Will the Election Change Lowell’s Police Policy?

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Post Election Community Dialogue, the latest in a series of open events the police force has held to try to clarify their own values and policy, while taking input from citizens about what their experiences and concerns are. This one focused on the “Post Election Environment” in which, politics aside, I think we can all agree a lot of people are feeling afraid and that evidence shows that hate crimes seem to be spiking.

Dialogue about community police lowell ma

Captain Taylor at the dialogue. (Image courtesy Lowell PD’s Facebook)

Chief William Taylor, dressed in a suit and Christmas tie, started things off by introducing the officers in the room, as well as a representative from the FBI and State’s Attorney’s office. Then he read a prepared statement, clarifying the LPD’s policy on immigration status. In essence: regardless of your immigration status, the police want you to feel comfortable reporting a crime, calling emergency services, or asking for help. They say they don’t routinely run immigration checks in any of those cases. However, when they arrest someone, they do run a check, and it’s likely that problems would come up there.

The police in Lowell do collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when ICE reaches out to them, but they don’t routinely reach out to them to try to remove otherwise law-abiding members of the community. Other cities, including Lawrence, have passed a “Trust Act” which limits their collaboration with ICE. Efforts like this are one of the things people are describing when they talk about becoming a “Sanctuary City” which actively tries to protect people living there from federal government deportation.

Right out of the gate, the first question was about this possibility, and it came up several more times. The question was raised by a representative from the emerging group Solidarity Lowell. Chief Taylor had clearly anticipated this question, and he explained that, as far as he’s concerned, that’s a question for the City Council. He did go on to say that, though he had no strong opinion about it, he thought that the current system works well and didn’t really see further steps as necessary.

A representative from the International Institute asked for clarification about access to interpreters. If someone is being interviewed by the police, they do have the right to be interviewed in their own language. If someone calls in needing help from the police, it’s challenging in Lowell to cover all languages, but they have access to resources. Another representative, following up on that, suggested more translation at community meetings.

Additional questions along these lines clarified that they just hired their first Arabic speaking officer. They also try hard to do outreach to new groups, including building a good relationship with the Islamic Society of Greater Lowell. Working to make sure new Lowellians know their rights is a priority, as is avoiding discrimination and implicit bias at work in the actions of officers. The newly reformed Race Relations Council, a citizen advisory group made up of diverse community members is a step in the right direction that helps make sure that the Police force is hearing from everyone.

Next to come up is another issue on everybody’s mind: hate crimes. Captain Kelly said they haven’t really had any clear incidents reported to them. The rep from the International Institute said that she’s heard two reports of women having someone pull at their hijabs to try to remove them. For myself, I’ve heard about two separate incidents of Latino kids at school being taunted with the threat of being deported. The Attorney’s Office rep reminded people that these things can be judgement calls, but encouraged people not to hesitate to report them. It shouldn’t be up to the victim to try to figure out if something is a crime, the experts can do that. And if you hadn’t heard, in Massachusetts we have a newly created hotline to report harassment and intimidation.

Young CMAA Professionals

Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association Young Professionals after a community dialogue. (Image courtesy Sovanna Pouv/CMAA)

A kid from Teen Block suggested that police officers need to work harder to make community members feel comfortable. He mentioned that officers meeting with kids at Teen Block is a step in the right direction. One of the officers who’s been working with youth quite a bit, especially on Dance for Peace, talked about how fun and rewarding that has been. Another representative of Teen Block talked about trying to make kids feel more comfortable with officers, especially those stationed at schools. Captain Taylor agreed, and said that officers at schools are meant to help people feel safe. Captain Kelly talked about a time when that’s worked well, when a teenager texting with a friend wrapped up in a dangerous trafficking situation approached the school officer to share her concerns about her friend.

There was an intense discussion around the issue of scammers posing as police or other officials targeting the immigrant population. This can be confusing even for people familiar with the way things work in the US, but for people who may come from countries where a certain level of bribery and corruption is normal, it can be especially confusing. To clarify, no government official should ever ask you for money or your social security number over the phone. It’s always okay, if you get a call, to ask to call back the official office to make sure you’re talking to someone legitimate. Sometimes these scammers can also come to the door, so it’s okay to ask to see a badge and credentials. Chief Taylor said that our neighbors are the best protection we have, and that we should all try to keep an eye out for our elderly and recent immigrant neighbors. I think you’ll be hearing more about this issue from the department soon.

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Body camera similar to ones being tested in Boston (WBUR).

I asked about something I’ve been wondering about: whether they were still considering any measures to increase accountability, like body cameras or a civilian review board. The thoughtful response on body cameras was essentially “no, but we might pick this issue up again in the future”. Reasons cited included expense and legal concerns. In Massachusetts, the police aren’t allowed to record you without your permission, so this makes the cameras a logistical problem. Additionally, there are concerns that people won’t want to talk to the police if they fear being recorded. Chief Taylor did acknowledge that other cities, including Boston, are trying it, and that because of the increasing number of security cameras and cell phones, “that’s probably the way that things are going”.

A civilian review board hasn’t been discussed much, but Taylor said that the review process we have for police incidents works. I asked a follow-up to clarify whether it’s legal to film the police, and Captain Taylor said, “absolutely”. In fact, they said they seldom arrest somebody these days without someone filming it.

Many people expressed concerns about the current political climate, and the refrain from the police was along the lines of, “nothing in Lowell is going to change on January 21st”. A pointed question from a person who felt less safe because so many police unions had endorsed Trump got a candid answer from Kelly: “I can understand why some officers sided with Trump, while I hope they didn’t agree with everything he said.” He explained that attacks on officers are way up, many of them feel less safe and their families are worried about us coming home at night. Additionally, he said that he’s seeing some evidence that officers hesitate to use some methods now, because they “don’t want to end up on TV.” He said he tells officers that that’s good, but that it’s still their job to come home safe at night.

15355736_10209981832835749_9141968903883996996_nThe packed house for this event makes clear that the community is concerned, but also that the community is actively committed to working together. Frankly, I’ve lived in communities where not only would the police never attempt to invite community input, if they did tensions were high enough nobody would be able to have a real conversation. In Lowell, there really is a genuine effort to be open to criticism and to hearing the fears in the community.

If you have a bad experience, especially if you feel your treatment is unfair, Captain Taylor is very clear that he wants to hear about it. You can come in to the LPD’s Headquarters at 50 Arcand Drive to file a complaint in person. Or you can call the LPD’s Professional Standards Division at 978-674-4507, or you can fill out this form and mail it in. If you have a broader concern or you’d like for officers to meet with your community group or attend an event, I’d consider reaching out to Sara Kuhn, who’s the Director of Community Relations and a very warm, easy to talk to person. She’s reachable by phone at 978-674-1906 or email at Skhun@lowellma.gov.

(Featured Image courtesy Lowell PD Facebook)

Post-Election Lowell

Aurora and I haven’t written here in a while, partly because we were engrossed in the election as much of the nation was. In fact, one of the last essays we added was a report about a Trump rally several months ago. Now that there’s time to reflect, I wanted to talk about Lowell, the election, and what’s next.

