Ronel Remy is a Resident Researcher with the Healthy Neighborhoods Participatory Action Research Study Team, led by Prof. Mariana Arcaya. CoLab is collaborating with teams of Resident Researchers in nine communities around Boston to design and carry out research that examines the relationship between community health and urban development. This is part of an effort to ensure that future development in communities like Brockton, where Ronel lives, contributes to the health and wellbeing of all residents. To read more about the Healthy Neighborhoods Study, please click here.
Insiyah Mohammad Bergeron of CoLab Radio interviewed Ronel about his involvement with this project and his work as a housing advocate in his community.
Insiyah: How long have you lived in Brockton and how would you describe your relationship with the city?
Ronel: I have lived in Brockton for almost ten years. I love it! I love the streets and the buildings. The city gets a bad reputation, but there are challenges with any place. People always talk about gangs here; I’m not saying we don’t have gangs but it’s not as bad as people describe it to be on the news. I have lived here, I have seen the streets. I go out at night and see what’s going on. It’s not that bad.
I came to Brockton to meet a guy who was opening a bistro and realized that it’s a beautiful place. They call it ‘The City of Champions’. I looked around and thought there is nothing wrong with this place. And when the opportunity came for me to own a home I could afford one in Brockton.
This is also a place of many contrasts. You see a lot of diversity. But you also see that there are not many jobs. To do anything you have to go outside the city and come home at night. On Main Street, many of the businesses just walked away. It looks like things are changing again but downtown was empty for a while.
A city of contrasts
Insiyah: What are some of your favorite things about living in Brockton?
Ronel: I feel that I can identify with the place. I have always felt that I’m a champion- I hope that is not too selfish to say. I see myself as a champion for those who cannot fight for themselves. I see myself as a champion for those who are sick, and don’t know where to find things. I always want to be a voice of guidance, somebody who can help or advise someone in need. So in that way I identify with the city. Wherever you’re from, you feel okay in Brockton. You find many communities here. The economy is not good, so many people are from low income or immigrant communities. But that has always been a part of a history and identity of the city.
Insiyah: In the ten years that you have lived in Brockton, have you noticed any changes in the city?
Ronel: Lots of changes! I have seen the big corporations taking over the city. When I first moved to Brockton there were many small stores. But now it’s mostly companies like McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC. They are taking the biggest share of the wealth in the city. You see the same three establishments everywhere: liquor store, laundromat, place to eat. In a way the individual is trapped. Your paycheck doesn’t make it home with you somehow.
There is a terrible opiate addiction problem. If you go by Main Street or Pleasant Street, you see all these people who look like zombies from the movies. Young, white, Asian, black- all kinds of people. The Mayor’s office could be doing a lot more about this issue. City Council can do a lot more too. You see cops come and arrest these people, but a month or two later they come back, sometimes in worse condition. These folks should not go to jail; they should get the help they need. This is a health issue, not a legal issue.
Insiyah: What kinds of health issues do you see in the community besides addiction?
Ronel: All of the communities here have issues with high blood pressure, hypertension, diabetes, cancers, or mental health problems. A lot of folks suffer from mental health issues, but it’s taboo to discuss. People in America are afraid of mental health problems. If people think you are unstable they feel you can blow out any time.
Insiyah: How does this research connect with your work around housing justice and tenants rights?
Ronel: It has everything to do with my other work. This research showed me everything that is wrong with my city and my society. For some people the cost of living is so high that they don’t have time to think about health. They only think about health when there is an emergency.
Those who want to invest in Brockton and have a lot of money can move you out of your home. In a way the city is sending the message that that wealth is worth. Because I’m not wealthy I’m not worth it. The new generation is also going to get this message. What do I say to my daughter when she comes home and sees that families are being moved out of their homes? What do I tell her? That this is how it is, this is the American Dream? Many families are going through this. Brockton leads in foreclosures in the state of Massachusetts.
A closed business on Main Street
Insiyah: How does this research help you as an activist?
Ronel: It helps me identify the issues. When I see all these things, I say “Wait a minute, we’re being milked left and right”. Folks that invest in the community and do not live here are skimming off the wealth and at the end of the day we still have to live here. If it gets destroyed, where do we live? When our young men and women go to jail, when they come out, where do they live? Where do they work? They can’t get housing, they can’t get jobs. And we expect them to be whole again? Even when they’ve served their time that stigma is still there. Nobody will hire them. And even if they do get jobs they don’t get paid enough to afford housing. So what do they do? They go back to what they know best because everybody has to live. So I would not blame these people. The system is stacked against them.
