Be Counted

Lowell Keep an eye on your mailbox . . . the city census forms are on their way.

It is important for each resident of the city to be counted. The census provides the only legal record for city residence and is used for veteran’s benefits, proof of residence, public school enrollment, senior citizen benefits, and updating voter records.

It is also an important tool used in planning and budgeting for city programs and services. The population figure is also used by state and federal agencies to allocate funds and services.

Conducting an annual census is required by state law. Those who do not return their census forms may be removed from the active voter list.

Instructions and a return envelope are provided with the census form.  You may return your completed census form via mail or visiting the Lowell Election Commission/Census office at City Hall, 375 Merrimack Street, Room 5.

Please respond to the census within 10 days of receiving your form.  If you have any questions or concerns, please contact the Election Commission at 978-674-1200.  Normal office hours are weekdays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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Winterfest 2013 — Friday Night

Fire breathing fire dancer!

Fire breathing fire dancer!

The city kicked off its 13th annual Winterfest celebration Friday night with Human Dogsled races, the singing of the National Anthem by 10-year-old Brynn Geary,  toasting marshmallows, an impressive soup competition, a microbrew tasting, live music and so much more. The fun continues Saturday. For more information visit www.lowellwinterfest.org.

Nobody rocks a marshmallow suit like Elkin Montoya!

Nobody rocks a marshmallow suit like Elkin Montoya!

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Lowla Bear with the King and Queen of Winterfest -- Adam and Danielle McFadden.

Lowla Bear with the King and Queen of Winterfest — Adam and Danielle McFadden.

While the City Council was "chatting," Mayor Murphy was ready to go!

While the City Council was “chatting,” Mayor Murphy was ready to go!

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School Committee Vs. City Council.

School Committee Vs. City Council.

Winterfest 131Winterfest 133

Mayor Patrick Murphy with the Dynamic Duo -- School Committeeman Jim Leary and Councilor John Leahy.

Mayor Patrick Murphy with the Dynamic Duo — School Committeeman Jim Leary and Councilor John Leahy.

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Lowell School Committee team led by Mayor Patrick Murphy.

Lowell School Committee team led by Mayor Patrick Murphy.

Ouch!

Ouch!

The School Committee team following their win.

The School Committee team following their win.

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The Tsongas Tsix left a teammate behind . . .

The Tsongas Tsix left a teammate behind . . .

There were a lot of spills and thrills in the Human Dogsled races.

There were a lot of spills and thrills in the Human Dogsled races.

Human Dogsled pulling zombie chicks!

Human Dogsled pulling zombie chicks!

Entrepreneur Claudia Espinola to Address Lowell Women’s Week Breakfast

Claudia EspinolaBarefoot and pregnant is so yesterday.

For years women have tossed aside style for comfort as their feet swelled and changed during pregnancy, opting for flip flops over pumps.  Thanks to Lowell native Claudia Espinola they don’t have to anymore.

In 2011, she founded Casa Coture, a company that designs and manufactures stylish, supportive and most important — expanding — shoes; the world’s first maternity footwear.

“In terms of aesthetics, our debut maternity collection is inspired by the simplicity and elegance of the modern day princess,” Espinola told ShoesTV. “A woman with a classic style, who is sophisticated yet understated. We always say our shoes are as effortlessly stylish and elegant as our customers. Kate Middleton and Audrey Hepburn embody our customer — both of whom are definitely my muses.”

On Monday March 4, Espinola will be the keynote speaker at the Lowell Women’s Week breakfast at Lenzi’s in Dracut.

Born in Argentina, Espinola and her family moved to Lowell when she was a child. She attended the City Magnet School, where she found her passion for business, running an after-school company as part of the school’s Micro-Society program.

She earned a dual degree in marketing and entrepreneurship from Northeastern University and spent 10 years working as a market research consultant for Fortune 500 companies before deciding to head to Milan, Italy to learn about designing and making shoes.

In 2011, Casa Coture was the winner of the Mass Challenge, the world’s largest global start-up and accelerator competition for high-growth, high-impact companies..

In addition to being an innovative businesswoman,  Espinola is also a philanthropist who supports organizations that empower women and their families. Locally, she partners with American Mojo, a Lowell-based company that creates sustainable employment opportunities for single moms.

The Women’s Week breakfast will be held on Monday, March 4, at Lenzi’s, 810 Merrimack Avenue, Dracut, MA, from 7:30-9:00 AM. Jessica Wilson, Executive Director of Lowell Telecommunications Corporation, Lowell’s public access TV and media center, will emcee the gathering which also honors the soon-to-be announced recipients of the 2013 Because of Her award. Tickets to this always-sold-out event are $25 and must be purchased in advance. For information on purchasing breakfast tickets and on Women’s Week events, visit www.lowellwomensweek.org.

