Living in Allentown
Allentown’s urban housing crisis, gun violence, and racial and economic inequity weigh heavily on the residents of Pennsylvania’s third-largest city. But when asked, ‘what does home mean to you?’ residents also shared emotional responses about how they love their city with all its flaws. They talk about how they are striving to make it a better place and lament how developers making investments with tax-subsidized revitalization projects are not making much impact on their lives. Yet these residents share how they are trying to make an impact on their jobs, families, and community caught in the city’s cultural and socioeconomic divide.
David Erdman’s journalism students interviewed these residents as part of a Muhlenberg College class project that seeks to cover communities increasingly falling out of scope of traditional media covering the Lehigh Valley.
Read their stories here and watch for more to come.
“Gang violence and the violence in the schools are what made me want to get connected with the community. Our outreach team goes to the schools every day to try to de-escalate and combat the conflict going on. Let’s give our kids the same chance we had coming up.”
Angela Bon Clomer, Promise Neighborhoods volunteer coordinator
I was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey. My husband fell in love with Allentown, and we’ve been here ever since. He came out here one day on a visit and the next thing I knew we were moving. Coming to Allentown gave me a new slate and I love the community and getting out there and actively engaging.
I think the biggest part of my personal story is how to deal with grief because it’s so prevalent and not too many people know how to deal with grief. I lost my husband last year after 33 years of marriage and it’s hard being by yourself after that long of a marriage. I decided to do some volunteering because there weren’t any grief groups that I could do so I started volunteering. For me, it was a matter of carving out a new life for myself.
My typical day starts at Promise Neighborhoods Lehigh Valley where we have a wellness center where we provide food for the community. I’m the volunteer coordinator there and have been there for a year and five months. It’s helping me carve out that new life and has given me new opportunities like talking to you right now. Promise has definitely made a difference in my life and the community we have is great. Our ability to feed the community has increased to at least 46 to 50 boxes a day, so our food and wellness center is pretty busy, to say the least.
I’m also a rape survivor and I experienced alcoholism very deeply, but Promise has helped me with a lot of my healing because I still wasn’t healing as a whole. I’m still going through my healing process. I’m 59 and this happened over 50 years ago but the effect still lasts. Certain situations still bother me, and I have triggers and as a result, I have become disabled because of that.
Gang violence and the violence in the schools are what made me want to get connected with the community. Our outreach team goes to the schools every day to try to de-escalate and combat the conflict going on. Let’s give our kids the same chance we had coming up. I didn’t experience any of this growing up! We should all be entitled to grow up peacefully with food in our bellies and our parents being able to work and come home and sustain housing.
Housing is also a real problem that I’m affected by. Because I’m disabled a lot of landlords don’t want to accept Social Security as an income and you have to have three times that amount. The new developments are pushing us out and there are a lot of abandoned buildings that they can rehab and put us in.
I would say I started feeling connected to Allentown when I was on the board of Lehigh Valley Hospital as a patient advocate and that’s really how I got started in the community then it blossomed when I got to Promise. I found my niche and they found a spot for me. We lift as we climb.
You know, I was asked the other day if I could have any superpower what it would be, mine would be to end homelessness. Right now, my goal is to spend as much time with Promise Neighborhood of the Lehigh Valley as I can. I’m 59 years old and I don’t know when I’m gonna give it up but right now I got the energy, I got the vibe, and I got my tribe so I’m just gonna keep on going.
Interviewed by Tyson Borelli ‘23, photo by Tom Amico
“My goal has always been to inspire the next generation. I hope that if this generation can see that I made it out of a situation that I was in then maybe these kids can believe that they will be able to do the same.”
Andrene Brown, Fine Feather Foundation executive director
For many, it takes years to realize their true meaning in life. For me, this didn’t happen until I moved to Allentown where I found my true passion. Struggling with an abusive past, I strongly loved singing and songwriting. It helped me cope with everything I had been through as a child. After years of pursuing my passion, I used it to help at-risk youth in Center City Allentown.
I lived in New York City for most of my life after coming to the United States from Jamaica. I moved to Allentown in order to be closer to my dad. I instantly fell in love with the city and it was a nice change in pace from where I came from. Growing up I wanted singing to be my career, however, I found a deeper purpose. During my time here in Allentown I decided I wanted to have a positive impact on the youth of my community and that is why I decided to become the executive director of the non-profit organization Fine Feather Foundation that gives at-risk youth a healing space for a couple of hours each day. I never saw myself growing up going in this direction. However, it felt like God was pulling me this way.
Art has always been a healing space. Unfortunately, here in Allentown art programs are not readily available. If I can provide a program where these kids will be able to free their minds for a couple of hours each day then that is exactly what I am going to do. Our programs range from art classes, to dancing, to even podcasting. The best part about our program is that each program is curated for each individual child is based upon their needs and what they want to do.
Most recently we have started a summer program for children who are at high risk and even includes a recital at its conclusion. Unfortunately, one of the biggest dilemmas that I face is deciding whom I can accept into the program due to our limited resources. Over the last year, I have received around 100 applications of children requesting to get into the summer program. It is disheartening to have to turn some of them down. In order to find the most at risk my team and I had to face the daunting task of compiling a list of criteria that each individual and family must meet in order to be accepted. It is sad to have to turn away kids who may need help because we do not have enough resources at the time. We are however planning on growing and expanding our program in order to accommodate more kids who are at risk.