Photo of group at HypertextLast night, Aurora and I attended a LGBTQ+ Mixer at Hypertext Bookstore. The event was hosted by Lowell’s  LGBTQ+ Action Group and supported by Bishop’s Legacy Restaurant and Hypertext. That night, more than 45 people filled the bookstore and had coffee, talked about their feelings and reactions to the election, and their plans for the future. It was an electric vibe, filled with young people just out of (or still in) high school, a couple who just moved to Lowell, more than a few activists, and some familiar faces.

It was a bright spot in what for many has been an increasingly tense-feeling time. Last Monday, Attorney General Maury Healey’s office launched a hotline to report harassment and intimidation of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women, LGBTQ individuals and immigrants. She reported an increase in reports of such incidents to her office since election day.

Some incidents have risen to prominence. Earlier this year, in May, two brothers beat a homeless man because he was Latino. More recently, three 15-year old girls allegedly punched and beat a woman on the Red Line for being an immigrant after mocking her accent. This issue doesn’t appear only in Boston. Just a few days ago, a Natick man reported receiving threatening letters filled with racial slurs. This would follow national trends: the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Anti-Defamation League all reported a spike in reports of harassment and vandalism since the election.

There is a great debate that is being held in coffee shops, living rooms, and social media about how and if these incidents are related to the election. Many argue that anyone who voted for Donald Trump, because he used racially-charged and sexist language, are either bigots or, at best, bigot-enablers. Others argue that there are many reasons to have preferred Mr. Trump’s outsider status or policy positions over Secretary Clinton’s. Still others believe that both major-party candidates were not worth voting for, leading to a fairly high “other” vote. Some of those topics might be the subject of future posts. I imagine little of that matters for people who have overcome harassment, discrimination, or isolation, and worry that the heated rhetoric signals a trend toward a return to that abuse or an indication that it never was that far away.

Lowell’s Vote

What is clear is that Lowell—and especially greater Lowell—had a sizable number of people vote for both major-party candidates. According to the unofficial tally (which doesn’t count provisional ballots, overseas absentee, and some other exceptions), 36,641 people voted in the general election in Lowell out of about 85,000 old enough to vote. That’s about 43%, less than Massachusetts’ estimated 61% or the US’s 53%, but Lowell’s high proportion of noncitizens may account for some of that lower turnout.

Of those 36,641, 23,186 voted for Clinton and 10,495 voted for Trump, a 63%/29% split, with the remaining 8% for a third-party candidate, a write-in, or blank. This was very close to Massachusetts’ overall 61%/34% split.

votesinlowellNotably, more people in Lowell voted for Democrat Niki Tsongas (76%) in her race against Ann Wofford than for Democrat Hillary Clinton. I’m not sure what this means, other than that people weren’t voting straight-ticket and weren’t voting solely on policy. All the towns next to Lowell except for Chelmsford voted in favor of Mr. Trump, making the “Greater Lowell” breakdown about 51% Clinton, 41% Trump, and 8% other.

Organizing for Lowell

In this moment where it feels like political frictions are high, there are a number of groups organizing a number of events with an eye toward lending support to those who may be most vulnerable. This includes a peaceful Solidarity Rally against hate and discrimination 3:00 pm tomorrow at City Hall, which will include speakers from Lowell’s diverse population and a 4:30 pm workshop at Mill No. 5 to discuss what civic and political actions participants want to take together.

15107405_1277147152349666_735794546867948049_nOn Monday night at 5:30 pm at the Senior Center, CBA is hosting a “Community U-Nite”, a post-election gathering that will include food, conversation, and resources to make sure that everyone still knows they are welcome in Lowell’s community. Their goal is to highlight that although the nation—and Lowell—may be divided politically, Lowell is still one, inclusive community.

Later, in December, Pollard Memorial Library is hosting an “American Perspectives” non-partisan, civil and constructive community conversation on the 2016 Election. Local educators, community organizers, and citizens will discuss together how to reaffirm commonalities and move forward as one community of Americans.

Finally, many are wearing safety pins on their jackets or clothes. This started in the United Kingdom after the Brexit vote, when immigrants were increasing targets of hate crimes. The safety pin symbolized that immigrants were “safe” with the person wearing the pin, and that people wearing them will try to actively intervene when they see someone being harassed. It’s been adopted in the wake of the American election to symbolize safety for immigrants, refugees, people of color, LGBTQ, women, Muslims, and any other groups who are feeling threatened. Some critics of the pin call them a lazy crutch that gets in the way of real activism or believe they widen the gap between political parties. Supporters argue that they are a first step into activism by many who otherwise do not know how or are not as free to protest in other ways; a reminder like a string tied around a finger; and a constant signal that they’re willing to help. I’m not arguing one way or the other, but wanted to mention this symbol I’m seeing more and more around Lowell.

What’s Next?

The recent events have made Aurora and I want to turn back to Learning Lowell, to talk about the impacts we think different policies will have on the city, the arts and culture from all around the world that make Lowell unique and amazing, and the history that can teach us so much about the present day. As always, we want to know what you’re feeling either on Facebook or in the comments section here.

City Council Motion Against Transgender Anti-Discrimination Act

A quick post on a time sensitive subject: Dick Howe’s weekly roundup shares the disheartening news that Councilors Elliott and Mercier have a joint motion requesting the City Council “vote to adopt a resolution to oppose the transgender bill adopted by the State Senate which allows access to women’s bathrooms and locker rooms.”

I imagine many readers of this blog are are already asking “How can I stop that?!” Easy. There are 3 important things you can do here: 1) Contact the city council and let them know where you stand. 2) Show up on Tuesday (register in advance to speak) 3) Spread the word. Here’s how:

1) Contact the City Council

This is easier than you might think. Follow this link and you’ll see a simple form to fill out. http://www.lowellma.gov/citycouncil/lists/ContactTheCityCouncil/NewForm.aspx?PageType=8&ListId={0a606722-04e6-4a9a-8031-3fe071aeb7f9}&RecipientName=&RootFolder=%27

You can even submit anonymously if you want, though your voice will be stronger with your address attached.  I did this just now and it took me 3 minutes. Here’s what I said “I am for the Transgender anti-discrimination act and urge the council not to pass a motion against it. This motion could hurt us economically, as we have seen it hurt North Carolina. More importantly, transgender people need to be protected by our laws, not attacked by them.”  See, easy!

If you have another way to contact them, like if you know them personally or have ever talked on the phone or over facebook, try that too!

2) Show up on Tuesday

This is the most powerful thing you can do, absolutely. This has changed the course of motions, as with the bike lanes on Father Morissette; and changed the way that decisions went, as with the visit from Hun Manet. The City Council, while they have their own opinions, are genuinely interested in being a voice for you and absolutely do not want to be on the wrong side of an unpopular issue.  If you want to speak, you usually have to register in advance (though I think sometimes on a popular issue they just open up the floor). To do that, you email or call the City Clerk’s office mgeary@lowellma.gov or 978-674-4161.

