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Gloria Cartagena: Overcoming trauma with ‘smooches’


Once you get to know Gloria Cartagena just a little bit, it becomes obvious why her husband calls her “the mayor.”

Cartagena’s community outreach and leadership began when she was just 15 or so, shortly after her family moved from Brooklyn to Philadelphia. It was in the early 1990s and homeless people congregated under the bridges. The sight tugged at Cartagena’s heartstrings.

"Papi,” she told her father, who set a strong example with his own volunteer service. “I’d love to help them, give them something to eat. Those people are living in the street; at least I have a bed and a roof over my head.”

So, she says, her dad took her to the store, where they bought a big salami, cheese and bread. “We started doing this every weekend. We’d make sandwiches and go down by the bridges, giving everyone a sandwich, a small bag of chips, a soda and a hug. That’s a tradition I still do to this day.”

And it's that spirit that earned her a 2018 NeighborWorks America Dorothy Richardson Award for Resident Leadership

Evolution of a 'community connector'

Several years later—when she was 18, her father had died and her mother and sisters had moved back to their original home in Puerto Rico—Cartagena was on her own. But she kept finding new ways to serve. Her aunt lived in the Kensington area of inner Philadelphia and when Cartagena visited, she heard older, Spanish-speaking residents express their frustration with not being able to articulate their concerns to city officials. Cartagena’s father had made sure his daughter was fluent in Spanish although they lived in the United States, so she offered to go with them to community meetings and translate for them.

“The things they were mostly concerned about were the drug-related activities in the area,” she says. “From one corner to another, there were people selling and using. We’d go to meetings and if they were afraid to stand up, I would speak for them—express their feelings through my voice. I’d get across the point that they wanted some assistance, some guidance, some hope.”

Soon, Cartagena moved to the area herself, first to care for her aunt and then by buying her own house. As she continued her involvement as president of her community association, Somerset Neighbors for Better Living, Cartagena discovered NeighborWorks member New Kensington Community Development Corp. (NKCDC). 

“Any questions, anything I get stuck with, I always go to them,” she says. “If I get a question from a resident I can’t answer, I call them and ask, ‘Are we able to do this? Can we do that?’ We figure out together how to help. I always tell people, ‘I'm not God; I can't move the world overnight. But if I have 10, 15, 20 voices behind me, supporting me, if we go to a meeting and you bring your friends, we can do a lot together.’ You know, one of my teachers once called me a ‘tigress.’ She said, ‘if you want something, you’ll get it.’ And she was right. But that’s because I get people to join me.”

‘We’re here to stay’

Proof of the power of collaboration is offered by Cartagena’s work with NKCDC and Rebuilding Together, a nonprofit that repairs homes to revitalize communities. Categena helped survey the homes in the neighborhood to determine which houses needed what repairs, then screened the applications from households wanting to participate.

“I’d never seen two blocks full of residents come together as one body like that,” she recalls. “It was sort of like when I went to a Native American pow-wow once; I could feel the unity. People I had never seen before came out. You know, the Kensington area has such a bad reputation because of the drug activity. But we showed the dealers, etc. that people in this community and on these blocks care about where they live and each other. We’re saying, ‘we don't want you here.’  Instead of downgrading, we’re upgrading! We've put in flower pots, light poles, outside solar lights, etc.”

Also uniting the neighborhood are regular events such as an annual multicultural festival, bringing out Latinx, Asian, Polish and other residents. “We tell them, come sit down on your front steps to greet your neighbors. Show the bad elements you’re not afraid. 'Cause you know what cockroaches do when you turn the light on? They scatter. That's what we want.”


Another way Cartagena is working with NKCDC to foster that sense of connectedness and community is the creation of a corps of residents trained in “trauma-informed” outreach.

“All sorts of trauma affects us as neighbors,” explains Cartagena. “It could be a death in the family, loss of a job, a history of sexual abuse, anything that causes stress or depression. We want to let people know, ‘we're here if you need any help. Don't shut down. We want you to be part of the community.’”

The training, says Cartagena, helps staff and residents look at each other differently. So when someone seems angry a lot, for example, they don’t make assumptions; rather, they ask, “How can we help?” The trainees are assigned to blocks to get to know the residents, knocking on doors to get a sense for how they are coping. They respond with whatever is needed and possible—from prayer to calls to city officials.

Cartagena has found that art also helps residents work through trauma and find common ground. She remembered how, as a child, she would pour her pain into an art project. Cartagena thought that could work in her neighborhood as well. That led to securing an empty storefront, with residents invited to drop in to crochet, paint or learn yoga. Anyone with a talent shares with others by teaching what they know.

“When it first opened, I thought maybe I was wrong and nobody would come,” recalls Cartagena. “But word of mouth gets around fast and we made fliers and posted about it on Facebook and Instagram. And lo and behold, it went from opening maybe one or two days a week to five days. Now we’re trying hard to get more youth in with activities like rap battles.”

Flowers, butterflies and love

Particularly popular with the younger set is the butterfly garden Cartagena is creating on an empty lot she secured from the city.

“Somerset is a busy street with cars driving fast. My fear is that one of the kids on bikes who like to do tricks will lose their balance one day and crash into somebody. With the school district cutting back on summer activities, the younger kids need someplace safe to go. The only park is kind of far away. I’ve always loved butterflies and flowers, so we’re creating the Fuchsia Butterfly and Community Park. I already got kids waiting to help me plant the flowers.”

Butterflies and flowers are apt symbols for Cartagena’s outlook on life. She says “life, laughter and love” are all that matter, and tries to spread that around with her trademark hug and way of saying thank you and goodbye: a big grin and the word “smooches!”