FITCHBURG — A group of people connected to the city recently attended the NeighborWorks America Community Leadership Institute conference in Charlotte, North Carolina that focused on moving forward post-pandemic and helping those who need it the most.
The event theme was “Make Your Mark: No Limits,” which according to the organization, provided the backdrop for gathering with community leaders from all over the nation to inspire, heal, connect, and celebrate all that has been overcome since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Leaders from Charlotte and around the country shared how they’ve worked creatively in their own communities to continue to drive change despite and because of limitations of the pandemic.
“It was a very impactful experience,” said Fitchburg Public Schools Family and Community Engagement Coordinator Luisa Fernandez. “I had the beautiful experience of learning about what other communities are doing in terms of housing, education, food insecurity, art and culture, and diversity and inclusion. It was also beautiful to witness the empowerment of some of the participants, despite their vulnerability and language limitations, and lots of young people participating.”
The core mission of NeighborWorks America is to create opportunities for people to improve their lives and strengthen their communities.
As a congressionally chartered and funded nonpartisan nonprofit with network organizations in every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, it supports organizations that provide communities with affordable housing, financial counseling and coaching, training, and resident engagement, and collaboration in the areas of health, employment, and education.
In fiscal year 2021, $101.2 million in grant funding was distributed from its annual core appropriation and in the same year NeighborWorks network members reported more than $16.8 billion of investment in their communities.
Fernandez was joined by five others for the national conference: NewVue Communities, Inc. Director of Community Organizing Francisco Ramos, Empower Children for Success, Inc. President and CEO Marites MacLean, local artist Shara Osgood, who has been the lead muralist for several city projects, InTown Fitchburg Downtown Community Coordinator Monique Reverie, and Fitchburg Art Museum Deputy Director of Advancement and Administration Rebecca Wright.
“We play different roles in the local community,” Fernandez said. “We are all volunteers in different projects and causes but something that really connects us is the love for Fitchburg, and the vision of transformation of our city as a better place for individuals and families to raise their families, work and play.”
MacLean said her experience with NeighborWorks online training inspired her to attend the conference because she knew that she would “be able to develop new skills to use to improve the lives of the population that we serve in Fitchburg.”
“We discovered that we need to speak for ourselves and tell our own stories,” she said. “We need to find a way to have the people in our community come out and tell their own stories. Nobody else can tell our stories for us. I learned that hunger is an important issue in our community and that the programs that address that issue take a band-aid approach. The issue always remains, and we need to address it at the root.”
Osgood said that for her, the overall conference experience was “so inspiring.”
“I met so many community leaders from all over the country and gained some incredible tools and ideas to help move our own city forward,” she said. “I am excited to bring these skills to help engage and mobilize our community. We can amplify our voices and create a stronger community.”
Reverie echoed her sentiments, saying “it was an amazing experience to attend…and learn how to better myself and uplift my community.”
“Meeting people who are making a positive impact across the county was such a pleasure,” she stated. “The struggles and injustices we all face are similar, so it is important to me to learn from my peers. It was a great experience, I learned a lot, and I feel inspired to bring something back home that will help to make a difference in my community.”
Ramos said he feels the city and region “are somewhat isolated from leadership development efforts taking place somewhere else and because of this it is important to go out to other cities and learn from other experiences and other efforts.”
“We have come back very inspired to implement what we learned, and we are committed to continue learning and developing in the future,” he said.
Wright said they all “came back with a lot of energy and enthusiasm to create positive change in Fitchburg and North Central Mass,” and that the conference “was a very powerful experience to learn from and share ideas with grass-roots communities from across the country.”
The group, who dubbed themselves the ‘Charlotte 6,’ was awarded $4,000 in NeighborWorks grant funding.
“We are thrilled to bring home money for a community project that we are already planning together,” Fernandez shared, adding that the group will be meeting this week to decide where the funds will be allocated. “We know that it will be a program that directly impacts minorities and the most vulnerable people in our city.”