3) Spread the word

One disadvantage this issue has going in is that, as far as I know, there’s not an organized LGBTQ advocacy group in the city. This means this effort will have to be more grassroots, and we need as many people as possible to hear this information. Please share this post or Dick Howe’s with your friends over email, on facebook, on twitter, and in person. The reality is, most people will not have heard that this is happening. It is HARD for most folks to keep up with local news, even though they want to. Making noise and talking about what happens in the community is one of the most important things you do as a citizen.

UPDATE: There’s now also a facebook event here, which makes it super easy to share.

Why is this important?

Now, for those of you who are feeling out of the loop, I do want to talk about this issue in more detail. The bill currently making its way through the Statehouse (passed in the senate, on to the house) would allow a transgender woman to use the women’s bathroom and a transgender man to use the men’s bathroom. This issue has rocketed to the forefront of our national dialogue, and many people are still learning these terms and becoming familiar with what these laws mean.

A transwoman is someone who, when they were born, the doctor said “it’s a boy!” but as this person grew up, that seemed to not match how they felt inside. At some point, they made the physically and emotionally difficult decision to begin living as their real self, changing how they appear to match the way they felt. Some trans people get surgery, some don’t. This shouldn’t matter to you any more than it matters to you what anyone else’s private parts look like. Even outside of trans folks, there’s a lot more natural variation than you might imagine, and frankly, unless those private parts belong to you, it’s really none of your business.

Dick Howe has done a great job with why rejecting this motion is important from an economic perspective. I’ll quote him here:

“With the expansion of MA/Com, the arrival of Kronos and the Markley Group, and all of the exciting work being done at the UMass Lowell Innovation Center, Lowell is rapidly becoming a center of high tech. These businesses and others form a solid foundation in the innovation economy and will only attract similar companies and startups. Yet the people who run these companies, and the people who will be working at them, will not want to come to a community that takes a backwards, irrational view of transgender rights. That is why so many companies have cancelled plans to relocate to or expand in North Carolina which with its “research triangle” had been a leading high tech region.

“This motion urging defeat of the transgender rights bill also jeopardizes Lowell’s efforts to become a college town and to continue to grow as a home for artists. Both of those groups, college students and artists and all those drawn to them, want a community that is welcoming to everyone and that is open to change and new ideas. In fact, every economic development strategy pursued and being pursued by this city will be undercut by the passage of this motion.”

I want to say just a little more about this issue from a moral perspective. To some this can seem like a niche issue, because trans people are a relatively small percentage of the population. Because it hasn’t been a popular issue until relatively recently, others assume that it can’t really be a major issue. The truth is, we all should have been doing more to help this community for a long time. Trans people have long been in need of additional protection under the law, as a group that has experienced violence, discrimination, and suicide at much higher rates, even as compared to gay and lesbian people. 90% of trans people reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination on the job. – See more at: http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/headlines/beyond-stereotypes-poverty-in-the-lgbt-community/

Additionally, 64% of transgender people will experience sexual assault in their lifetime: http://abcnews.go.com/US/sexual-assault-domestic-violence-organizations-debunk-bathroom-predator/story?id=38604019

While it’s understandable that many people, especially women, worry about sexual assault, it’s hard to see how a law allowing people to use the bathroom they chose is a real danger. First of all, most trans people already use the bathroom of their choice. Think about it: many trans people “pass”, and using the bathroom of the sex they were assigned at birth would be a much more uncomfortable experience for everyone. Second, transgender people are much more likely to be a victim of violence than the other way around. Finally, the reality is that sexual violence knows no gender, and no orientation. Especially to children, a trusted adult is much more likely to be a source of danger than a stranger in a bathroom.

Laws that try to legislate trans folks out of bathrooms don’t want them in the opposite bathrooms either. They just want trans people to stop existing. That is not going to happen. We’re going to need a find a way to accept trans people as part of our community. Let’s get Lowell, and Massachusetts, on the right side of history.

Donalt Trump Protesters at Tsongas Center

Trump in Lowell: One Perspective

My fingers are still numb from standing outside the Tsongas Center tonight, and I can’t feel the keys under my fingers. They were exposed to the 15-degree-weather because I was photographing the attendees and protesters at the Donald Trump rally. I’m not going to talk about the politics, although Paul Marion has an interesting piece over at richardhowe.com. Instead, I’ll just describe the scene for those who weren’t there.

Trump Rally attendees in line

Attendees wait in line around Cox Circle to enter the Tsongas Center

The entry line to the arena stretched all the way around the corner to the post office, starting before 5:00 pm. We heard from a police officer that officials expected 9,000 for the venue of about 6,500 seats. A wide variety of people were in line—although not quite reflecting Lowell’s diversity, there were nevertheless young and old, men and women. Along the sidewalk to Cox circle, bundled-up gentlemen sold Trump scarves and buttons.

Many seemed interested only to see the spectacle—one even said to the protesters “I agree with most of you, I just am curious!” Others wore full Trump regalia, with “Make America Great Again” hats decked in rhinestones. Where did they come from? A member of the Lowell Live Feed Facebook group examined Roy Garage, and found a mix of bumper stickers and several plates from other states.

Free Speech Area sign

Free Speech Area sign at Tsongas Center

The police were extraordinarily friendly, directing traffic and wishing everyone a good evening, whether they were heading into the arena or into the “Free Speech Area,” which had been blocked off with police tape. The idea of limiting protesters to a cordoned-off area—away from the sidewalk, behind the Tsongas sign, and on frozen snowy ground—was debated both in the protest and on Facebook. However, all protesters I saw respected the police tape, as organizers started chants with megaphones and reporters took video from the sidewalk.

Like the attendees, protesters were a mix of locals and organizers from Boston and Cambridge. The protest was organized by the local group Community Advocates for Justice and Equality and the Cambridge-based Black Lives Matter and Boston-based ANSWER Coalition. Based on the faces I recognized and UMass Lowell accessories, most protesters were from Lowell—community members, activists, faculty, and students. Paul Marion counted 150 and growing toward 200 at 5:30 pm—by the time I came back with a camera at 6:30 pm, the group had shrunk to about 75, but they were an almost entirely new set of people who came in to relieve others who dropped out because of the cold.

Donalt Trump Protesters at Tsongas Center

Protesters at Rally

Two organizers with medical crosses on their jackets handed out hand warmers and cough drops, and told protesters that Subway was open with bathrooms and a warm space. Many took the advice and ducked into local establishments to warm up before braving the cold again.

Organizers also handed out signs that read “Lowell welcomes refugees,” “Lowell is an immigrant community,” and “Trump is not welcome.” Others had hand-made signs: “Lowell: No Room for Hate,” “Dump Trump” and many, many others. The protesters chanted, “How do you spell racism? T-R-U-M-P,” “Trump is a cancer, the people are the answer,” “Say no to racist fear, refugees are welcome here,” along with classic “This is what democracy looks like!” They also sang “Black Lives Matter,” to show solidarity with those Trump attacks in his rhetoric by adding “Muslim Lives Matter” and “Mexican” and “Women’s Rights.”

