I participated in Public Matters, a leadership program of the Lowell Plan. The experience was phenomenal, not least because of the fantastic people with whom I shared it. My classmates elected me to speak on their behalf at our closing reception. It was an honor to represent them and our shared experience.
Courage. Courage has defined the Public Matters class of 2017.
We witnessed courage among one another, sharing stories that revealed deep insights into who we are as individuals. Many of these stories gloried not in our strengths but our vulnerabilities or trials: addiction, bullying, poverty, obesity, failure, immigration, and racism. We are shaped by these struggles but not defined by them. At our best they make us more compassionate, more patient, kinder, and more bent toward justice. We also shared stories of risk taking met with a sense of accomplishment: jumping off a cliff (literally!), taking a year off from school, publishing your writing, breaking from others’ expectations, starting a business or non-profit. This is a courageous bunch of human beings, and I am humbled to be counted in their number.
In our time together, we learned about a courageous generation of leaders who shaped the vision and beat the path to a revitalized Lowell. Many of our meetings were held in buildings that had been abandoned after the departure first of the textiles mills and later Wang computers. People like Paul Tsongas, Pat Mogan, and Sandy Walter saw possibility in Lowell when most others saw only decline. They put their own influence and reputations on the line to bring in resources for Lowell’s turnaround. Without courage and risk-taking decades ago, half of this Public Matters class would never have come to Lowell. The other half (the half who were born here) might have left for better opportunities. Even in the best of times, public service is difficult and thankless vocation. We are grateful for those who serve at every level. We especially celebrate the courage of those who took great personal risk to believe and invest in this city even when her future seemed bleak.
We also heard courageous stories of immigrants, refugees, small businesses owners, and other newcomers to Lowell. Their stories helped us understand and name what must be next for our city if we intend to build on the foundations laid by a previous generation. We are proud to call Lowell home, but we believe the city can be more hospitable to new residents, university students, young adults, and the LGBTQ community. We love the diversity of Lowell, and we recognize that this diversity has not found its way into the circles of political and economic power. We want to build a city that is more inclusive of immigrants and people of color at every level.
Some of this work is personal, requiring us to get out of our comfort zones, see people we might otherwise overlook, hear and empathize with their stories. It takes courage to move beyond the familiar. Some of this work is social, building networks for newcomers to understand civic engagement and access the halls of power. Public Matters is an important step in building those networks, but more is needed. Those already on the inside must actively invite and nurture the immigrants, the blow-ins, the artists, the young, the unconventional thinkers to take a seat at the table. It takes courage to invest in the unknown. Some of this work is political. Those who believe in a more inclusive Lowell must organize to confront structures and systems designed to preserve the status quo. The system will recoil. It takes courage to persevere in the face of resistance.
Most of us do not think of ourselves as particularly political folk. We are engineers, planners, middle managers, bankers, business owners, parents, partners. Most of us would not claim to be particularly courageous. We are just trying to live lives that we can be proud of in the city that we call home. But we are all convinced that this city should be a good, safe, and prosperous home for all who live here. This is not a new vision for Lowell, but a very old one that must be moved forward. After six months together sharing our stories, learning Lowell’s history, and hearing from her residents, I know that my classmates have the courage to shape a more hospitable and more inclusive Lowell. We will do it.