Daniel Ross is helping recent immigrant Americans reconnect to their roots and enhance the economic vitality, cultural strength, health and well-being of their families and their communities.
The New Idea
Daniel believes that America’s urban immigrant communities can secure a brighter future for themselves and their cities by reconnecting to their roots. While most immigrants come from agrarian origins, many of them end up living in concrete cities with no access to land. Farmers at heart, they come to America to work in the fields, and then move into the city in search of better-paying jobs, only to find that many such jobs have moved overseas. In the meantime, they lose the community connectedness that is critical to their economic security and cultural identity. Daniel brings immigrant communities together to revitalize their ailing cities by developing culturally reinforcing economic opportunities, promoting food security, and improving their health and safety.
Daniel began by helping a Puerto Rican community in Holyoke, Massachusetts reconnect to the land and draw on its cultural strengths to create the economic, personal, and environmental connections that build and sustain a healthy community. Daniel recognized that the skills immigrants bring from their native countries—growing wholesome food, preparing traditional dishes, and expressing their culture through the arts—could be the basis for enterprises that provide livelihoods. Through Nuestras Raíces (Our Roots), community members acquire and share access to the land, equipment, and space they need to establish farms, restaurants, and other entrepreneurial enterprises.
At Nuestras Raíces (NR) the older generation prepares young leaders to drive the economic and cultural rebirth of their community. NR builds the capacity of youth, adults, and elders to take leadership roles in their local initiatives and participate in citywide and regional forums. By sharing their perspectives and working with the larger community, immigrants and refugees break down barriers and become partners in their city’s future. The result brings new vitality to depressed city centers and a new model to the country for rebuilding and creating healthy cities. Indeed, many other cities and organizations have expressed avid interest in learning from Daniel and NR about this unique way of applying the strengths of newcomers to the challenges of urban America.
Holyoke is a typical, formerly thriving industrial city, struggling as factories and jobs have moved to the south and overseas. As businesses and middle-class residents moved out of the city, the tax base declined, leaving the downtown area dilapidated and depressed. A large Puerto Rican community formed as many new citizens moved in, looking for work, low-cost housing, and social services. Now Puerto Ricans—with an average income per capita of $5,000 and 25 percent unemployment rate—comprise 75 percent of the population of downtown Holyoke. Like many newcomers, Puerto Ricans who come to Holyoke encounter racism, unequal access to opportunity, and political neglect. Their history of poverty and oppression undermines the community pride and cohesiveness they need to overcome these inequities.
Holyoke resembles many cities throughout New England and the rest of country, whose newest residents are immigrants and refugees with limited English skills, and little formal education or business training. Some newcomers start businesses that provide a modest living, but they lack the knowledge and resources to reach the scale needed to reduce poverty in their communities. Others are trapped and exploited in “under-the-table jobs” or enticed into drug-dealing. Willing, able-bodied workers become dependent on public assistance. Many children and adults lack access to enough nutritionally adequate and safe foods for an active, healthy life; some rely on emergency food supplies. Inner-city supermarkets often lack the fresh foods that could help prevent the diabetes, heart disease and strokes that disproportionately affect those communities. In addition, small farmers in or near the cities struggle to produce food for their local communities because they cannot compete with agribusiness conglomerates. By the time a farm product has gone through a broker, trucker, wholesaler and retail outlet, the farmer receives less than ten cents on the dollar.
There are efforts underway to support small farms, revitalize inner-cities, and provide safety, food security, clean air and water, and economic opportunities for the people who reside there; however, they are most often disconnected and focused only on discrete aspects of a larger, interrelated set of conditions. These efforts lack the innovation and capacity to change the systems that perpetuate the problems. Nor are the communities most affected by the problems initiating or leading the efforts to solve them. Youth in particular are rarely engaged as partners in finding solutions.
Nuestras Raíces offers an effective model for building healthy, vibrant communities founded on the skills and culture that immigrants possess and are proud to pass to younger generations. In this way, it rekindles cultural pride while enabling low-income Latinos to address environmental, economic development, and food security issues.
Nuestras Raíces started by engaging residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods to convert housing project courtyards into community gardens. To open one of the gardens, residents obtained a city ordinance to close off an alley. Today 135 families tend ten community gardens, some on lots once home to drug-dealers and gangs. Each garden has a children’s plot set aside for schools and youth organizations. NR members also converted an abandoned building and vacant lot into the Centro Agrícola, housing NR’s headquarters and training center, a bakery, a greenhouse, a restaurant, and a commercial kitchen that residents use on a time-share basis to expand home-based businesses. Murals and flowers adorn an outdoor plaza, transforming a busy downtown intersection from an eyesore to an oasis. The success of the gardens prompted expansion to a fertile 30-acre tract on the Connecticut River for farming and environmental projects. Tierra de Oportunidades (Land of Opportunity) was acquired with help from the Trust for Public Land. Just outside the city center, the new acreage supports small immigrant-owned farms, a youth training farm, a farm store, a pig roasting business, a petting zoo, and cultural celebrations.
By producing some of their own food, families not only enjoy a healthier diet, but also save money and earn income by selling the food they produce. The farms, restaurant, enterprise, and community organization nurture and replenish each other. Nuestras Raíces acquires the land and rents it to their farmers and entrepreneurs at a reasonable rate. Farmers sell their products to restaurants and to small Latino stores; the restaurant receives a rent discount for purchasing from NR farmers; and restaurant waste becomes livestock feed or compost for the farms. Farmers retain 70 percent of sales by selling their products at the NR farm site and at farmers’ markets, adding thousands of dollars to their annual incomes. NR farmers will supply a new healthy food court at the Holyoke Health Center. To benefit local farmers and downtown development, NR led the effort to make the Holyoke Farmers’ Market a Food Policy Council initiative, then managed and promoted the market to ensure its success. In a statewide trial of electronic cards for food stamps, this site had the highest redemption rate and was cited as a food security model. Daniel worked with the Office of Immigrants and Refugees to change the state food stamp program so inner-city residents can purchase fresh produce at bodegas stocked by local farmers. The Women, Infants and Children program adopted a similar policy.
Community members draw on the expertise, resources, and political influence of NR staff, business experts, experienced farmers and academic partners. UMass Agricultural Extension Services provides technical assistance. Market research funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture identified NR’s customer base and product preferences and determined which crops and enterprises would yield the highest profit margin. Daniel uses this research and business planning to attract investment capital for new enterprises.
Local food production and local businesses are rooted in cultural traditions that bring communities back together. NR reinforces this process through cultural events. NR’s farms, nature trails, performing arts and festivals draw visitors to what Daniel envisions as an agricultural and cultural “Disneyland.” NR members also work with city agencies to restore and reclaim parks, playgrounds, and other public spaces, and to revitalize tenant associations for long-term community empowerment. Through projects like these, Latino adults and youth are regaining pride in themselves, and changing the perception of others, who now see them as an asset to the city, sharing their culture at citywide events, bringing valued goods and services to the marketplace, engaging the inner-city constituency in the environmental movement and creating a haven of “country in the city” for all to enjoy.
The cornerstone of NR’s work is building leadership, particularly among youth. Each garden elects a coordinator; members vote on issues that arise. Youth and adults who show leadership potential participate in a formal training program and join the board and staff where they are paid for their services. Youth leaders receive training in agriculture, environmental issues, teaching skills, and form teams. The farm team raises and sells produce and small livestock and staffs booths at the farmstand and farmers’ markets. Another youth team created murals throughout Holyoke. At Tierra de Oportunidades the environmental team developed nature trails with bilingual signs and restored riparian buffer zones. This team also researched local air and water quality and presented their findings at local forums. These youth-led ventures contribute almost 50 percent of the youth leaders’ salaries. A USDA grant pays the balance, so the youth can share the profits from selling their farm products. The young leaders host visitors from around the U.S. and the world; present at regional and national conferences; and teach gardening and diversity in local and suburban schools.
The effects of this intergenerational community development model can be felt on many levels. Daniel notes that the youth are proud to transform a place that had been abandoned into something so beautiful, and to disprove negative stereotypes about Holyoke residents—particularly Latinos and teens. Working side by side with adults, the youth gain the know-how and work ethic they need to succeed. The farms and gardens become places where elders transmit knowledge and traditions to the youth. NR youth avoid gang membership, drugs and crime at rates far above their peers. Grades and disciplinary rates have also improved.
