A few years ago, Somerville’s Center for Teen Empowerment (TE) was in trouble, down to just two staffers: Danny McLaughlin and Sassy Estany. “And I was part-time, but I was definitely doing way more than part-time,” Sassy laughs. “It was a lot.”
Undeterred, Sassy helped work to rebuild the program. She and McLaughlin sent countless emails, made scores of phone calls and got out into the community, connecting with the city, other activists and neighborhood groups to show how important Teen Empowerment’s work was.
“TE was the program that gave us the platform and the understanding of how to critically think about our surroundings and the social interactions we had in our everyday lives,” says her brother, Sergio, who today works alongside his sister as an associate program coordinator. “We just kind of stuck around. We always knew the door was open.”
Sergio and Sassy say that Somerville’s young people are wise beyond their years. They speak intelligently and thoughtfully about issues that are of concern to them—racism, drug addiction, gentrification, mental health. “Their way of thinking is beyond me, sometimes,” Sassy says. “I’m just like, man, maybe you should be in this position.”
For this dynamic sibling duo, the job is often as simple as being there for their teens, many of whom don’t have someone they can talk with and relate to on these issues. “We always think it’s, in a sense, so simple. Why don’t people just do that? Why aren’t people just nice and caring?” asks Sassy. “But that’s because we’ve had figures like us,” adds Sergio. “It’s like a ripple effect … it makes you appreciate the program that much more.”
It’s why many Somerville teens return to Teen Empowerment year after year—and why many, like Sergio and Sassy, continue to do important work with the organization as full-time staff members after participating in their youth.
When we meet Bug, he’s looking very stylish in a Superman shirt and cape. But a few minutes later, he turns to his parents, Kelly and Steve. “I should have worn a Bug’s Bikes shirt!”
Bug is a strategic salesman and a dedicated professional. He’s also only seven years old. He and his parents run a 501(c)(3) charity called Bug’s Bikes, which raises money to help differently-abled children and their families purchase adaptive bicycles, like Bug’s own. Bug is visually impaired and has medical complexities and high-functioning autism—but nothing stops him from riding his bike, which has three wheels, a seat belt and a seatback. Adaptive bicycles come with a variety of features depending on the child.
Bug’s Bikes has raised money to provide bicycles to seven overjoyed recipients in the Greater Boston area, plus three more as part of a collaborative program with Franciscan Children’s Hospital. Bug and his parents say there’s no feeling like telling a family they’ll be receiving a bike—particularly because these bikes are more than just toys. An adaptive bicycle often marks the first opportunity for an entire family to go on rides together, and hospitals and other programs use adaptive bikes for therapy to help kids build strength. But insurance companies consider the bikes a “luxury” expense and don’t help with costs, which can run upwards of $800—a prohibitive expense for many families.
Community support has been integral to their success so far, according to Bug’s parents. Businesses including Kelly’s Diner, the Winter Hill Community School, Maxwell’s Green, East Cambridge Savings Bank and the local police and fire departments have supported their cause. At one lemonade stand, Somerville Fire Department trucks drove by throughout the day to take photos and show support. “Bug was over the moon,” Kelly says. With the support of his parents and Bug’s own unending enthusiasm, things are going strong. They hope to expand the nonprofit; their goal is to consistently raise enough money to give away multiple bikes a month.
When Bug originally met with the Maxwell’s Green property manager, she asked him why he wanted to give these bikes away. Bug responded so perfectly that they have since adopted his response as their tagline: “Bikes like mine, for kids like me.”
Bug’s Bikes will hold their annual lemonade stand fundraiser, featuring lawn games, face painting and more, on Saturday, August 20, at Maxwell’s Green. The event is rain or shine, and all are welcome. If you’re interested in donating to or volunteering with Bug’s Bikes, you can reach out at bugsbikes.org.
Groundwork Somerville promotes community building and sustainable environmental practices through youth programming, urban agriculture and other green practices and social engagement efforts. And its executive director, Chris Mancini, is dedicated to all parts of the nonprofit’s mission.
