Community leaders demand lights at Keach Park during public forum


Monitor staff

Published: 03-22-2023 5:29 PM

Growing up as a young Black woman in Bow, Samrawit Silva didn’t feel a sense of belonging or understanding until she was invited to Keach Park in Concord by friends where she met people that looked like her and shared her experience of moving here from another part of the world.

For Silva, who left Ethiopia when she was six years old, the park has become a place of solace where she often reads, writes in her journal and spends time with friends, a common theme among neighborhood children and a growing minority population in the city that seek familiarity and acceptance from their peers.

Without city support to install soccer lights at the park, the chance to integrate with similar cultures and backgrounds and find a sense of community is being taken from young adults and children growing up in the Heights, said Change for Concord members and community supporters at a public discussion Saturday calling for immediate illumination at the park.

“The importance of Keach Park in our community is that it serves as a vital place to bring people together, it’s good for mental health and it’s an essential space that fosters a sense of welcoming and belonging where different cultures can come together, share experiences and build relationships,” said Silva, a member of Change for Concord. “It might seem like a small issue but I firmly believe installing lights demonstrates the city’s commitment to investing in the community. If the city fails to address this issue, it would send the wrong message to its residents.”

Change for Concord, which is spearheaded by Fisto Ndayishimiye, is comprised of young adults who want more outreach, equity and inclusion from the city toward its growing community of refugees and New Americans. They meet weekly to discuss projects they want to prioritize – bringing lights to Keach Park has been on their radar since 2017.

For most, the park represents community, belonging and understanding and holds many memories for families and children in the neighborhood, which is one of the most diverse in the state. Without the lights, neighborhood children and young adults have to vacate the park at sundown.

“The lights would provide access to recreational activities and social engagement for the community that encourages many young adults, New Americans and refugees to engage in the community while enhancing safety at the park,” Ndayishimiye said. “There is a lack of equity in our community and in our system that makes me work day and night because we need to create an environment that encourages people from other cultures and identities to engage in conversation and use our voices to find a common ground.”

His message was echoed by many speakers and members of Change for Concord to include former leaders Martin Toe and Lidia Yen. In the audience was Mayor Jim Bouley and city councilors Byron Champlin, Brent Todd, Erle Pierce, Jennifer Kretovic, Stacey Brown, Candace Bouchard, Zandra Rice Hawkins and Gail Matson, many of whom have been outspoken and in support of the lights alongside Ndayishimiye.

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A petition for the project was first presented to city councilors in 2017 with a list of signatures from community members and abutters in support of the project. It was first put on the 2020 Capital Improvement Plan but later pushed out to 2031. Recently, the demand for the lights from the Heights community has continued to grow in a city that spends more than $120 million a year.

Ndayishimiye and Change for Concord members have argued that members of the New American community continuously approach councilors regarding the needs of the neighborhood and their requests have long been unheard. But councilors say the cost for lights, which could exceed $500,000, is a major deterrent of the project.

The park has been used over the years for a variety of scheduled events like recreational sports, summer programs, reading groups, the annual Multicultural Festival, anti-racism rallies and meeting spaces for local clubs, like Be The Change at Concord High School. Without lights, people are forced to return home sooner, especially in the warmer months.

“I want the kids at Keach Park to feel safe and have more lights in a public space,” Yen said. “I don’t know what the reason is for pushing out addressing the lights issue into 2031 or why there was no community outreach before making these decisions but this is a necessity for the communities and the kids that live around Keach Park who want to see their friends and see others like them.”

And the needs of children are much like the needs of the elderly, said Patricia Bass of the Good Neighbors Steering Committee at Havenwood-Heritage Heights, an assisted living facility near the park.

“It turns out that old people are looking for many of the same things that young people are looking for; community and neighborhood,” Bass said. “We’re beginning to come out of severe COVID restrictions and we’re looking around and what do we see? We see Keach Park and we want to be there with other parents and grandparents watching our children play soccer.”

Continuing, she called for city councilors to reassess the barriers placed on accessibility to the Heights residents by increasing the hours at the branch library and community center, allowing free access to resources for neighborhood residents and scheduling playtime at the park for neighborhood children. Her requests were met with cheers and applause from audience members.

Additionally, Concord Greenspace Coalition members Judith Kurtz and Meredith Cooley, who partner with Change for Concord, expressed the city’s need to understand the difference between equality and equity; despite an equal rotation of funding provided to parks throughout the city, Keach Park needs more.

“Not all families in the Keach Park community are able to afford sending their kids to pay for play sports, afterschool summer programs or recreational programs; it’s a privilege to access those things,” Kurtz said. “The concept of equal is not the same as fair or equitable. We have to look at the needs of the individuals, where they’re coming from and the needs of the community.”

A greater infrastructure for the park, she continued, is a small price to pay for the safety and health of the city’s children.

“Change can sometimes cause fear but we all have a responsibility to engage in conversation and use our voices and we need to elevate the voices of the BIPOC community and those who are marginalized in our community,” Ndayishimiye said. “We have to start with small tasks, like lights at Keach Park.”