by Joey Phoenix
In Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett’s book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself, the authors describe the importance of asset-based development. They talk about how communities – particularly those in developing countries – already have all of the talent and the determination to change the socio-economic landscape for the better.
What they’re missing isn’t talent or time or motivation. They’re missing resources.
Lynn, MA native Pedro Soto first came across this concept while planning for a trip to the Dominican Republic in February of 2012. While going to graduate school for Urban Planning at UMass Amherst, he became involved with a faith-based organization named Mercyhouse in Amherst, MA, and got connected to other like-minded people with a similar vision, one of whom was EforAll Lynn director Kevin Moforte.
He quickly learned that it’s not the job of those with resources to enter a community and impose their ideas and solution on assumed deficiencies. It’s their responsibility to work with the leaders, the dreamers, the creators in the community to co-create change from the bottom up.
It’s a lesson he would hold close to him throughout his career to date.
Learning to Build Communities
Pedro was born in a shanty town in the Dominican Republic and moved with his dad to the United States when he was four. Once he arrived, it didn’t take long for the art bug to bite him. On a trip to Salem in third grade, he was enraptured by the city’s unique maritime and witch history. It would plant a seed of curiosity in him that he would take into early adolescence.
“In high school, I became interested in how commerce changed societies and how societies evolved,” Pedro explained. “It’s what led me to start thinking about cities and how they grow and change over time.”
While he was studying graphic design in high school at the Lynn Vocational Technical Institute, Pedro managed to secure an internship with the docents at the Peabody Essex Museum, creating newsletters and using his design skills. During his stay, he was able to fully immerse himself in Salem’s rich maritime history and learn how Salem’s culture and community have changed and developed over the years.
From there he went on to study sociology and political science at Salem State University, and secure another internship in Washington D.C. at the Local Initiative Support Corporation.
“I learned after a couple of days that this was not something I wanted to do,” Pedro said with a laugh, “but that didn’t keep me from staying for the entire summer.”
Fortunately, a chance meeting during that summer allowed him to discover the kind of work he would be spending most of the next decade doing.
“I met an urban planner who happened to be African-American, and when he told me about the kind of work that he did I knew that I wanted to do what he was describing: helping ensure that new developments can fit within the fabric of existing communities and how the built environment can support the quality of life in those communities.”
He was hooked.
When he returned to Salem State his senior year he dove deep into the world of city planning, researching initiatives that had already taken place and figuring out where he could make an impact.
This research ultimately led him to apply for graduate school at UMass Amherst for city planning, and although he would defer for three years to work as an accountant for BNY Mellon, he eventually would attend the school on a full ride, fully embracing a career and a calling that had been speaking to him for years.
Cisterns and Soap in the Dominican Republic
So when Pedro met Kevin Moforte at a barbeque in 2012 and he and Kevin and Pastor Robert Krumroy of Mercyhouse started planning the trip to the Dominican Republic, no one was quite sure what would come out of that endeavor.
The first year, they set out with an open mind. Instead of bringing solutions to the problems they thought existed, the three of them wanted to ask the people of the DR how they could be a part of their development plan and goals, and how they would be able to help the leaders in the communities achieve those goals.
“Poor people, especially in the third world, they’re smart,” Pedro said. “They know what changes in their life will help them, they just don’t have the resources.”
Through his research and experiences, Pedro also discovered that while some countries may be materially poor, they are incredibly rich culturally.
“I use the example that in some countries if I have a can of beans, you have a can of beans too,” he explained. “In these communities, there’s so much interaction and there’s a value and a richness in that.”
After considering multiple projects and discussing ideas with the people involved, the team built a cistern in Las Malvinas II to hold water and a delivery system to pipe the water into the homes of the people in the town.
Once it was finished, the team dedicated it to the community, but in doing so they established a pact where no one would benefit solely from the existence of this, but instead, everyone who used it would pay a little bit for the upkeep of the system.
The next year, they went back with a little different mindset and decided to slightly shift their approach.
“We thought, instead of providing these amenities, why don’t we focus on social and economic issues? How do we provide jobs for them, particularly for the women?” He recalled.
What had come to his attention was the fact that when it comes to investing in communities, there’s often an entire section of the population that gets ignored, and it’s an asset that shouldn’t be ignored.
“A lot of studies say that if you want to build communities, invest in women because women know how to redistribute resources. Men are historically not great at that,” Pedro added.
Moforte came up with the idea to start a soap factory, something that had a low entry level in terms of skill and education. Then, once the product was made, the workers could sell the soap to other markets like hotels and specialty markets and the dollars that came in could be used to pay fair market wages.
When Pedro and his wife got married in August of 2016, he used Esperanza Soap, made by the women in these factories for wedding favors for his guests.
Pop-ups in Peabody
After graduating from UMass Amherst in 2013, Pedro worked with the cities of Methuen and Haverhill to identify the abandoned/vacant properties in these communities and determine how the cities can get them back onto the tax roll and get them cleaned up.
