Special to The Times
CENTRAL FALLS – Dan Klotz has big plans for Central Falls.
He is working on a project that will see faculty and students from the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and Media work as teachers and mentors to young people in Central Falls, particularly teenage girls in the public school system, an often overlooked segment of the community. “That’s where we perceive the strongest need,” he said. The Esperanz@ Project is a five-year effort, slated to begin in the upcoming academic year, in collaboration with the city’s Adams Memorial Library.
“The key component,” Klotz says, “is connecting Central Falls students with URI students, not necessarily to push the city students to go to URI, or to any college, but to expose them to new options.”
“Central Falls has experienced so much difficulty,” he adds, “but there is a lot of positive in the city, and what we’re doing is trying to make the community as strong as possible.”
Helping teenage girls improve their digital skills is a goal close to the heart of Professor Renee Hobbs, founding director of the Harrington school. She is considered a national expert on digital literacy and, for the last 30 years, has worked with female teens to expand their career options, even creating a web site specifically devoted to them: www.mypopstudio.com .
It is important work because “girls and women make up half the work force,” says Hobbs, and teen girls in general are enthusiastic users of social media. Yet girls in childhood and adolescence “get messages that steer them away” from careers in science and technology, she added, so efforts like Esperanz@ helps correct any imbalance society creates.
And that’s where Klotz comes in.
Klotz,42, married and the father of three children, lives on Tremont Street. He previously lived in Central Falls in 2009 and 2010, moving back in September because “I decided to effect change from inside.” He is a native of Athens, Georgia, with a deep background in sociology who has been teaching at the university level for the last decade.
He taught sociology at Bryant University in Smithfield from 2004 to 2007, and he currently is a lecturer/instructor in communication studies at URI’s Harrington school. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology and completed course work for a doctorate. He has lived in 12 states and two foreign countries (China and Ireland).
Klotz does not fit into any of the usual professional categories. He is a community activist in some ways, but a professor in other ways. He looks at life, and at Central Falls, through the lens of a sociologist, watching for patterns and trends, and yet he’ll use any knowledge he gleans for political and community ends, rather than academic purposes.
Here is how he described himself in a recent email: “I have just enough academic credential to be at home in a university setting, and just enough ‘street cred’ and Spanish to be comfortable in Central Falls. I’m nobody’s vision of a traditional academic … But like a catalyst in a chemical reaction, I somehow have the well-honed ability to connect disparate individuals who may not yet be at the table.”
Central Falls teens and URI scholars, of course, are the “disparate individuals” that the Esperanz@ Project will bring together, focusing on digital literacy and “infrastructure needs,” Klotz said, meaning the expensive computer hardware and software and related gizmos needed to put city students “on the same playing field as those in wealthier communities.”
He speaks of the Rochambeau Library in Providence, where he often takes his three sons and where “they’re (library officials) talking about buying some $12,000 high-tech video system to show movies, while three miles down the road, there’s the Adams library struggling to pay staff and keep its doors open.”
A key benefit that URI and the Harrington school bring to the Esperanz@ project is the reputation to make solid partnerships that would pay off in the long run for Central Falls and its students. Klotz said he already has an agreement with Latin Roots, a Boston-based group affiliated with Harvard University that works with Hispanic youth in such cities as Brockton and New Bedford, Mass. The group “is a perfect fit,” he said, with the demographics of Central Falls and can act as a “cultural liaison” for Esperanz@ as it gets off the ground.
Other potential partners include, for instance, Thomson Reuters, the New York City media conglomerate whose former CEO is Dick Harrington, a Cumberland native and 1973 URI graduate who provided $5 million to create the Harrington school. The CNN network, where 1983 URI journalism graduate Christiane Amanpour was a former star (she’s now with ABC News), has a “strong connection” with the Harrington school, Klotz said. “I hope it’s strong enough to ask CNN for some equipment,” he added.
U.S. Senator Jack Reed, a strong advocate for libraries who has been recognized by library organizations nationwide for his support, is another name on Klotz’s contact list. “We’ll be asking him for help for sure,” Klotz said, particularly when it comes to funding.
Clearly, all the details of Esperanz@ funding are not set yet, but Klotz expects a mix of grants, federal dollars and private donations to keep the initiative going. Important components will include in-kind donations, such as that provided by volunteers, and fundraising events, some of which Klotz said will be held in Central Falls.
Klotz admits that the task he’s set for himself and Esperanz@ is no mean feat. He also has started a second group, Central Falls Cares, devoted to cleaning up city streets and sidewalks with monthly community clean-up campaigns and other eventual enhancements such as park benches, bike racks and decorative trash bins to improve the area’s appearance.
All in all, “we hope to improve the economic climate and the image of Central Falls,” Klotz said, and to “remove the stigma” of a low-income enclave crippled by corruption. “We want people to view us differently,” Klotz said, “but it is a hard sell. We have a lot of people working hard to promote the city. … (The Esperanz@ Project) is not going to solve all the problems, but it is going to continue the positive momentum of all this.”
Klotz and his wife, Oralia, a native of Guatemala, have three sons, Chris, 10, Jacob, 5, and Dan, 3. Klotz holds a 1996 bachelor’s degree from Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and a 2002 master’s from Northeastern University, Boston, both in sociology, and worked on his doctorate in 2004 at Northeastern. Last summer, he organized the visit of 19 Japanese high school students, who took classes at the Bible Baptist Church on Cross Street and had various excursions including a visit with Central Falls City Clerk Marie Twohey and a tour of City Hall. The visit was arranged by the educational nonprofit PeopleLink. Klotz also is a frequent contributor to the editorial pages of The Providence Journal.