Kirsten Krimmel said she and her husband found a hidden gem when they moved to their South Side Lancaster city neighborhood in 2009.
“We really like it here,” Krimmel said of their Highland Avenue home. “It’s been a very nice, quiet neighborhood.”
Krimmel, 42, said she had heard neighbors complain about drivers speeding down her street, sometimes crashing into parked cars, before her parked car was involved in a similar crash.
“That incident put a fire under me to approach someone from the city government to fix the speeding issue here,” Krimmel said.
She eventually found herself at a forum where city residents could discuss issues in their neighborhoods and learn how to address them. It was at the forum that she learned about the Neighborhood Leaders Academy.
“We created the Neighborhoods Leaders Academy (NLA) to empower residents who are already active in their neighborhoods and provide training and education on community building,” Milzy Carrasco, the city’s director of neighborhood engagement, said in an email. “Through NLA, the neighborhood leaders increase their understanding of the function of local government, develop relationships with City leadership, and learn how to engage with the community, understand their neighborhood and leverage all of these resources to create resident-led solutions to neighborhood issues.”
Krimmel was sold, and although she didn’t realize it at the time, her quest for a solution to stop drivers from speeding through her neighborhood would have a snowball effect.
The Neighborhood Leaders Academy was created in 2019, with 11 joining its first class. Since then, 52 more people have participated.
LNP | LancasterOnline spoke to Krimmel and three other city residents who found a common training ground to refine their skills and capacities through the program. Here are their stories.
‘Stand up and find answers’
After joining the Neighborhood Leaders Academy, Krimmel continued to appraise her neighborhood and soon learned about South End Park, an unkept park near her home. It prompted her to evaluate how vital a few small changes in the appearance and maintenance of the park could improve the quality of life of the residents of that area, especially the children and youth.
“I figured that everyone needed to feel connected and have vested interest in this place in order for things to function,” Krimmel said.
With trash bags in hand, Krimmel started frequenting the park to pick up trash, stopping along the way to talk with residents. Soon, neighborhood kids were talking to her about making the park and its playground a special, clean place for them to spend time and play.
The children shared that creating art in the park would be a fun and meaningful project, so Krimmel commissioned local artist Adam Serrano to work with them.
“Sometimes inner-city kids don’t think of themselves as artists because they are not mentored in that kind of experience,” Serrano said. “When I was approached by the neighborhood team I thought it was a great opportunity to show the kids that art can be a positive outlet and can beautify the neighborhood, so I was immediately drawn to the project.”
They decided to paint a mural on the wall of a building in the park.
The kids came up with a concept of characters that would reflect the names of some city streets and they helped choose what images to use in the mural’s design.
“It was an amazing process,” Serrano said. “The kids who play on that playground had such sense of pride.”
Krimmel’s familiarity among the South Side residents grew as she continued to survey neighbors about making the park a gathering space for everyone. Neighbors felt encouraged.
“In the places I’ve lived before, we never had our voice heard by anyone in the local government,” said Iris Martinez, who lives on Highland Avenue. “In this neighborhood, we now have someone willing to be our voice and share our concerns with the authorities.”
The improvements at the park got underway with funds from the city’s Love Your Block mini-grant program, which offers grants for projects that focus on reducing litter and addressing multiple simple exterior repairs in neighborhoods. The city provided picnic tables, grills, metal trash cans and planted trees. The Rotary Club of Lancaster donated three benches, and volunteers applied a fresh coat of paint to the playground equipment.
“I never thought that when I knocked on my neighbors’ doors the very first time it would end up in the creation of a neighborhood group and me leading the group,” Krimmel said. “When people feel that what they say matters in the decision-making process, it just helps build trust between government and residents. When you feel that your community — your neighborhood — is being wronged, you stand up and find answers and possible outcomes.”
‘Your voice means everything’
Larock Hudson calls himself an activist and an agent of change “because I know the issues going on in my orbit and figured I need to take some sort of action to bring some of those issues to light.”
Hudson, 40, said he draws upon his memories and challenging life experiences to keep his passion for activism alive. He said he comes from a single parent home, has been on public assistance, has been incarcerated and lived in his car for nine months.
“There are not a lot of circumstances that I haven’t been through that some of these people out there are facing right now,” Hudson, who lives in the city’s northwest, said.
Hudson said he finds satisfaction in being able to bring people together to work for the greater good. He said he protested on city streets last year after a 27-year-old man was shot to death by a police officer. The incident occurred amid months of widespread protests across the nation over police brutality and systemic racism and it proved to Hudson what he has always believed.
