STREET ART + FOOD: Lawtown Edition
My name is Beya Jimenez, and I am an immigrant.
I was born in La Romana, Dominican Republic, to a Haitian-Dominican father and a Dominican mother. After viewing their circumstances and options, my parents relocated to the United States in 1991. My father and I remained in the Dominican Republic, while my mother came to look for work in New Jersey where she had a cousin and to save the money necessary to send for my father and I.
By 1992, our small family was reunited but this time we all headed to Massachusetts, specifically Lawrence, MA, where word in the Dominican community was that jobs were plenty and rent was cheap.
My parents' marriage had taken a huge hit during their distance, and their respective goals for their new American life were not aligning. Even though my mother was the first to arrive to the United States, my father acclimated much faster to the newfound pace of the American way of life. My father with his quick wit and humor made friends quickly; my mother, more reserved and conservative, felt more and more isolated as her family remained in Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and she began to take solace in her religion. Through domestic issues, affairs, and misunderstandings- my parents soon separated midway through my mother's pregnancy with my brother.
In 1995, Hector arrived and he was the apple to my mother's eye and my father's first son. After a short stint in Puerto Rico, my mother and I returned to Lawrence, MA this time broke, with a newborn in tow, and no real place to go.
The next few years are a bit blurry as my mom struggled to be financially independent on her own. She became certified as a Home Health Aide, an entry-level nursing position that offered no health benefits (ironically). My mother fed and nursed the elderly for 45-50 hrs. a week so my brother + I could have a roof over our heads. Even so, this was often not enough and at just 12 years old I often took the role of translator as we visited the local housing court month after month to prevent our family's eviction.
I tell this story because I know its a familiar one for many families like ours and one that can be duplicated 1000x over in a city like Lawrence, MA. Dominican immigrants, like many other immigrant groups, arrived to the United States during a time when the shiny promise of the American Dream was heavy but a much harder reality than imagined.
2018, and Lawrence remains a place of community for new immigrants. However, plagued by high unemployment, rising housing costs, and the threat of violence that impact its economic growth- the city is often at a crossroads. Luckily, Lawrence has a young population of individuals + leaders ready to take up arms for their city through the arts and community building.
Efforts like the Lawrence Partnership are helping Lawrence small businesses and entrepreneurs to grow by providing access to both financing and technical expertise on all aspects of starting and running a business. Through their model, The Lawrence Partnership has catalyzed economic development in Lawrence, as well as created opportunities for innovative projects to thrive in the city of Lawrence.
Places like El Taller are also helping Lawrence by providing creative spaces for youth and artists through their bookstore cafe, and an open environment where everyone can feel safe. A family-owned business, the owners have been in Lawrence for more that 20 years and El Taller is now the meeting ground for many community events ranging from poetry and writing workshops to open mics.
Organizations like Lawrence Community Works, Inc., a community development corporation dedicated to planning efforts in Lawrence related to housing, youth education, and increasing economic empowerment for all residents are part of the major transformations happening in the city. Their programming extends from homeownership and financial literacy courses, affordable housing opportunities, and to the ever-evolving Movement City platform which has bred many local artists and leaders like Kaovanny, and recently elected School Committee member Elissa Salas.
My passion for urban planning and community organizing was harnessed right at Lawrence Community Works, Inc. where I participated in their PODER Leadership Institute which highlights the mission of the organization through a historical context of the city of Lawrence, and provides a framework for local leaders to organize around issues that matter to them.
Soon after, I was working as the campaign manager for current Mayor Dan Rivera. His platform was dedicated to "make Lawrence better", through increased community policing + restoring the city's economy. It was through this opportunity that I grew to really understand the large scale problems that affected many cities like Lawrence, and began my career in housing advocacy.
Lawrence has a growing young adult population. The now majority of 20-34 year old residents in the city is a promise of opportunity, creativity and innovation. City leaders need to tap into this power.
Engage them into the everyday conversations around the future of the city, (because they are indeed the future of Lawrence) through community planning + focus group efforts. Engage them through art projects such as what the Essex Art Center x the Valley Works Career Center have been able to showcase through their amazing collaborative murals throughout the city. Invest in new initiatives proven to be successful such as college prep courses, and youth summer programming. Allow them to imagine a new future free of violence and crime, and you will be surprised at the many creative ways and ideas that can flow when you allow a space for input and collaboration.
Initiatives like the Greater Lawrence Young Professionals Group has already begun to tap into this potential by grooming political candidates for the city such as City Councilor and Founder of GLYPN, Pavel Payano. The events hosted through GLYPN serve as a networking opportunity and as a way for other like-minded individuals to come together to learn more about ways they can work together for the city of Lawrence.
Furthermore, let's engage our children too. Let's focus on programming that enhances their capacity for learning, and teach them about their history + culture so they may become proud of their heritage and use it as a tool of empowerment.
Lawrence is also dealing with a scale of problems related to violence and the perception of crime which threatens the growth of the city. Racist publications like The Eagle Tribune and The Patriot continue their stained coverage of Lawrence as a city of crime.
Let's hold these publications accountable when they do not provide accurate representation of our city. Let's create our own publications + newsletters, and support existing Latino-owned publications such as El Mundo which provide a framework for real coverage of real people with an appropriate cultural context.
Neighboring cities and states dealing with the opiod crisis also use Lawrence as a scapegoat for their woes instead of focusing on the root of the crisis. Mayor Dan Rivera understands the scope of these problems surrounding Lawrence and the shortsightedness of leaders who look at this as just another crime problem; the truth is we've been here before and law enforcement solutions only handle one side of the drug equation. The future of Lawrence, and many of our urban American cities, needs to include a future where long-term treatment for drug users is offered as a solution. The future of Lawrence needs to include a future where our youth have employment prospects + education opportunities so they are not led into a life of crime. If we are truly dedicated to the future of Lawrence, and want to benefit all, and not the few, we need to become invested in a future that honors our culture and diversity, while empowering residents to demand a better life for themselves and their children.
We need to demand that future from our elected leaders on the local, state and federal levels through political engagement and showing up when it matters at local and state hearings to demand solutions that address the root cause of these issues.
I want to see more of us who grew up in the city return to make our mark whether through education, politics or mentorships. It's critical that we understand the power that we each have to make sure that this narrative of poverty and discontent doesn't swallow the potential of the next generation.
Thinking of the future of Lawrence allowed me to reflect on Barbara Kruger's 1991 artwork:
These are a few of the many questions we each must begin to ask when implementing urban policies and practices. The greater good of the people will be determined by who these policies affect in a positive way. We need to take a hard look at some of our city's long held views around housing, social services, education and really understand where we can dismantle outdated forms of thinking and acting. We need to claim our seat at the table + work on creative solutions that reflect our views.
Regardless of your voting status- you have power. Find a cause to champion. You can offer support to a local candidate by canvassing, donations, and referrals. You can hold your elected officials accountable by attending local planning and city council meetings. If you are unable to be there, submit comments via emails, letters or call a few days before the scheduled meeting. Join a coalition or neighborhood group where you can offer support through combined efforts. All these small efforts when multiplied many times over can lead-and often DO lead-to real, impactful change. Let’s be proud of the fact that we are Trump’s worst nightmare. Let’s organize, and get to work!!!
Braids: Protect Yo' Strands
Photography: Harlyn Medrano