Kensington Community Builder Wins National Award

Philadelphia resident Gloria Cartagena organizes and amplifies the voices of her neighbors in the face of the surging opioid crisis and increased homelessness in Kensington. New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) nominated Cartagena for her work and she was selected as one of six national recipients of the 2018 Dorothy Richardson Award for Resident Leadership by NeighborWorks America.


We spoke to Cartagena recently and she admits that sadly, the crisis has increased. “I’m going to be straight up honest with you. I see no improvement right now. There is a lot of work to be done. I live right there on Somerset and I see it every day. It has gotten even worse than before. Hopefully we can get some solutions implemented before it gets any worse.”  


The city is doing something, but it’s overwhelming, she said. “The city is working on the problem, but you must crawl before you can walk. Baby steps, but it’s not fast enough for what is going on. The homelessness and the opioid issue—both are increasing in the meantime. You’re taking two steps forward and what feels like six steps back,” Cartagena told us.  


During her tenure as President of the Somerset Neighbors for Better Living, Cartagena was a powerful force of advocacy to bring additional resources to the neighborhood and grow critical partnerships. Cartagena brought City officials to the table for solutions-based discussions about the homelessness and drug use in the neighborhood, negotiating with them to respond proactively to the crisis.


Cartagena’s term as President of Somerset Neighbors for Better Living just ended recently. “We have new people on the board now. I am corresponding secretary as of today,” she said. Cartagena added that all residents are welcome to their steering committee meetings. “We welcome new ideas [on] how we can tackle things in the neighborhood. We just need more people involved,” she said.


In her work as a block leader and a Community Connector with NKCDC, Cartagena has been essential in advancing key strategies and projects of the community’s North of Lehigh Neighborhood Revitalization Plan, which NKCDC published in 2014. NKCDC is working alongside the city to try and get some problems rectified. Cartagena said they focus on cleaning up the vacant lots which have an excess of used needles and the excess trash in the neighborhood. “If they do have something going on, I would love to be part of it. I’m a passionate person when it comes to homelessness and addiction because I lost family members to drugs and I know what it is like to be homeless,” she added.


For Cartagena one of the biggest challenges she sees is getting her most hard-to-reach neighbors in Kensington out the door to come to meetings, so they can get involved in spearheading change. She likes to get creative with getting neighbors to attend community meetings. “One time we had a wreath party, so we could get the attention of the residents and neighbors to come out. Where I live, we are family oriented. The challenge is to get them out to talk about the crisis going on in the neighborhood,” she said. “Neighbors feel [like] ‘you are not solving any problems for me, so what is the point of me coming out just to hear the same thing?’”


A lot of residents are afraid to go outside at a certain time. “After 6 p.m., I hear a lot of people saying, ‘I don’t like walking the streets.’” There is a language barrier for Latino residents. This is another reason why Cartagena got involved in changing Kensington—”So I could speak for my Latinos. A lot of them want to say something but don’t know how to say it or don’t speak English at all.”


NeighborWorks America honored Cartagena and the other winners at a ceremony, last year, in Houston during its Community Leadership Institute, an event that strengthens the skills of local leaders through training and networking.


While Cartagena was honored to receive the Dorothy Richardson Award, she’s not involved for prizes or accolades. “It was an honor that people appreciate the things you do for their community. It was a shock and honor,” she said. NKCDC sent a team of eight resident leaders, including Cartagena, to the institute to develop an action plan for a local improvement project of their choosing. NeighborWorks America supports selected projects with a seed grant.


For Cartagena, this was the second time she flew on a plane. “It was awesome. I love meeting people from all places. I stay in contact with them (the honorees); we share information. Every city has the same challenges … the issues I have in my city are everywhere.”