Counter-protest

Counter-protest

Things were largely respectful and peaceful between both groups. However, it was shocking to see a couple of folks who shouted “White Power” and “Death to Muslims” at the group—frightening, as there were many Muslim and non white people in the crowd. We also heard a strange counter-chant from a rally-goer: “If refugees look like me, they should come here legally.” (We have a series of posts about refugees here). However, only one counter-protester appeared to stick around with an “All Lives Matter” sign.

Drummer at protest

A drummer kept the beat for the chants

Our night ended with listening to one non white protester describe how she was turned away because of what she looked like and assumed a trouble-maker. Reportedly, several folks interrupted throughout the rally inside the arena with protest. Those wanting to hear more should check out the above-linked Facebook forum or the Lowell Sun, whose reporters supposedly were not allowed to leave until well after the event was over! It may be because of the crowd I follow, but almost everyone I heard describe it on social media called it one of the most bizarre nights they’d experienced in Lowell.

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More than 150 protesters filled the area at one point, with a stream coming to relieve those who had to leave because of cold.

Why I’m Part of Lowell Votes

Last Thursday, Lowell Votes held a “Spaghettin’ Out the Vote” Spaghetti Dinner fundraiser. Seventy or eighty Lowellians came for spaghetti, salad, and dessert and to talk about voting in Lowell. For those who aren’t in the know, Lowell Votes is a non-partisan, grassroots coalition of activists and nonprofits that are seeking to increase the number of people who vote in Lowell. I had the pleasure of speaking before State Representative Rady Mom, the first Cambodian-American to be elected to a state-level office in the United States.

A couple people asked for me to post my remarks. This is a version slightly edited for readability.

People at Dom Polski

Mingling before the dinner (Isaac Chanin)


Hi,

Thank you all for coming. I’m Chris Hayes, a steering committee member and downtown resident. We want to thank Centralville Neighborhood Action Group for co-sponsoring this event and the Dom Polski Club for hosting. We also want to thank our community partners, Coalition for a Better Acre, Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell, and UTEC, for all their support. Finally, I want to thank maybe the most important folks—those who brought the food! Suppa’s pizza donated pizzas  and Steering committee members Felicia Sullivan and Alyssa Faulkner and field coordinator Mary Tauras cooked this amazing meal. Unfortunately, Alyssa couldn’t be here tonight because of a death in the family and our thoughts go out to them. But we want to thank you all!

I wanted to kick off this event by speaking about how I became involved in this group. Aurora Erickson and I had just moved to Lowell about two years ago, right as a local election was heating up. We tried to get informed, but it was tough, even for two people who were used to politics, had access to the internet, and had a lot of time (because frankly we didn’t have much of a social life). We could tell a lot of people were working very hard, putting on candidate forums, making websites, and the City Election office was making sure everyone was registered and knew their polling place. But it seemed like even more needed to be done.

Gerry Nutter, audience

Gerry Nutter introducing Lowell Votes on behalf of CNAG. (Photo by Dick Howe Jr)

So last year, during the state election, we sat at a table outside in front of our mill apartment and registered people. We had no idea what we were doing; we just knew that we needed to make sure everyone filled out the “are you a citizen” question that everyone seems to miss. But we still did pretty well, and registered a couple dozen people. However, I remember one person in particular: a Spanish-speaking man who spoke briefly with us. He spoke a bit of English, and it was nice, but he turned us down and sat near us to wait for his ride. His ride came, they talked in Spanish for a moment, and then, she came up to us and asked for a registration form. She told us he thought he needed to pay money to register to vote.

We knew we needed help. After the elections, we decided to get together with anyone we knew that did this sort of work. We had coffee and cake and talked about what resources are out there… then we decided to meet again. And those friends brought friends, who brought people they knew, and then we all invited a lot of people we didn’t know but knew did good work, and we ended up having nearly fifty people in a room talking about increasing the number of people who vote in Lowell and providing education to everyone about what the City does and who the candidates are.

We all agreed, to do it right, we needed to be nonpartisan, non-issue, and non-candidate. Even though I’m sure I disagreed deeply on many issues with many people in that room, I knew we at least agreed that we wanted more people to vote, whether they’re from the Acre, Centralville, Belvidere, the Upper Highlands, or anywhere in-between.

Lowell map of 2013 voters

2013 Voters as percentage of voting age population per ward/precinct

Because the numbers are staggering: More than 80,000 people are old enough to vote in Lowell, but less than 60,000 are registered. A little more than half of those, 33,000 voted in the 2012 presidential election. But that dropped in the 2013 local election – only 11,500 voted. That’s not much more than one in eight people old enough to vote going out and doing so.

Why is that a problem? To answer that, we started reading studies. People who vote actually report feeling more in control of their lives and healthier as a result. Kids who went to juvenile, didn’t go back to jail as often if they started voting. Communities that formed strong ties through civic engagement and voting were quicker to recover from the recession. But even more importantly, I think we cannot be a healthy society if only one in eight people vote. The hard-working women and men in our City Council and School Committee make decisions for all of us, and I don’t feel right if my neighbor doesn’t have a say in that.

Some may ask “Isn’t it her choice not to vote?” There are a hundred reasons why she might not feel empowered. She’s too busy with two jobs and two kids to go to a candidate forum. He speaks another language, and isn’t in a social group that talks about voting much. Her family doesn’t vote, and she’s never been asked by anyone to even think about it. He can’t get a ride and doesn’t know about absentee ballots. She moves around a lot, so candidates never find her to ask for her vote when they’re campaigning.

Chris Hayes in front of audience

Me delivering remarks (Photo by Isaac Chanin)

In addition, we hear about voting constantly when a new president is going to be elected, but a local election may pass us by without us ever noticing it if we aren’t on Facebook, or listen to the local radio, or read the local paper, or talk to the right people. And so it might be a choice not to vote, but for a lot of people, the deck is stacked against that choice.

So Lowell Votes is tabling at local events, at the Farm Market, at National Night Out, and at neighborhood festivals. We’re putting up a website, asking people what issues are important to them, then sending out a survey to the candidates. We’re letting people know about the services the Election Office offers and that neighborhood groups offer. We’re organizing canvassing days where volunteers go door-to-door in all the neighborhoods and ask that question: Would you vote in the upcoming election?

We know studies show that asking someone is the most effective way to get them to vote. And that’s why I think what we’re doing is important. We’re going to the new residents who don’t have a friend in Lowell yet; we’re going to the man who speaks only a little English and doesn’t know voting is free; we’re going to the woman who doesn’t even know we have a local paper but cares about whether we make a choice to fix a street, fix a school, plant a tree, or lower taxes. And we’re saying to them: your voice matters to us – we want to hear it.

Rady Mom in front of Audience

State Rep. Rady Mom delivering remarks (Isaac Chanin)

I’m not speaking for all of Lowell Votes tonight, because I know each one of us comes with a different concern in our heart. Some of us are most concerned about making civic education more accessible, others may be most concerned about the language barriers, others might hope future generations are inspired to run for City Council or US Representative or even President. However, we’re a coalition that agrees that we need to help more people to vote in Lowell, with a special emphasis on those who face barriers; and that the best way to do that is through a lot of hard work and one-on-one conversations.