My goal has always been to inspire the next generation. I hope that if this generation can see that I made it out of a situation that I was in then maybe these kids can believe that they will be able to do the same. I want to be able to take what has happened to me and turn it into a purpose. The energy and passion that I have for helping out my community is contagious and I hope that it helps to brighten up the outlook that we have on our community and the city of Allentown.
Interviewed by Ronnie Grevera ’23, photo by Tom Amico
“We are all in the same community. So, I think bringing awareness to what we're doing, bringing awareness to what is trauma and how impactful trauma is, how important relationships can be, and just giving people dignity and respect.”
Missy Wise, formerly Ripple community services coordinator
I grew up poor in Lancaster, where from a young age, I was taught the importance of giving back. Because my family didn’t have the financial resources to help out others, we dedicated our time to help. Being taught as a kid that serving others is about giving up time and connecting with people led me to pursue a service life. I moved to Allentown to attend Cedar Crest College. It is there where I received my master’s degree in social work.
During my time in college, I went through a low point in my life and experienced my own traumas. Going to therapy, along with working with the community at Ripple Community Inc. has helped me work to overcome these previous traumas. Because of this, I feel connected to the people I see every day at the college.
Six years ago, I was hired by Ripple with its first grant. I started when it was just a team of three and only worked Saturdays. Now we have expanded to seven staff members and I work 30 hours a week. Ripple is a center for Allentown residents who have been traditionally marginalized and need a place to engage in meaningful relationships and find support from our team and other members. It is an open-door policy which means we rarely deny anyone from coming inside and getting food, drink, or just using our quiet space to rest.
I work to provide support to around 70 Allentown locals daily. I never ask how we can help. I ask how we can support because help implies that I can fix or change something. What makes Ripple so special is how we treat everyone as equals. We are not in a position of power and I cannot make things change overnight, however, we can create a relationship that is more meaningful than giving handouts.
The relationships I have made at Ripple with the community members are a special bond. I refer to call everyone by their first names and love the conversations I have with the members. Every day I learn something new and feel a deep connection to the community and its members because of the trauma I have lived through. I feel like I can connect on a more empathic level because of the shared experiences I have had with some members. The Ripple center has helped me just as much as it has helped the members of the Allentown community.
Interviewed by Noah Pietila ‘25, photo by Tom Amico
“I admire how Ripple Community Inc. and Ripple Village offer support by creating relationships between individuals. It’s fulfilling to know that people who might have met through the Ripple Community Center are now neighbors and good friends living at Ripple Village.”
Blake Henry, Ripple housing director
I grew up in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, and went to college at Fuller Theological Seminary where I received my Master of Arts degree. I worked as a group pastor at a Church in Arizona for a few years before I moved to the Lehigh Valley in 2019. Once I was settled in Allentown, I connected with Ripple Church in 2020 and began working with Ripple Community Inc. I felt drawn to the community because one of my core values is treating people with dignity and respect, which Ripple heavily exemplifies.
Ripple wants residents to feel comfortable enough to stop by the Community Center throughout the day, where they can engage in conversations and utilize resources to promote personal and professional growth. I have been working there for two years. At the Community Center, we hope to foster connections between residents and offer resources that support them. Some resources are short-term. Residents can rest, grab a bite to eat, or hang out and can participate in weekly activities like card games and art therapy. Others are long-term, including counseling sessions with staff and additional support from outside partners.
Ripple’s resources are made possible through connections like the parish nurses at St. Luke’s and Ripple Church, The Synergy Project, and Valley Against Sex Trafficking, which are programs that assist unsheltered individuals in the Lehigh Valley. We also work with Valley Health System and Street Medicine Institute. Several professionals come to the Community Center and work with residents, providing physician appointments, recovery meetings, and insurance or financial advice. These organizations dedicate their time to working with each individual on a personal level.
Alongside the Ripple Community Center is Ripple Village. RCI Village is a housing program for individuals in the Lehigh Valley. As the director of housing, my focus is that apartments be affordable and secure. I want families to be able to build a safe space.
We aim to provide deeply affordable housing at RCI Village through funding from our partners, who reduce the rent cost of apartments. Deeply affordable means going below the costs of Section-8 HUD Housing, which assists low-income families living in rental properties. Ripple Village has 18 apartments. Because availability is limited, we try to make the selection process as fair as possible. Once an apartment opens, Ripple Village holds a meeting between various department organizers who know the community. This ensures the selection process is equitable when determining who would best fit into the program based on their needs. We view applications on a case-to-case basis and prioritize individuals who are homeless.
The housing program is young. It’s been around for four years and houses residents who have been a part of it the whole time, while others are in two or three years. Ripple Village aims to combine deeply affordable, permanent housing with long-term stability and success. We are working with our connections to expand the district covered by Ripple so that we can offer additional housing to Allentown residents who applied to the program.
