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A Partnership for Change in Lawrence

The 2021 Patrick Prize for Community Colleges Winner Reflects on the Origins and Impact of the Lawrence Partnership

December 17, 2021

Guest post: By Dr. Lane Glenn, President, Northern Essex Community College

In 2012, Boston Magazine ran an article with the unflattering, sensationalist headline, “Lawrence MA: City of the Damned.” The first sentence summed up the rest of the story: “Crime is soaring, schools are failing, government has lost control, and Lawrence, the most godforsaken place in Massachusetts, has never been in worse shape.”

Like most cities, Lawrence had—and continues to have— its challenges, but this article completely misrepresented the city, ignoring its entrepreneurial spirit, its cultural vibrancy and its legacy as a launching ground for immigrant success stories. Yes, unemployment rates were among the highest in the state and educational attainment levels were among the lowest, but there was positive energy and a collective desire from residents and employers to close these gaps and help the city reach its full potential.

The Boston Magazine article galvanized a group of community leaders, including bank presidents, mill owners, education and health care CEOs, nonprofit executive directors, and more who were passionate about Lawrence, knew there was much more to the story, and were eager to join together formally and work toward bettering the city. With a campus in Lawrence and decades-long commitment to the city, Northern Essex Community College was a very appropriate initial convener for this group.

As president of the college, I facilitated a year of planning meetings that led to the creation of the Lawrence Partnership, a public-private collaboration dedicated to stimulating economic development and improving the quality of life in Lawrence. I also was the first chair of the board of directors, from the board’s founding in 2015 until 2018, and I continue to be a board member. While the partnership is a separate 501(c)(3), Northern Essex serves as its “incubator.” The partnership’s current staff are college employees, including Executive Director George Ramirez and Deputy Director Karina Calderon, and the partnership is housed on our Lawrence Campus.

Ribbon cutting Revoloving Test Kitchen 2021
A photo from the September 2021 Revolving Test Kitchen grand reopening. Left to right: Jessy Melo, Jessy’s Clean Meals; George Ramirez, Lawrence Partnership; Theresa Parks, MassDevelopment; Lane Glenn, NECC; Wendy Estrella, Lawrence Partnership; Mike Kennealy, Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development; Mayor Kendrys Vasquez, Lawrence; Senator Barry Finegold; Representative Marcos Devers; Danny Torres, El Encanto; Hilton Torres, El Encanto.

Early on, members of the partnership had studied the findings of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, including its research on “Lessons from Resurgent Cities,” and we knew that, with the right combination of three things: Ideas, Investment and Action (the tagline of the Lawrence Partnership), Lawrence could be one of those resurgent cities.

In the seven years since its founding, the partnership has launched a $2.5 million venture loan fund for small businesses; attracted new financial institutions to the city; opened the Revolving Test Kitchen for aspiring restaurant entrepreneurs on our Lawrence Campus; worked closely with the Essex County Community Foundation to manage millions of dollars in funds for the Columbia Gas explosion recovery effort; and launched the Lawrence LEADS Program with the Harvard Business School. Many of these programs have had a direct connection to Northern Essex’s educational mission. Together with the Lawrence Partnership, we created a bilingual training program to address the demand for certified nurse assistants; secured a $350,000 Workforce Skills Capital grant from the state to equip a mechatronics lab to train students in small device advanced manufacturing; and received a $150,000 Workforce Training Fund grant to create and offer training for mid-level managers across business sectors in the city, a need that had been identified through an employer survey administered by the partnership.

The Lawrence Partnership is a “big tent” collaboration of business leaders, city and state elected officials, government agencies, workforce development partners like the Merrimack Valley Workforce Investment Board and MassHire Career Center, the Lawrence Public Schools and many other organizations.

On behalf of the Lawrence Partnership and Northern Essex Community College, it is my great pleasure to accept the Boston Foundation’s 2021 Deval Patrick Prize for Community Colleges. This award recognizes a community college that is working to meet the economic and workforce development needs of one of Massachusetts’ largest Gateway Cities through strong partnerships with employers, and our college’s involvement with the Lawrence Partnership clearly demonstrates our commitment to that mission.

Working together, we have already seen unemployment rates drop nearly in half, and increases in household income levels, high school graduation rates and college-going rates. I’m proud of what we have accomplished, hope that more partnerships like this can emerge in other Massachusetts Gateway Cities, and along with the tremendous leaders and residents of Lawrence, am looking forward to the future with hope and optimism.

Photo from Lawrence Partnership kickoff 2014
Partners of the Lawrence Partnership are called as they are recognized for being a part of the new partnership during the newly formed Lawrence Partnership launch party held at the Everett Mills Event Space in Lawrence in 2014.