A Place for Art in Lowell

Chris and I attended an interesting meeting last week hosted by Lowell National Historical Park and the Cultural Organization of Lowell. They welcomed Javier Torres, the Director of National Grantmaking for ArtPlace, to discuss his organization, the National Creative Placemaking Fund, and what they might be able to do for Lowell.

Someone pointing at art shanty robot.

One example grantee built “Art Shantys” on a frozen lake that had been losing water to draw visitors during winter and attention to the dwindling lake.

ArtPlace is a ten-year program collaboratively funded by a number of private foundations and financial institutions and guided with assistance from a number of federal agencies. As Mr. Torres described it, their goal isn’t just to fund arts and culture projects, but rather to fundamentally shift American policymakers’ strategies to include arts and culture as a core sector of community planning. What does that mean? It means ArtPlace is trying to get local, state, and federal institutions to think of arts and culture as just as important to solving community problems as transportation, housing, public safety, and other core civic sectors.

They’re doing this in four major ways:

  • Community Development Initiative, which I’d describe as a one-time set of six pilot programs
  • Field Building, which includes building connections between planners to learn from one another
  • Research, which includes documenting strategies and creating measurable metrics of success

and what is sure to be of most interest to Lowellians:

  • Grantmaking, through what they call the “National Creative Placemaking Fund.”

The program could be a great benefit to Lowell. It provides up to $500,000 (although it looks like the most common amount granted is $250,000) with seemingly few strings attached. Even more interesting is that half a million dollars is earmarked for Massachusetts this year, giving Lowell a leg up against communities in other states. However, the grant is still very competitive. They fund about 25-30 projects a year, but receive upwards of 1,000 applications.

National Creative Placemaking Fund projects

An eligible project must fit a few criteria. It has to affect a specific geographic community, the place in placemaking. Rather than, “Helping low-income people throughout Massachusetts,” it must “Help everyone in Lowell,” or “the Acre” or “the 500 block of Merrimack Street.”

It also has to clearly define a planning and development challenge or opportunity. Several of the questions asked during the session focused on what this exactly meant. They try to break it down with a matrix, which looks kinda scary but is actually a neat idea:

Matrix with Ag/Food, Economic Development, Education/Youth, Environment/Energy, Health, Housing, Immigration, Public Safety, Transportation, Workforce

The challenge or opportunity must align with one or more of the categories along the y-axis. He gave the example of economic development – the challenge of keeping businesses open during a construction project, and transportation – the challenge of getting a group of indigenous people without cars to a nearby train station. There are more projects on their website, including economic development – challenge of isolated rural communities not mixing; environmental/education – opportunity of a nearby hummingbird center to provide eco-tourism and education; and economic development – the challenge of having community residents benefit from gentrification and demographic change.

The application is also graded on the compelling way arts and culture is deployed to address the challenge and opportunity, and a clear measure of success.

One thing Mr. Torres stressed was that they were looking for unique projects, meaning it helps if proposed projects are different from grants they’ve given in the past (including all the examples here!) In fact, he said that the priorities for this year were Environment/Energy, Health, and Public Safety.

The grants are open to any individual or group: government or private, nonprofit or commercial, single person or huge institution. However, they’re targeting civic/social/faith, commercial, and philanthropic individuals and groups in this round. If an individual is doing the project for a profit, they qualify as commercial. If they’re doing it for a church, they would be civic/social/faith. If they’re donating their time, they might qualify as nonprofit. If they’re donating their time and materials, they might qualify as philanthropic.

What’s the Process?

Most of the questions at the session involved the specific process needed to apply for a grant. It seems simple:

Before February 16: The first step is to create an account at this site. Registering doesn’t cost anything, is simple, and doesn’t obligate you to apply (you do need to provide an EIN or SS#).

Before March 2: The next step is to send in an application. Each individual or organization can only submit one application. The application asks about the amount requested, the total budget, and 900 character answers for each of the four criteria. It also asks for other information about the geographic location of the project and when you think the money will be completely spent (they give you three years).

They also ask for a three-minute video in which you tell them more about the project. Mr. Torres stressed that they don’t want anything fancy; they just want to “get to know you.”

After May 31: ArtPlace will score the applications based on the clarity and compellingness of the four answers, with tiebreaker bonus points for priority projects. At that point, they will contact top applicants for a second phase, where they begin to dig into what partners applicants will have (they have to have partners), how exactly the funds will be spent, whether the impacted community has been engaged, if the project requires more resources to sustain, and other in-depth questions.

What sort of projects does Lowell need?

