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Forging connections, inspiring unity in Lewisburg

2015 Solidarity March
CommUnity Zone
2015 Solidarity March

There are people who believe that every community needs an organization to bring together diverse parts of its population. For Lewisburg, that entity is the CommUnity Zone.

Fast forward

The start of CommUnity Zone in 2012, according to co-founder and executive director Cindy Peltier, was an outgrowth of another organization, CARE. Community Alliance for Respect and Equality was founded in 1994 by a diverse group of Lewisburg residents and convened by Douglas Sturm, retired Bucknell professor of religion and politics. CARE sought to increase awareness of and respect for people of all races, ethnicity, gender, religions, and sexual orientation through workshops, programs, festivals, and newsletters.

“In the nineties, we did our first unity rally, under the auspices of CARE, in response to people of color and gay people being killed,” said Peltier, who at the time headed up Bucknell University’s Samek Art Gallery.

When Peltier left Bucknell, she wanted to continue the philosophy of CARE, but expand and change it. Peltier and co-founder Farida Zaid’s vision for the Zone, as it’s called, is to create a community where all individuals, organizations, and businesses share ideas, talents, and resources to create and maintain a connected, caring, healthy, and vibrant Susquehanna Valley. Zaid has since moved on to other projects in the community.

“A lot of the way we dealt with people [with CARE] was too didactic,” Peltier recalls. "Mostly, we were just [preaching] to the choir – people we hoped would come to our events didn’t come. The CommUnity Zone is really a different route to [achieving inclusivity], through the inclusion of the arts.”

Peltier’s emphasis on unity was an outgrowth, she says, of her involvement in social justice at an early age.

“I grew up in Massachusetts, in the sixties, and we went through the race riots,” she shared. “As a young kid, I was confused by it all. Where I lived was very poor, very integrated. We never had issues with each other. There was injustice, and I didn’t really understand why.”

Peltier remembers walking out of junior high with fellow students to protest the treatment of people of color.

A way through

Peltier’s idea to use the arts as a springboard to inclusivity and harmony stems from the experience inherent in witnessing or participating in creative endeavors.

“When we go to a performance, we are moved, even if that performance is tough and difficult to talk about,” said Peltier. “That’s where we need to go. We need to move each other. We need to be able to sit and talk with each other. We need to get back to telling stories.”

The Zone’s partnership with Stories on Tap integrates that storytelling piece of the puzzle. Founded in 2011 as a forum to share experiences, Stories on Tap hosts storytelling events and workshops with the goal of cultivating connection through the art of oral storytelling. According to its website, “We believe that well-crafted stories can open hearts and strengthen communities. Stories on Tap aims to increase understanding of others’ experiences through authenticity and candor.”

Last February, for example, a Stories on Tap event invited participants to share stories on the topic of love—love of a partner, a parent, a dog, a baby, the world, according to Peltier.

“We had 14 people tell stories,” she said. “Some of the stories were tough, and talked about abuse, deep love, and getting over things. It was extraordinary and people were enriched by it. We need to find ways [like this] to come together because where we are today is so divided.”

Working together

The Zone’s partnership model is central to achieving its goals, and Peltier utilizes the strength of 19 partner organizations to achieve a greater good. In a recent email communication to those partners, Peltier stressed the power of collaboration and unity in achieving the shared goal of making the world a better place. Peltier proposed that the partners enter into one or two major joint events each year that will “serve as powerful demonstrations of unity and collaboration.”

“Imagine the impact we could generate,” Peltier wrote, “if we came together, pooling our expertise and passion for a shared cause.”

Peltier cites a variety of successful collaborations already created, including: Lewisburg in Lights, with the Lewisburg Downtown Partnership and Lewisburg Borough; a Juneteenth collaboration with the ACLUPA; Listening Rooms, with the Local Music Collective; Voices in the Valley poetry event, with the Stadler Center for Poetry of Bucknell; Stories on Tap, in partnership with Julie Hagenbuch; and Community Gatherings to show solidarity, in association with a variety of groups.

“What I’m striving for is to try to get people to work together,” Peltier stressed. “This year’s Raise the Region [fundraising event], for example, had more than 350 nonprofit organizations trying to do wonderful things, all vying for limited dollars. To me, that’s wonderful that so many people are moved to want to do things to try to inspire people to work together instead of everyone doing their own thing.”

