Women Step Up and Run for Office in Community Heart & Soul Municipalities

By Robin Mayer

Initiated more than a decade ago, the Community Heart & Soul program relies heavily on the participation of an entire population of a municipality to define what matters most about their community, the future they want for it, and how to best achieve it. While many residents participate in the Community Heart & Soul process, for some, the best way to achieve the future they want has been to attend municipal meetings—council, planning board, school board—and volunteer to serve on committees. However, some residents go a step further and take the leap to run for elective office—on city and town councils, school boards, and even as mayors. They see themselves as continuing the stewardship of the Community Heart & Soul program by implementing the actions developed, thereby ensuring the continuance of the model in future planning. And they are well suited to do so. These individuals have seen the benefit of their participation beginning at the initial stages of the process. They have met residents of all ages and walks of life from across the municipality. They have discovered what residents love about their community and have assisted in developing action plans to help guide community planning. They have interacted with governing officials, committees, and boards. Through their participation, they have determined that their continued active involvement would help their community build on what everyone has in common, and that decisions will continue to be guided by what matters most to those in the community.

Women in two Pennsylvania communities exemplify this shift from initially simply participating in the Community Heart & Soul process to something much bigger—running for elective office.

Mural in Carbondale, Pennsylvania

Carbondale, Pennsylvania, is an excellent example of how the Community Heart & Soul program builds community leaders. City Clerk Michele Bannon has worn many hats over the years, serving on several boards. Michele has been particularly interested in the relationship-building associated with the program and its ability to reach the formerly “unheard voices in town.” Like many other municipalities, there had been little interest by its citizens to run for elected office in Carbondale in recent years, sometimes due to other work, family and other priorities, or lack of interest. However, due in part to Michele’s active participation in the Community Heart & Soul program, when the current mayor indicated he would not be seeking reelection, she saw an opportunity to throw her hat into the ring. Michele handily won her primary race in May. If elected in November, Michele says that she and the City Council “will need to know what the people want and that they are fully on board.” She anticipates that the Community Heart & Soul model will continue to be used to help develop Carbondale’s strategic and comprehensive plan updates in the future, noting that what she “…loves about the Heart & Soul program is that it is simple. It makes everyone think … ‘how can I contribute and be a part of it?’ We’re building a structure to help them do that.” If elected mayor, she indicates that she will employ that structure during her administration.

Carbondale Heart & Soul Team with Trolley. Michele Bannon pictured (far right).

In addition to Michele’s run for office, 18 other Carbondale citizens, many of whom have been active Community Heart & Soul participants, applied to run for a single Council seat. According to Michele, “that is something almost unheard of,” and she credits the success of their Community Heart & Soul community engagement for inspiring residents to run for local office.

Watch to hear Michele talk about the increase in applications for city council appointments below.

Cameron County, Pennsylvania, has also benefited from the Community Heart & Soul process, and in developing new leaders as well. As a young businesswoman returning to her hometown after a several year absence, Jessica Herzing realized that she was not engaged in the County’s decision-making processes. She began attending township, Rotary, and school board meetings, and began to realize that what she thought she knew about the political and planning decision-making processes in her community “was wrong, and if I was having that epiphany, other residents probably would, too.” This motivated Jessica to seek out Community Heat & Soul for Cameron County. In the past six years, Jessica, as Project Coordinator, led the County’s Community Heart & Soul program to the point to where its Action Plan has been adopted by the County Board of Commissioners and is now part of the Northern Pennsylvania Tri-County Comprehensive Plan of Cameron County. Read more about the Cameron County Heart & Soul work on the PA Humanities blog.

Jessica Herzing, The Cameron County Project

Jessica has become so engaged in the County’s processes that a current commissioner who was not seeking reelection encouraged her to run for her seat. In discussing her decision to run, Jessica noted that “the Heart & Soul process absolutely is the tool you want to use. It brings the entire community to the process [of community development and planning]. That’s the type of change most communities need, and municipalities, businesses, organizations, and neighborhoods all benefit.” Jessica won her primary in May against six other candidates in her party. In discussing the expanded involvement of the community in local governance, she stresses that “it is incredible what happens when resident voices are heard.” For example, in addition to Jessica’s run for political office, another county resident was inspired by the Heart & Soul process and ran for and won a seat on the school board.

In the coming years, if the past is any indication, more residents, including youth, will step up to serve on boards and committees and contribute to their communities through volunteer opportunities, as well as running for elected office. It is these people who will drive the future of their communities and ensure that what matters most will translate to better planning and governance.

Robin Mayer, author
Robin Mayer, author

Robin is Principal at Mayer & Associates, a strategic communications consulting firm, where she provides services in traffic safety, communications, and social media training for state and local governments. Prior to moving to North Carolina in 2022, she served as Chair of the Board of Selectmen in Damariscotta, Maine.