“Next Monday I’m starting at the Lowell Police Academy,” Andeth (Andy) Van announced to her Empower classmates on the evening of their final class to a chorus of gasps, followed by cheers and applause.
“All the skills, the lessons, and techniques I have learned here – the entire time I was thinking ‘how can I apply this to my life’,” she said. “I really want to make an impact in the community, hopefully in a profound way. “
Andy is one of 16 who graduated from Empower on May 17. Empower is a nine-week interactive resident leadership course offered through a partnership between Coalition for a Better Acre and Lowell Alliance. Throughout the nine weeks participants expand their own personal and professional networks while gaining the skills, knowledge and resources needed to lead and create grassroots change in the community.
The guest speaker for this year’s final session was Peter Martin, one of the organizers of last year’s effort to keep Lowell High School downtown, a true grassroots movement that came together quickly and brought together people of all ages, ethnic, political, and socio-economic backgrounds.
“I have been involved in a lot of campaigns, but never one that caught fire so quickly and had so much energy,” he said, adding they collected 800 signatures in four days to present to the City Council in favor of keeping the high school downtown.
Martin spoke of the darkest point in the movement – the night in June when the City Council voted 5-4 to move the high school to the Cawley Stadium site. But, he said, the activists who had already put in so much work and knew there was close to 65 percent pro-downtown support among the city’s voters, did not give up.
“Sometimes you have to lose to win,” Martin told the class. “We had to lose to really wake people up.”
The campaign split into two groups – LHS Downtown, focused on supporting pro-downtown City Council and School Committee candidates and Save Lowell High, focused on collecting the 7,000 certified voter signatures required for a ballot initiative.
They formed alliances, stretched outside their comfort zones, knocked doors and really listened to people.
Martin said he looked to Lowell’s mill girls, who attempted strikes several times in the 1830’s, for lessons in leadership and perseverance.
“They got absolutely crushed the first two times they did it, but they kept at it,” he said.
In the end, LHS Downtown and Save Lowell High won, as voters chose seven pro-downtown councilors and five pro-downtown School Committee members. The ballot question seeking support for keeping the high school downtown prevailed with 61 percent of the vote.
“There is no substitute for putting in the work,” Martin said.
Empower graduates not only learn the skills and strategies to become catalysts for change in the community, they put them into action, choosing two student-conceived projects to work on over the next several months.
Six well-formulated and thoughtful ideas were pitched including Mana Kheang’s mobile library cart for immigrants; Dave Richmond’s plan to learn and share unknown and often dark history stories of how the U.S. has been involved in the politics of developing nations; Pamela Andrews’ desire to hold a big touch-a-truck event coupled with a resource fair and goods drive; and Hope Anderson & Tiffaney Ross’ campaign to promote voter and candidate education.
Once the pitches were done and votes counted, the class chose two projects on which to collaborate.
The first, proposed by Emily McDermott, is to support the proposed ban on plastic bags for stores 3,000 sq. feet or larger, in Lowell, as well as obtain and distribute reusable shopping bags to low-income residents. The group is planning to attend the May 29 Lowell City Council public hearing in support of the ban. Seventy-seven other communities in the Commonwealth have already taken the step to ban plastic bags.
The second group will work on Pam Larocque’s plan to organize Lowell Play Day on the last weekend of August, an event where organizations who serve the city’s youth can provide games and activities for kids, educational workshops for parents, food, resources and more, promoting the importance of play to a child’s development.
Look for our Empower graduates as they work on these projects this summer.
For more information about Empower, visit: Empower