Repurposing Manchester’s Schools
As the number of elementary schools in Manchester has been consolidated, the buildings that used to house them are in need of a new purpose. The Town of Manchester is seeking your thoughts and ideas on how these buildings can be used to serve the needs and desires of the community.
Three former school buildings are in need of new use. Nathan Hale Elementary School closed its doors now over a decade ago in June of 2012, with Robertson Elementary following in 2018 and Washington Elementary the year after. The effort to find new purposes for these buildings has been ongoing since the closure of Nathan Hale and has been given a new focus with the hiring of Meraj Consulting to spearhead the community engagement process.
“In terms of our work, we’re paid by the town, but we work for the community,” said Yaffa, the consultant at Meraj leading the effort. “And so for us, all the transparency that we do, all the accountability we have in place, we really want to make sure we’re being held accountable by the community members themselves versus just whoever is paying us. That’s a really critical area for us.”
Meraj Consulting and Town staff will gather community voices into the repurposing process in a way that is equitable and inclusive. Meraj Consulting will take the thoughts and ideas of community members and submit a report to the Board of Directors by the end of December capturing what the community has told them it needs and how the buildings can be repurposed to fit those needs.
Based on initial feedback, a variety of means will be used to engage a broad and diverse opinion on how these buildings should be repurposed. Town and Meraj staff will be canvassing large events like the Hispanic Heritage Celebration on Saturday, September 24th at the Leisure Labs, Mahoney Center from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., having already been to Spruce Street Farmers Market and Manchester’s Juneteenth Celebration. Informational events and community forums have and will be hosted for the broader community at large and for specific communities in Manchester, with events in Spanish and in Bangla and specific events for Black community members, as well as BIPOC Queer and Trans people. Opportunities for one on one conversation are available during Coffee Hours, over zoom, and in person. A critical piece of this effort is a survey that can be found on yourvoicemattersmanchesterct.com, alongside information on all the events and opportunities above.
Several principles are guiding this work and ensuring that the most marginalized communities in Manchester are centered and invested in during this process. Intersectionality is a key part of Yaffa’s work—looking at all aspects of a person’s identity, including race, gender, orientation, ability, age, class, education, etc. as opposed to just one part. If males are overrepresented, according to Yaffa, focusing on a single identity would mean simply seeking out non-males.
“But the reality is the community is a lot more complex than that and a lot more diverse, and so really trying to get a lot deeper than that,” Yaffa said. “So really looking at BIPOC community, different gender identities, orientations, different socioeconomic statuses, different housing structures, things like that. So really digging deeper into how do we gather input from even people at the margins outside of that marginalization that are usually going to be excluded.”
In addition to asking questions on the Manchester community’s needs and for ideas on how the schools can be repurposed, the survey asks different demographic questions. Yaffa and Meraj Consulting understand that asking demographic questions can be a sensitive topic, especially for vulnerable populations or for people who don’t understand why it’s necessary and are deeply committed to privacy and confidentiality. The survey can be filled out entirely anonymously. If a person leaves their name, they can opt-out of having it mentioned in any report.
But these questions are necessary to find out the diverse needs of Manchester’s increasingly diverse community.
“The reason that we have them there is because we need to be able, as we’re sifting through the data, to be able to see what different community needs look like based on some of those demographics, if there are any…,” Yafffa said. “Without us asking those questions and being able to really see who’s filling out the survey and the type of thoughts that are out there, it makes it really, really difficult for us to be able to give that full narrative because at times different community needs are going to be in contradiction to one another.”
People with lower household incomes are more likely to say that Manchester needs more affordable housing than those with higher incomes. A notable on that has come through the data so far, according to Yaffa, is that cisgender individuals have rarely mentioned the need for greater health services in town, while nearly all respondents who identify as trans have written about a greater need for such services. These questions, and other forms of direct outreach to marginalized and underrepresented communities in Town, ensure that the final report and how the schools are repurposed are inclusive and meet the genuine needs of the whole community.
Another key guiding principle has been economic justice—recognizing that individuals sharing their thoughts through the survey or attending events is labor and should be rewarded, especially considering that many have already given their thoughts on this process over the years. Those who complete the survey have a 1 in 3 chance of winning a gift card to a local Manchester business, while stipends are available to those who attend informational events. During coffee hours, coffee and a snack will be on the Town.
“For us, when we do community engagement, it’s really critical to have some sort of immediate benefit to the community…” Yaffa said.
Beyond compensation, Meraj is looking to address community needs while also searching for feedback, especially when dealing with marginalized communities in town. After conversations with individuals and leaders within Manchester’s Spanish-speaking community, the need for healing circles for women came up. In September, three healing circles will be held.
“We’ll be talking about the schools and gathering that feedback but at the same time it still serves as a space that’s predominantly around their healing and their needs, because to us we can do both at the same time,” Yaffa said. “But this way the community members are walking away having been to a healing space, having been supported versus us just going into the community and being like, ‘We know you’re already overwhelmed, we know people are running around with multiple jobs, and also just come hang out with us for an hour and just tell us what you would like to see.’”
More events like these are being discussed, and any group seeking something similar can reach out to Meraj Consulting. Their contact information can be found on their website here.
The principle of language justice has also guided the process. Rather than offering translations, events are being hosted in the languages themselves, and all materials relating to the repurposing will be available in Spanish and Bangla, and any other language on request.
“One of the things that we’re really, really mindful of is recognizing that not everyone in Manchester is going to speak English or has the preference of speaking English in some of these conversations…” Yaffa said. “Our preference is usually not to offer translation because a lot can be lost within translation, so instead of offering translations what we’ll do is actually host events specifically in those languages.”
Yaffa believes these months of community engagement will be a success in themselves, in addition to hopefully leading to repurposed schools that resolve real community needs. Events like the healing circles and compensation for time and ideas will provide direct benefits to the community, and the information gained by the survey can be used to inform other Town decisions and processes to improve Manchester.