I’ve heard a number of ideas already being discussed. The best thing is that Mr. Torres explained that multiple projects from Lowell don’t necessarily compete against one another. Rather, they would each compete on their own merits. Although I doubt they would choose more than one project from Lowell in a year, I do imagine that it only helps Lowell’s chances to submit several different creative projects.

Lit up graveyard

Providence recently secured a grant to help them light up and make programming changes to a community center and cemetery suffering from disinvestment.

The audience included a wide range of folks, from youth service providers such as Girls, Inc and Boys and Girls Club; artists and gallery owners from Arts League of Lowell, Brush Gallery, UnChARTed, Western Avenue Studios, and more; community agencies such as Community Teamwork, Inc. and Coalition for a Better Acre; activists from Lowell Bike Coalition; downtown business owners; cultural organizations such as Angkor Dance Troupe, COOL, and Lowell Heritage Partnership; and uncountable others—probably over 100 in the audience.

I’m really interested to hear what folks come up with, almost outside of what actually ends up applying or winning. A prompt like this can encourage folks to think creatively and reach out for collaboration in new and surprising directions.  My understanding is that the key will be to really clearly articulate a non-arts-related challenge and an arts-related response. I’ve already heard suggestions of challenges to tackle including homelessness and panhandling, empty buildings, and low amounts of transit use; and opportunities including the canals and unutilized hydropower stations. And I think both Chris and I have employers considering  applying as well. But I hope we hear lots of different ideas, from lots of different folks. Because they’re looking for submissions outside governments and nonprofits, it would be great to get the business community, churches, and fraternal organizations more involved.

Advertisements

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:

20150904_0071

20150904_0052

20150904_0037

20150904_0036

20150904_0002 (1)

20150904_0009

20150904_0011 (1)

20150904_0014

20150904_0018

20150904_0038

North Common Amphitheater Welcome Rainbow in Lowell MA

Lowell’s Acre and “Community Urbanism”: Small Steps Leading to Big Impacts

I’ve often heard that Lowell’s Acre neighborhood has experienced an incredible revitalization in the last decade. By many accounts, the relatively safe, clean, and strong neighborhood I’m familiar with was very different only a few years ago. Describing the Acre of 10 years ago in a story about Moody Street’s transformation, CBA’s website mentions “vacant buildings falling into disrepair and families moving out.” Although University Crossing, the new Jeanne D’Arc office, and several CBA housing projects are among the most visible aspects of the revitalization, there is a concurrent, smaller-scale effort that looks as if it’s paying just as many dividends: projects led by the Acre Coalition to Improve Our Neighborhood (ACTION).

Dave Ouellette, president of ACTION, took members of the community on a tour of a few of these projects in November. The tour was publicized by Do-It-Yourself Lowell[1], a citizen-led initiative to facilitate similar projects and events throughout Lowell. I found Mr. Ouellette’s story instructional and inspiring, as the projects tie sound planning principles with a community focus in a way that has helped redefine a neighborhood.

Map with path of tour, background: Google Maps

Path of tour.

North Common Amphitheater

We started our tour with the North Common Amphitheater, also known as the “Welcome Rainbow.” The origin of the Amphitheater and ACTION are tied together.

Dave Ouellette talking in front of metal frame in amphitheater.

Mr. Ouellette gave a sneak preview of the newest addition to the Amphitheater. Letters will be installed on the metal frame spelling “ACTION Theater”, which can support lights, backdrops, curtains, or a movie screen. The City will run power to the frame.

The Coalition for a Better Acre (CBA) had served as a neighborhood organization for the Acre since it had formed in 1982 to successfully oppose a plan to raze the Acre’s Triangle neighborhood. However, in a community meeting organized by the Lowell Police Department after a 2009 shooting, discussion about a resident-led neighborhood organization moved Mr. Ouellette to found ACTION to more directly speak on behalf of residents. In addition, ACTION understood that physical projects along with sustained outreach were needed to reduce crime and increase community.

In 2010, CBA funded travel expenses for Mr. Ouellette and five others to attend the annual NeighborWorks America Community Leadership Institute, a three-day training session that includes a workshop in which teams create action plans for their communities. These plans, which had to “show substantial change,” were eligible for a $2,000 reimbursable grant from NeighborWorks. CBA’s team created a plan to improve the amphitheater.

Mr. Ouellette told us that he grew up in the housing next to the North Common, and remembered that the 1970s-era amphitheater once hosted music and entertainment. It was a place to meet neighbors. However, by the late 2000s, lights around the amphitheater had been out of service for twelve years. Vegetation obscured it from the road, and gangs used it as a fighting arena. The team realized that it could be a benefit to the community once again.