Lewisburg Lights, a program to light up Lewisburg initiated during COVID, exemplifies how the Zone addresses unmet needs in the community.

“During COVID, everybody was staying away from each other,” Peltier recalls. “We were all depressed. I thought, what can we do? I called together a handful of people, and I threw it out there. ‘We could call it Lewisburg Lights,’ I said. ‘We could light up Lewisburg during the dark time.’ And I said, ‘This is not about a holiday. It’s not about Christmas. It’s about the dark time and bringing light.’”

Initially volunteers purchased lights and installed them. Today Lewisburg is lit up, during winter months, by borough workers.

Peltier freely shares the Zone’s space to groups ranging from LGBTQ students to Moms Demand Action.

“Empowering those kinds of groups to happen just floats my boat,” said Peltier. “I love talking to people and inspiring them.”

And Peltier is called on by diverse entities in the community to lend her experience and knowledge in a variety of ways including serving on a sexual assault panel at Bucknell.

“I’m not sure how helpful I can be, other than offering a safe place here,” she said. “And the hope that somebody would be listening.”

Peltier suggests that the Zone is always evolving, but many roads lead back to the same realities.

“We are people, and we have to learn to live together and live in harmony,” she said. "That’s never going to go away. We are who we are, and it’s a work in progress. We’re all here to learn and grow.”

New space and time

One such evolution for the Zone involved affiliating with the Lewisburg Downtown Partnership, the organization tasked with economic development, marketing and promotion, historic preservation, and design for downtown Lewisburg. In 2021, the two organizations were engaging and collaborating more, and both sought more space to host events, friends, and supporters. In 2022, Peltier and Ellen Ruby of the Downtown Partnership joined forces at 328 Market Street to form the Community Partnerships
building. Much of the décor, furniture, and computers for the space were donated by Bucknell University and the Baylor family, upon the closing of Country Cupboard, the restaurant/gift shop/garden center that had been a Lewisburg icon for nearly 50 years.

“This space has slowly but surely grown toward our goal of forming a central hub for all things Lewisburg, with office space for both our organizations, a central room with a stage and seating for all sorts of events, and a window front and hallway space for posters and brochures—even a satellite office of the Susquehanna River Valley Visitors Bureau,” said Peltier.

The shared space allows Ruby and Peltier to work together in a number of ways and to support each other and their events through promotion, social media, and lining up volunteer help. Ruby is quick to commend Peltier for her ability to forge connections in the community.

“We enjoy just sitting down and brainstorming ideas for what we would like to see happen in Lewisburg, and then figuring out the roles of each organization,” said Ruby. “And Cindy connects people. Whether it’s holding a music event like the Listening Room, or a poetry reading or Stories on Tap. Whatever the event is, it’s bringing people together around something positive like art.”

Ruby also praises the role of the Zone in serving as an incubator for other small nonprofits.

“She’ll support people, she’ll mentor people, she’ll allow them to work under the umbrella of her nonprofit and then launch on their own,” observed Ruby.

In short, says Ruby, Peltier is a visionary.

“A lot of people may not realize that Cindy is the catalyst, the one with the vision. She’ll be the first to tell you that she’s had lots of help and support from the community, both through time, talent, and financial donations, to keep her organization going. She has the gift of being able to convey a vision to others, and gather support for what she wants to do.”

Lewisburg Mayor Kendy Alvarez agrees.

“For a really long time in our community, there were these third places that existed—churches, civic organizations, gathering places,” she said. “And in the last 15 to 20 years, we’ve seen a significant reduction of them. People don’t know where and how to gather. That’s very much what the CommUnity Zone is focused on—recognizing there are needs, and those needs are better filled by connecting with and collaborating with other organizations.”

Peltier has a positive vision for the future of Lewisburg.

“I just want to live in a place where everybody knows your name and everybody supports you. I think that’s what we’re here to do—to try to be the best of ourselves and inspire other people to be the best that they can be. Some people would say that’s Pollyanna stuff, but I’m going to do it as long as I can do it.”

Erica Shames is the emeritus founder and publisher of Susquehanna Life magazine, Central Pennsylvania’s original lifestyle publication.