Since 2011, Mancini has guided the Groundwork Somerville team through a wide range of projects. It isn’t always easy—one of the organization’s signature programs, which entails creating green space and gardens in unused lots throughout the city, has become increasingly difficult as there’s less and less open space available. But through strategic direction and partnerships, Mancini is helping Groundwork—and the city—to thrive and grow while embracing these changes.
Mancini’s involvement with other organizations like Somerville Food Security and Shape Up Somerville shows his community-minded approach to leadership, with a focus on empowering others. He says that collaborative, outcome-driven work is most meaningful to him as a leader. Somerville youth who participate in Groundwork programs are encouraged to envision themselves as leaders, and Mancini says it’s one of the most rewarding parts of his job. “To see a shy kid get up in front of an crowd at an agriculture conference and deliver—it’s so great,” he says.
Today, one of Mancini’s goals is to attract more residents to visit Groundwork’s South Street Farm, in the same way they might a city park, by hosting events and improving accessibility.
But the best leaders know their limits. “Having a three-year-old at home who I can’t convince to clean up after herself is pretty humbling in the leadership department,” Mancini laughs. Even this holds a lesson: “Having a partner and a child is very grounding,” he adds, “and I encourage my staff to value and prioritize their family and personal lives.”
“We have so many great amenities coming into this community. How do we make sure everyone gets to benefit over the long haul?”
Meredith Levy joined the Somerville Community Corporation (SCC) 13 years ago as the organization’s director of community organizing. Driven by big-picture urban policy challenges and a desire to work with people, she set out to answer community equity questions through grassroots work and policy changes. Now, as Deputy Director of SCC, she’s working behind the scenes to bring economic opportunities to a diverse population.
“There’s just a lot happening here in Somerville,” she explains. “It’s a dense city, and there are a lot of opportunities. It’s a great place to do this work and to build relationships with so many different people.”
For Levy, affordable housing has been one of the keys to connecting people to their community. In May, when the city passed the inclusionary zoning policy requiring 20 percent of all new residential development in the city to be affordable, she saw it as the culmination of a decade of hard work. “Somerville has one of the most progressive inclusionary zoning policies in the country now, because of this campaign,” she says. “To be in a job for 13 years and to see it happen, it’s just gratifying beyond words.”
Going forward, Levy hopes to be able to build opportunities for low-income residents beyond affordable housing. She wants people to belong to the culture of the community, to feel connected to a network and, ideally, to become leaders. Considering Somerville’s thriving creative economy, she asks, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could connect that growth with a whole part of our population that doesn’t always have access to that world?”
As Community Organizer for the SCC, Karen Narefsky spends a lot of her time going to neighborhood events, knocking on doors and talking with Somerville residents.
“It’s really about bringing people together and activating that sense of passion and the desire to take leadership,” she says, adding with a laugh, “You’d be surprised how many people open their doors and go, ‘Oh, someone wants to talk with me about my community? Okay!’”
Narefsky believes that city and institutional structures can make it hard for members of the community to feel like they can be engaged, which means that knowledge and energy often go untapped. Her job is to find the people who may not even realize their own potential, to help them get involved in their community and to be a part of the decision-making process.
She recalls meeting one woman at a First Source Jobs Program workshop aimed at connecting residents looking for jobs with local employers. Narefsky asked the woman, who had lived in Union Square for eight years, if she had ever been involved in any community organizing. The woman admitted that she hadn’t, but that conversation sparked an interest. “This is someone who goes to school, who works, who’s a parent … but she became really involved in the Union United Coalition, and she’s developed all of these relationships with people in the community,” says Narefsky. “People recognize her and wave to her on the street. People want to know what her opinion is on a particular issue.”
For Narefsky, tapping into these individuals isn’t just for their personal growth—it’s about strengthening the community by connecting people directly to it.