I admire how Ripple Community Inc. and Ripple Village offer support by creating relationships between individuals. It’s fulfilling to know that people who might have met through the Ripple Community Center are now neighbors and good friends living at Ripple Village.
Interviewed by Jula Tully ‘23, photo by Tom Amico
“We need more working cameras in the streets to lower the number of killings. We also need to help out the homeless. We need to make it easier for them to get into shelters. We need to save our children. They are the future. If we kill them, we end up killing our future.”
Ben Torres, Promise Neighborhoods
Everything I do is for my kids. My kids are my reason. Our kids in the world are the future. I say that because when I was growing up, I wasn’t anyone’s reason. I grew up in Jersey City. It was a really rough neighborhood. Fights, shootings, killings, stabbings, and all that stuff was normal to me. I began running away from home and spending my life on the streets.
Then I moved out to Allentown in 2009. I thought it was a new start but it was the same thing as in Jersey City. It was worse. More shootings, killings, hits and runs, drugs, etc. And I was a part of that lifestyle. I ended up in prison in 2019. I lost everything. I lost my kids most importantly. That was when I knew I needed to make a change in my life.
I got out of prison and I was looking for a new life. That is when I found the Promise Neighborhood organization. They are a group that works with people who suffer from mental health issues, poverty, and people who have been released from prison. They really work with everybody. They are a group that is educational, fun, and inspiring. They welcomed me with open arms. No judgment at all. They made me feel welcomed, wanted, loved, appreciated, and they gave me hope for the future. They put me on the right path.
It was difficult at first to stay away from the old people I was hanging with. Prison ended up saving my life and coming home makes me never want to go back there. Now I am a working man with the group. I have my kids back. I love what I do now. I love giving back to the community. I love doing it for my kids.
For me it is all about the city. People don’t feel connected to Allentown. The system is broken. The system is set up for the Black and brown communities to struggle. I feel like the Black and brown communities are misrepresented. That really bothers me. It is difficult to pay rent, pay for gas, take care of your children, and do all the things that someone needs to live a life. I feel like Allentown does not care about the community.
We need more working cameras in the streets to lower the number of killings. We also need to help out the homeless. We need to make it easier for them to get into shelters. We need to save our children. They are the future. If we kill them, we end up killing our future.
If I had to give advice to my younger self I would say: Stay away from negative attitudes and people. Stay hopeful, don’t let anyone tell you who you are and that you’re not worth it. Be part of the solution and not the problem.
It is my dream to own a restaurant and have my kids work for nobody but themselves. My kids are my motivation to keep going and make this world a better place.
Interviewed by Colin Quinn ‘26, photo by Tom Amico
“For us, the most important thing is for people to feel safe, for people to feel supported and connected because it’s through those relationships that they can start to heal. We all have things we need to heal from.”
Sherri Brokopp Binder
Finishing up my Ph.D. and heading down the university researcher route to work in community psychology, I was pitched the idea to join the organization at Ripple Community Inc. Instead of continuing down the path I had set, I was sold on an offer from a local pastor to lead the expansion of Ripple from its roots as Ripple Church, an Anabaptist congregation in the heart of Allentown, into a more influential community center. It was at that moment that I knew this was what I wanted to do. A local pastor offered me the idea of expanding from Ripple Church, an Anabaptist congregation in the heart of Allentown, into a more influential community center, instead of following this path I had set for myself. It was at that moment that I knew this was what I wanted to do.
I think that Ripple Community Inc. is legitimately a magical place. Not just because of what we do, but also how we do it. We’re so incredibly intentional when it comes to relationships, when it comes to community, and when it comes to forming genuine connections with people, which, in some cases, can be pretty hard. Our goal is to get those in Allentown facing problems with housing, addiction, the legal system, or pretty much anything else, get the help that they need to operate self-sufficiently in the world. At the very least, we want to give them a place that they can call home.
We don’t really follow the typical model when it comes to social services. They usually tend to operate on a client-management basis, with providers and case managers who run their clients through step-by-step programs to achieve results, but for us, the most important thing is for people to feel safe, for people to feel supported, and for people to feel connected. Here at Ripple, people have a lot to heal from, and in many cases, it’s not something that can be fixed on an eight-month plan, or a checklist, or even sometimes in a straight line. We move in circles, we cycle back, and we start over. Life doesn’t move in a straight line.
One of the characteristics of trauma is that it causes us to lose the ability to feel safe around other people. If you lose that, it can deeply affect your mental and physical health. It’s not permanent; it can be rebuilt, but it can also take a very long time. We understand that the pace that people heal is dynamic. That’s a big part of it; we want to make sure people know that they can come back. They can always come back at any time.
Once we can get the trust of our communities, we hold it very sacred. At that point, the largest hump has usually been crossed. From there, they often have something else they’re ready to work on; they might want to recover from addiction, access behavioral health services, or deal with problems in the criminal justice system they’ve been avoiding. We can step in and offer direct help, or at the very least, give people access to the right resources.
It’s hard work, and not everything has a happy ending, but we carry it around. That’s what it means to be part of the team. We find that so much happens here, though, that usually, our really rough days are also our really good days. When something lovely does happen, we often share it with each other. Working here isn’t easy, so it must be something other than easy that keeps us here.
