About 500 people were crowded into Springfield's Holy Family Church on a June night 10 years ago, but Mayor Mike Albano wasn't one of them—at least, not at first.
The occasion was the kick-off event of a new activist group called the Pioneer Valley Project. Although the group had been organizing for a couple of years, this was its public debut. On the agenda that night were a list of issues identified by PVP members: They wanted the Springfield Police Department to hire Vietnamese officers, to help serve the city's growing immigrant population. They also wanted the SPD to better protect the confidentiality of 911 callers, in hopes that residents would feel more comfortable reporting neighborhood problems if they didn't have to worry about reprisals from troublemakers. And the group wanted City Hall to fund late-bus transportation for students at city magnet schools, so more kids could take advantage of after-school programs.
None of these requests was a surprise to city officials, who'd been told by PVP what they'd be asked to commit to prior to the event. "Before the action, we put a lot of time into working through the issues with these leaders: 'These are the questions we'll ask you; say yes or no; give us answers before we go in,'" recalls PVP member Verne McArthur. "The pressure comes from the expectation of being asked the question in front of hundreds of people. Ideally, it's worked out ahead of time."
Paula Meara, chief of the SPD at the time, was game. Eager to improve her department's shaky community relations, Meara agreed beforehand to all of PVP's police-related requests, leaving her to accept a standing ovation from the crowd gathered at the church that night as she publicly made her promises.
Albano, however, was less forthcoming. He'd met with PVP before the event but refused to commit to the item presented to him, after-school bus funding. Then he opted to skip the event, instead sending an aide who was there to observe but not to speak or make any public commitments. After a phone call from the aide, reporting on the size and enthusiasm of the crowd—and, presumably, on the conspicuously empty chair, bearing Albano's name, that PVP had left on the dais—the mayor rethought his decision and hightailed it to Holy Family. After a bit of a struggle at the podium ("[Albano] wanted to take some time to make a political speech for the assembled people" and resisted the question-and-answer format participants had agreed to, McArthur notes) the mayor finally committed to funding the bussing.
And PVP was off to an auspicious start. It had secured commitments to all its requests, all wisely chosen, winnable ones that would have tangible effects but—prickly mayors notwithstanding—were unlikely to ruffle many feathers. Perhaps more important, it established itself as a force to be reckoned with, a kind of organization Springfield's power brokers hadn't seen much of before but would do well to heed in the future. This year, as PVP celebrates it 10th anniversary, the group is pressing forward with its Springfield agenda but also expanding its scope throughout the Pioneer Valley.
"PVP is able to do things that no neighborhood group working in isolation could do," says PVP member Sister Jane Morrissey. "I like coming together with PVP because I can be sure we will be at the table when important matters are being discussed."
Sister Morrissey didn't attend the first PVP meeting, but she soon wished she had. Morrissey—who went on to serve as president of the Sisters of St. Joseph—was working at the time as pastoral minister at Blessed Sacrament parish in the North End and living at Gray House, a community center run by the order.
The early and mid-'90s were an especially rough time in the North End, where gang violence was on the rise. Over just a few years, 11 people connected to Blessed Sacrament had been murdered, Sister Morrissey says; sometimes the families of the victim and the perpetrator both belonged to the parish. "There were families to attend to on both sides," she says. "Everybody was losing."
The arrival of PVP was a bright spot for the troubled community, says Sister Morrissey. She remembers the report two of her fellow sisters brought back to Gray House after the initial meeting. "They were so excited. It was the first time that they had seen such a cross-section of empowered citizens of this Pioneer Valley in one space, at one time, talking about issues that troubled us all," she says. "Their enthusiastic response, their credible sense of the empowerment engendered by the movement, really said to me, 'Jane, next time, don't miss this.'"
PVP became a place for groups that were already working in the community—churches sponsoring anti-violence marches; neighborhood groups trying to clean up neglected areas—to work together. "A lot of people felt the city had been sliding for a long time: the job loss, loss of industry," explains Fred Rose, who founded PVP with a fellow organizer, Elyse Cann. They structured the group around an intriguing model: its members would be religious congregations and labor unions, working together on shared goals.
Unions and religious organizations aren't as an odd a match as some might think. "The mission of the faith-based community is to try to not only elevate their people spiritually and prepare them for the afterlife, but also to do the best they can in the world that we're in right now," says Rick Brown, president of the Pioneer Valley AFL-CIO, one of PVP's founding member organizations.
"If you look at the issues that are most important to both groups in a secular way, it's basically having a good job, having a decent education for your children, providing housing, having safety nets and social security. Certainly we're all concerned about crime," Brown says. "It was a natural meshing."
Verne McArthur became involved with PVP through his church, the Unitarian Universalist Society, and his work as an "activist academic" at Springfield College. "What drew me to it was the faith-based aspect, where people were being guided by a set of principles and values from their own faith traditions, so there was depth to the social consciousness and moral concerns regarding the issues," he says.