Tucker Lewis and Jen Park met more than 20 years ago when they were working at the now-closed Herrell’s Ice Cream in Harvard Square. They shared an entrepreneurial spirit and wanted to start their own scoop shop. However, concerned that the seasonal ice cream biz was too risky for first-time business owners, they opted instead to open a coffee shop with year-round appeal.
Lewis and Park’s Diesel Cafe welcomed its first customers in 1999. Nine years later, they launched Bloc 11 in Union Square, and Forge Baking Company on Somerville Avenue opened its doors in 2014. From coffee to baked goods to lunch fare, all three locations have become bustling hubs of activity, attracting the work-from-home set, families balancing babies and sandwiches, friends sharing coffee cakes and solo residents taking it all in. Their eateries collaborate whenever possible; all breads and pastries are baked at Forge, the shops have similar coffee programs and Lewis and Park host cross-staff trainings for their more than 100 employees—but the locations have their own identities.
“Each store—as a result of being in a different community—kind of reflects that neighborhood,” Park says. At Diesel, which draws from a young, professional customer base, seats with proximity to outlets are stalked (and pounced upon) by customers clutching laptops. Outdoor seating at Bloc 11 accommodates big groups of friends and families gathering for weekend brunch. And though it’s a newer spot, customers already know to squeeze in, elbow-to-elbow, and share tables at Forge during peak hours. In this way, Lewis and Park are quite literally bringing residents closer together. With each new location, they’ve been at the forefront of Somerville’s neighborhood and community building.
No longer newcomers to the restaurant industry, the duo is finally ready to take on their white whale. This summer, right next door to Forge Baking Company, you can visit the brand-new Forge Ice Cream Bar.
Winter Hill Bank is celebrating its 110th year in 2016—no small feat for an independent, local bank with just five locations that’s competing against monolithic financial institutions. “And we have done so by remaining true to our core belief that at the end of the day, it is people and the relationships that are developed that really make it work,” says president and CEO Sandra McGoldrick. “And that is what community banking is all about.”
McGoldrick’s neighborhood-based approach isn’t solely reflected in her role at Winter Hill Bank, though she’s taken great pride in leading the organization for more than two decades. The Somerville native has also had her hands in countless nonprofits and business organizations throughout the city. She serves as treasurer for the Somerville YMCA and has served on the board of the Somerville Home. She’s worked to provide transitional and affordable housing for low-income families. She served as past president of the Kiwanis Club, and in 2007 she initiated the Kiwanis Annual Appeal, which to date has raised more than $100,000—100 percent of which has gone back to the community in the form of donations to area nonprofits and scholarships for Somerville High School seniors.
For decades, McGoldrick has been using business as the launching pad from which to give back to her city. The former chair of the Somerville Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors has received numerous accolades from the chamber, including a 2010 lifetime achievement award. She currently serves on the chamber’s Government Affairs Committee, working with Mayor Curtatone and the Board of Aldermen to formulate initiatives that benefit both businesses and residents.
“Today, with the other developments and initiatives that have taken place, when people mention Boston and Cambridge they now say Boston, Cambridge and Somerville,” McGoldrick explains. “And that’s quite an accomplishment.”
In 2008, Jessie Banhazl left an unfulfilling job in television production in New York City and was living at her parents’ house in Wayland, with just the seed of a business plan in her brain. “My parents are both entrepreneurs,” she reflects today, “so they were a good support system.”
The idea was this: Start a business in Massachusetts, the likes of which existed on the West Coast but not yet here, that would build and maintain gardens for commercial and residential clients. Banhazl started small, working with a friend out of her parents’ house, then out of coffee shops throughout Cambridge and, finally, from an office space in Somerville. She hasn’t looked back since.
Her company, Green City Growers, now employs 20 staffers and works with clients in the region ranging from restaurants to private homes, schools and hospitals—even Fenway Park. Now in its second season, the Fenway rooftop farm attracts half a million people each year. (“We’re the Red Sox’s other farm team,” Banhazl jokes.) That project launched GCG onto a national platform; this year, they signed on to partner with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America initiative.