We know we won’t reach our goals overnight, or even in this election. This is why we’re hoping to stay in for the long haul, to get people talking, inspire them to start doing research on their own, listen to the radio or read the paper, and talk with their friends about how we can continue shaping our community together. Thank you so much for coming tonight and helping us do that. I’d like to introduce our new field coordinator Mary Tauras now, to talk more about our canvassing efforts and how you can be involved.

Following photos by Isaac Chanin:

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Leo Roy Garage, Image: Google maps

Downtown Overnight Parking Ban: A Bit of History, a Few Thoughts

Information packets uploaded by the Friday before Lowell City Council meetings include reports the city council requests, petitions for permits only the council can grant, and the minutes of the previous meeting can be found by visiting http://agenda-suite.com:8080/agenda/cityoflowell/Meeting.html and clicking on the book icon to the right of the appropriate meeting. The public has an opportunity before the meeting to request to speak in favor or against any motion a City Councilor makes, and City Councilors welcome emails about upcoming agenda items. This is one of a semi-regular series of posts about the information in those packets and upcoming City Council motions.

The City Council meeting next week looks as if it will be very interesting. There’s a motion to have the Education Partnerships Subcommittee and the Lowell School Committee discuss the process for a high school building project, which we plan to discuss soon. There’s a vote to accept Decatur Alley, which we discussed in our recent post about the Acre. Additionally, there’s a vote to formalize an agreement in which the City provides parking spots for WCAP and receives advertising in return and a report about the City’s investments relating to fossil fuels.

However, the most controversial item may be a motion by Councilor Belanger:

Request City Manager enforce current parking regulations according to ordinance and investigate the possibility of an overnight parking ban.

A Bit of Recent History

The issue of downtown parking was elevated around March 2014, when the Parking Department posted for two new positions that would end at 6:00 pm. It’s somewhat common knowledge that meters are almost never enforced after 4:00 pm or on Saturday, despite §266-93 of the City Code establishing enforcement hours as 8:00 am to 6:00 pm all days except Sunday. After the new positions were posted, Councilor Belanger added a parking discussion to the March 28 economic Developmenpment subcomittee, saying that he had been “inundated with businesses and residents in fear” that the meters would be enforced until 6:00.

James Troup, Lowell’s Director of Parking, stated that the new officers were only to enforce resident-only parking in neighborhoods, not downtown meters. However, Mr. Troup and Michael Geary, the Acting City Manager, took the opportunity to recommend “rebranding” the Parking Department and hiring a consultant to study downtown parking with money from the Parking Enterprise Fund (the revenues from garages and meters).[1] The study’s goal would be adjusting parking rates to encourage turnover of on-street parking near restaurants and encourage longer-term parkers such as residents and employees to use garages.

Although Councilors Belanger and Kennedy voiced concern that business would be harmed if parking meters were enforced until 6:00[2] and the owner of a downtown fitness center gathered signatures from over 50 businesses and 300 residents against increased enforcement[3], the Subcommittee unanimously supported using parking funds to complete a comprehensive parking study, possibly by adding to the existing consultant contract involving the two-way conversion.

However, the study was never completed. In a subcommittee meeting on April 29, Mr. Troup discussed scope and costs. He explained the consultant, Nelson/Nygaard, quoted a $36,000 price for a scope including a city-wide analysis of the ordinances, space information, rates, and stakeholder interviews. If the scope were limited to downtown, the city surveyed parking spots after-hours for 2-3 days in-house, and Nelson/Nygaard only reviewed the ordinance, analyzed the data, and made recommendations, the study would cost only $12,000.[4] The study could suggest whether to enforce extra hours, evaluate a tiered pricing scheme, estimate revenue and cost, or answer other questions. Mr. Troup asked the subcommittee to define the geographic boundaries of the study and frame the study questions.

Councilor Kennedy asked what the consultant could tell them that was worth $12,000, and the subcommittee seemed to share the opinion that the Parking Department could handle the issue in-house.[5] Councilor Belanger also continued to stress his opposition to enforcing after 4:00 pm. Additionally, many members of the public spoke, with suggestions to sell passcards to businesses to encourage employees to park in garages and to offer the first hour or half-hour free in garages. Others wrote councilors with suggestions.[6]

Mr. Troup suggested the analysis would be valuable because it would be independent, not taking the side of the Parking Department, businesses, or residents. He stated his belief that it would allow an expert in field to draw comparisons to comparable cities and provide actual usage statistics, dispelling arguments against metered parking. Despite this, the Subcommittee suggested they didn’t have the authority to authorize a consultant study and would continue the discussion in May.

However, the next time I saw the issue discussed was late September, when the City Manager outlined the issue as a priority during the Downtown Business Summit. Additionally, an article in the Globe prompted a vibrant discussion on Facebook about parking policy and garages with no vacancy during the day. Most notably, Jeff Speck, the Urban Planner who led Lowell’s Downtown Evolution plan, made parking a major topic in an address to the Lowell Plan Breakfast. Speck advocated for a market-based solution, making prime parking spots expensive to reduce demand and using the funds to improve the streetscape.

After this, on November 4, Councilor Belanger brought the issue to the Economic Development subcommittee again, saying his motion stemmed from Mr. Speck’s presentation and a lengthy meeting he had with Mr. Troup and Deputy Director of Planning Kevin Coughlin. He had begun to believe extending hours into the evening and on Saturdays would encourage turnover. Mr. Troup had spent the time studying other towns,[7] and found most cities enforced Monday through Saturday, many later in the evening than Lowell. Salem had a tiered structure, although most towns seem to undercharge for on-street parking and overcharge for garage parking. He suggested doing outreach to key stakeholders in all neighborhoods to customize solutions for each neighborhood, similar to how the City discussed the Father Morissette spaces with UMass Lowell. He also discussed a study the Parking staff undertook, noting a lower turnover rate during unenforced hours, with many cars parked in one spot for the entire weekend.

This is when Councilor Kennedy suggested banning overnight parking rather than enforcing on Saturday, citing Brookline and Nashua as having similar ordinances. His reasoning was that if long-term resident parking was the problem, this was the most targeted solution. Councilor Rourke mentioned that an overnight ban would make it easier to sweep streets and plow snow. Mr. Troup agreed that this was worth considering as “one piece of the puzzle.”

Other ideas briefly discussed included allowing advertising on garages and kiosks; putting premium pricing on Market, Middle, and Central street parking spaces; improving lighting in garages; and lower weekend garage rates. Mr. Troup discussed having enforcement officers act as customer service ambassadors, directing people to garages for a short period. However, the only idea besides the ban or increasing enforcement to receive a great deal of attention was suggested by two members of the public: enforcing a two-hour limit but not charging during weekends. The subcommittee seemed to agree that this should be considered.

