Lowell community members have been a powerful catalyst in making change happen.
The city has seen some major shifts because of community-led grassroots effort — from taking legal action to change the city’s election system to ensure representation on the City Council is as diverse as the population that lives in the city, to showing up and speaking up to have the city declare racism a public health crisis and financially invest in programs to address the issues.
People hold more power than they know. The Coalition for a Better Acre and Lowell Alliance want to make sure the people of Lowell continue to acknowledge their power. The Empower program developed in partnership between the Coalition for a Better Acre and Lowell Alliance has been providing Lowell’s established and aspiring leaders with the knowledge and skills needed to organize as a community, advocate for change, and take action to address issues in and around the city for the past six years.
Empower was developed in 2016 and was modeled after CBA’s Neighborworks curriculum and a similar program facilitated by Lawrence Community Works named Poder. When used as a noun, the Spanish word “poder” means “power.” Lowell Alliance and Coalition for a Better Acre staff members Mary Tauras, Nancy Coan and Aurora Erickson utilized their combined knowledge of nonprofit management, community social psychology, and years of experience working in the community to tailor the curriculum to meet the unique history and needs of Lowell.
Empower sessions are facilitated annually offering participants the opportunity to attend a nine-week series of interactive workshops that provide education and resources on how to create and lead grassroots changes in their communities. Many of these workshops are facilitated by local leaders including previous Empower graduates. Lowell Community Health Center’s Chief Engagement and Equity Officer Sheila Och has led workshops centered around diversity, equity and inclusion.
UMass Lowell Professor Robert Forrant has held information sessions on the immigrant and labor history of the city and how it has impacted the social dynamics we see in the community today. Many elected officials or those who have campaigned for office have run sessions on how local government and elections work. Feedback and input are collected from each session to revise the curriculum to keep it up to date and relevant to the issues the city is currently facing.
After completing the workshops, cohort members are expected to select a small but impactful community project to undertake and complete together. The 2022 cohort organized a full clean-up of the exterior of the Eliot Presbyterian Church and created a garden bed with colorful flowers to brighten up the building. In 2017, a canal clean-up was organized by participants to clear the area between Hanover and Moody streets. The 2016 cohort brought forward issues with traffic lights safety in the downtown area to the city.
Maritza Grooms was part of the 2017 Empower cohort when she was working at Girls Inc. and returned as the assistant director of community relations at Cambridge Community Television to conduct a session on race and intersectionality through her work with the Kindred Project. Grooms says Empower was a “special experience” that “helped me build my confidence and reinforce the work I was already doing” as well as “learn about other opportunities to broaden my community leadership.” Grooms has been back twice to facilitate Empower sessions since completing the program.
Jacquelyn Coles, who works with the U.S. Air Force and volunteers with the Lowell Black Coalition and other organizations supporting the Black community, was an Empower participant in 2019. Coles said Empower is a great way to meet folks from “all over the world” and “introduces you to the intricacies of the Lowell community from government to education to housing and beyond.”
The latest session of Empower has participants from many local businesses and organizations including Eliot Presbyterian Church, East Movement, Catholic Charities, Platinum Hydro Lab and more. Johnson Prak of East Movement says the program highlights how so many folks were working towards a “common goal” of making Lowell a better place for all and how it has “inspired” him to continue the work he is doing to combat the rise of anti-Asian sentiment and hate in the Greater Lowell area.
Coalition for a Better Acre and Lowell Alliance greatest achievement for this round of sessions was their launch of the Latin edition of Empower, Empoderados. Empoderados aims to address the lack of representation and resources available to the Hispanic community living in and around Lowell. This first cohort of participants and instructors included some familiar faces from the Lowell community such as Maria Claudio of the Roberto Clemente League of Lowell and Betsy Toro of Communidad de Lowell. Sessions wrapped up last week and the group is now meeting to discuss a project in the city they would like to work on together.
To date, Empower and Empoderados has seen over 70 individuals go through the program and grow as local leaders. These leaders not only continue the work they were already doing in the community but have expanded their roles and partnerships with other local organizations and remain dedicated to giving back to the city they love and feel so passionate about.
Coalition for a Better Acre and Lowell Alliance offer Empower and Empoderados to community members at no cost, but the organizations do incur expenses from facilitating the program. If you would like to support the Coalition for a Better Acre and Lowell Alliance with the work they do please visit their websites and make a donation today.
For more information, go to www.coalitionforabetteracre.org and https://bit.ly/3HIHabb.