"It was not just grounded in kind of leftist intellectual organizers," McArthur adds with a laugh. "It was grounded in pastors and union leaders and lay leaders, grounded in the needs of their constituencies."
The unions-and-congregations model is not without its challenges. "The way I look at it, there are any number of issues that could blow this group apart, and you can guess what they are," McArthur says. "But the common ground is so broad. The model is one where you find these broad common issues and you build relationships with each other working around those issues. And then you're in a stronger position to take on more challenging issues."
Over the past decade, PVP has, indeed, taken on more ambitious and challenging issues, from revitalizing troubled neighborhoods to supporting low-income workers. Each campaign had its start with the people who make up PVP's core. "We really try to respond to the issues that are first on our members' minds," says Fred Rose, who remains PVP's lead organizer. (Cann has left the group.)
While PVP has challenged some of the city's largest and most powerful institutions, its work has markedly personal effects. Take, for instance, PVP's instrumental role in starting a program in city schools where teachers visit students' families in their homes.
"Before, parents kind of sent their kids to schools and felt, 'Oh, it's the teachers' place,'" says Cynthia Farmer, a long-time educator in the Springfield schools. Parental involvement declines especially during the middle-school years; as kids begin to assert their independence, parents tend to back off, Farmer notes. "But in reality, that's when they need us the most."
PVP helped get the home-visit program, which is based on a model in California, started in Springfield, finding funds, organizing training and working with the teachers' union. Farmer, who led the program at Duggan Middle School—one of three schools to adopt it during its trial year—says the benefits run both ways. Parents, who might be more comfortable in their homes than in the school setting, feel more invited to participate in their children's education. And teachers have the opportunity to build closer ties with families and see where their students come from—an important opportunity, since most Springfield teachers live in surrounding suburbs, not the city, Rose notes.
Jaime Dominguez became involved with PVP through one of its newer projects, helping immigrant farm workers from Mexico and Guatemala. Dominguez, who lives in the North End, had noticed that new immigrants in the neighborhood seemed disconnected and unsupported. "They don't know where anything is, don't know how to get help, how to approach people to ask where and how I can get help," he says. When PVP came to Blessed Sacrament two years ago to talk about a project assisting the farm workers, Dominguez saw an opportunity to help his neighbors in a hands-on way.
"I was very excited," he says. "I want to not just be able to talk, but be able to put things into action." Dominguez became a leader in the project, which has helped the immigrants find legal aid, fuel assistance and healthcare. When volunteers realized that the families, who depend on seasonal farm work, were experiencing food shortages in the winter, the church started a food bank and clothing drives.
"We built a trust in that community," Dominguez says. "These people are very skeptical about who to talk to, what to say, because of how things are with immigrants these days. Building the trust of this community is very important. It's good to let them know that we're here to make a difference."
If PVP has had a defining moment, it was its involvement—and eventual, hard-won victory—in Springfield's Great Library War.
Back in the late '90s, member congregations suggested a campaign to expand hours in the city's branch libraries. At the time, the city's libraries, as well as its museums at the Quadrangle, were run by the Springfield Library and Museums Association, a private non-profit that received the bulk of its funding from City Hall. Over the years, the SLMA had become an increasingly insular organization, dominated by out-of-towners, perhaps most conspicuously David Starr, president of the Springfield Newspapers.
Criticism had been brewing against the SLMA for some time. Neighborhood residents wanted to know why branch libraries were open so few hours and distrusted the limited financial information they were able to obtain from the organization, which many felt favored the "showplace" Quadrangle at the expense of the branches. There was also a growing sense that the decision-makers at the SLMA bore very little resemblance to the people they were supposedly serving: about two-thirds of the SLMA trustees lived outside Springfield, with one-third from wealthy Longmeadow.
"To me, it was the arrogance of elitism, the self-appointed elite of the city thinking they know what's best for the city," McArthur says. "It was so obvious they saw the Quadrangle as 'the jewel.' We said, 'If you saw the children of Springfield as the jewels, it would lead you to a whole different set of priorities.'"
PVP wasn't alone in taking on the SLMA. A group of residents from Forest Park had been fighting for accountability from the SLMA for years; then-City Councilor Barbara Garvey had taken on their cause, earning harsh coverage from Starr's newspaper. Later the Citizens Action Network, or CANE, joined the fight, too. A key turning point came when former Mayor Charlie Ryan came forward to lead a campaign for the city to take control of the libraries from the SLMA. The effort was successful, and Ryan, buoyed by the victory, jumped into the mayor's race and was elected in 2003.
The victory was both satisfying and instructive. "We took on institutions central to the way the city's run," Rose says. "We learned a lot about the city's political system."
PVP also demonstrated the strength of grassroots unity, McArthur notes. "We were challenging the way politics were typically done in Springfield," he says. "We weren't willing to trade off one neighborhood for another. We were not going to play the same neighborhood politics or racial politics where deals often get done. We have kids in every neighborhood in this city. They've all got to be served.