Councilor Belanger stated that he would look into convening a hearing to discuss parking with business owners and residents with a goal of changing policy starting January 2015, as the subcommittee agreed that a sudden, unannounced change would be harmful to business and more time was necessary to evaluate the data.[8] However, I am unaware of outreach that occurred after that meeting, which brings us to the motion next Tuesday.

So, Should we Ban Overnight Parking?

I’m not a parking expert, although there are such people who work in the field. Although there are trends and best practices, every city is different, and prices need to be tweaked to meet city’s individual goals. This is why I supported the idea of a consultant assisting the Parking Department: they can analyze the numbers to come up with ideal prices and give direction on how to tweak the meter and garage costs up and down until about 15% of parking spaces on each block are available, the rule-of-thumb goal that lets people find quick, convenient spaces.

I also don’t want to repeat what many others have said. Corey Sciuto wrote a well-written letter detailing goals and suggestions in March, and I certainly can’t be more compelling that Jeff Speck. With those caveats, I thought I’d share some thoughts. Many of the examples I use are from the 2009 Planning Advisory Service report “Parking Solutions”.

First off, the amount of revenue collected during non-enforced hours admittedly surprised me. According to the Parking Department, not counting fines for tickets, the meters make about $450 a day during unenforced hours out of a citywide daily total of $2,250. 5% of the revenue is made after 8:00 pm, even though all the kiosks clearly state enforcement ends at 6:00.[9] However, Mr. Troup estimated from their May study that unpaid fares during unenforced hours still could add up to $250,000 annually.

Enforced hours, $659,000, 80% ; Unenforced hours until 8 pm, $122,850, 15% ; After 8 pm, $41,150, 5%

Councilor Kennedy stated the high amount already collected during unenforced hours was a primary reason he thought additional enforcement might not be necessary: besides the residents who park in one spot all day, it appears others are still feeding the meters at nearly the rate of enforced hours. If it’s only the residents who are the problem, overnight parking could be banned. If residents were forced to move their car at 2 or 4 am, they probably wouldn’t park on the street at all.

Although this would make it difficult for residents’ guests to park anywhere but garages, it is likely not a problem. Other cities, such as Brookline, sell guest passes to residents that allow their guests to stay in otherwise banned areas for one night. Nashua’s residents may request a one-night waiver from their overnight ban.

However, Donald Shoup, considered by planners to be the preeminent expert in parking policy, argues that effective pricing is a better control than time limits. A low price could be placed on overnight parkers, making a garage a better option for most, but still providing revenue that could go toward paying enforcement officers, improving the streetscape, or improving transit. This wouldn’t make plowing easier, but it would utilize spaces that would otherwise be wasted all night. It would also ensure there’s less incentive to drive home intoxicated, although it is unclear if parking policy makes much impact on that problem.

Are those advantages worth moving away from the simplicity of an overnight ban? Have bans been successful in other communities, and why are they only occasionally used? That’s something I would want to study more before making any quick decisions. Although a trial period may be a good middle-ground solution, what would be the cost of possibly-temporary signage?

Other Issues in Parking

Many suggested that uncharged two-hour enforcement would keep up turnover but portray a “customer friendly” atmosphere. Again, Shoup would probably argue for pricing instead. Having only a two-hour restriction is problematic because employees often simply move their car every two hours, which does not solve the problem of moving employees off the streets and into garages entirely. It also can’t be fine-tuned to maintain the 15% vacancy block-by-block. That 15% could mean the difference between someone stopping in to get a quick coffee at Brew’d vs. deciding to just drive to Dunkin’ Donuts.

By contrast, Old Pasadena, California, tried to tackle the problem by charging more for street parking, and although the plan was initially opposed by businesses, opposition eased when the city dedicated all revenues to improving the downtown streetscape. Aspen made a similar move, but allowed one “free” parking violation to all motorists in a city with many visitors who may not be familiar with downtown parking.

Notably, it’s problematic that we’re talking about parking in a vacuum. Donald Shoup estimates that demand can be reduced 10-30% by providing shuttles to remote parking, 10-30% by increasing pricing, 5-15% with information and marketing, and 5-15% by providing improved bicycle and pedestrian facilities, among other methods. Although comprehensive “perfect” should not be the enemy of improvement, I haven’t heard much concurrent discussion about other factors influencing parking.

However, it may be difficult to have these discussions due to a dearth of data. Mr. Troup’s efforts are commendable and helpful, but a public report of on and off-street use at different periods of the day could be very valuable in moving the public conversation forward. Although he’s given an excellent picture of revenues, I still am unclear on whether any particular block is 100% utilized during a Saturday, 95% on a weeknight, or so forth.

I’ve heard some complain that downtown parking garages fill during the day, and this problem does not seem to be discussed much. Once again, data could be used to determine if this is true and who is filling the garage. Promising solutions include providing discounts for vehicles for more than one occupant during the day to encourage carpooling, encouraging businesses that buy spots in the garages to offer incentives for employees to take transit or walk, and working with private residential lot owners to possibly share lots during the day.

The argument has at least thankfully shifted away from making all parking free. It’s a common argument that to compete against suburban malls with free parking, downtowns must also be free. From around the Lowell internet:

One major thing is missing in downtown Lowell that is crucial to businesses surviving….parking……and free parking. And many on street spaces were eliminated when the 2 way traffic began.

A scam in the worst way. I live downtown. I have to pay the meters every morning if my car is to remain there. I also have to move it every two hours to another meter.

The streets are public ways. I actually think that if parking is allowed at all it should be free.

Counter-arguments often appear:

“Free” parking? Not this zombie idea again… Lowell is a city, not a suburban shopping mall.

Most people who say they won’t pay $.50 or a dollar to park for an hour or so are either lying or too price sensitive to pay the premium of parking in a downtown anyhow.

I would be happy to see trolley service expanded or some kind of street car service that would make getting around the city easier for folks like us, who sometimes have leg problems that interferes with mobility, Parking nearby is important to us. If we knew there was a way to park one place but have availability of transport if needed to zip around we would go more often.

I tend to agree. If a downtown tries to compete on a suburban mall’s terms, it will lose. They have cheap, plentiful space for parking and many lanes of traffic. The downtown must play to its advantages: authenticity, a mix of uses tightly woven together, enough density to support transit, and public space that can be activated in creative ways. Adding enough space to offer free parking without quickly running out destroys many of those advantages but still will not make the downtown as convenient as a shopping mall. Those with mobility impairments need options as well.

That said, I think care must always be taken. Psychology plays an important role and people don’t like change. I think anyone arguing for pricing parking must take that into consideration as well. I believe this post only scratches the surface of parking in Lowell, and I hope to talk to a few folks and do a follow-up soon. Until then, please feel free to discuss your own experiences parking in Lowell!

Notes

[1] Mr. Geary mentioned the previous Director of Planning and Development, Adam Baacke, left a memo recommending using a consultant to complete a parking study and laying out the steps to complete it.

