Holyoke, MA is a gateway city bursting with its potential for growth as much as with its limitations when it comes to a healthy partnership between community, culture and economy. The problem is many problems: lack of employment, gangs, residential segregation, a struggling school system. However it’s the isolation that some of the poorest city residents face while grasping for how to cope that can be the most defeating element.
“It’s the same every day, my son asks me if he can go outside to ride his bike, and everyday I do the same thing I look out the window to the corner and see if its agitado, if there’s movement. If it seems calm we go down and he rides up and down the street and he is happy. But if I see them there and they’re waiting for someone’s car to pull up or something to happen, we stay in.”
Ayleen explains this to me one day when we are chatting at the end of the Family Literacy and ESOL program that I teach and direct in Holyoke Massachusetts.
Another mom in the group, Tatiana, asks Ayleen her address and discovers she lives a block away in the same neighborhood of South Holyoke. Tatiana goes through the same routine everyday when her sons ask to go outside to play. “When my block is tranquilo I let them go down to play. When it is that means those goons are probably over on your block making trouble there, and its your son who’s bored and driving you crazy inside.” Tatiana laughed and responded, “If it’s not your corner they’re at, then they’re at mine. Our kids can never play outside on the same day!” They continue talking and I notice that they exchange phone numbers. From that day forward they always arrive and leave together. It’s clear they’ve become friends and allies in action—the non-stop action of parenting in a neighborhood riddled openly with gang activity.
The poorest wards of Holyoke are almost entirely Puerto Rican and do have their own established communities; strong ties and support networks that have developed amongst the families and individuals who are from Holyoke or who made Holyoke their home after leaving la isla years ago. But it’s also a quite transient scene, there is always someone packing up and moving away after months or years of trying to make it work, and there’s always someone who’s arriving to set up their life there for the first time. For many of the newly arrived, community escapes them. Similar experiences of struggle are lived by many, but too often in isolation within each cube of space that makes up an individual apartment. The exchange between Tatiana and Ayleen is just one telling example of many instances I witnessed during the two years that I directed the program. By having a space and a reason to get together regularly for a common purpose, people connected with each other and discovered they weren’t so alone. The program was designed to produce results that did in fact come about—participating parents advanced their English skills and learned strategies for supporting their child’s literacy and academic success. But in a lot of ways the most meaningful gain was the community that they shaped together.
There are strong social service agencies in Holyoke, but often these aren't equipped to foster individual empowerment or long-term solutions. And these can never take the place of a friend or of a community. Some things are hard to do alone, like keeping your kids safe and out of trouble, going to the local hotels every week to apply for housekeeping jobs, or navigating the bureaucratic mazes to secure housing for your family. The community that arose through the parent program allowed for newcomers as well as long-time residents of the city to befriend each other, support each other, and contribute joyfully to each other’s lives.
This community of Puerto Rican parents (mainly mothers) also became my community, one that I was generously welcomed into, as an outsider, as a non-mother, as a young white woman with few salient bonding points save my fluent Spanish and my resolve to relate on common ground rather than that of teacher-student or helper-helped. They welcomed me as a person whose cards in life had provided privilege and easy access to opportunities, as a person who never needed parents to scout for gang activity before going outside to play. After graduating from college and taking on my first full time job running this program, I had stepped into my own new world of sudden friendlessness and adult responsibility. It was this community that I got involved in through my work in Holyoke which became the centerpiece of my life. Many of them became and have remained my friends, friends who at times acted like seventeen mothers towards me, bestowing the wisdom of their hard-earned life lessons, celebrating my success, comforting me over heartbreaks. Friends who at other times sought support or guidance from me despite my younger age, as a person who by nature of my race, class and educational privilege has been afforded more opportunity, respect and power by society than they have been. Friends who humbled me with their capabilities and inspired me with their resilience. This warm community of mutual learning and affection grounded me and aided me in discovering my own strengths and dreams.
The project I’m working on during this fellowship is a community weaving group, which I started in November 2013 as a component of the parent program, but is now a stand-alone project designed to build on the community that had already formed. We are now based out of Sargeant West Community Center in the Flats in Holyoke. The weaving community includes many people from the parent program community, as well as a new cohort who has joined us, and it's likely that for now the group will be made up of stalwart regulars just as much as it will be made up of of people flowing in and out of the group according to their life circumstances.
The basic set-up for the weaving craft itself is simple, we collect donations of old tee shirts, strip them, and weave them into beautiful rag rugs using donated looms and space, with the help of our wonderful volunteer weaving teacher. The direct outcome of the project is that it furthers and sustains a positive sense of place and community, by way of an accessible, fun and creatively satisfying activity. The longer-term vision goes beyond that with the hope that in time the rugs can be sold on Etsy and in local craft stores or fairs, with proceeds going directly to the weavers. The group is run in a democratic and grassroots spirit and once it’s more established, community members will take over the leadership positions to create a self-sustaining and ongoing project.
I’m beyond excited to have been selected as a Creative Communities Fellow to continue working on this project. I'm greatly looking forward to growing it and seeing how the experience, contacts and tools that I gain from this fellowship will support the process!
Below is a 1 minute video about the beginning of the weaving project: