October 14, 2020

When Mapping Meaning in Merrimack Valley, Everyone Has a Role to Play

by joeyphoenix

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What are the places, landmarks, and memories that define your sense of community? When you think of home, do you think of the park on the corner where you and your friends hang out on weekends? The coffee shop that has the best bagels? The neighborhoods you walk through to get to work? 

In 2019, the Essex County Community Foundation (ECCF) joined Lawrence-based Elevated Thought and the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission (MVPC) for Place and Meaning 2020, a cultural asset Mapping (click here to see the map) project centering on the spaces that are meaningful to residents of Merrimack Valley. This initiative seeks to pinpoint the epicenters of community and highlight third places and important landmarks by asking Merrimack Valley residents which spaces are the most significant to them. 

Essex County communities located in the Merrimack Valley include Amesbury, Andover, Boxford, Georgetown, Groveland, Haverhill, Lawrence, Merrimac, Methuen, Newbury, Newburyport, North Andover, Rowley, Salisbury, and West Newbury. Submissions for the mapping have come from all of these cities, and the result will highlight a diversity of voices from all ages and backgrounds. 

“We want to hear from everyone and anyone who has a special connection to the Merrimack Valley,” said Karen Ristuben (she/her), program director for ECCF’s Creative County Initiative in a press release announcing the submission. “Your submission might be a local museum or music hall, a little-known section of an area park, a piece of public art, an annual celebration or a memory of a place you used to go sledding as a kid.”

Creating a Sense of Community Ownership with Cultural Asset Mapping 

Elevated Thought, led by Founding Executive Director Marquis Victor (he/him), has been following and supporting similar community threads like this since 2008. Cultural identity is an ever evolving entity, especially cities like Lawrence which are minority-majority and demographically younger. Working to make the people living in those communities part of the story is an essential part of helping residents take responsibility for the sustainability of communities they live in. 

For organizations like Elevated Thought, this doesn’t just apply to the adults and decision makers in communities, but also the youth. Multiple studies have proven that opportunities for “meaningful participation in communities including problem solving, goal setting, and planning can be protective factors” that help youth grapple with the negative impacts of neglect, poverty, underrepresentation, and other similar societal challenges that have been there all along, but the global pandemic has brought sharply into relief. 

Because founder Marquis Victor and his team at Elevated Thought have been addressing social issues through art and community activation and by providing a platform for at-risk youth in Merrimack Valley since 2010, the partnership with ECCF and MVPC for Cultural Asset Mapping was a natural fit. Their role in the project will help not only how communities determine meaning, but will have the added benefit of including younger voices in the conversation as well. 

But when the pandemic hit earlier this year, the ability for organizations to go into these communities and have in-person conversations about meaning and sense of place was directly affected. So instead, the project organizers opened up online submissions for each of the 15 communities. The project will culminate in the publication of an Expressions Book featuring these submissions to be shared digitally and through a limited print edition this fall. 

“The project was initially designed to be an interactive way to get stories and places of meaning from people across the region,” said Victor. “But with COVID we had to change directions a little bit. 

“I presented the idea of us creating a book, because that’s something that Elevated Thought is familiar with because we do books every year. It’s something that’s been in our DNA since about 2014,” he added. 

Celebrating 10+ Years of Lifting Up Youth Voices

Although Elevated Thought has worked with and around all the cultural components of Merrimack Valley, their main focus has always been on lifting the voices of young people in the community. For them, youth are the most curious, the ones who are searching for meaning, the ones who are ultimately going to decide the shape of the future. 

Unfortunately, young people are rarely ever brought into the conversations about things that directly affect them. Education boards, health boards, and other social services that actively impact the lives of kids very rarely have youth representation.

“In a city like Lawrence, where we’re a majority of young people in the city – we’re a young city, demographically, you would think that if we make up the most percentage of people, that we would be in these spaces in these rooms and these conversations, but we’re not.”  said Amaryllis Lopez (she/her), Program Director of Elevated Thought, who joined the organization as a high school sophomore.

“If there are conversations going on about education or things that directly impact youth, kids are never in the room,”  she added. 

Recognizing the importance of these challenges to power structures when it comes to community development is a component of what will help cities thrive.

“When youth do have a proper platform, their voices are amplified.” explained Victor. “But it’s scary for adults in power for many reasons because it can jeopardize ways in which to maintain a certain kind of power structure.” 

Connection to place, ownership of and commitment to the well-being of a community, and planning for the future of those spaces is the responsibility of all community members, whether they’re beginning highschool, starting a family, or planning retirement. 

To follow the progress of Cultural Asset Mapping project or follow the publication progress of the Expressions book, follow Essex County Community Foundation and Elevated Thought on Facebook. 

Support Accessibility on the North Shore

Creative North Shore is having ongoing discussion of Accessibility and Disability Awareness leading up to the International Day of Disabled Persons on December 3 and the hopeful introduction of a Disability Parade in 2021. If this is a topic you are interested, have thoughtful story ideas, or know of an organization to add to the list below please reach out to joeyphoenix@creativecollectivema.com

Organizations to Support