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A City With a Conscience

Ensign portrait summer2020dickinsonmagazine

Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

by President Margee Ensign

What is the role of a college during a pandemic? Of course, our priorities are to ensure the health and safety of our faculty, staff and students and that our educational mission is fulfilled. These priorities have guided all of our decisions since early March. But Dickinson’s mission has long included civic engagement and building relationships with our community. So I would like to talk about the evolving relationship between Dickinson, Carlisle and the Cumberland County area.

Three years ago, about 20 local community leaders began to meet for breakfast at my house to discuss concerns and community issues, bringing with them various perspectives, talents, resources and capabilities. It was a varied group representing many different perspectives and sectors. The initial purpose was to standardize communication, build networks and simply get to know one another better. We came to call ourselves the Community Action Network, or Carlisle CAN.

Over the past three years, educational, business, community, nonprofit, faith, political and law enforcement leaders have worked on areas of mutual concern. We have helped each other on issues ranging from housing, hunger, education, addiction, public safety, the environment and health to fostering economic growth and livable wages. When the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon us, we already had something invaluable in place to help us all through the many challenges it presented: trusted friends and colleagues. We had each other.

No longer able to meet in person, Carlisle CAN—with some Dickinson faculty and staff members participating—now relies on weekly Zoom meetings, sometimes with as many as 90 participants. The U.S. Army War College and Penn State Dickinson Law, along with Dickinson, are sharing information and support as we help formulate and implement policies to keep our community well, peaceful, fair and functioning. So often I have been heartened that when assistance is requested, instead of the all-too-common “I would love to but I don’t have the time,” the answer has been, “How can I help?”

We have been involved in helping small businesses survive by assisting them with grant applications and marketing strategies. We have supported the opening of summer camps and are discussing our roles in contact tracing to help reduce the spread of the virus. We have worked with Project SHARE to ensure that there is enough food for vulnerable members of our community and that it was delivered to those who didn’t have transportation. We even found bottles for the hand sanitizer being made by our local Hook & Flask Still Works.

Our students also have been deeply involved in this community work. In May, 16 Civic Action Interns (CAI) joined our Center for Civic Learning & Action (CCLA) to respond to emerging requests for assistance during the pandemic. Interns have been engaged in over 25 projects with 13 regional nonprofit partners and several ongoing engagement initiatives housed at CCLA. Projects, which varied in size and scope, included:

  • supporting conversion of Project SHARE’s Kids in the Kitchen program to a remote format;
  • researching technical specifications and drafting a proposal for technology upgrades at the Cumberland County Housing & Redevelopment Authority;
  • assisting the Reentry Coalition in design and research for a proposed job training/placement program for prisoners released during COVID-19;
  • and building a relational database for the American Association of University Women in support of its goals to increase member engagement in voter registration, economic security and efforts to eliminate the gender pay gap.

CAN is also engaged in discussions of how to create and implement antiracist policies to ensure that opportunity, education and justice are equally available to all—an outgrowth of our ongoing work in housing, education, food security, health care and criminal justice.

The work of this inspiring group has now been honored for its pioneering model of community engagement and cooperation with the Pennsylvania Humanities Council’s Heart & Soul Hero award. And that pretty well sums it up—we have made sure that the heart of our community continues to beat and that the soul remains courageous and compassionate. One new member of our community has come up with an appropriate motto: Carlisle, the city with a conscience. It fits!

Read more from the summer 2020 issue of Dickinson Magazine

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Published August 17, 2020