But, for him, the real work for his career started when the City of Peabody hired him in 2015 to work in the community development department under Karen Sawyer Conard.
In his initial research, he came across the Peabody residents’ longstanding desire to have a public space of their own, somewhere they could gather and hang out. This discovery led him to come up with the idea of a parklet, or a third space which is used to extend the sidewalk into a place for people to relax and hang out.
His team at the City of Peabody partnered with Crowley Cottrell landscape architects to create a pop-up cafe and see if the city’s desire for a third space was still relevant.
As it would turn out, it absolutely was. Over three days the pop-up, a partnership with Atomic Café, was incredibly well received and made use of. Seeing the success of this led to a pop-up beer garden for Octoberfest, a partnership with Sam Adams, and the beer garden raised $1700 in two hours, an amount which the City of Peabody was able to donate back to the community.
“It really showed that there was a need for that in the community. People need places to hang out.”
The culmination of all this data was eventually what led to the creation of Breaking Grounds Café in downtown Peabody, originally known as the Coffee Experiment, a popular coffeehouse and gathering space for the Peabody community.
“Breaking Grounds is really the product of all of the data we were able to gather with parklets and all the desires of the community and it translated well into this space. Peabody has really taken on this pop-up model, and have recently introduced things like the Ice Bar in Winter and CuriousCity. They’re just really willing to try things.”
Co-Creating Change with Beyond Walls
During the time when Pedro was working with the City of Peabody on these various third space initiatives, he also had started volunteering for a new program in Lynn called Beyond Walls, mostly on a volunteer basis. He had made the acquaintance of Beyond Walls CEO and founder Al Wilson and was excited by what Al was doing.
“I offered my skills in mapping and data crunching. I was working my full-time job and also working 20-30 hours a week just helping out with that.”
Eventually, thanks to fundraising efforts, Beyond Walls was eventually able to offer Pedro a salaried position as Associate Director and have him come on full-time, which is something he’s been doing for the last two years. The continuing mission of Beyond Walls is to activate space in different communities, using creativity to address the unique needs of a city or space.
In 2019, Beyond Walls is looking to expand its mission in Lynn, and Pedro is excited about the prospects.
“One of the things that kept coming up from artists and performers at last year’s [festival] post-mortem is that there aren’t many spaces downtown in Lynn to engage an audience.”
Taking the idea that he used during his work with the City of Peabody, Pedro and the Beyond Walls team decided it was time to bring in some parklets to the programming. They submitted a proposal to ECCF for this purpose and received the funding they needed to launch the parklets this year.
“When we designed them we created a committee of people in the community and we worked again with Crowley Contrell landscape architects to design a parklet that’s mobile and could be reconfigured into three different setups.”
The first, “Vend,” is parklet for pop-up shops. The second, “Perform,” is a performance space with seating. The last is called “Gather” and contains supplemental seating for larger events. These will be popping up in Love alley, Central Square Lynn, and a third location to be determined.
“We’re creating some programming around [these parklets], and we’re working with Rosario from Cojuelos’ productions, she’s been doing all of the community outreach and will create community-specific events which will be rolling out pretty soon.”
In addition to the parklet project, Pedro is also excited about a waterfront development project that Beyond Walls has been working on for about a year and a half: The Launch
“We haven’t had the economic base to support waterfront development that’s inclusive. It’s just been box stores. We’re one of the few communities on the east coast that has a Walmart on the waterfront.”
The space in question is a three-acre site alongside the 7.8M ferry terminal facility that was built a few years ago but hasn’t been put into use.
“We have an opportunity to put a stake in the ground for the everyday people of Lynn. Waterfronts are developed over decades,” Pedro explained, “but there is a lot of movement happening so we can demonstrate what meaningful public access to the water looks like, what it means to have that access be assured.”
Beyond Walls has been looking into the data and regulations around the site, trying to decide how to meet the needs of the people while still meeting the demands of the city itself, which could present a challenge.
“We’ll be launching some project ideas to the community soon and introducing the framework for what we can do there and get some feedback on amenities and managed, we want it to feel very public but professionally managed.”
Lynn is a city that Pedro has grown up in, worked in, and played in, and he finds it really easy to give back to it and help them create spaces they can be proud of.
His experiences prior to and during his time with Beyond Walls have given him such deep perspective on the challenges communities face and how those challenges can be overcome by working directly with the leaders and assets that already exist in those spaces.
“We’re really the underdogs. We have difficulties in our financing but find ways to make things happen and band together and float all boats. I’m confident that with everyone coming to the table we’ll be able to build a better tomorrow for Lynn.”
The Beyond Walls Street Art Festival is from July 22 – August 23, 2019. To see the full schedule of events or learn more, go to their website at https://www.beyond-walls.org/2019-festival
Joey Phoenix is a performance artist and the Managing Editor of Creative North Shore. Follow them on Twitter @jphoenixmedia. If you have an idea for a story, feature, or pictures of adorable llamas, feel free to send them a message at firstname.lastname@example.org