It was the start of a years-long project involving many groups and people. Suzanne Frechette, Deputy Director of CBA, and others assisted the group with an initial clean-up and power washing. In 2010, they asked the city to cut down the vegetation. In 2011, ACTION facilitated a partnership between the City and YouthBuild America to reconstruct the concrete steps: YouthBuild built the forms while the City mixed and poured concrete. In 2012, Western Avenue Studios, YouthBuild, and the Boys and Girls Club sponsored an invitation to the community to paint 26 mural spaces with “Welcome” in the many languages spoken in Lowell. The Cultural Organization of Lowell (COOL) provided paint, brushes, and other materials. Finally, the City restored the lighting, an $8,000 project in itself.

Each step built upon one another. Each step proved the next step was possible. Most importantly, each step involved the sweat equity of the community the project would serve. In an unveiling celebration, Mr. Ouellette stood in front of the amphitheater, one empty mural space remaining, and asked, “What does this mean?” People shouted out answers until one came up with: “One City, One World!” The crowd cheered, and this became the phrase on the top step.

Wilfred Lavasseur (Whiting Street) Park

Lavasseur Park site prior to park development. (Source: Google Maps)

The lot prior to park development.

The tour then moved to the Wilfred Lavasseur park, which until 2012 was an empty lot. Although once children had played in the lot, it had since become a dumping ground and a hotspot for drug deals for more than a decade. The City administration was impressed with ACTION’s leadership on the North Common project, and asked for help to transform the city-owned empty lot into a community space in 2011.

Alleys between houses were often used by drug dealers to enter and exit the lot, so the group created a plan to fence the alleys off and create community gardens along the edges of the park. Along with grants from the City, Mass Service Alliance, Lowell Rotary, and NeighborWorks, Mr. Ouellette said ACTION “used the City as Lowes.” They recovered bricks from a renovation project near City Hall and intercepted the concrete barriers that would separate the center of the park from the gardening area.

Art panels at Lavasseur ParkMost notably, when the Revolving Museum closed, it threw away many mural panels. ACTION and Mill City Grows came together to rescue dozens of pieces of art from the dumpster. These are now displayed on the fences of the garden and in other community garden locations across the city. More than 200 volunteers built the fifteen garden plots, shed, benches, and pergola over 18 months with the help from the city, CBA, Mill City Grows, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, UMass Lowell, and YouthBuild.

Tour group as Lavasseur Park

The tour group finds the park, named for the late owner of Cote’s Market, attractive even in winter.

The space is now used actively by community members of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, and they keep an eye on the once-derelict lot. The operations are overseen by community member Billy Heath, who attended the Garden Coordinator Institute, a seven-part workshop provided annually by Mill City Grows.[2]

Decatur Alley

The tour then turned to what may be ACTION’s next project, Decatur Alley. The old path runs between Merrimack and Salem streets, stretching from University Crossing to Decatur Street. Although Mr. Ouellette remembers walking the path as a child, it had since become overgrown and was used by drug dealers or others attempting to duck under fences to evade police.

Group and Decatur Alley

The tour traveled through Decatur Alley, cleared and just waiting for a project!

Last year, ACTION and CBA organized and participated in volunteer crews to clear the alley of vegetation and trash. The crews included members of groups throughout the community, such as dozens of volunteers from Somebody Cares. In a Sun story, Mr. Ouellette said, “We found 12 mattresses, six tires, air-conditioning units, needles, everything you could think of.” ACTION also reached out to the homeowners abutting the alley, including UMass Lowell. They convinced the University to not erect a fence that would shut off and reduce visibility on one end of the alley.

The ultimate plan developed with the community is to transform the alley into a cobblestone walkway lined with benches, poetry pedestals, and artwork. ACTION plans to dedicate one area to veterans, which would engage yet another piece of the community. Another area would showcase artwork from local schools. An area behind Cote’s Market would become a spot for picnicking. The path could be used by students and residents alike.

The path—and the tour—ended at St. Jeanne Baptiste church, a place so interesting it deserves its own post.

Decatur Alley in Lowell MA

Lowell House has provided a path behind its residences, providing an example of how the alley can become an attractive path.

Lessons Learned

As we talked about what made the projects successful, Mr. Ouellette expressed his belief that more important than finding funding is making sure projects are a volunteer effort. He has seen several projects falter because they were built using a grant, but then had little to no community involvement in maintenance. If the community itself builds the project, they own it, and they take care of it. Trash used to be a problem at both the amphitheater and Lavasseur Park, but now community members take care of the area.