When I’m doing this research, and hear the stories of these people, I bleed for them inside. But I can’t change anything; not alone. But just knowing what is happening is half the battle, we gotta do that.
Insiyah: What are some interesting things you have learned from this project?
Ronel: Something I realized is that there is a big transgender community in Brockton and some of its members don’t want to disclose this about themselves. We still have to do a lot of work on this issue because people are ashamed of who they are, and scared that others will find out.
There are also many more homeless people than I had thought, but not necessarily in the traditional sense. I don’t mean that they are on the street. A lot of people who live in houses are homeless because there is no way that they could ever afford the houses they live in. They get together with friends and family and live in overcrowded conditions. There are two-bedroom apartments that are home to over five families.
Also, I see that people don’t stick around in Brockton as much as they used to in the past. People can’t get jobs here and feel left out of the economy. Let’s say that you have a family and kids that you’re supposed to take care of. You have to worry about having health care, you have to worry about being legal. What is that, ‘legal’? Are we human, or are we some kind of other species? The earth belongs to us humans. I am from Haiti originally. I see friends from Sweden, Belgium, England, and all over here. We never call those people ‘illegals’. They stay for as long as they want and do whatever they want. They are more privileged than us in our own country. When we (people of color) come here, we are automatically deemed ‘illegals’. There are a lot of issues with that. Fairness and empathy does not apply.
Insiyah: What are your hopes for your community? What aspects of the community are your interested in focusing on in the future?
Ronel: Since we are the ‘City of Champions’, the city of Rocky Marciano, how can we give up? When a champion gets knocked down, he stands up again. I believe that we will stand up; I don’t know if we will prevail but we will stand up. I believe change is coming, because it can’t get any worse than this.
I’ll give you an example. I met a young man, Adam, on Main Street two months ago. Because of addiction he can’t live with his family anymore. He overdosed five times, not by accident but on purpose. A friend saved his life every time. He finally went to a counselor in church. The counselor told Adam to go to the Sheriff who would take him to rehab to get help. Adam followed this advice but before you know it, he’s in jail for a month. When he came out he did not look the same. Somebody busted his right eye. I didn’t know what to say to him. I tried to tell him not to give up. But that’s not enough. I feel that the government should have enough money to do something about this. If we have enough money to bomb other countries that have done nothing to us here, we should be able to do something about this kid who tried to commit suicide because he can’t fight his addiction.
I was told, when I first moved to Brockton, that the city had many factories. Folks used to move here from all over. Now people are just running away. Because of the reputation we have, housing went down at first. So those who can afford it like me moved in. But now prices are on the rise and we can’t afford the city any more, and there is no where else to go. Some of the apartments cost as much or more than mortgages. Gentrification is happening, slowly but surely. The investors come in with big money. They take over the abandoned places and rent them at sky high prices. If you’re not making enough money you cannot live here.
City Council passed a bill in 2014 saying that except for just cause, you cannot be moved out of your home. In 2015 they struck it down. We, the leaders of the Brockton Tenants Association, went with the same bill and the same arguments. But what passed in 2014 unanimously, failed in 2015, 6 against 5, jeopardizing tenants rights in the city.
And this is happening in many cities: Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta. As long as you have folks of color, you see the same things. You see black people sleeping in the streets, you see addiction. When I see this I think there is a bigger play. The investors come in and make money and your family doesn’t get a piece of it. Your family doesn’t have a place to stay, your family is standing in line trying to get food stamps. And when your family does that they call you lazy. But how do I work hard when I don’t have an education to survive? When you make it hard for me to afford an education? We owe a lot of money that we borrowed for my daughter’s education. It looks like even when I’m dead I will be in debt to somebody. That’s America. It’s not right. It is possible to predict from kindergarten who will end up in jail and who will be free. Issues with healthcare, crime, and housing in cities are all interconnected. The government should be helping all people succeed, not just a select few who are wealthy.
The healthy Neighborhoods PAR Study is being conducted in partnership with the Conservation Law Foundation, and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views and opinions expressed on this blog do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Conservation Law Foundation, and the boards and supporters of these organizations.