But Banhazl isn’t satisfied yet. She wants to expand and focus more on gardens that are publicly accessible, like Fenway, to help challenge people’s understanding of how food can be grown and their knowledge of what they’re eating.
“Personally, it’s really exciting to see the business grow,” she says. “But what’s great about having a social mission is that while you grow in scale, you can impact more people … How do we create spaces for people to understand the importance of fresh food, and also to access that fresh food?”
“It’s like a tale of two cities, where you have cool events like Fluff Fest or the Honk Parade, and meanwhile, you have kids overdosing in the bathrooms of Davis Square. Clearly, there’s a problem that needs to be addressed.”
Jesse Clingan is a community organizer who has worked with Somerville Overcoming Addiction (SOA), an organization with a mission to eliminate drug overdose fatalities, remove the stigma of addiction and connect the community with addiction support and recovery services. A small group of community activists formed SOA in 2014 after then-governor Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency in response to the growing epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose deaths. The group’s first event was a free screening at the Somerville Theater of The Anonymous People, a documentary about the more than 23 million Americans living in long-term recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs. The screening was well-attended, and Clingan helped facilitate a training for Narcan—an opiate antidote—at the event.
“We were a conduit,” explains Clingan. “We were your neighbors and we were your friends bringing you the resources that were already out there but that so many people don’t know about.”
SOA continues to hold Narcan trainings at its events, which Clingan believes is necessary in preventing drug overdose fatalities in the community. Just a few days after the screening at the Somerville Theater, he heard that someone in the audience that night had to use the Narcan they received from that training on their daughter. “That was extremely powerful to hear,” he recalls. “We knew we were on the right path then, and we knew we had to continue to bring this lifesaving antidote and this message to people. And we’re still doing it.”
Clingan currently works with the Ryan Harrington Foundation—a charitable family foundation in memory of Somerville resident Ryan Harrington, who died of an overdose in 2011. The foundation supports local youth organizations and assists people struggling with addiction.
“So now, within a 4.3 square mile city you have Somerville Overcoming Addiction, the Harrington Foundation and the Alex Foster Foundation,” Clingan explains. “Certainly, there’s a problem in Somerville like every city, but it’s easy to ignore because there’s such a difference in population. We definitely have made the city take notice.”
“We need to stay vigilant,” he adds.
Sitting at the Sarma bar, sipping a glass of sauvignon blanc and taking tiny bites of the bluefish falafel (to make it last as long as possible), you can see directly into the bright, open kitchen where chef and co-owner Cassie Piuma spends her time.
Piuma and Ana Sortun worked together for almost a decade at Sortun’s iconic Cambridge restaurant Oceana before opening Sarma together in 2013. A mezze-style Middle Eastern restaurant with small dishes like fava bean pate and steak tartare—and plenty of options for vegetarians—Sarma is reliably delicious, innovative and satisfying. “We wanted to be part of a lively neighborhood where people actually live,” Piuma says, “and contribute something meaningful to the community.” Sarma is tucked behind Somerville High School, in a residential Winter Hill nook. “I think a location speaks to you.”
Under Piuma’s guidance, Sarma walks an enviable line between casual and fancy. It’s both a neighborhood restaurant for residents and a destination for foodies from throughout the region. “I think Sarma is successful because it’s approachable, comfortable and fun,” Piuma observes. “It appeals to folks from all walks of life and doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
As a resident, Piuma is a fan of the varied food scene in Somerville. She rattles off a dozen of her favorite spots, including Spoke, 3 Little Figs, Istanbulu and Tasty Momo. But there is one missing piece for Piuma: breakfast and coffee spots distributed throughout each neighborhood—“preferably on my walk to work.”
What’s next for the local chef? “I’d love to do a fast-casual lunch place someday, or maybe an outpost for our fried chicken and hummus,” says Piuma. Luckily for Somerville, Sarma remains her primary focus—for now.
This story originally appeared in our July/August print edition, in which we profiled 40 local leaders who make Somerville great. The magazine is available for free at more than 150 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
Check back next week for profiles 11-20!