[2] Councilor Belanger suggested a belief that enforcement was targeted to generate revenue and Councilor Kennedy suggesting providing the first two hours of on-street parking free to support local businesses. Councilor Kennedy also suggested giving meter officers leeway in deciding whether to issue a ticket. Mr. Troup reported that the staff of three meter officers respond to police requests, but most often go along routes established long ago on a six-week cycle concentrating on downtown. However, he stated, “if I gave them that leeway, I think that there would be complete chaos on the streets,” but mentions that people may appeal tickets when there are mitigating circumstances.

[3] Karen Bell, owner of the Club Fitness Center, said business owners told her they were “fine with daytime enforcement. They’ve lost their lunch crowd anyway. But you hit them at 4:30, that’s when they start getting their reservations.” She argued that businesses aren’t fighting for parking because Lowell is not yet a destination city, but rather, they’re fighting their potential customers’ worries that they will be ticketed. However, she supported enforcement until 4:00 pm, citing Chantilly Place leaving downtown because a lack of parking and other businesses competing with courthouse users who stay in a parking spot all day. Dick Howe has a good rundown of that meeting, with the councilors’ arguments and rebuttals from commenters.

[4] Plus a small amount of Parking Department staff overtime.

[5] Councilors Mercier and Milinazzo attended the meeting, although not part of the economic development subcommittee. Councilors Belanger and Mercier suggested that talking to business owners and residents should be the priority, and all reiterated the goal was to encourage turnover rather than growing revenue. Councilor Mercier stated, “I appreciate you’re going to have a professional look at it, but a professional isn’t the downtown businesses.” Councilor Milinazzo asked whether the minimum transaction for credit cards could be lower than 2.00, but Mr. Troup said that it was necessary to cover the transaction fee.

[6] Other public comment included a question about parking meters outside the immediate downtown and about Lowell Transitional Living Center volunteers receiving parking tickets.

[7] Mr. Troup utilized the New England Parking Council to talk to other parking directors and study initiatives from other towns.

[8] The minutes to that meeting are here.

[9] This is derived from Mr. Troup’s projected annual meter revenue of $164,000 during unenforced hours and $827,000 total divided by 365.

How Lowell Welcomes Refugees: The International Institute

This is the third in a series of posts about immigrants and refugees in Lowell. The first explored the economic impact of refugees, and the second was an interview with two Iraqi immigrants about their experiences and impressions of Lowell. We’ve learned that studies show that refugees are a long-term tax benefit for most communities, but they face special challenges when first arriving. For our third post, Aurora and I talked to Derek Mitchell at the International Institute of Lowell about their services and challenges. Although we know they help refugees, we think not many people actually know the broad range of ways they help—and why they’re always looking for volunteers!

Derek Mitchell

As we entered the International Institute of New England Lowell office,[1] Aurora and I marveled at the activity around every corner. This was a true mosaic of races, ages, backgrounds, and genders; a microcosm reflecting the brilliant diversity of Lowell. We were visiting the Institute to speak with Derek Mitchell, the site director for the International Institute of New England’s Lowell office. Readers may remember Derek Mitchell from his 2013 run for Lowell City Council, but he is busy every day coordinating IIL resettlement activities.

As we discussed in our first post, the United Nations Refugee Agency essentially defines refugees as those who have fled their country for fear of racial, religious, ethnic, or political persecution, or for fear of war or violence. The UN counted 10.4 million of these registered refugees in camps, shelters, and urban areas, not including 4.8 million living in camps in the middle east or the about 28.8 million who have been displaced, but have not crossed an international border.

Of the 10.4 million registered refugees, only about 1% are resettled annually, 0.5% in the United States. The US Bureau of Population, Migration, and Refugees has cooperative agreements with organizations like the International Institute, providing funding for basic resettlement services. Although over 50% of the Institute’s operational budget comes from this contract, the ESL program, youth program, and other programs are reliant on private funding. This is by design: the federal government wants to locate refugees only in welcoming communities, and organizations like International Institute must create that community buy-in to raise private capital and in-kind donations, such as furniture from the Wish project.

Mr. Mitchell greeted us warmly and gave us a tour of the office. In each room, he introduced us to staff such as Yusuf, who was once a refugee himself. Everyone is working with clients or at computers, framed by large windows opening into views of downtown Lowell. In one room, preschoolers danced around a twirling, brightly-colored parachute. Another room had a bank of computers for volunteers. Nothing was extravagant, but everything was both comfortable and professional. As we walked, Mr. Mitchell spoke quickly, as if there was so much to say in so little time.

Challenges for Refugees

He explained that the International Institute primarily works with refugees in their first two to three months in the United States. Currently, most are coming from Burma, the Congo, Iraq, Somalia and Bhutan, after spending time in camps overseas. Those from Iraq or its nearby countries often carry special challenges: professional-level skills with no US credentials or certification. Finally, some clients are asylum-seekers: they have found their way to the United States and applied through the federal government for asylum. Some of these were victims of sex trade.

Jit Magar, left, fills out a citizenship application with help from volunteer Jaime Serrato at the International Institute in Lowell.

An International Institute of Lowell volunteer helps an immigrant with citizenship application. (Image: Greater Boston Citizenship Initiative)

The Institute is alerted to a new refugee sometimes only a week before they arrive, then they jump into action to arrange and set up permanent housing. They help with other necessities for the client, such as applying for a social security card, setting up school for children, and connecting with other services. Perhaps just as or more importantly, the Institute must acclimate the client to life in the United States. We discussed some of the challenges with the International Institute staff. Some clients haven’t used money in years because of life in camps, most do not speak English, most likely have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the trauma they experienced in their former homes.

Volunteers: Two-Way, Reciprocal Benefits

We then met with Dahvy, IIL’s youth and volunteer coordinator. Dahvy also helped run the Southeast Asian Water Festival. As children sang “Eensy Weensy Spider” from another room, she explained that the Institute is constantly looking for volunteers that can be on-call to help prior to and during a family’s arrival. Volunteers not only help with setting up with an apartment, but also help clients understand the insider knowledge Lowellians take for granted: How to use crosswalks, how to get around on the bus, and where to access resources such as the library or City Hall. Even skilled refugees may need local knowledge. A trained engineer may have never written a check; a skilled doctor may not know how to address envelopes for the US Postal Service.

However, everyone stressed that it wasn’t just about teaching clients. It was about creating community. In the first weeks, clients can meet so many more people than just staff if they interact with volunteers. Volunteers often seek community themselves, and find it with IIL clients. In addition, Mr. Mitchell explained the importance of “cultural exchange:”

We recognize that the volunteer thing is not just a supplement to our service model, but it’s a wonderful relationship builder with our clients, and there’s more people out on the street that understand who our clients are, and can advocate for them, and raise awareness. -Derek Mitchell

The numbers reflect volunteers’ importance: there’s between two and three volunteers for every one staff member. Mr. Mitchell said that this “is great, but presents some real challenges as well.” Recognizing the importance of volunteers, the Institute has tried to create a volunteer program that isn’t “one size fits all.” This means there’s a great diversity of volunteers: for example, twenty-year olds who do many tasks, mid-career women who have only one free hour a week, and retired people with a lot of time but limits to what they can or want to do.

