This Week's Gateway Cities Leader
Cities are shaped by their citizens. From New Bedford to Pittsfield, passionate young leaders are spearheading innovative efforts to reinvent their communities for a new generation. The Gateway Cities Leaders series profiles their work and introduces their ideas, visions, and aspirations to the wider Gateway City world. Is there a young leader in your city that we should spotlight? Please let us know.
Nelson Roman is Associate Director of Operations for LightHouse Holyoke, an alternative middle and high school which empowers students to create their own curriculum that pairs instruction with community involvement and hands-on experience. He has also served as Holyoke’s Ward 2 City Councilor since January of 2016.
What are three things that you want someone to know about you right away?
The three things right away that I would want someone to know about me are:
First, that I am a man of the people! To me the people always come first. I understand their struggles because I am not far removed from many in the City who have faced hardship. I was formerly homeless, received SNAP, and HomeBase subsidy money to stabilize my life and get my life on track.
Second, I am as diverse as many of my Holyoke peers. I am proud Holyoker, who is originally from Waterbury, Connecticut, with Nuyorican-Rican blood. Furthermore, I am an openly Gay/HIV+ millennial, who, like my peers, is ready to create a meaningful and lasting change in this community.
And third, I am all about community building not “community servicing.” I am a progressive fighter who wants to work to end institutional misogyny, poverty and racism. I want others to know that I am doing this in the hopes that it will uplift the Latinx community; especially Latinx women, and that they would be inspired to run for office and take leadership roles within local government.
Describe LightHouse Holyoke.
LightHouse Holyoke takes a personalized approach to education, working with middle and high school age teens to create an individualized program based on their goals, needs, and interests. LightHouse is for teens who, for one reason or another, are not satisfied with their previous schooling experiences and are interested in learning to live in a more empowered way. We offer a truly personalized experience, a community of peers working together and individually, each at their own pace and on work that is personally interesting, challenging, and inspiring. LightHouse students take classes, participate in one-on-one tutorials, and engage in internships and independent studies as part of their educational journey at LightHouse.
LightHouse operates independently from the public schools, though we share a commitment to provide terrific educational options for teens in Holyoke. We are part of the Liberated Learners network, an international network of independent programs built around a shared philosophical model. We are a nonprofit organization, funded through two primary sources: tuition and individual donations. We also have received some funding through grants and anticipate expanding that in the coming years. Our application process is through our website. We meet with all applicants in person and invite them to visit for a day to experience LightHouse and determine if it is a mutual fit. Tuition for a full year is $9,950 per teen, and we are proud to offer financial aid in the form of tuition discounts—85% of our current families receive financial aid.
How did you come to work for Lighthouse?
I met Catherine Gobron and Josiah Litant, the Co-Directors and Co-Founders of LightHouse Holyoke, through my work as the Marketing and Outreach Coordinator at Enlace de Familia’s, the Holyoke Family Resource Center. My position at Enlace was grant funded, until the state decided to no longer fund a Family Resource Center in Holyoke. Josiah and Catherine told me about the position at LightHouse and encouraged me to apply. Being a Holyoker and a community activist/organizer, I said “let me give this new and exciting concept on learning a try.” Who knew it would be a perfect fit? I not only get to talk about improving education through policy, but also be a part of creating a model that demonstrates the benefits of teaching teens in a unique and comprehensive way.
What can other communities learn from LightHouse, specifically the Gateway Cities?
I believe every Gateway City would benefit from LightHouse’s unique approach. LightHouse’s approach is that of a collaborative partnership between teen, family, all of the staff, and the community. Furthermore, LightHouse’s teens use a learner-driven method of education that is responsive to each student’s unique and ever-changing environment as young growing adults. It allows for the teens to take ownership of their education, giving them a heightened sense of pride, self-worth, and self-advocacy in the process—one that may be lacking for students in a traditional educational setting. The Gateway Cities are unique areas in which this model could be exceptionally effective, specifically with underserved populations and teens that may be facing more than just academic barriers in earning their degree.
