Holyoke teens take control of their neighborhood

It’s a quarter to five on a Friday afternoon and Holyoke Mayor Michael Sullivan is talking on the telephone about the problems facing young people in his city. There’s a lot to talk about: 11 murders in the year leading up to his inauguration–two on the day he took office. The highest teen pregnancy rate in the state. Gangs. And–Sullivan stops mid-sentence. “Hold on a minute,” he says, and issues a muffled order to an assistant. “I’m watching a drug deal going down.”

Across the street from City Hall, in plain view of the mayor and whoever may be worshiping inside the storefront Church of True Deliverance, a group of young Latino men in their mid-20’s are buying heroin, or maybe ecstasy. Sullivan has seen the African-American kid with the Connecticut plates on his car out there before. He’s probably the supplier, up from Hartford. The police are on their way, but by the time the cops arrive, the buyers will have scattered.

“This is very busy tonight here,” he says.

Soon after taking office, Sullivan launched a “peace initiative” involving a coalition of community groups to quell the violence. There have been no murders since, but Sullivan attributes this more to good luck than to good public policy. He recently appointed 25 young people to the city’s first youth commission–a board of teens, police, and city administrators–that will advise him on youth issues.

If the drug-dealing entrepreneurs across the street represent one face of Holyoke’s young, those behind the youth commission represent another. The commission is the result of lobbying by teens involved in the YouthPower Project, whose home base is the Skinner Building, a dilapidated three-story structure in a rundown section of South Holyoke. YouthPower trains young people to work as community planners and organizers to help improve the quality of life for children and teens in their neighborhoods.

YouthPower was started in 1995 by El Arco Iris (“rainbow” in Spanish), the youth activity group of Nueva Esperanza (“new hope”), a Latino nonprofit organization in Holyoke. El Arco Iris aims to keep kids engaged through the arts, and with the YouthPower program, added the elements of neighborhood planning and citizenship. In the past year, YouthPower has identified 28 sites in South Holyoke that need attention, and 30 to 40 kids have been working on projects from painting murals to cleaning up parks to reclaiming a decrepit playground.

And they’re just getting started. This summer, the group is contributing ideas for a half-mile “arts corridor” that will run along one of the city’s canals. The young people were part of the planning for the project and the contract with the architects specifies that the kids stay involved.

Energized by their early successes, the YouthPower teens are now spreading the gospel of youth empowerment with The YouthPower Guide: How to Make Your Community Better, a manual for other young people interested in improving their neighborhoods through grass-roots activism. The group has sold hundreds of copies of the award-winning volume to organizations and individuals across the state.

“What I’m seeing in front of me right now are the 26-to-28-year-olds who didn’t get the attention,” says Mayor Sullivan, as the drug buyers disperse. “YouthPower is dealing with the 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds. Those kids are our hope.”

Youth taking charge

Downtown Holyoke after 5:30 p.m. is a city of children, a good number of whom appear to be parents themselves. Groups of kids ramble along the sidewalks or hang out on stoops, boomboxes blaring. Teenage girls, some who look no older than 15, push strollers. Some young couples are out as well; a young man with a bandana wound tightly around his head pushes a carriage. Streams of souped-up old Corollas and Accords with shiny hubcaps and tinted windows wait at stoplights, throbbing with the bass cranked up on their tape decks.

Twenty-two percent of Holyoke’s population is under the age of 18 and Latino; 38 percent is over age 65 and Anglo. “There’s no one in the middle,” says Mike Sullivan.

In neighborhoods higher up the hill, young professionals priced out of the housing market in Northampton are snatching up the big Victorians. Downtown, though, remains a mix of grassy lots–some littered with bricks that used to make up factory walls–and boarded-up old apartment buildings. Their ornate, patinaed copper crests and finials seem to sigh: Remember what this place used to be? Standing in front of the old Skinner Building, once an activity hall for French Canadian women mill workers and now home base for YouthPower, it’s hard to believe we’re in the midst of an economic boom.

“It’s stressful,” says 15-year-old Miguel Sanchez, a YouthPower peer leader, about what it’s like living in Holyoke.

“When we ask kids what they don’t like about the community, they tell us, the violence, the graffiti,” says Kyra Rodriguez, who is 13. “I’ve been chased by guys in cars. My mother’s cousin was beaten up so badly he ended up in the hospital and died there.”

“We try to make it better,” says Anthony Bermudez, who is 17, and wears a silver stud in the cleft below his lower lip.

Miguel shrugs. “When the violence happens,” he says, “it just encourages us to do more.” He’s matter of fact, like the mayor watching a drug deal from his window.

Imre Kepes, co-director of YouthPower, says the group gives hope to young people who expect little from life. “The kids get the message that they don’t have a future, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Kepes. “What they get here is another message, that they can do it.” They can improve their lives–and their community.

On a tour of the neighborhood, the teens point out the projects they’ve worked on in the past few years. “This was the first mural done in the city of Holyoke all by children,” says Miguel. “We asked the kids what they wanted to do and most of the kids said images of Puerto Rico.” Vivid blues and greens, butterflies, a palm tree, the Puerto Rican flag, the mural is pure joy on the edge of a dreary block lined with empty lots and boarded-up buildings.

The mural was the group’s first experience in large-scale art, and also in the politics that has marked relations between the previous wave of European and French Canadian immigrants and the more recent Latinos. The kids wanted to combine the Puerto Rican flag with the American one to illustrate the unity between the island and the country. So they included two flags, Puerto Rican on top, American on the bottom. But they mistakenly painted the US flag upside down, a major breach of flag etiquette.