East Pawtucketville, A Student’s View

imageKristy Shockley, a graduate student in UMass Lowell’s Community Social Psychology program has been interning with the city’s newest neighborhood group — the East Pawtucketville Neighborhood Group, chaired by Nataliya Poto and Judith Davidson.

In the upcoming semester, Kristy will be working with the neighborhood to organize a festival celebrating the area’s French-Canadian history. Below is Kristy’s paper reflecting on her time with the group so far: 

Sense of Community in East Pawtucketville

Throughout the semester, I have worked with the East Pawtucketville Neighborhood group (EPNG), a nonprofit group aimed at improving life in East Pawtucketville. East Pawtucketville is located on the edge of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell’s (UML) North Campus, and many university students reside in the area.

The group developed very recently (November, 2011) out of a need to bridge the relationship between city residents who live in the neighborhood year-round and university students residing in the neighborhood for short periods at a time as the university continues to expand. City residents often blame students for noise and trash problems in the neighborhood and students often feel targeted by city residents who call the local law enforcement on them for such problems. While tension may exist between the two groups, it is important to get the groups to work together in a constructive manner to improve the quality of neighborhood life for all. If the quality of the neighborhood is improved, all of the residents may feel a deeper connection to not only their neighborhood but to other neighbors as well.

Overall, it appears that the EPNG is tackling how to promote a sense of community, or the extent to which individuals feel a tie or connection to their neighborhood, among all residing in the neighborhood. The EPNG attempts to promote a sense of community by encouraging power, social action, and collaboration within the group and among residents.

Encouraging power among residents is one of the ways in which the EPNG aims to promote a better sense of community to the neighborhood.

One way power can be promoted is through the development of Neighborhood Leadership Programs (NLP; Ayón & Lee, 2009). Researchers Ayón and Lee (2009) have found that leaderships programs that focus on harnessing skills, such as team building, fund raising, and public speaking, allow community members to become more skilled in community organizing. Although their study focused on community members that had already been identified as community leaders, being able to workshop these skills increased the ability of individuals to act in their community. Teaching these skills to those who are not already leaders may also greatly improve one’s ability to locate resources and take action.

The EPNG does not have any sort of formal leadership training for community members; however the group certainly provides opportunities for neighbors to improve their community organizing skills during neighbor meetings. Throughout meetings neighbors are encouraged to speak up about any questions they may have related to the city or problems in the neighborhood. This helps them to work on their public speaking skills, but also their problem solving skills. As leaders of the group, we do not provide answers to questions people may have, such as “how do we get the noise to stop on the weekends?”, but an opportunity to discuss the issue and brainstorm solutions. This approach allows neighbors to feel more a part of the group and validates their ideas to potential problems in the community.

Also, many themes of our neighborhood meetings surround how to effectively utilize community resources. Some of our neighborhood meetings this year concerned how to handle noise violations and how to deal with trash in the neighborhood. Residents were informed to handle repeated noise complaints by contacting landlords instead of those living in the apartments. Landlords will have more power over their tenants and are able to put clauses in their contracts to limit the number of noise violations. Residents were also taught who to contact about trash that may be piling up in alleyways throughout the neighborhood. If the city is contacted they will become responsible for removing the trash in the neighborhood.

Future neighborhood meetings will discuss ways in which community members can make the most of resources offered by the public library. These are a few skills that will give neighbors the power to act more effectively in their neighborhood and community.

Another way in which residents are able to gain power is through collective efficacy. Collective efficacy concerns whether or not an individual and others trust and believe in their ability to bring about social change in their community (Ohmer & Beck, 2006). Ohmer and Beck (2006) found that collective efficacy was related to whether or not an individual took part in community organizations and activities.

Specifically, community members were more likely to become involved in organizations and activities when they had higher levels of trust and belief in the organizations ability to promote social change. Also, community members had higher levels of trust and belief in their organization when more individuals were a part of the group. This finding seems to touch on the importance of social capital, or the number of relationships held by the organization (Alaimo, Reischl, & Allen, 2010). Alaimo and researchers (2010) found that becoming involved in an organization or event increase an individual’s perception of social capital.

The EPNG has been able to retain regular participation by some neighbors in the community, but has struggled to increase their levels of community participation. Because we are a new organization, it seems that we have not been able to establish efficacy in the community. However, the group has been able to make a presence in the community through neighborhood events, newspaper articles, and neighborhood meetings in which local officials, law enforcement, and university officials were in attendance. Perhaps the longer the organization is around the more neighbors will be interested in participating in the group.

The EPNG has also been able to promote a sense of community through social action. It is not simply important to get neighbors participating in our neighbor group through attendance at meeting, but to get neighbors actively involved in participating in events. There are several factors that may relate to whether or not an individual chooses to participate in a community organization.