Interviewed by Bennett Knight ‘24, photo by Tom Amico
“I make sure to keep my feet grounded in the community and demonstrate my love for the city through my presence. I tend to go to many different events. I go to funerals, I go to weddings, to baptisms. Everywhere I go I make sure that I listen.”
Cynthia Mota first Latina president of Allentown city council
We moved to America for a better life. For better social and economic opportunities. My family and I moved here from the Dominican Republic when I was just a child. Arriving in Allentown I experienced a community that was filled with diversity and although a difficult move I found a great deal of help and support from those in the community.
After arriving I saw a community that was growing. Particularly I remember how the Latino and Syrian communities were one. This created a mentality that stuck with me as when there were issues ‘They were everyone’s problems.’ Such a warm interaction with Allentown at my young age was a spark for what is now my love for the community and all those in it.
Now since I have been working on the council since 2012 and have made it my purpose to serve the people, giving a voice to the voiceless. As head of the Allentown council, I go further than that and make sure to keep my feet grounded in the community and demonstrate my love for the city through my presence. I tend to go to many different events. I go to funerals, I go to weddings, to baptisms… Everywhere I go I make sure that I listen. This constant interaction with the community has been a huge factor in what has been my time on the council. In my term as a councilwoman, I have helped to establish Allentown’s Hispanic Heritage Month, and Black History Month collaborated in the creation of Women’s History Month and introduced a proclamation to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day. Everything that I do has to do with the community base.
This dedication to Allentown and its community is something that I celebrate in my personal life as I make a point of taking my friends that visit Allentown all over the community. I make sure they get to know the people and the diversity that we have. This means taking my friends to restaurants, to Center City, and the bodegas scattered across town. Although maybe not typical attractions it is in these small things that I see the most value as they show the amazing diversity that we have.
I have been very fortunate to be a councilwoman in Allentown and there is no community that I would rather be a part of. Allentown is for me home and will always be the place that I return to no matter where I visit.
Interviewed by Nate Henty Brown ’22, photo by Anaya Battle ’22
“Home to me is a safe space. It doesn’t necessarily need to be where I'm living but it has to be a safe space. As trauma survivors, a lot of us need that safe place to just step back and be like… I need to process my thoughts so for me, it’s in my bed maybe watching a Netflix show or something, and just spacing out for a while.”
I think the biggest part of my personal story is that I grew up in an all-white school district. My parents were middle-class, hardworking individuals and I still ended up in the trafficking lifestyle. Nobody is immune to it, it doesn’t matter what demographic you come from, doesn’t matter your skin color, doesn’t matter how much money you have, and whatever your orientation is, it doesn’t matter. Anybody can end up in that lifestyle. I think because we have stereotypes of who ends up in that life and why or how. You know the stereotypical woman that ends up in that life. Young men end up in it as well, people assume that they’re alcoholics or drug addicts and I was none of the above.
As a child, I was a victim of rape by two teenage boys. At 10 years old that affects a child. I grew up thinking that I was ugly, that I was horrible, that nobody loved me or wanted me. When children are changed like that many times they end up in a promiscuous lifestyle. As I got older that’s how I connected with individuals. I felt that that was the only way a man could pay attention to me or a boyfriend, which then led me to interact with an individual who was in trafficking, believing that he loved me, and ended up in a long-term domestic violence relationship. Near the end of that relationship, my significant other had me believing that I truly was crazy and I thought that maybe I was. I had undiagnosed adult ADHD, my thoughts get jumbled up a lot and then I thought maybe he is right.
I left on my own and I did not get therapy for a long time, which probably wasn’t the best. But when I was finally strong enough to talk about it to a therapist which was the scariest thing, it reinforced that everything that I went through did not devalue me as a human being and as a woman, that I am important, that I am strong, and that people still will love me. I have an amazing friend support system as well that really embraced me even though they know what I went through. They didn’t shame me because that’s the biggest thing, when people talk about this kind of lifestyle in public, they are afraid of being shamed and I didn’t get any of that. I also started working in a nonprofit so it kind of got my foot back in the door and learned about other invested individuals in the community so just going to a nonprofit and volunteering is a good place to find people.
Working with the unsheltered population, which is what I did for six years, you can’t find more authentic, genuine people than individuals who are experiencing homelessness. which is what I did for six years, you can’t find more authentic, genuine people than individuals who are experiencing homelessness. I’ve learned that expressing my feelings through them is OK. You start to find people that you connect with in other non-profits or other companies or other corporations. It’s really about going to find somewhere you like and exploring from there. It’s a lifelong process but when you know you have support systems and can recognize that there are other people in this world that feel just like I do and I am not the only one. I know I am not alone.
