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Busy sparking and activating connections in Holyoke

What makes the difference between a “no” and a “maybe” in terms of getting residents involved in community building work? Between watching from the outside or joining the group? Between seeing a challenge as insurmountable or as something to take on with vigor? Between feeling at a loss (“What can I do?”) or feeling empowered (“Let’s do this!”)?

Ask Community Engagement Coordinator Anna Cruz. Activating residents of Holyoke is at the heart of her work with the Way Finders’ Community Building and Engagement (CB&E) team. The Holyoke CB&E team—led by Community Engagement Director Beatrice Dewberry and joined by Resident Engagement Associate Emily Thibault and AmeriCorps VISTA member Victor Machado—has been busy this summer. They have helped resident leaders coordinate three community-building events in July and August.

“Every year, Way Finders takes a team of residents to a national training—the Community Leadership Institute—hosted by NeighborWorks,” Anna says. “Now this year, obviously, the training was all online. After they successfully complete the training, they can put in a proposal for a $4,000 grant to put toward a community project.”

This year’s cohort of Holyoke resident leaders set their sights on proudly and joyfully declaring two public parks as safe spaces to relax and hang out with family and friends—and get to know neighbors—in addition to planning a neighborhood cleanup.

If you happened to stop at or pass by Chestnut Park (on Saturday, July 24) or Holyoke Library Park (on Saturday, July 31), you may have seen residents of all ages taking part in the “Working for Holyoke/Trabajando Juntos por Holyoke” events. You may have noted the food truck—Fritura Latina—and tables set up with art supplies for children to paint. Or you may have seen kids playing wiffle ball or gathering around a large rainbow-colored parachute. Or you may have engaged with a representative from the sheriff’s department, or others at vendor tables, or stopped by tents with Way Finders staff and picked up some swag.

An especially fun part of the day was the residents’ getting to know each other and providers by dipping their hands into glass jars, strategically placed atop the various vendor tables, where they retrieved a question to answer in return for extra raffle tickets.

“Some of the questions were kind of fun or quirky, like, ‘If you could be any mythical creature, what would you be, a unicorn or a fairy?’ Plus, things like ‘What would you like to change in your community?’” says Beatrice. These ice breakers encouraged conversation between residents and resident leaders. The CB&E team knows from experience that conversations can inspire a level of trust and comfort among people. Over time, this can forge the basis of real relationships—and give rise to a swelling of collective energy around a shared purpose.

Anna’s favorite moment from the events wasn’t a moment at all, it was a person. At Chestnut Park, Anna noticed a woman sitting alone, with her walker, at the edge of the gathering.

“She was sitting close enough to say, ‘I’m curious’ but far enough away to say, ‘Don’t come bother me,’” says Anna, who approached her with a bottle of water. “I said, ‘My name is Anna. We work in the community. The goal of this event is to meet the residents.’”

Anna encouraged the woman to register and get food and talked to her about the Chestnut Community Alliance—an active group of 20+ neighbors led by a previous cohort of CLI resident leaders. The woman shook her head, saying she wasn’t good with technology, but Anna pointed out that there were so many ways to get involved. “And that was that,” Anna says.

The next Saturday at Holyoke Library Park, someone tapped Anna on the shoulder. “Remember me?” said the woman. “Here I am to support you!”

“That was the highlight of the day,” says Anna. “Sometimes people are interested, but they don’t know how to proceed. Or they feel like, ‘I don’t know what these people are doing.’ I constantly remind people: ‘You have power, you have power. Remember the protests in Puerto Rico, which led to the governor resigning? That sounded like mission impossible. And it happened.’ You have to claim your territory. You need to come out and not just stay inside.”

Anna’s message resonates with the people she meets—even those who profess to being shy, or to not understanding the group’s intent.

“I’ll explain it to you!” Anna says. “In Spanish!”

The series of CB&E Holyoke summer events concluded August 14 with a community cleanup day, held in collaboration with OneHolyoke. Having a safe, clean neighborhood is a top priority for resident leaders, Anna explains.

And a top priority for Anna and the CB&E team? Consistency of action and relationship building. Looking ahead to 2022, the team will be extending the Resident Leadership Program to 15 Spanish-speaking Holyoke residents. Over the course of five weeks, they will attend five two-hour workshops designed to foster effective leadership, conflict resolution, community organizing, and more. The interactive workshops will be co-facilitated by Way Finders staff and local experts.

Learn more about Way Finders’ Resident Leadership Program.

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