Researchers Kang and Kwak (2003) highlight some of those factors related to neighborhood residency and media use. Residents in their study were less likely to be involved in the community if they were new to the neighborhood and watched a lot of television. On the other hand, residents who watched a lot of local media and belonged to neighborhoods in which individuals did not move in and out often were more likely to be involved in their community (Kang & Kwak, 2003).

Despite potential barriers to achieving social action in communities, the EPNG has been successful in encouraging residents to take action against concerns they have in the neighborhood. For example, many residents have issues with noise from students on the weekends. Our group suggested that the best way to tackle the noise problem would be to speak to the landlords of the apartments because of the power they hold. However, this idea developed from a residents own experience about speaking with a landlord. Neighbors in our group have learned that they best way to solve problems is not to simply complain, but to take action steps towards solving the problem.

Other neighbors have e-mailed the group about concerns related to park cleanliness and missing street signs. As leaders of the group, we make these complaints a part of our meeting agendas and talk with the group about steps to take in order to reach a solution. In these instances solutions could be organizing a park clean-up or contacting the city to replace the missing street sign.

While these may seem like simple solutions, it is important that the neighbors take part in the problem solving process so that they know what to do next time a similar problem occurs.

Lastly, the EPNG encourages a sense of community through collaborations within the group and among residents. Community-university partnerships are one form of collaboration that has been successful for other organizations in communities.

For example, Stanford University worked with two communities in order to address youth concerns (Anyon, Gardner, & Fernández, 2007). The collaboration with Stanford University and the communities lead to the successful creation of the Youth Engaged in Leadership and Learning (YELL) program.  However, it is important to note that past university collaborations with these communities have failed. Researchers indicated that the reason behind the failures included: the university neglecting to include residents in problem defining, explaining of results of their research and its application to the community, and developing long terms plans.

The Stanford University collaboration was successful because they were aware of these challenges and how to overcome them. Silka and colleagues (2008) have highlighted other challenges that community-university partnerships may encounter throughout their collaboration. Such challenges may include loss of financials support, change in interests or objectives for the partnerships, and a change within the organization.

The Lowell Project, which included collaboration between many organizations in Lowell including UML, focused on environmental justice issues. The collaboration faced these challenges and was able to succeed over the years because the ability of partners to reach out to new potential partners, find new creative ways to continue working on similar projects, and make a long term commitment (Silka, et al., 2008). Other researchers also note the benefits of participating in projects that will last over a number of years because of the trust and ties that the partnerships are able to create with time (Savan, 2004). Not only is one of the founders of the EPNG a faculty at UML, but the group has collaborated with UML on projects and concerns in the community.

During our Green Day event at the end of September, UML played a big role in providing support in the form of volunteers, musicians, and other participants. The UML Fraternity advisor was present at the event and ensured that fraternity brothers were available to help. Musicians provided entertainment throughout the event. Other participants from UML included clubs that were involved in various tabling activities. Overall, without the support from UML the event may not have been as successful in the community as it was. However, as our neighborhood group continues to collaborate with the university it will be important for us to keep the concerns of residents in mind.

Many concerns of residents currently surround the level of noise from students in the neighborhoods during the weekends. Our group has attempted to address this issue and let residents know it is a concern to our group as well. We have done this by involving the university staff dean of student affairs in our neighborhood meetings. During our meeting they provide updates to noise complaints and parties that the university has followed up on. The university officials have also kept residents up to date on campus policies that are becoming stricter about off-campus infractions.

My work throughout the semester with the EPNG has allowed me to see many community principles in action while attempting to bridge the relationship between city residents and university students. While the neighborhood group aims to improve these relationships and the quality of the neighborhood, it appears to me that the group is also trying to promote a sense of community among all those in the neighborhood through power, social action, and collaboration. I believe that the group has been somewhat successful in its attempt to promote a better sense of community. However, I think that it will take a lot of time for the group to credibility in the community and gain the trust of all residents. At the moment, participation from community members is low but has the ability to increase over the years with the more work the group does in the neighborhood.

Next semester, I plan to work with the community on organizing a neighborhood festival to honor the community French-Canadian history which will be funded through the Neighborhood Innovation Grant. This will involve me working with residents, community members, and organizations to develop a French-Canadian planning committee for the festival. I will act as a guide to the planning committee, but they will be the ones to make decision about the festival such as type of activities, entertainment, and food. In order to organize the festival I will also have to work with the city to receive permission and permits to host the event in our neighborhood. Overall, this event will extend upon the work that I have done this semester, as well as the neighborhood group’s goal to improve neighborhood quality.

References

Anyon, Y., Gardner, J. W., & Fernández, M. A. (2007). Realizing the potential of community-  university partnerships. Change, 39(6), 40-45.