Interviewed by Nicole Lehrhoff ’23, photo by Anaya Battle ’22
“Allentown’s community is willing to make Allentown a better place. I want Allentown to be a better place. I bring my kids with me when I volunteer. I want them to know it is good to make others feel good. Allentown is my home, my community, Allentown is what made me.”
mother of four
I love Allentown. I’m still here because Allentown is what you make of it, not what you see on the news. I was born and raised in Allentown, but I still needed ESOL because my parents only spoke Spanish at home. I grew up in ‘the projects’. We moved to the north side when I was about 11. My dad passed when I was 13, and I just started hanging out with the wrong crowd. I became a mom at 15. I now have four kids, my oldest graduated from Dieruff High School, the same school I graduated from. I love that my children can go to the same school I did. My second oldest is in 10th grade. Then I have one in kindergarten and a 2-year-old. I’m such a proud mom. Kids are going to make choices no matter what kind of parent you are. I like to teach my kids that your mistakes don’t make you. I get called ‘Smiley’ a lot because I always have a smile on my face. You never know what someone’s going through, money can’t buy happiness, but a smile can change something.
I wouldn’t change Allentown. It has its good and bad parts, just like everything else. Some people like to talk badly about Allentown when they leave, but I won’t. I will never forget what made me who I am. I graduated from Dieruff and went to school for childcare, then I went into nursing. Now I work for both St. Luke’s and Lehigh Valley Health Network releasing records. I get to work from home most days, which is nice because I get to see my kids more. Allentown’s community is willing to make Allentown a better place. I want Allentown to be a better place. I bring my kids with me when I volunteer. I want them to know it is good to make others feel good. Allentown is my home, my community, Allentown is what made me. The kids in the Allentown School District need guidance. They try so hard to fit in, the kids will record these fights for attention. Back when I went to school, people would fight, and then you would see them walking together in the halls like nothing ever happened. We need more opportunities for the youth in Allentown. I want Allentown to feel safe again, and I want the people who leave Allentown to stop talking so badly about Allentown. Youth centers and other places for kids to play sports don’t exist anymore. Mountainville has a great spot for baseball and softball games, and the West End Youth Center is gone too. These kids can’t stay active and go outside to play if we continue to lose programs like this. Growing up we always had the same rule. We would spend all day outside, but once the streetlights came on, we had to be home.
Violence happens everywhere, but since Allentown has such a bad reputation everything seems worse. Problems happen in school districts across the Lehigh Valley, but they get swept under the rug. No one talks about the student who was killed by police at a Whitehall High School basketball game, but if the same thing happened at William Allen or Dieruff, we would not have heard the end of it.
Allentown is my home. Could I leave? Sure. Do I want to? No. Coming back to Allentown after vacation and trips is what I look forward to. Allentown is my home, my community, and Allentown is what made me.
Interviewed by Sara Krempasky ’23, photo by Anaya Battle ’22
“Allentown has improved a lot, but there needs to be equal opportunity for everyone not just in one area.”
small business owner and community activist
We had just gotten home late. I turn to my husband and said I was tired of witnessing things like this. It was late and we were both tired. We went inside and called it a night. The next day we heard that the police were called and someone was arrested.
I grew up in the Bronx and moved to Allentown with my family in November 1986 to have a better life. I have eight siblings: four girls and four boys. Two of my sisters work here at Muhlenberg College actually, in plant operations. I also have four daughters, two of them are still in middle school. When I was 22, I graduated from Empire Beauty School. My mom was a beautician so I learned from her and just never stopped after that. I now own my beauty salon ‘Yamilett Unisex Salon’ on Gordon Street.
I try to help out as much as I can in the community. There are a lot of resources in Allentown that can help with rent, especially if it has to do with COVID. Casa Guadalupe would help with that and so would Pathways Housing Services. The problem is, rent has increased majorly; you can’t find a one-bedroom apartment in Allentown for under $1,000 a month. Everything has gone up – electricity, food, everything. People are struggling and need help and that is where this program can help them out.
After COVID, things changed. I personally try to reach out to anyone I know who can help. I work closely with a non-profit, COHESION, whose mission is to empower youth and young adults in marginalized communities to develop self-worth and strong character. The founders, Darian and Yolanda Colbert have a vision for the area of the 1st and 6th wards that is promising.
The city’s 1st and 6th Wards are trying to get the community to be better. They work closely with the youth. Later this month, we are planning to host a block party.. They will have stations up where people can register to vote, to get their voices out. They have a voice and they got to know that. Hopefully, now that the weather is getting better, we can address the community face to face instead of online.
The city does have a 2030 plan. It’s about 90% complete. The plan focuses on beautification, public safety, and neighborhood health care. The PPL Center has improved the area a lot, but not in the 1st and 6th wards. We need a bank, preferably a credit union. We need a recreation center. That would be awesome. Or even a place where the youth can go and work on resumes and write a paper. We need a lot of things. But it is looking promising.
I feel connected to Allentown because of the neighborhood. I know everyone around me. The city council, the people who live near me, and the business owners. Allentown has improved a lot, but there needs to be equal opportunity for everyone not just in one area.