"It was pretty clear that our leverage came from being together on this."
The library campaign wasn't just a great victory. It also produced what has to be one of the most delightfully surreal moments in the history of the Springfield City Council: Verne McArthur, guitar in hand, serenading councilors with a personalized version of the old labor standard "Which Side Are You On?", the lyrics revamped to be about the library fight.
Hootenannies are a rare occurrence in City Hall, and the reaction of the councilors, watching McArthur from their side of the railing that separates them from the public, ranged from amused to bemused. "I was trying to deliver this threatening message: 'We'll vote you out if you don't support this,'" McArthur says. Still, he recalls with a laugh, several councilors approached him after the meeting to tell him how much they liked his performance.
The city councilors weren't the only ones who were unsure what to make of PVP and its strategies. "It always fascinates me that they're a blend of this very sober, dedicated professional way of approaching problems, and yet they have this kind of lighthearted [approach]," notes Barbara Garvey. "It's this captivating way of either celebrating, or rousing people to the task. They don't go in for polemics. It's fun."
Of course, not everyone has been charmed by PVP—including, presumably, leaders at the former library association, who found themselves the target of critical ads and fierce rallies organized by PVP. "The folks that were the driving force behind [the library campaign] were really filled with a lot of anger about the way the situation was going," the AFL-CIO's Brown says. "The way that was addressed was not in a mild way. They managed to do that aggressively and alienated some folks, at least temporarily. …
"But I'd say overall PVP, because of the fact that it has a very large group of religious individuals, is perceived as pretty even-tempered, even-keeled," Brown continues. "I don't think people think they're bomb-throwing radicals. I think they're thought of as an organization that can get some things done."
When PVP, for instance, pressed the Springfield Finance Control Board to settle the public school teachers' contracts—teachers had been without a contract for years, leading to low morale and the defection of many to better-paying communities—it was the religious leaders who took the lead, focusing on the city's moral obligation to educate its children. "The participation and visible support of the clergy helped move the dialogue along," McArthur says. "It became about more than 'organized labor trying to get their piece of the pie.'"
Similarly, PVP threw its support behind school cafeteria workers who wanted to unionize after the Control Board contracted their jobs to a private employer. "I think the fact that a lot of religious leaders from PVP wrote to management was very helpful," Brown says. "It helps, when the employers are calling workers thugs or bad guys, that religious leaders are there to vouch for these people."
Mike Albano never got over his initial scuffle with PVP and largely steered clear of the group, although, significantly, he gave City Hall staffers his blessing to work with the group on, for example, neighborhood revitalization projects. PVP's relationship with the mayor's office has improved dramatically under the Ryan administration, no doubt in part because of their history working together on the library campaign.
"Mayor Ryan is much more accessible," Rose says. "You can sit down and have a conversation. You don't feel like he has an agenda."
Still, as Brown notes, "It hasn't been all flowers and perfume down there." While Ryan might be regarded as more approachable and responsive as an individual, he is also a member of the Control Board, which was imposed on the city by the state Legislature in 2004 to make all local financial decisions. The board's decision to privatize some public jobs and its hard-line stances when negotiating employee contracts hasn't sat well with PVP's labor unions or their supporters.
Rose feels some optimism about PVP's future with the Control Board, whose makeup changed after the election last fall of Gov. Deval Patrick. Patrick replaced old board members with new appointees Chris Gabrieli, Bob Nunes and James Morton. Already the Control Board has begun holding meetings to get residents' input; says Rose, "It feels like a new day with them. They're going to be more approachable. With the old people, you couldn't get in the door."
PVP hopes to persuade the board to take a broader approach to economic development, widening its scope from downtown to include neighborhoods, and to focus on needs like job training. The group also wants to see that conversation include more than the usual city officials and major business owners. "The economic development isn't very inclusive," Rose says. "We want to help bring other voices into the process."
PVP is also broadening its own scope, making alliances with congregations outside Springfield to address broader social and economic issues: employment, transportation, healthcare. As people and resources leave the city, it becomes increasingly clear that many issues PVP cares about are, in fact, regional. "These things are interrelated, but people don't think of them as interrelated," Rose says. "East Longmeadow thinks of its problems as its own problems."
Becoming a regional organization will also help PVP bolster its core of Springfield congregations, which have been struggling under social and economic pressures. The Catholic church, which played an important role in the group's founding, is still bruised from its abuse scandals, while dwindling numbers of parishioners have forced it to close some parishes. The city's largely white, middle-class Protestant churches have also lost members to the suburbs, leaving the city churches poorer. "The congregations are struggling a lot more than they were 10 years ago," Rose says.
PVP is used to working around challenges. "Springfield has not been a very open place to change," Rose notes. "Like many struggling New England cities, there's a feeling of entrenchment. There's the patronage system, the ethnic groups vying for power. That's the history. … When places are growing, you don't have to fight so much. There's more for everybody.?"