An example: We have a student now who is currently taking several classes at LightHouse including a job skills class, a class on the history and artistry of hip hop, and a video editing class. He is also taking a psychology class at STCC through their dual enrollment program, and has recently been offered an exciting internship with a business in Springfield. He is also interested in forensics, and this fall had the opportunity to tour and meet with faculty in the Chemistry department at UMass Amherst as well as a police detective at Holyoke Police Department. Our personalized program has opened up numerous possibilities for this teen by inviting him to be a co-creator of his education, as well as an active member of his local cities as well as the broader commonwealth.
What unique perspective do you bring to the City Council?
I consider my willingness to collaborate, work with everyone, and yet maintain independence from any factions or cliques unique. Even on a local level, the political spectrum is becoming ever more polarized. The voters in my Ward elected me knowing that I would be willing to work with anyone in order to ensure that the city moves in a positive direction. Egos and individual political agendas are not my top priority. My two areas of focus, besides ensuring the City as a whole is progressing, are first, my Ward, Ward 2 (Churchill, Ingleside, Springdale, and South Holyoke) and second, the Latinx Community within the City of Holyoke, which make up close to half of the City’s population, and over 75% of the School population. Lastly, as the youngest individual currently serving on the council, I would have to say the freshness, energy, and passion I am bringing offers a very unique perspective, and I think my views come with a sense of impassioned action.
What do you hope to accomplish as a member of the City Council?
I have laid out an ambitious first term agenda. As a City Council member, I will not sit idly and take the time “learning the ropes.” On my first day, I passed the creation of a Puerto Rican Cultural Area for the South Holyoke and the Flats neighborhoods of Holyoke. I also hope that in these two years I can see the passage of the following orders I have submitted:
– Creation of a Human Rights Commission
– Balanced Budget Amendment
– Holyoke Fair Chance Law (“ban the box” for those with prior conviction records)
– Streamlining data of blighted and abandoned buildings throughout the City of Holyoke.
– Increasing revenue streams to offset structural deficit of City Budget.
– Revitalization of parks in my ward, using CBDG funds as well as private investments.
– Creation of a Local Festival to restore civic Pride back to lower sections of the City.
– Increasing the overall civic participation in the City, through voting, attending meetings, and establishing district office hours in each neighborhood within my Ward.
What are your goals for Holyoke?
My goals for the City of Holyoke begin with re-industrializing our city. We need to simultaneously increase the number of local high tech industries, expand our manufacturing base and broaden our creative & arts industries.
Additionally, it is no secret that Holyoke has amazing natural resources, HG&E, the Dam, the Canal Systems, etc. However, the asset that is currently underdeveloped is our people. I plan on fighting for the increase funding for workforce development and training to provide the skills that meet employers’ needs. Additionally, I hope to focus on making improvements to our school district. We must do better to ensure both our current and future Holyoke generations see Holyoke as a city of endless opportunities, and that the local workforce is at the top of the list when any company or organization is hiring within the city.
Lastly, a goal of mine is to have a government that is all-inclusive. Currently, with 48% of the City’s population being Latinx, there are only 3 Latinx City Councilor’s and 2 Latinx School Committeewomen. We must do better at increasing the number of Latinx representatives to ensure that all citizens of the City of Holyoke are included and represented.
Nelson Roman has also been involved with:
– International Imperial Court Council – International Board of Directors, of International Imperial Court System, assisting in the planning and oversight of 70 chapters across North America.
– One of the founding members and president of the Imperial Court of Western Mass Inc. A nonprofit 501(C)3 LGBT philanthropic organization that has allocated over $35,000 since its founding 4 years ago.
– Executive Director and founder of Springfield LGBT Film Festival – Founded in 2014 as a way to bring LGBT Films to the pioneer valley. In 2016 will expand to Holyoke. This is a charity fundraiser for the Bing Arts Center in Springfield.
– Current Board Member Springfield MASS PRIDE, the Taste of South Holyoke Festival Committee, Latinx Leadership, and member of the Holyoke Safe Neighborhood Initiative.– Past Board of Directors Member of the Springfield Puerto Rican Cultural Center and the AIDS Foundation of Western Massachusetts
– Helped to facilitate, along with residents and business owners, the creation of the first Neighborhood Association within my ward, the South Holyoke Neighborhood Association. In April of 2016, the Churchill Neighborhood Association will be formed.