Interviewed by Valerie Kusner ’23, photo by Anaya Battle ’22
“The hardest thing about prison was leaving and adjusting back to regular life. When I came home, I became an even more violent drug dealer and then I went into the music industry. I’ve been in the music industry for about 20 years now and I have been lucky enough to be a road manager for everybody from Waka Flaka to Bruce Springsteen.”
past program director for Promise Neighborhoods in Harlem
I’m a Lehigh University graduate, class of 1997, with a degree in international relations and world politics in business. I also played for the men’s basketball team. Directly after college, I went to jail for kidnapping. I tied up another drug dealer because he said he wasn’t going to pay me back. Fortunately, I spent more time on parole than in prison, but the effects of being a felon were very detrimental. Employers don’t ask me how long I was in jail or any specifics about the charge, it just comes up as kidnapping, which has a strong negative connotation towards it. Even though there were no kids involved and the guy that I tied up was a 6-foot-2, 250-pound drug dealer, the charge still just comes up as kidnapping.
When I was in prison, I spent the majority of my time in the library reading and writing. I continued to tell myself two things when I was in prison: ‘Everything happens for a reason and ‘You can’t spell testimony without going through tests.’ The hardest thing about prison was leaving and adjusting back to regular life. When I came home, I became an even more violent drug dealer and then I went into the music industry. I’ve been in the music industry for about 20 years now and I have been lucky enough to be a road manager for everybody from Waka Flaka to Bruce Springsteen. Outside of the music industry, I am an entrepreneur, motivational speaker, and activist.
I also do a lot of work with citizens coming home from prison and help them break generational curses around gang members and poverty. I really feel like I have lived many lifetimes and got to experience many things that typically people do not. Although I have had some very troubling years and hit rock bottom more than once, being able to bounce back is the most rewarding thing I have experienced. I truly believe everything happens for a reason.”
Interviewed by Mark Walter ’22, photo by Anaya Battle ’22
“If I could live anywhere else, I would stay in Allentown. The people here are open-minded. I’m a lot more focused on the community ‘cuz that’s what makes it such a special place, you know?”
Zyaneesha graduated from Building 21in Allentown
My own version of home would be anywhere. Anywhere where you can feel comfortable and you don’t have to be uncomfortable or try to be anybody you don’t want to be. Never hate anyone. It might sound cliche or corny but things can be hard. But they will get better. You don’t always have to have so many accomplishments to be doing what you’re supposed to do. Give people a chance; don’t judge anyone. Always be positive, and keep going in some way. You’re allowed to have your bad days. I’m glad that I have these life lessons. Don’t judge a book by its cover. If someone needs help then I can help them. I don’t think about who they are, or what they’re wearing. None of that matters. I feel like the thing that people do a lot is be judgmental. I think that’s not a good thing because you may think that you may not like someone or some people but they might actually be more compatible with you than you think.
It’s a new experience, I’ll say that [attending high school at Building 21]. Because most everything isn’t traditional in a way, and it’s more of a change from a typical school environment. But I do like it because it’s really easy to meet people, and once you know people it obviously becomes even easier to branch out. My parents have led me and helped me. But they don’t like put me out there, like I do it myself at this point. I take some skills from them and apply them to my everyday life.
Of course, there are different parts of communities and stuff like that, and it always depends on what part you live in. But I feel like my community experience wasn’t a bad one, like as much as I say like “oh there’s no opportunities” and stuff like that, it’s almost like family in a way, like I feel comfortable. If I could live anywhere else, I would stay in Allentown. The people here are open-minded. I’m a lot more focused on the community ‘cuz that’s what makes it such a special place, you know?
I wouldn’t say there’s a lack of opportunity but more like a lack of choices. Even though the people are nice, there’s not as much as like the attraction all around. I like living in a big city. I think it’s a good way to meet new people. That’s mainly why I like it. ‘Cuz I feel like if you don’t live in like a big city like that, you don’t know your people as fast and don’t get as connected in a way.
Interviewed by Caitlin Kinnear ’23, photo by Anaya Battle ’22
“I want people to know how the pandemic so negatively affected the youth. I lost all my friends over the year so we were in lockdown. I think students really got the short end of the stick during the pandemic.”
Adaineliz graduated from Building 21 in Allentown
Home is Allentown. I grew up in Center Valley and have seen four separate school districts. Home for me is where me and my boyfriend are. We have been together for three years. We’ve not only been to three different districts together but we are also both attending East Stroudsburg University. To me, home is where the heart is and my heart is with my boyfriend. I feel like I really found myself when I found him.
I want people to know how the pandemic so negatively affected the youth and especially myself. I was an A-B student with a 3.6 GPA before Covid-19. After, I fell to a 2.8 and got mostly C’s and D’s. I think students in high school and college really got the short end of the stick during the pandemic. The age gap between me and my boyfriend made things inherently easier. His experience gave me insight and wisdom on things I never even thought of. He and I are very different but somehow those differences bring us together and bring out the best qualities in each other. I hope that I can help my community and the kids who are battling through the pandemic.
My community was difficult to find. The pandemic messed everything up including the tensions between neighbors. Police shootouts, rapes, domestic violence, and the general feeling of people not being safe all hindered the community I was involved with. I ended up finding people in the pediatric center where I eventually want to become a doctor or nurse. I have a passion for helping young kids. My passion for helping people is what keeps me motivated to keep going. My boyfriend and I end up volunteering at hospitals, soup kitchens, and in other community support networks to help do our part in Allentown.