To date, NR has shared its model at conferences and by hosting visitors. Now, while continuing to develop the Holyoke program—developing a land trust, building a youth arts and entrepreneurial center, developing more farms and businesses, and helping NR farmers secure land and steward it for future generations—they have started reaching out to help immigrant communities in Springfield, MA, Providence, R.I., and other nearby cities adapt the model. Through the Ford Foundation, NR will also assist a cultural renewal project in New Orleans. Daniel is shifting his focus from local operations to regional and national replication. The founder of NR’s women’s empowerment program has become the Economic Development Director and the fifteen youth leaders are now apprentice staff. The next step is establishing the Nuestras Raíces Institute, a training center located at Tierra de Oportunidades. Training topics will include community change, asset-based economic development and environmental stewardship. Participants will be immigrant groups with strong agrarian roots, initial funding, and an early stage food, agricultural, cultural, or environmental project. Each community will bring a team to the Institute for initial training and a follow-up visit. NR staff will visit each site. The Institute will convene a Leadership Cadre to share best practices and train-the-trainers to build a grassroots movement.
NR accesses program partners and revenue streams through its work in food security, agriculture, health and fitness, immigrant and refugee empowerment, youth development, and environmental justice. Major partners include the Kellogg Foundation, Ford Foundation, Heifer International’s immigrant farming initiative, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Office of Immigrants and Refugees. In 2007, Nuestras Raíces, the Holyoke Health Center and a local coalition received a $4.5 million Kellogg Foundation grant to develop a national model of a citywide, community-driven food and fitness collaboration. Daniel will serve on a committee that guides capacity-building for Kellogg’s grantees.
Daniel understands what it means to be an outsider. Born in New York, his family moved often. His mother and father—a teacher and a doctor—entrusted Daniel’s care to Dominican neighbors, so he grew up speaking more Spanish than English. At age seven he moved to a small town in western Massachusetts, where Daniel’s classmates, mostly farm kids, taunted him relentlessly as the “little Jewish boy.” He had to fight for acceptance. At age eleven, he spent his summers picking vegetables at a local farm. In high school he was a day student at a boarding school. He studied hard, played sports and enjoyed books that inspired him with a sense of heroism.
An Eastern European immigrant, Daniel’s maternal grandfather united factory workers and became a leading communist in New York. Arrested for subversive activities, he spent years in prison before being cleared of all charges, dying soon after his release. This gave Daniel a strong desire to work for social justice. His paternal grandfather started out selling baked goods from a pushcart and eventually built a successful family business. Daniel’s mother co-founded the New England Foundation for Children and an innovative school that Daniel attended. These role models taught Daniel from an early age that you have to struggle and work hard to accomplish what you want.
As a team captain at Oberlin College, Daniel discovered he was good at inspiring people and building a cohesive, winning unit. He started working with immigrant communities by volunteering to teach English to low-income Puerto Ricans in a nearby town. After college Daniel worked on the East Coast Migrant Health Project, helping migrant workers and their families gain access to health care. He saw abuse, exploitation, and intimidation and knew that the underlying conditions had to change. In 1995, when he was transferred to Western Massachusetts, he saw an opportunity to help an oppressed community create and sustain their own economic and cultural empowerment—literally from the ground up. Daniel settled in downtown Holyoke and began his life’s work. No longer an outsider, he says, “I know everybody in town, from street thugs to the Mayor. I’ve been caught in gang crossfire and held a teenager as he bled in the alley behind our center. My wife is Puerto Rican. Our kids go to the public schools and we all breathe the contaminated air, play in the dilapidated parks and need the scarce jobs. I’m struggling to make my community better—safer, more just, more engaged, with more opportunities. I desperately want to see my children grow up healthy and happy but I see so many kids who don’t make it here. I connect this struggle with all of the parents who are trying to raise their children here and in communities just like Holyoke.” As a boy, Daniel “always knew he wanted to do something big.” He is.