Ripples of Hope: Reflections on the Roca Initiative Text Size

Just yesterday, I announced a new blight reduction initiative with Roca, an organization whose mission is to help disenfranchised young people move out of lives of poverty and violence. Under a new agreement with the City of Holyoke, Roca, as part of their ongoing service to the city, will now have funds to employ members of the community to assist in our effort to reduce blight in the city. Members of this Roca program will be doing the work that our own Department of Public Works lacks the time and/or resources to do on its own. I am fully confident that you’ll notice the difference.

Roca is an outcomes-driven organization dedicated to transforming the lives of the most high-risk young people between the ages of seventeen to twenty-four. Roca targets those who are disenfranchised and disengaged from our community—young men with gang affiliations, or high school dropouts, among others—and sets them on a course for reclaiming their place as productive members of society. In addition to changing the course of young people’s lives, Roca reduces incarceration costs for the government by providing an alternate, rehabilitative option for young people.

Yesterday, during an interview about this initiative, I called the city’s new partnership with Roca a “win-win”— it will help redirect young lives while benefiting the community as a whole. In this regard, the initiative certainly is a win-win. But it is also important to note that this initiative is addressing endemic problems that have been years in the making, and ones that will require long-term vision to fully solve.

When it comes to blight reduction, we mustn’t mistake the cleaning up of trash, the removal of abandoned shopping carts, or the restoration of windows as the ultimate solution to the problem. Of course, these are good and worthwhile steps, but they are only a beginning. What is required, then, is an understanding of the causes of blight, and vigorous government action to uproot those causes.

Generally speaking, the term ‘blight’ describes areas of an urban community that are in disrepair. Such disrepair typically results from years of abandonment and neglect, often precipitated by economic downturn. And even when the blighted community starts to renew itself, the remnants of those difficult years often remain. Such is the case with Holyoke. Years ago, folks came to Holyoke for well-paying, stable jobs, and became tied to the community for generations. Changes in the economy led to a scarcity of such well-paying jobs; people increasingly decided to pack up and find work elsewhere; and, consequently, our previously quite populous community was left with considerable vacancies. Blight is the natural result of these larger trends.

The key to our long-term blight reduction, then, is attracting more people to work and live within our borders. To do that, we must show people why this is such a special and advantageous time to live in Holyoke. And a crucial component of making our city a place where folks want to raise a family, work, and simply enjoy life, is cutting down on the blight that currently exists. In other words, my administration’s short-term blight reduction strategy has much longer-term implications.

Above all, the goal—both of the blight reduction initiative and of our city government more broadly—is to inspire our residents to feel a sense of ownership of, and to take a vested interest in, our city and its future. Governing a city in the 21st century requires cultivating a vibrant civic life and community spirit in order to further propel economic growth.

Part of what so appealed to me about working with Roca was that their work embodied this same spirit—of inspiring a sense of ownership in one’s community.

Now, I know there are few issues in American politics as divisive as criminal justice. There exists a school of thought that neatly divides the world into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’—a school of thought that says the bad guys have forfeited their membership in the community, and should be kept away from the rest of us law-abiding citizens. I can understand this perspective. Who, indeed, can fault a parent for fearing a gang presence on their street? That said, such a perspective leads to a view of humanity that I don’t share—one that that simply doesn’t line up with my views and experience.

Most scholars agree about the underlying causes of gang membership and urban violence: where the larger community fails to engage with and integrate certain residents into its civic life, gangs step in to fill the void. Moreover, as numerous studies have attested, people are more likely to meet their basic needs through illegal activity when the needs are difficult to meet through legal means.

In other words, the folks some would call ‘bad guys’ are often just good guys who didn’t have the right opportunities in life. I mean in no way to excuse criminal behavior; but we as a community can’t let ourselves off the hook, either. Having grown up in this city, I have known too many people who, through no fault of their own, couldn’t find the community they craved. This fact weighs on my conscience. It is one of the reasons I ran for office in the first place, and it is why I am so honored to announce the city’s partnership with Roca.

As with reducing blight, our city requires long-term solutions to poverty and violence. But I have no doubt that Roca will help change some people’s lives—people who can then become examples to those who want to feel at home in Holyoke, and who just need the help of a community that loves and cares for them.

I think of what Robert Kennedy called a “tiny ripple of hope” that is sent forth whenever we act to improve people’s lives, or fight against injustice, or stand up for an ideal. In my view, whenever our city government can take a step, however small, to send forth a tiny ripple of hope, it should. And at a time when so many deeply polarizing debates rage—whether about our nation’s southern border, or about providing a basic safety net for our most vulnerable citizens, or about whether to open our arms to migrant children in need—Holyoke will be an example of what a decent, loving, and humane community looks like.

Posted on August 5, 2014 by