While division and strife mark the national news, the news here in Western Massachusetts is about coordination and collaboration – especially among an emerging group of young leaders in government, business and the nonprofit sector who are tackling our region’s longtime challenges with new energy and fresh perspectives.
As co-chair of the state Senate’s Millennial Engagement Initiative, I’ve traveled to every corner of our commonwealth to meet with young people who are stepping up to lead. Millennials, in particular, are ready to reject old dogmas and divisions and to, instead, focus on solving problems through collaboration and building bridges across diverse viewpoints and cultures.
Western Massachusetts has been at the vanguard of this change. Two Western Massachusetts cities are led by millennials: Alex Morse in Holyoke and Will Reichelt in West Springfield. A near majority of the Springfield City Council is now under 40. This fall, Chicopee elected a new School Committee member and two new city councilors, each in their early 20s.
These young leaders are already changing their communities and bringing forward new ideas. Last month, the Springfield City Council increased the age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21, after a group of young people organized a campaign to change the law. Chicopee is exploring options to improve broadband Internet service, and both Holyoke and West Springfield are better leveraging technology to make government more transparent and responsive. Young people are driving each of these initiatives.
By bringing a more activist perspective to municipal government, millennials are also expanding the circle of people involved in government decision-making, offering new pathways for women and minorities to enter public service, regardless of age.
Our business community is similarly benefiting from an emerging generation of young entrepreneurs who are creating jobs and adding vibrancy to the economy here in Western Massachusetts.
Companies like Paragus Strategic IT, owned by Delcie Bean, who is 31, are creating new technology jobs and experimenting with new management models, like employee ownership sharing, that have the potential to become models nationwide. Tech Foundry, another initiative launched by Bean, is successfully training unemployed and high-school-aged individuals for IT jobs in local companies, and has received plaudits (and grants) from leaders in Boston.
Iron Duke Brewing, founded by young brew masters Mike Marcoux and Nick Morin, both in their 30s, has become a must-stop for craft brewery enthusiasts, expanding to dozens of bars and package stores in just a few years of operation.
These are just a few examples of many millennial-run businesses from across Western Massachusetts, revitalizing our cities and towns. In 2018, I’m confident we will see even more millennials here open new businesses and create new jobs.
It’s a good thing we have so many young people willing to step up, because the next several years, while filled with opportunity, will continue to present challenges that require creativity and outside-the-box thinking.
A lack of connectivity is putting a ceiling on our region’s growth, and, if we don’t make some substantial changes, we will continue to fall further and further behind the Greater Boston area.
An opiate epidemic is hollowing out our families and burdening our health and justice systems. Persistent economic inequality is limiting our region’s full potential, and too many areas of Western Massachusetts remain too segregated and too isolated from each other.
Luckily, our region is blessed with many institutions bringing people together to take on these challenges. And again, millennials are stepping up and taking leadership roles.
The Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts offers training for young women interested in running for public office. Valley Venture Mentors is supporting young entrepreneurs who want to start their business here and Leadership Pioneer Valley is providing a forum for young leaders in business, nonprofits, and politics to come together to tackle these common challenges with one voice.
This is how millennials solve problems, and this is how our region’s young leaders will make lasting change for our communities.
This is the challenge of 2018, as MGM Springfield opens its doors, CRRC Massachusetts comes on line, and new rail service connects Springfield with Hartford and New Haven. Now is the time to take these very important gains even further, by making sure we lock-in new opportunities and new jobs for generations to come.
As one young man said at our millennial discussion at the Edward Kennedy Institute in Boston, “If you give young people opportunity, they will create opportunity.”
Yes, they will. With a renewed spirit of collaboration and optimism, our region’s emerging leaders will help turn these developments into real benefits for our families and communities.
But doing that will take time, and it will require the determination to see good ideas through to implementation. It will also demand the participation of young people unafraid to stand up and lead.
Eric P. Lesser, of Longmeadow, is senator for the First Hampden & Hampshire District, serves as co-chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, and leads Millennial Outreach for the state Senate.