Ayón, C., & Lee, C. D. (2009). Building strong communities: An evaluation of a neighborhood leadership program in a diverse urban area. Journal of Community Psychology, 37(8),           975-986. doi:10.1002/jcop.20343

Ohmer, M., & Beck, E. (2006). Citizen participation in neighborhood organizations in poor       communities and its relationship to neighborhood and organizational collective efficacy.         Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 33(1), 179-202.

Kang, N., & Kwak, N. (2003). A multilevel approach to civic participation: Individual length of             residence, neighborhood residential stability, and their interactive effects with media use.     Communication Research, 30(1), 80-106. doi:10.1177/0093650202239028

Savan, B. (2004). Community–university partnerships: Linking research and action for

sustainable community development. Community Development Journal, 39(4), 372-384

Silka, L., Toof, R., Turcotte, D., Villareal, J., Buxbaum, L., & Renault-Caragianes, P. (2008).   Community-university partnerships: achieving the promise in the face of changing goals,            changing funding patterns, and competing priorities. New Solutions: A Journal of   Environmental & Occupational Health Policy, 18(2), 161-175.

Coakley: Foreclosure Help Still Available

Coakley 005The foreclosure crisis that hit cities like Lowell hard, peaking in 2008, is far from over. Not only homeowners who entered into bad loans, but those who have suffered job loss, illness or divorce in recent years are finding themselves on the brink of losing their homes.

“This is a continuing crisis; there is a tendency to sweep this under the rug, but it is a continuing problem,” said Middlesex North Register of Deeds Richard Howe Jr. at a roundtable discussion held by Attorney General Martha Coakley Wednesday afternoon in the Mayor’s Reception Room at City Hall.

It has been one year since the national settlement with the nation’s largest lenders that netted Massachusetts $44.5 million to use to establish programs to assist homeowners facing foreclosure with loan modifications and related services.

Coakley 014“We have seen a blizzard of forfeitures,” said Coakley. “Much of this didn’t need to happen; this was a person-made disaster.”

Coakley said since launching the HomeCorps program in April 2012, her office has fielded more than 15,000 calls and has been successful in getting more than 1,100 mortgages permanently modified, making it possible for families to stay in their homes.

Locally, the Coalition for a Better Acre’s Home Preservation Office has assisted 1750 homeowners since 2006 and the AG’s HomeCorps Program has a satellite office at Lowell City Hall.

On Wednesday, Coakley was in Lowell to hear more about the impact of the crisis from those on the front lines, city and social service agency officials who deal with foreclosures and their consequences every day.

She got an earful.

“There is a huge need for housing counseling,” said Community Teamwork Inc Executive Director Karen Frederick. “Our counselors are busy all day, every day.”

All of the participants agreed there is a need to deal with the consequences of the foreclosure crisis including: an increased demand for mental health services to assist those going through the foreclosure process with stress; a need for assistance with relocation of displaced families; a need to hold the lenders to the standards to which they agreed as part of the settlement and to shut down scam artists promising to assist homeowners out of foreclosure. Going forward, there is a great need for financial literacy education, as a proactive way to prevent a recurrence of what has been seen in the last five years.

Marisa Melendez of the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council told of one woman who was so upset and stressed by the foreclosure process that she ripped up every single piece of paper related to it “because she didn’t want any remnant if that foreclosure process going with her to her new home she is now renting.”

Leonard Raymond, executive director of Homeowner Options for Massachusetts Elders, said his job is complicated because seniors often wait a long time before seeking help, making the process of assisting them more complicated and expensive. His clientele are also those most likely to be targeted and victimized by scams.

City Manager Bernie Lynch and Mayor Patrick Murphy said although the crisis did hit the city hard, destabilizing neighborhoods and families, it could have been worse.

Coakley 019“The city has been proactive in minimizing the impact,” said Murphy.

Lynch spoke of the city’s vacant and foreclosed property ordinance, which requires banks that own foreclosed upon properties to register and maintain them or face steep fines. The city also instituted a receivership program wherein a receiver in conjunction with the city takes control of a vacant property, rehabilitates it and sells it to a family that can afford the mortgage.

Coakley 004Assistant City Manager Adam Baacke said what strikes him is, although low and moderate income families were those predominantly impacted by the foreclosure crisis, those who completed pre-sale counseling in a program like the Merrimack Valley Housing Partnership’s First Time Homebuyers Program remained above the fray.

Baacke added the city has awarded 700 down payment assistance grants to first time homebuyers who went through the program and have only seen two foreclosures.

“That is how we prevent the next crisis,” he said.

The Attorney General’s AG HomeCorps is available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 617-573-5333. You may also file a request for assistance at www.mass.gov/ago/homecorps.

Consumers who feel they have been targeted or victimized by a foreclosure prevention scam can file a complaint with the AG’s Public Inquiry and Assistance Center at 617-727-8400.