“There’s a time to be on the street marching and holding a sign, but I believe there needs to be a pathway to progression,” he said.
Hudson set out to show others with a heart for activism what that pathway could look like. This was also the moment that took him from protesting against law enforcement policies and government institutions to working with them.
“It’s about meeting people where they are at, interjecting yourself into the policy-making procedures, and educating yourself and others,” he said.
Enter the Neighborhood Leaders Academy.
“NLA taught me who the local stakeholders are and showed me what each level in our local government does and who these people are,” Hudson said. “There is a disparity when it comes to having that knowledge, but NLA provides that.”
After completing the training, Hudson didn’t join any specific neighborhood group. Instead, he chose to do volunteer work locally and in the south-central Pennsylvania region, joining organizations whose mission and vision align with his interests. Eventually, he landed a job with Lancaster city.
In speaking about last year’s protests, Hudson said he advocated for bail reduction and equitable treatment for some of the people who were arrested.
“That led to a meeting with the mayor and the chief of police, and those interactions turned into relationships that later brought me to this point,” he said.
In his current position as equity, diversity and inclusion fellow for Lancaster city, Hudson is tasked with developing a strategy behind the city’s comprehensive plan so that historically unheard voices are brought to the forefront and social disparity is acknowledged and addressed.
“There is no reason to shy away and think you are not worthy of sitting at the table and being part of the decision-making process,” Hudson said. “Your voice means everything.”
‘Be the change I wanted to see’
Tene Darby — a lifelong resident of the city’s southeast, where she grew up on Green Street — describes herself as a humanitarian, an activist and community liaison. Aware of how essential it is for residents to voice their concerns with the city, she got involved in advocacy and volunteerism to find solutions to issues affecting her neighborhood.
“I’ve always been an advocate for my family and thought maybe it’s time for me to be a voice for the families in the southeast and beyond,” she said.
Darby, 49, inquired about becoming a member of the city’s Democratic committee in response to a post she read on Facebook. She was later appointed to serve as the committee person for the city’s 7th ward, 5th precinct. The appointment caused a chain of events that helped cement her image as a community leader and connector.
The city’s Deptartment of Neighborhood Engagement took notice and invited Darby to join the Neighborhood Leaders Academy. Last November, she became the first Black and Latina chairperson of the Lancaster City Democratic Committee.
“I represent all those people with a great sense of responsibility and hope,” Darby said. “Most times I am the only person of color in the room, and there is pressure to do well, but I am not intimidated by that.”
Darby said one of the things she learned at the Neighborhood Leaders Academy is how to access community resources that are available through city government but often remain untapped because people simply don’t know they exist.
“Learning those things has enabled me to help the residents in my neighborhood and gain their trust as a leader,” Darby said. “I’m able to stand up and speak on the issues that most matter to them because I am a southeast resident myself.”
She said her work becomes more relevant and gratifying when she sees others being inspired by it.
“I wear many different hats,” Darby said. “I didn’t really expect to hold these many positions, but how can I ask someone to be engaged in our neighborhood if I’m not willing to try it myself.
“I had to be the change I wanted to see.”
‘I feel empowered’
Lisa Colon feels an innate need to give back to her local community. She also believes that a community succeeds when its residents are involved in all processes and their voices are heard.
“The city is what impacts my life as far as the decisions they make,” Colon, 47, said. “I wanted to know how the different levels of city government intertwined and how they came about making the decisions that affected us as residents.”
When the city put out a message to residents about learning more about city and county government through the Neighborhood Leaders Academy, Colon was quick to respond.
“I realized that I wanted to make change for people, make things better and truly make an impact,” she said.
Using what she learned through the Neighborhood Leaders Academy, Colon set out to work on bringing together the business and the residential communities in the northwest quadrant of the city where she lives.
“They seemed to be very disconnected from each other,” Colon said. “There seemed to be no sense of community as compared to the southeast. It seemed to be missing in this area.”
Colon opted to coordinate a fall fest at Janice Stork Corridor Park. The event was a success and the experience, she said, planted a seed in her.
Colon started Red Rose Blue Star Moms, the local chapter of the Blue Star Mothers of America. She serves as president of the local chapter, which offers a support system to local military families and their service members.
She currently serves as chairperson of the Lancaster City GOP and assistant treasurer of the Republican Committee of Lancaster County.
“NLA gave me training and more confidence. I might not know all the answers but now I know where to find the answers. I feel empowered,” Colon said.