has been getting everyone in the community on board with creating positive change for this town of 32,000. Galesburg on Track’s “engineer” is Debbie Moreno. She’s a journalist, a poet, a parent, and an active volunteer, skills and experience that have transferred to her role as project coordinator.

Moreno is devoted to effective communication with Galesburg residents of all demographic groups, as she chronicles what the locals love about their community, what they’d like to see change, and how they would like Galesburg to evolve.

One of her past experiences that prepared her to lead Galesburg on Track was a teachers’ strike. When teachers went on strike, she wrote about it in her blog, interviewing representatives on all sides of the debate, and sharing their differing perspectives. The experience showed her how people from various community groups can perceive each other—and reminded her that everyone, regardless of their contrasting beliefs or backgrounds, would like to be heard in an equal manner.

“I really wanted to understand (the strike) at a deeper, more profound, level because I felt there were pieces of it that I wasn’t hearing fairly, either through people or the press,” Moreno said. “My bend tends to be as the middle person. I’m not really interested in making a judgment on an issue. I would rather see the full 360 view and then work towards a resolution.”

Fast-forward three years, and Moreno, is still working hard to make sure all voices are heard in her community. That has meant going to people in their gathering places and neighborhoods. Moreno and her Heart & Soul® team visited the Knox County Housing Authority to give food to those in need, went to a local church to speak with Congolese immigrants, and asked veterans and schoolchildren to interview each other on video. She hopes that connecting residents from different groups will help them understand each other’s perspectives and ensure Community Heart & Soul will create a plan for Galesburg’s future based on mutual understanding and what matters most to all residents.

“It’s about creating empathy, telling the stories of others, and listening to the stories of others so that you can say, ‘This person, who I thought was so different from myself, is actually just another person,’” Moreno said. “Bridging those gaps can often be a barrier, so I see myself as kind of a bridge builder.”

Galesburg’s Community Heart & Soul project residents were asked to jot down free things to do in the town
As part of Galesburg’s Community Heart & Soul project residents were asked to jot down free things to do in the town and filled this blackboard with ideas. Image: Jay Redfern/The Register-Mail.

Galesburg Fire Chief Tom Simkins, who is on the Heart & Soul team, has admired Moreno’s ability to move the project forward.

“She’s not necessarily telling us what to do, but she is helping us through the Heart & Soul process,” Simkins said. “She’s the glue that makes it all happen.”

Fire Chief Tom Simkins, on right, hangs a banner at a Community Summit for Galesburg on Track
Fire Chief Tom Simkins, on right, hangs a banner at a Community Summit for Galesburg on Track, Galesburg’s Community Heart & Soul project, at the Galesburg Fire Department, Galesburg, Illinois on 3-25-17.

Galesburg on Track is now in phase three of Community Heart & Soul. Moreno and her team are busy converting the opinions and ideas they gathered and analyzed into actions that Galesburg’s residents and government officials can take in the future. The final plan will provide a guide for Galesburg to follow over the course of many years to drive a thriving economy and improve overall quality of life in the community.

For Simkins, getting to the “action” part of Galesburg on Track seemed to take a long time, but 18 months in, he sees value in taking the time to get input from a broad and diverse group of residents to bring the community together and develop a roadmap that reflects what matters to everyone.

“I’m an action guy, so I want to see things happen,” Simkins said. “(Moreno) was very good at reminding me and others that, ‘Hey, it’s not the normal process that we use, but it’s one that’s been tried and proven successful.’ And I’ve got to say, a year and a half later, she was right.”

Rebecca Susmarski is a writer who lives in Galesburg, Illinois.