He also stressed that anyone can be involved. Children helped pull weeds, young adults built structures, and older neighbors served drinks. The diversity of volunteers and partner organizations is inspiring. Once again, this all works toward ensuring mutual ownership of the projects.

Finally, the projects must be useful, providing many functions for different audiences. The garden is a place to grow food and to relax. The amphitheater can be used for plays, movie screenings, and festivals (and hopscotch courts have been stenciled on to keep it useful between events). The more people using the project, the more people around to help keep it clean and safe.

Ultimately, each project is individually useful and addresses a need, but as a group, they are transformative. As I understand it, many small actions over years revived the amphitheater, created the community garden, and will create the Decatur Alley path. In turn, each of these is a relatively small project compared to a new University building. However, these small steps when put together—along with constant engagement—are majorly enhancing Acre residents’ quality of life.

North Common Amphitheater Partnership Monument

Small steps and partnerships can transform a park and a community.

Lowell's Amphitheater: A Remembrance of Time - Each step is a unique cultural design of your ancestral devotion. So... step up to the podium and shout out loud to your ocean/of listeners. And listen to the echo of whispers of your heart and/mind, where your spirit dwells.

Local Poet Augustus Clayton provided poetry for pedestals at both the Amphitheater and  Levasseur Park. Local poet Augustus Clayton provided poetry for pedestals at both the Amphitheater and Levasseur Park.

Notes

[1] I am a lead coordinator of DIY Lowell and plan to write a detailed post about my experience putting together the initiative soon.

[2] Some information from Lowell Sun.

The social media landscape of Lowell: Social Media Conference Part 3

This is the third in a series of posts about social media and Lowell. The first two are here and here. We aren’t covering a chronological recap of the final session of the Social Media Conference, but rather have organized thoughts by theme. Dick Howe moderated the final portion of the conference, and he opened it up with what may be its theme:

The more likely people feel connected to the place, the more likely they are to act… and I think only good things can come from that… No doubt there is crime going on. But I think because we don’t routinely talk to neighbors or people on our street, we kind of feel a sense of isolation. And that feeds on this anxiety of life in the city.

Mr. Howe argued that therefore, we should ask how social media can bring people together and build community.

The Echo Chamber of Social Media

One of the largest themes was that Lowell’s current social media scene is an “echo chamber.” Not only do new people not necessarily see information, but the plugged-in group of people see information again and again. An audience member revealed republicans and libertarians are afraid to talk in online groups filled with more progressive ideologies because they’re afraid of being attacked. I tend to agree that the Lowell social media sphere I’ve participated in is much like other online forums: quickly dismissive of alternate viewpoints and insular. But it’s also important to remember: People generally enjoy being with people of similar viewpoints, and they will form communities, whether online or “in real life.” Also, I argue there are social media commons where culture, dining, or other interest groups may be formed. (For examples, the UML reddit and Meetup.com meetups near Lowell.)

On the other hand, places for apolitical discussion won’t necessarily increase civic participation. One approach Learning Lowell takes is having broad subject matter. Although the topic remains tightly focused on Lowell, we explore many sides of Lowell: political, cultural, and historical. Hopefully, those visiting to read about one topic will have their interest piqued in a different topic. Our audience is similarly broad: We write for other newcomers who want an easy entry into the world of Lowell. We write for folks who regularly visit Lowell blogs, but might appreciate a fresh take on familiar subjects. Finally, we write for friends and family outside of Lowell who might want to know more about what this unique (and alive and inspiring) city is like. Each of those groups may come for something different, but be inspired by the other posts.

Lowell Social Media Conference audience

“Audience as Panel” was a success for the final session.

Blogs and Facebook: Competing or Cooperating Roles?

This leads into another topic: Lynne and Mimi from Left in Lowell discussed why they post less. It’s no secret blogging is time consuming, and this contributes to burnout. More intriguing was that Facebook changed the social media landscape. Where once, discussion happened in the comments section of a blog post, now it happens in Facebook. Mr. Howe even said that he prefers readers comment on Facebook so that comments are tied to commenters, not his blog. Soben Pin, publisher of Khmer Post USA [1], suggested that commenting on Facebook appeals to some because one can “think out loud” and not feel obligated to have a final, fully-baked comment. An audience member suggested that blogs may do quick recaps of Facebook threads to pull out notable comments.