What makes me feel connected is being on the streets of Allentown and having the ability to go and talk to people around the city without fear of being unsafe. The city became more disconnected when the police shut down and the only way police would respond is if you went to the actual station. What disconnects me is the feeling of being unsafe.
For me, Allentown will never feel like home again. I love my boyfriend and just want to be with him. We’re both ready to move on to bigger and better things. Building back the community is a number one priority for us.
Interviewed by Stephen Carton ’22, photo by Anaya Battle ’22
“So every once in a while, they would cut the street off and they would have food, they would have games. And it ties into the familial part of my neighborhood, everybody just wants to be with their families. They just want to have a good life.”
Malachi graduated from Building 21 in Allentown
Where I live is definitely city. Even at 10:00 at night there are cars driving by. I live right next to a stoplight, so there are always cars in front of my house at all times. There’s always something you can hear, either cars going by or people having a party or fireworks or music. On my street there’s a good sense of community and family and this place is really chill. All the houses are close together. And there are like a lot of families on my street, people that come out if you’re outside and have a conversation.
There’s a church right up my block. My grandfather works there, and they used to do block parties. So, every once in a while, they would cut the street off and they would have food, they would have games. And it ties into the familial part of my neighborhood, everybody just wants to be with their families. They just want to have a good life.
I can walk to the library in maybe two minutes. Since it’s almost right dead in the middle of everything, it’s a landmark where if I want to meet up with somebody. I’ll let them know I live right by the library. It’s so big and in a really populated place right in the middle of a busy street and across from a gas station and around a lot of houses. So, there are always people in there. Whenever I go past or whenever I go in, there are always people either at computers or checking out books. I know people who work there as librarians and some of my family members go there to work for polling.
I am very into photography. I love just going out and finding murals, taking pictures of those things, and taking pictures of just how natural Allentown is. It’s really awesome to go and see these murals. They can cover like one side of a whole building. And it’s amazing just thinking how did how do they do all this? Like the determination that you need to actually do it, the story that’s behind it. It’s really awesome.
Interviewed by Sara Vigneri, photo by Anaya Battle ’22
"I work at Giant, and I see people complaining about the smallest things and I’m just like ‘don't even talk to me about a $1 coupon.’ There is a sense of entitlement"
Damely graduated from Building 21 in Allentown
I’m Dominican, and I came here when I was 8 years old. My dad has lived here for about 15 years, so that’s how I got to be over here, and I have siblings all in Allentown as well. In school, I’m lucky to have a big group of friends. At first, I didn’t think I was going to college. I was going to do cosmetology then I decided to go because you can always go back and go to cosmetology school but you’ll never really get that college experience if you don’t go. I was accepted to Kutztown for Spanish to be a translator, and then East Stroudsburg for Pre-K to 8th grade and earlier education.
My stepmom has lived with me for five years. My mom has never really been there, like, she’s there but as a ‘Hi how are you’ relationship and I’ve never really lived with her. My stepmom has really stepped up to be my mom ‘cuz I know some kids that have stepparents who hate them and don’t have a good relationship with them, so I am really fortunate for her since my mom lives in Spain now. She moved to Argentina when I was three years old in the DR and then my dad got me when I was 8 and I’ve been here ever since so there’s not a strong connection.
My dad works from eight in the morning to eight at night and my stepmom works at the Walmart Distribution Center from seven in the morning to six in the afternoon while the babies are at daycare so we don’t really see each other as much as I’d like. I’ll be at school and then work so we’re all tied up. I have a lot of responsibility being in a Spanish-speaking house, cleaning and helping like everyone else. I also have a stepbrother who’s 11 and lives with us. He’s loud and outspoken but I love him.
Being from the Dominican Republic, life here is a lot different than life over there. There’s not as many rules for the kids out there, you can be fifteen and driving, doing whatever you want. Compared to here where there’s a lot more structure and rules as to how everything goes. Traveling to school alone as an 8-year-old in that part of Allentown I feel like you grow up much faster, seeing a lot of different things. Since I moved here to the West End maybe four years ago, the communities are very different. There’s the horrible side where a lot of the drugs are. They had to tear the whole bus station down to redo it because that’s where drug addicts congregate. I take the bus sometimes to go to school and when I’d come home there were people passed out, selling drugs and even doing drugs. Now it’s way smaller so people can monitor and limit that behavior.
I work at Giant, and I see people complaining about the smallest things and I’m just like ‘don’t even talk to me about a $1 coupon.’ There is a sense of entitlement since it’s the West End where there’s a lot of rich, white entitlement. When I was 8, I used to live in an apartment on Eighth Street where the ‘ghetto’ is and I’d wake up for school to people passed out on my front stairs because they were drunk. I came from there so seeing that compared to where I live now, what people think is a big problem here is definitely not a big problem in life. Like, your flowers dying or stepping on the grass are not big problems, I promise.
Growing up here, walking around and really seeing what Allentown is like; a lot of people think that it’s horrible and really violent. It is violent in a sense like everywhere can be violent. I feel like Allentown is really family-oriented, everyone tries to come together and help. I feel like I’ve found my community in high school, at work, and even find myself being asked for help a lot by older Spanish-speaking people that don’t know English.
