How do you have uncomfortable discussions about race, equality, and justice with your neighbors? That has been one of the challenges facing communities across the region. But one local nonprofit is working to encourage that conversation.
justCommunity Inc., a nonprofit focused on youth development and community mobilization, is working to organize opportunities for Pennridge School District area families and officials to participate in and learn from these tough conversations.
“Now, more than ever, our communities and neighbors must have opportunities to communicate and learn, not just across political divides but simply across perceived differences in our neighborhoods,” said Lee Rush, Executive Director of justCommunity. “Only this way can we come together and begin to heal.”
In May 2020, the death of another unarmed Black man, George Floyd, at the hands of police sparked a local, national and even global outcry for change. Moved to action, many people sought out opportunities to engage in difficult conversations.
A few months later, justCommunity was instrumental in organizing a showing of the award-winning film, Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer to the Pennridge-area community. The organization partnered with the Bucks County Peace Center, Bucks County District Attorney’s Office, Pennridge School District and area police departments. More than 100 people assembled online for a 90-minute discussion on ways to heal racial divides. The event also offered an opportunity for people to meet in small groups to discuss issues of community and police relationships.
More opportunities for civic engagement are forthcoming. justCommunity is one of several area small businesses and community organizations that has been awarded a grant from Penn Community Bank’s Growth in Action grant program. Each of the recipients won $5,000 in funding to help grow their business or community.
Rush said justCommunity will use the funds to expand its reach and support its programs focused on community building, connecting with others, healthy dissent in a free country, and acknowledging the gifts of others. The grant funds will help pay for the staffing of facilitators, to support police officers’ involvement in the discussions, and to support the writing of a research paper to share the group’s findings with the public.
In addition, the organization plans to launch a community-based restorative justice program involving the five police departments in the Pennridge community. The program would enable residents to resolve minor conflicts while avoiding the court system. justCommunity believes that this type of diversion program would allow low level offenses to be handled locally, ultimately saving money and reserving the resources of the county court system for more serious offenses.
Central to all of these efforts is the participation of young people, Rush said.
“We firmly believe that any programs we present must be inter-generational and cross cultural and racial lines,” Rush said.
Founded in 1999, justCommunity’s primarily has focused on positive youth development. Under the motto “Positive Youth Development – Permanent Community Development,” it has provided services to community organizations including school districts, healthcare organizations, law enforcement organizations and faith communities.
After many schools were closed in March 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping Pennsylvania, justCommunity’s work slowed. In the months since, the largest challenge the organization has faced is finding ways to continue to provide school-based services in the face of strained resources and shifting health guidelines.
“This grant from Penn Community Bank will allow us to continue to provide these important programs and opportunities to our community,” said Rush.