“We Want to do More”

The Institute’s ultimate goal is for clients to become self-sufficient. This is how the Bureau of Population, Migration, and Refugees measures success. Mr. Mitchell believes that staying busy is the best way to process change and that if a client is unable to work, it gives him or her too much time to “think about things.”

However, the singular measure of “on or off benefits” as success makes him uncomfortable. He wishes the organization could be available for years after resettlement, as figuring out utility bills, insurance, and even building community are long-term tasks that are complex but vital for success. The clients agree, as Mr. Mitchell related:

We want to do more. We want to do a lot more, and I think our clients need more, and want us to do more. I think they get frustrated with us that we don’t do more…

In fact, one area where Mr. Mitchell especially wishes more could be done is in the area of mental health. He says that there are so many logistics and moving parts, it’s nearly impossible to get to “How are you feeling?” and “What do you need as a family to feel secure?” Mr. Mitchell recounted one story in which a client reported seeing someone two blocks from his house jumped and hearing gunshots. Even if the violence isn’t targeted at the clients—and it largely hasn’t been—it can be a trigger for PTSD or make a family feel unsafe.

These challenges are compounded by what Mr. Mitchell identified as a critical difference between refugees and immigrants: immigrants choose to be in the US. He spent some time in Central America, and he saw first-hand that those who left to find work in Honduras or America were entrepreneurial, risk-takers, and industrious. Those who stayed were older or had family commitments. However, refugees have no such self-selection and come with only “the clothes on their back.”

The Resilience Shows Through: Amazing Successes

Burmese children and adults playing tug-of-war

2012 Back to School party organized by Burmese SayDaNar Community Center. Image: Room 50, Jen Myers

Regardless, Mr. Mitchell has observed amazing success. Around 100 people have been successfully placed at Southwick in Haverhill, doing highly-skilled stitching for high-end clothing. The company has created job training programs for the refugees. Others are employed in medical technology or other high-skill fields. However, others opt for service jobs. An individual from Iraq took a job at Hoeffner’s because it was stable, despite being wildly overqualified. Many work at Lowe’s.

Mr. Mitchell explained that they endeavor to partner with a variety of employers, because it is difficult to predict what will be the right fit for a new refugee. They are always looking to expand their partnerships, as many employers do not understand that a new refugee has work certification and may even have specialized skills, but will not have references or a work history and may have language difficulties.

Mr. Mitchell credited the refugees for their own success, noting that whatever difficulties they face in the United States, it pales in comparison to the suffering they have fled:

Whether it kicks in at week six or month six, their resilience shows through. -Derek Mitchell

Their success has not stopped at employment. In only a few short years, many refugees have built community structures. For example, recently, a Bhutanese elder passed away. The entire community came together to cooperatively fund their funeral. However, not every community has come together as strongly, and this is where Mr. Mitchell sees opportunity: “These communities need conflict resolution, space to meet, leadership structure support, help each other. I’d love to do that work to support them create structure.” Currently, this is something the organization does informally.

Part of the need for community building—both within the refugee groups and between them—lies in another difference between immigrants and refugees. While immigrants often have friends or family in their new communities, refugees only rarely do. This is problematic, because social networks are a primary way people get jobs—most jobs are in fact never posted. This ties back into the importance of volunteers. Through them, newcomers meet a far greater circle of potential allies and get plugged into new social networks.

Lowell doesn’t have a monopoly on refugee resettlement. Although the refugee program remains a primarily humanitarian effort, there are economic benefits as well, and cities across the nation work to accept these newcomers. Mr. Mitchell explained why Lowell remains a resettlement community: for the same reason immigrants continue to come. Not only does the region continue to perform relatively well economically, but Lowell also has a history of accepting different cultures, and people “feel comfortable walking around seeing a level of diversity,” in Mr. Mitchell’s words. The International Institute tries to foster this:

We’re trying to play our part of building this ecosystem in hopes that other people will come back and say, “Yeah, we want to help out, we recognize the value of these individuals in our community and want to be involved in being a very positive resettlement.” Because those first couple months and those first couple years are pivotally important in setting somebody up on a track of success and integration vs. isolation and reliance and benefits and multigenerational poverty.

What’s Next: Raising Awareness, Building Partnerships

We asked if Lowell could improve, and Mr. Mitchell took a moment to think before responding. Social service providers always need more translators. If there’s only ten families speaking a certain language, a social service provider has a hard time justifying finding a translator for them. In addition, landlords could better understand the challenges refugees face: although they usually are stable tenants, they have no credit histories or current employment.

He also said the International Institute had only “scraped the surface” in terms of partnerships. They work closely with the school district and Lowell Community Health Center, and moved into the same building as Community Teamwork, Inc to more closely collaborate with them—although they are still working on an integrated handoff process. They also successfully partnered with the Greater Boston Citizenship Initiative to assist refugees and others apply for citizenship—something Mr. Mitchell was excited to talk about.

Exhibit at Mill Girls and Immigrants Exhibit

A new exhibit at Lowell National Historical Park’s Mogan Cultural Center, features the previously untold stories of youth who came to Lowell as teenage refugees. Image: NPS

In addition, the International Institute is cooperating with Lowell National Historical Park. They’re updating the Tsongas Industrial History Center to include information about recent refugee and immigrant groups, and the Park is looking for ways to engage newcomers and to let them know they’re part of a tradition starting with the Irish and continuing today.

However, Mr. Mitchell is always conscious of messaging. For every citizen—whether it be in Lowell or elsewhere—that makes a connection between his or her heritage and the story of a newcomer, there may be another that doesn’t understand the value of newcomers. Mr. Mitchell was familiar with the story we summarized in our first post: one politician in Manchester used the resettlement agency there as a wedge issue, using immigration statistics to attack refugees. If refugees become a similar national wedge issue, the resettlement program may prove to be fragile. Despite its importance, its low profile earns it relatively few champions.

Regardless, challenges keep coming, keeping the Institute very busy. Just as the number of refugees from Burma and Bhutan decline as the camps are cleared, the International Institute is preparing for an influx of Congolese to be resettled in Lowell. This group will present different language, religion, food, and living arrangement needs. Mr. Mitchell also solemnly told us the group’s trauma will be “direct and severe” rather than indirect:

We’ve been told to expect that 100% of women/girls will have been raped or sexually mutilated. Not like, “A high percent.” Like, “Expect every single one of them.”

The International Institute is offering trainings to the schools, social service providers, and others on what to expect with this new population, explaining what trauma means and what it looks like. It doesn’t mean that there’s going to be a terrible burden placed on the community, just that service providers need to be aware and alert. I personally believe each group has come with its own form of trauma, and each group has overcome that trauma to become a vibrant part of Lowell.

We discussed a number of other issues, notably the largest group of refugees in Lowell: Southeast Asians. However, those issues may be tackled in a future post. In addition, the International Institute accepts donations of money and goods. Mr. Mitchell said that pots and pans are especially hard to come by.

For more information, visit http://iine.us/donate/

Notes

[1] This interview took place before the International Institute moved to its new location on Warren Street.