Then-mayoral candidate Elaine Pluta wasted no time in making an issue of the mural, and announced plans to bring a group of veterans (along with a television news crew) to the mural to spraypaint over it.

“It was about as bad as it can get,” Kepes recalls. “But we got wind of what was going on, and we asked the kids what they wanted to do. They decided they’d spraypaint over the American flag so it wouldn’t be there when [the protesters] arrived.”

The controversy was front-page news for a few weeks, but the kids got the support of then-mayor Daniel Szostkiewicz, Kepes says, and they learned a lesson: “We made a mistake, we corrected it, and we apologized,” he says.

The kids leading the neighborhood tour turn a corner and walk on to Roberto Clemente Park, which the group recently “adopted.” It’s a broad, green stretch of grass facing a block of apartment buildings, with shade trees and benches that need painting. There’s the vague outline of what once was a wading pool until broken bottles made wading too hazardous. The teens are hoping to get the city to put the pool back, so kids will have a place to cool off this summer. On either side of the park, empty lots are littered with trash. The park itself is as clean as a suburban lawn.

A blank canvas

The YouthPower Project began when El Arco Iris organizers were looking for a neighborhood after-school project that the kids could design and build themselves. Kepes got together a group of kids who identified the space behind three tenement buildings as a good place to start. Sixteen young people worked together to clean it up and design and build a communal backyard that included a barbecue area and play space for children.

“The young people really took to this kind of design project,” Kepes says, so they kept going. The teens met with children from their neighborhood and asked them what improvements they¹d like to see.

The kids identified Valley Arena park, a small playground that had been surrendered to gangs and drug dealers. The walls were covered with graffiti, the ground littered with broken bottles. Swings and basketball hoops were long gone and a merry-go-round was so mangled no one could remember when it worked.

The group painted over the graffiti (as members of the Latin Kings gang watched), cleaned up the park, and asked the city for new equipment. The parks department came back with $23,000 from a federal Community Development Block Grant, and the YouthPower kids picked out the new setup. “The kids just galvanized people,” Kepes says.

YouthPower has an annual budget of about $60,000–$35,000 of which comes from a five-year grant from the Massachusetts Service Alliance. With such limited funds, says Kepes, YouthPower must “piggy-back” onto projects already in the works, providing a way for young people to contribute ideas and energy.

One result of YouthPower’s work is that, for the first time, teens are participating in Holyoke’s Master Plan process. “We’d get 30 or 40 young people and go to these forums,” says Kepes, “and it really broke down the stereotypes. The adults saw that here are these Puerto Rican and Hispanic kids who are committed to the community and the kids had to rethink the idea that adults didn’t listen or didn’t care.”

YouthPower members hope their new handbook will give young people in other Massachusetts cities the practical advice they need to make a difference in their own backyards. The YouthPower Guide is a user-friendly affair that breaks down community planning in a step-by-step fashion. It’s written for teens, and explains activities like developing a mission statement, team building, defining community problems, and brainstorming solutions. There’s also information about building coalitions, working with municipal departments, and getting publicity.

The group won additional funding to publish the book, including a $10,000 grant from the Boston Foundation for Architecture, and support from the Massachusetts chapter of the American Planning Association. Staffers at UMass Extension at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst helped with layout and production.

By May, half of the manual’s first printing of 1,600 copies had already been sold. And the book won awards from the Boston Society of Landscape Architects as well as the American Planning Association this year. The peer leaders accepted the APA’s Public Education Award from singer/actress Bette Midler at a luncheon in New York City in April.

Richard Fitzgerald, director of the Boston Society of Architects, says Latino nonprofits like Nuestra Raices (“our roots”), a nonprofit community gardening group, and Nueva Esperanza, which oversees El Arco Iris, often provide the initial spark needed to revitalize old New England cities.

“It’s the wonderful new energy that makes everything seem possible,” Fitzgerald says. “YouthPower is a wonderful example of something that every community should have. It’s a networking tool, an empowerment tool. They’re inspirational.”

It’s a struggle to maintain the progress they’ve made.

Despite such accolades, Kepes says it’s tough to keep the program’s momentum going. A kid may move back to Puerto Rico, or maybe she just wants to go to the movies. Teens lose interest, drop out. New ones have to learn how the program works.

Then there’s the struggle to maintain what progress they’ve made. When the YouthPower peer leaders sat down with a group of younger kids at the end of April to ask what was wrong with their neighborhood, one of them mentioned the swings at the Valley Arena playground–YouthPower’s very first project. On our tour, Kyra Rodriguez pointed them out as we walked by. A group of youths were hanging out, and the leather swings were wound up around the top of the set, ragged and inaccessible to an 8-year-old. “We’re going to do something about that,” she says.

Who knows, there may even be a city councilor or the city’s first Latino mayor among the 1,500 or so kids who have come through the doors of Skinner House for the tutoring programs, arts projects, and field trips run by El Arco Iris. But Kepes has no illusions that YouthPower will change Holyoke overnight. It’s not even clear which element of the younger generation will prevail, the YouthPower kids, or the ones doing business by the mayor’s office.

Meet the Author
But, adds Kepes, that so many adults have given up on Holyoke actually works in YouthPower’s favor. He calls the city “a blank canvas,” and notes that so few people attend planning meetings that it doesn’t take much to make a difference.

“You can have an impact with 10 or 15 kids,” he says. “And it’s hard for a politician to turn away young people. You look bad.”

Contributing writer B.J. Roche teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and writes the “Peaks and Valleys” column forThe Boston Sunday Globe.