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'Love Letters to Allentown' showcases Black, Latino leaders who spread neighborly love, inspire change

Love Letters 2.jpg
Micaela Hood
"Love Letters to Allentown" at the Historic 19th Street Theatre

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — On heart-shaped post-it notes, attendees jotted down things they admired most about the city.

Among the sentiments: "I love that I hear people speak Spanish every day," "I love that I work here and it's filled with beautiful, kind people," "I love how Allentown is a strong community."

Indeed, it was an evening filled with amor — evidenced by the welcoming crowd who hugged one another and cheered as community leaders appeared on the big screen in a short film, "Love Letters to Allentown."

The 14-minute short made its debut on Tuesday, Feb. 20 at the Historic 19th Street Theatre, or Theatre 514.

The screening was part of a partnership with the Civic Theatre, which owns and operates the venue.

Micaela Hood
Attendees to the premiere of "Love Letters to Allentown" wrote post-notes about what they loved most about the city.

"Love Letters to Allentown," directed by Brian Rashid, showcases the city's culture and diversity and features the stories of six prominent Black and Latina leaders.

The stars of the film are Dan Bosket, director of Community Action Lehigh Valley; Dwayne Jones, chief executive officer of Preventive Measures; Katarah Jordan, chief executive officer of the Boys & Girls Club of Allentown; Verónica González, chief executive director of Valley Health Partners Community Health Center; Tiffany Polek, executive director of institutional leadership for the Allentown School District and Zaleeae "Zaly" Sierra, a director on the Allentown School Board.

Tiffany Polek on "Love Letters to Allentown"

Finding love in the Valley

Rashid's first 'Love Letter," or "Carta de Amor," went viral after he was (happily) stranded in Uruguay during the pandemic lockdown in 2020.

The post garnered media attention worldwide.

"I was getting thousands of messages from people around the world and I thought to myself, 'What would it look like if we turned this into something real?'" Since then he has documented similar heartfelt stories in cities like New York City, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and in Guatemala.

Rashid's fondness for the Valley started two decades ago after his friend, attorney Fred Rooney, invited him to the region.

"I was an ambitious law student at [City University of New York] and Fred said, "hey do you want to come to Pennsylvania some time, and I was like, 'Not really, I don't like small town living,''' he joked. "So I came up for that day, and that day turned into 20 years of coming and going."

A few years back, Rooney introduced him to Hasshan Batts, director of Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, a youth mentor and champion of anti-violence in the city.

Micaela Hood
Guests to the screening of "Love Letters to Allentown" wrote down what they love about the city on Feb. 20.

'I needed a place to belong'

While Batts is not among the main stars of the film, his wife, Jordan is profiled (the couple's one-year-old son, Hasshan Jr., adorably interjected that night during his parents' shining moments).

Katarah Jordan, appointed as the new CEO of Boys & Girls Club of Allentown on Monday, discussed her work as a literacy advocate for the James Lawson Freedom School.

"Freedom schools are what I needed as a child. I needed a place to belong. I think us as parents, us as adults, us as a community, it is our duty to make sure that we create a place of belonging for all of the children and scholars within this community, and Freedom Schools to do just that," she said in the film as scenes of Allentown-based children smiling and dancing flashed in the background.

González, who moved to the city when she was 18, shared how people in the city embraced her as a single mother to a then-4-month-old daughter.

"I moved here in a subsidized program for single moms that helped me get public housing here in Allentown. The community where I lived in the Hanover Acres, now known as Overlook Park, was there for me. They empowered me, they connected me to different social services and really helped my daughter and I have a fighting chance and help me, right, to get to where I'm at today," González said.

Sierra, the youngest member of Allentown's School Board, discussed how a family tragedy inspired her work with Promise Neighborhoods.

"I lost my uncle at the age of 9 years old to gun violence in my community. Since then, I have been an advocate to end gun violence and to be a support to other youth in the community who may be dealing with grief or who may be dealing with certain issues that my uncle was also dealing with in," Sierra, 20, said in the film. "I could just be at home and mope, but I decided to go and create a youth program, so that we can all talk about these issues. And actually go to our city halls and go to our school board meetings and address these issues to prevent future acts of violence."

Final love letters

After the screening, the stars of "Love Letters," joined Hasshan Batts and Rashid during a Q&A, in perhaps one final 'love letter' of the night.

While the group of community leaders agreed the civil duties are never finished, they left the audience with words of encouragement — and plenty of neighborly love.

Discussing "Love Letters to Allentown"

"I love everything about our community. The way that we lean into each other. I think that's something that I've learned to do as I've gotten older is to ask for help, to ask for assistance, to have those discussions around things that are important and what they mean to us and that we advocate for that in our community," Polack said.

"I feel like I've always had this love for Allentown that sometimes you can't even put it into words. Other people outside of Allentown don't get it, but I think when you're here, and you're a part of this community, you get it."

"Love Letters to Allentown," will be available to stream on Rashid's YouTube channel.

The filmmaker also plans to debut a "Love Letters to Moravian," film on March 5 at Moravian University, along with a documentary on Promised Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley later this year.