February 3, 2011
By: Tynan Power/TRT Reporter
Alex Morse has a vision for Holyoke-and it begins with “a leader…for a change.”
Morse, a 21 year old senior at Brown University and a Holyoke native, believes he can bring that change to the city. On a freezing day at the end of January, he stood on City Hall steps to kick-off his campaign. Joined by a small crowd that braved fresh snow to be there, he shared his comprehensive vision for the city of Holyoke. With the election ten months away, he is currently the only challenger to Mayor Elaine Pluta.
“Now what we have is the same thing, year after year,” Morse says.
Despite his youth, Morse has already racked up more than 10 years of experience as a leader. As a high school student, he founded of the Gay Straight Alliance at Holyoke High School. He subsequently founded the Holyoke GLBTQ Task Force, recently renamed Holyoke For All – “Holyoke Para Todos,” which is in its 5th year of organizing the Western Mass Youth Pride Prom.
Though Morse acknowledges that his LGBT community experience informs how he leads, his civic engagement has not been limited to LGBT-specific causes. He sits on the Board of Directors for the Holyoke Community Land Trust, the Latino Scholarship Association, the Friends of the Holyoke Public Library, and the Holyoke Public Library Capital Campaign Steering Committee. He is also a member of the Holyoke Youth Task Force, the Holyoke Family Literacy Coalition, the Department of Mental Health Citizen Advisory Board, and Holyoke Unites (an organization combating Holyoke’s high dropout rate).
Impressively, he has maintained his involvement in local issues at the same time he has pursued a rigorous program in Urban Studies at one of the country’s most prestigious universities, Brown University, two hours away. To make it work, he attends classes in Providence, but spends the rest of his time in Holyoke.
“Last year, I stayed overnight in Providence three nights a week,” he explains. “This year, I’m not staying in Providence at all.”
His dedication to his own education reveals a deep-seated value. Education is a key component of his platform. Dropout prevention and recovery, for example, are at the top of his priority list. With its 45% drop out rate, Holyoke seems to Morse to be suffering from the impact lack of education can have on economics, public safety and pride in the city.
“It all comes down to education,” Morse says.
Growing up in a working class family, Morse had personal insight into how much difference education can make. Morse reveals that both his parents dropped out of high school (only one has a GED) and they worked hard to feed four children and provide a home for them. Today, Morse says his family’s economic status is improved from what it once was, thanks to their diligent hard work over many years.
As a student at Brown, his experience of class sets Morse apart from many of his peers at the elite school. Yet there are few better places to have studied urban renewal than in Providence, Rhode Island. A city which was once far from being a vacation destination, Providence has experienced a remarkable turnaround in recent years.
One component of that change has been a renewed celebration of arts. The river art installation WaterFire, in particular, has changed a run-down area of town in which people feared to walk alone at night to one bustling with people. The event regularly draws tens of thousands to the Providence riverfront on summer weekends. Similarly, Morse feels that an arts and entertainment district could breathe new life into Holyoke.
“Now, when you go into Holyoke at night, it’s deserted. It used to be that people could go to the theater, and there was a hotel next door, and restaurants. The historic Victory Theater is being renovated,” Morse says. “It’s an opportunity to build on.”
In Providence, Morse had the opportunity to work closely with then-Mayor David Cicilline, now serving as a Democratic Representative in Congress. Cicilline, like Morse, is openly gay. Morse says Cicilline gave him good advice on being gay without making it the central issue of a campaign.
Morse seems to have taken that advice to heart. He is proud to acknowledge the work he’s done for the LGBT community in Holyoke, yet it’s not a specific bullet point that he addresses in his platform, nor is there anything about his presentation that draws attention to his sexual orientation. A discrete HRC equality bumper sticker on his car and perhaps his style sense are all that might cue in the astute observer that he’s gay.
“Being gay is only part of who I am,” he says. Still, as Mayor, he would want to use that position to address LGBT rights.
“We don’t have an anti-discrimination ordinance, here,” he says. “I’ve already been in touch the LGBT Coalition of mayors.
In fact, his vision of how to lead the city goes far beyond identity politics-unless that identity is “Holyoker.”
Morse would like Holyoke to reclaim its once golden promise. The first planned city in America and once home to more millionaires per capita than any other city, Holyoke was once so vibrant that Belle Skinner (1866-1928) is reported to have said “There are only three cities in the world: Holyoke, Paris and New York.”
Morse would like to see the day when Holyoke natives are that proud of their city once again-and he believes that with his effective leadership Holyoke can regain that early glory, even without the 19th century millionaires.
“I have a vision,” he says, “where everyone can be proud to call Holyoke home.”