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Institute aims to reinvent Springfield through unity

Date: 9/8/2009

By Marie P. Grady

Special to Reminder Publications

In a warren of offices in downtown Springfield, the seeds of hope are as verdant as the tall tropical plant that rises up from a tiny indoor atrium beyond the basement window. Incongruous, it seems to spring from glass and concrete.

Then again, the gardeners who gaze out on this plant come from many different worlds. In a single week, this space has hosted Somali immigrants confronting the taboo topic of female equality and denizens of corporate charity who have turned their sights toward rebuilding a city shaped with the sweat of newcomers.

Welcome to the Springfield Institute. The brainchild of a group of young urban professionals, the Institute is trying to harness both the power of the people and the support of the higher education community from Springfield to Amherst. Among colleges represented are Amherst College, Bay Path College, Holyoke Community College, Springfield College, the University of Massachusetts and Western New England College School of Law.

The group has fashioned its agenda upon the belief that the state's third largest city has the potential to reinvent itself. The dream? A city where residents from every culture and background feel invested, where poverty and a literacy gap are banished and where decisions are informed by data.

"I got involved because I had the overwhelming impression that Springfield is capable of more a lot more," said Aron P. Goldman, a founding member of both the Institute and Shutesbury-based PolicyDevelopment.Org.

Goldman, whose resume includes a master's degree in public administration from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, has worked in public policy and community organizing internationally and locally including fighting feared sprawl from big box stores in Hadley. He envisions a future where the Institute provides cutting edge research on what makes great cities work while engaging all residents in the process.

Sam Charron, assistant director of career services and public interest coordinator at Western New England College School of Law, was introduced to the Institute last fall by Professor Bill Childs, who is now dean for external affairs at the law school.

"What attracted me to the Institute was the group's enthusiasm and their desire to revitalize Springfield - not by imposing 'solutions', but by providing capacity building tools to local community organizations, as well as creating a safe space for folks to discuss pressing issues of the day," said Charron.

For Molly Mead, who helped launch Amherst College's Center for Community Engagement, the Institute provided the opportunity she was looking for to get the college more involved in Springfield. This summer four interns from the college worked at the Institute, helping to organize meetings and build its Web site.

The Institute's Organizing Committee also includes Nicole Blais, chief of staff for Holyoke/Chicopee Head Start; Maria Cuerda of Western Massachusetts Legal Services; A. Rima Dael, assistant professor of non-profit management and philanthropy at Bay Path College; Kelsey Flynn, a DJ, blogger and actor affiliated with radio station WRSI and Paintbox Theatre; Julius Ford, of the Western Mass. Center for Healthy Communities; Maura Geary, manager of literacy programs for the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County; Ray Hernandez, president and CEO of JuJus Transportation Co.; Maryann Mohamoud, director of a Somali Women's Project called "Breaking the Silence;" Kathleen Szegda of the Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition; Trevis Way, of the Urban League and the Young Professionals Group; and James Whitley, assistant dean and campus director of Springfield College's School of Human Services.

The Institute's Hampden Street office space was provided by Advisory Board member Heriberto Flores, chairman of Partners for Community and the Holyoke Community College's board of trustees.

As a former journalist and current law student interested in literacy efforts, I was asked to join the Institute's Advisory Board. Mostly, though, I have just been observing as a new effort gets under way in an old city. As is true of most old cities, politics is pervasive across the board here and newcomers are always greeted with the requisite, and necessary, skepticism.

Already the group has held a well attended public meeting with data gurus Springfield Citistat and the Boston Indicators Project on where the city is at now and where residents want it to be.

Can Springfield re-invent itself? Whether it is by this or any other means, it can't afford not to.

Marie P. Grady is liaison for the Literacy Works Project of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County. She can be reached at