Right now, I am working on volunteering at a polling location for voting in May. I feel like a lot of places should be looking for people that speak both English and Spanish. I can’t vote because I wasn’t born here but I’d still like to help the community vote.
Interviewed by Sam Zenna ’22, photo by Anaya Battle ’22
“We as a community are good at picking each other up, even if we don't know that much about each other. We bring each other food and help each other when we are struggling. The culture needs to be represented more because the artwork and creativity in it are amazing. Aside from all of the crime and the implemented negative perspectives, Allentown is a gem.”
Madison graduated from Building 21 in Allentown
Growing up, I didn’t have enough freedom. I moved from place to place and had to deal with the struggle of bearing everything alone as a middle child. I came to Allentown at a very young age and struggled with depression, but my father was always there to physically and mentally help me adapt to the nature of Allentown. Thanks to the community, my school, the friends that I have made here, and my dad, I haven’t had those issues in a long time.
Allentown changed the way I thought and acted in lots of ways because of the mutual respect Allentown gives, without anyone having to try. It’s as if Allentown lets you be yourself, without having to please anybody. We as a community are good at picking each other up, even if we don’t know that much about each other. We bring each other food and help each other when we are struggling. The culture needs to be represented more because the artwork and creativity in it are amazing. Aside from all of the crime and the implemented negative perspectives, Allentown is a gem. Every town has its flaws, but that does not define us, that does not define the kids in our communities, the young adults, and even the older generation here. We as a community have to keep remembering that at the end of the day, it is our city and what we want to make out of it, depends on us. Accountability and honesty make any type of relationship stronger, especially in a community. Family can be mended, so with patience and care, there can always be a bounce-back within the community.
The city is also in need of more activities for the youth so that they can interact with each other. It would be so much easier for us to meet each other and make more friends if there were more events out. A part of my life was taken away and that could have been avoided if I had gotten help and known that I wasn’t the only one going through that type of pain. I would have been a child. There needs to be more awareness especially for the younger people in the city because we need to make a difference for the people who are going to be staying here after us.
I want to make sure that during and after my college experience at East Stroudsburg University, I would continue to give back to my high school. Building 21 is such a great high school and is definitely where I built up my confidence since being a freshman. Even though it is really small, we have such a big family-like community there and we are all really close. I hope that many more people would attend by the time that I am gone. I also hope that our mascot, the Phoenix, would continue to rise as a school and that we as seniors would recognize that we can always improve, no matter how many times we fall, no matter how many ashes are under us. I hope that we would keep on rising because what we want to make out of this experience, depends on us.
Interviewed by Jeorcy Pena ’23, photo by Anaya Battle ’22
"I knew this one person under the Eighth Street Bridge. He went to school and worked for a power plant company. They got shut down and he ended up living under a bridge. What is the government doing to support him?"
Roberto graduated from Building 21 in Allentown
Growing up was a little hard. It was good, but there were some struggles, especially since the way Allentown was built. My parents have been protective since I was a child due to some of the areas we lived in. They weren’t the best. Over on Thirteenth Street, there used to be shootings and guns and fights and all of that. So, my parents have been very protective since the beginning.
Schools need to improve how their system works, their educational system works, mainly what they teach and the topics they do teach. What topics have they taught us that will help us in real life? Math, English, and some sciences are useful. There have been a lot of times when they’ll give us an assignment and I’ll ask them: What is this assignment used for in the real world? And they’ll just say it’s not going to help you at all, we just have to teach you. I’m genuine with my questions. If someone is sitting in front of me and I am giving them eight hours out of my day, out of my life, for my future! It’s like…what is my reward for this? If I’m forced to get up and go to school to learn something, what is my outcome of what you guys are going to teach me? Will I finish the school year knowing how to manage my next step in life, or will I just leave a bunch of stuff in the past and say, none of this is useful? I asked the teacher, can we learn something more life-like? Can you show me how to do my taxes? Can you show me which ways to make money?
I just believe this world is corrupted; it is not what it seems. The government is never how it seems, especially with my life growing up here.
School has not prepared me for the real world. If you ask me one good thing I learned in my school years, it would be hard to come up with a very good answer because everything I learned is for basic needs, but after that, what’s one good life skill that they’ve taught you how to get through life? There’s really nothing out there, but you just gotta keep trying.
I knew this one person under the Eighth Street Bridge, a homeless man. He went to school and worked for a power plant company. They got shut down and he ended up living under a bridge. What is the government doing to support him? What is the community doing to support him? Not only that, there was another person who slept in a tent not too far from him, and one day, my friend was walking home and he found him hanged. The man hung himself, and I’m just like, Allentown…There are too many shootings. The violence in his community has forced parents to keep their children inside the house. It’s sad to see that kids aren’t allowed to go out like they used to. People can’t go out and enjoy their day because of all the stuff going on. This old guy was driving his car and people got out of the car and told him to get out of the car while pointing guns at him. Stuff like that is sad; it’s a guy living his life because of the standards that we have in Allentown and anywhere else in this world. We have people like that who have to steal from other people.
Interviewed by Will Llosa ’24, photo by Anaya Battle ’22