Despite Facebook’s utility, Ms. Pin highlighted the important place of blogs aside it and traditional media:

I would commend those of you who write blogs. Continue to write blogs. Don’t give credit to people who would print anything to Facebook as more credible than you are. The reason why is that there is ethics of journalism that owns up to people who write blogs. You have to quote sources, you have first-hand information, and you own up to that information. There’s strong ethics in that.

She argued that Facebook is an excellent tool for engagement and sharing, but the additional research bloggers do “to find out more” is just as important a function. The mention of “blogging ethics” intrigued me. There is no one code of ethics for bloggers similar to the code journalists recognize, and I personally do not believe amateurs such as myself can take the place of professional journalists. Nevertheless, there is something about blog post’s permanence that demands a high standard of ethics. I did admittedly little research before starting blogging, but I have found an interesting post about weblog ethics compared to journalistic standards (incidentally, the first hit when one googles “blog ethics”).

Engaging a Broader Audience

Soben Pin

Soben Pin of Khmer Post USA

Ms. Pin also highlighted that the reason for Khmer Post USA’s success is relevance and convenience. [2] How can we make media convenient for those who aren’t plugged into the “blogosphere?” One audience member recalled NewsHour 6, a local cable news program in the 90s, and suggested a similar, neutral news program produced with help from LTC may create interest in local issues. A smaller step may be to encourage folks who follow sites like richardhowe.com to share weekly news updates or other items of interest with their Lowellian friends.

Fru Nkimbeng, a local Cameroonian-American activist who hosts “African Hour” on LTC, voiced an opinion that for “the mainstream bloggers, it might also be a good idea, when you’re going on a journey… to look back and hold the hands of those who are slow.” He suggested African communities are slow to follow the blog community, and that bloggers should reach out to them. I hope to talk to him about how we as a community could do this. He also reminded the audience that immigrants from Africa come from many distinct countries and form distinct communities. The African Cultural Association strives to be an umbrella organization for these distinct communities.

Moving from Social Media to “Social”

Bill Samaras, former Lowell High School headmaster and future City Councillor, stressed the importance of myriad avenues of discussion in the work he did to reach out to communities. Morning, afternoon, and night meetings, meetings at churches. Getting into the community and utilizing all devices, including social media, is integral. The audience discussed strategies to engage Lowellians and grow a feeling of connectedness. Suggestions included potlucks, welcome wagon visits or packets to new residents, and a free citizens’ civic engagement academy. One idea that generated some discussion involved a single-location platform or aggregator for announcements and information. I’ve found this oddly difficult for cities of a certain size, as arts and culture filter to magazines like Howl, official city news comes on city websites, and nonprofit announcements end up on community calendars. There’s definitely cross-posting, but never agreement on a one-stop calendar.

The event ended with an audience brainstorm of future conference topics. One was other forms of social media used by young people such as snapchat and other mobile apps (Aurora mentions 2 others: Reddit and Tumblr). Another was creating social media objectives and developing measurable metrics/quantitative indicators. Mr. Howe asked for those with thoughts to contact him, and encouraged everyone interested to continue the discussion both online and over coffee or beer.

Audience of social media conference

At a social media conference, using your smartphone is encouraged! Left: Fru Nkimbeng, Speaking: Paul Marion

My personal thoughts revolve around target audiences. Many were discussed: immigrant populations, politically disengaged, young people, and renters, to name a few. I would like to add another audience: UML and MCC students do not seem to me to engage with Lowell, and they are fairly unimpressed with the city. It isn’t necessary to cater to all students (in every college town I’ve lived in, the students haven’t liked the college town as much as “back home” in NYC/Boston/Chicago), but Lowell’s strengths may appeal to a certain subset of students. I believe we should determine what the community’s objectives are for each of those targets, what the population of each of those targets are, and how engaged that population already is. Then we can ask how those targets engage with media, and how we can showcase the strengths of Lowell that they would care about.

-Notes-

1. Soben Pin is a publisher of a free Khmer Post USA, a free Khmer-language biweekly Newspaper with a circulation of 10,000 (5,000 in Lowell). It covers topics relevant to the local and regional Cambodian community. The website has an archive of current and previous issues, and some articles are in English. I recommend folks who speak English as a first language check it out and see what a large portion of Lowell’s population reads and finds relevant.

2. I was surprised by the response from Ms. Pin to a question how many local election candidates reached out to Khmer Post USA. She revealed that while several reached out, several others Khmer Post had to reach out to. Mr. Howe noted that many candidates bought ads in the Khmer Post. Notably, Ms. Pin credited Derek Mitchell specifically for reaching out multiple times and “presenting himself very well in the editorial meeting.”