SPRINGFIELD — On a hot evening in mid-June, hundreds of people braved the oppressive humidity and packed into the pews at Sacred Heart Church in Springfield to listen to community activists call for change in the city.

Rev. David A. Lewis Sr., president of the Pioneer Valley Project, began the evening speaking about “the economic pain, the pain of systemic racism and marginalization and the pain of powerlessness” in the community. He continued, “While our people are experiencing that pain, there are a few in our city who are actually benefiting from the suffering of our people, seeding division, planting mistrust, growing fear and harvesting a concentration of power that harms our families and our children.”

He mentioned the recent contentious search for a superintendent of schools, but noted that the problems have always existed because, he alleged, “the system is rigged.”

That was the refrain from speaker after speaker, throughout the meeting. Each person explained that the economic and political systems in the city, as Lewis described it, were “built to serve a few of us, not all of us.”

Speaking one day before the Juneteenth holiday that recognized the last enslaved people being freed, Melinda Pellerin of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, drew comparisons between Springfield’s “rigged system” and how Texas “knew and chose not to know” that enslaved people had been emancipated. “Texas just had not gotten around to explaining this to their slaves until forced to do it,” she said. She added, “If we don’t continue to fight, to vote, to stand up for our rights, those in power are watching, they’re always watching, always thinking up ways to rig the system.”

Davian Pagan, a senior at Springfield Honors Academy and a teen organizer with PVP, laid out the call to action that the organization was there to make. Pagan called for housing affordability measures, making public transit fare-free year-round, more afterschool programs and more English language classes for adults.

“Residents like my family, who were priced out of Springfield, can no longer afford to live here. Students cannot afford public transportation every day and residents whose first language isn’t English want to be equipped to participate fully in our Springfield community,” Pagan said. “We must demand change for our city, not in one year, not in five years, not in 10 years, but now.”

Another teen organizer, 17-year-old Cenaya Sylvia, praised the organizations that were represented in the room, including religious organizations, unions and members of the city’s growing Haitian community. She also noted the elected officials in the room — state Sen. Adam Gomez (D-Springfield) and state Rep. Carlos Gonzalez (D-Springfield), Johnnie Ray McKnight, who is running to unseat state Rep. Bud Williams (D-Springfield), and City Councilors Jose Delgado and Maria Perez. She then pointed out that Mayor Domenic Sarno was absent.

Pointing to the empty seat at the front of the church, Sylvia said, “This is the largest gathering of Springfield residents from across our city since before the pandemic. What could possibly be more important than being here with the people our mayor is elected to serve?”

Individuals spoke of the need for the changes PVP had called for. Jackson Cius, a recent Haitian immigrant, explained that neither he nor his wife spoke English when they immigrated to the United States. The vast majority of jobs require employees to speak English, he said.

“I spent more than 5 months on a waiting list and others have been waiting for a year to be able to join an English class, others have never known how and where to register,” Cius said, adding, “If we had the chance to participate in an English class, we would find work to take care of our families and to participate in the economic development of this country, then we would be able to change our lives and our families.”

Cius said, “We’re here with you tonight as new members of this community. We want the same things that you do. We understand the struggles that you are facing. We are here to support you and we are here to ask for your support. If we stand up together, we can make our whole community better for all of us.”

Elsy Alcala is the grandparent of children enrolled in Springfield Public Schools. “It’s so important to build bridges between schools and families. Many people in our community are struggling every day to pay bills, keep food in the house and have stable housing,” she said. “One way to take pressure off of our families and support our children is to offer access to after-school programming that supports both academic and social-emotional learning.”

There are not enough of these programs for the number of families in Springfield, she said.

Pagan returned to the mic to share his experiences with housing in Springfield. In 2014, his family spent about a month looking for a place to live in Springfield. “We found a beautiful home in Forest Park. At the time, rent was very affordable at $800 a month,” he said. “For 10 years, we could afford to live comfortably in Springfield, but that changed a couple of months ago. New landlords had bought our home, and we knew we had to find a new place. However, looking for a house this time felt different. Rents are now double what we paid 10 years ago at about $1,600 for a 2 bedroom.” Making Pagan’s situation more difficult were monthly income requirements of three times the rental cost. “I’m sorry to break it to you, landlords; my mom does not make $4,800 a month,” he said. Pagan’s family could not find housing in the city and had to move to Chicopee, despite working and going to school in Springfield.

“I’ve lived in Springfield all my life, but unfortunately, families like mine are forced to move out due to high rents and extreme rental requirements,” Pagan told the crowd. “This is a crisis that so many families are facing in our city. We must do something to address this so that more families don’t get forced out of Springfield.”

Gomez came to the podium and addressed the housing issues with which residents struggle. “As a Latino legislator and a first-time home buyer,” he said, “I know the challenges people of color experience in the housing market, especially in rentals.” Gomez noted that Massachusetts ranks as the third highest state in housing costs. He said the solution lies in attacking the problem from multiple directions at once — increasing housing stock, while easing high rents and high mortgages.

Gomez said the state House of Representatives passed a $6.5 billion housing bond bill, which the state Senate will soon take up. It contains $2 billion for rehabilitating public housing, $800 million for an “affordable housing trust fund” and $425 million for a housing stabilization and investment fund. There are also housing initiatives in the bill that can be opted out of at the local level. Gomez said he plans to introduce amendments to prohibit discriminatory credit reporting on rentals and raise penalties from real estate brokers who violate fair housing laws.

PVP was not without possible solutions to the other issues that had been raised. They asked for commitments from the City Councilors Malo Brown, Tim Allen, Lavar Click-Bruce, Sean Curran and Brian Santaniello to meet with the organization within 60 days to discuss free public transportation for Springfield residents. There have already been temporary transit fare holidays, but not year-round. Councilors Zaida Govan, Maria Perez, Kateri Walsh, Tracye Whitfield, Melvin Edwards, Michael Fenton, Jose Delgado and Victor Davlia had already pledged to do this.

PVP Executive Director Tara Parrish later told Reminder Publishing that Worcester and Boston have been piloting free transportation using funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, which must be obligated by the end of the 2024 calendar year and expended by the end of 2026. Parrish said a similar initiative could be taken in Springfield, where she estimated it would cost $3.7 million for one year of free ridership.

“We know that there are remaining ARPA funds. The point of ARPA was to impact parts of the community hit hardest by COVID,” Parrish said. “We know there are resources. It’s a matter of where the will is. This is about putting money back in the pockets of Springfield residents.”

Aside from ARPA, Parrish said, the state’s so-called “Fair Share Amendment” could also be a source of funding. Passed by voters in 2022, the Fair Share Act applies a 4% surtax on household incomes over $1 million. Money from the this act is designed to be used strictly for transportation and education.

In fact, the Fair Share Amendment is also the source of funding PVP cited for adult English language classes and after-school programs. PVP argued that these initiatives are educational. Parrish pointed out that the Fair Share Act has exceeded its anticipated $1.2 billion in revenue this year, and the balance is now more than $1.8 billion.

“Our governor said she wanted migrants to be treated as part of the community, but if we’re going to do that, we need to make sure they can be part of the workforce, and for that they need English skills,” Parrish said. “There were millions and millions of dollars that were quickly allocated in the state for incoming migrants. If we can find those resources for housing, we also need to have long term view.”

At the meeting, Pagan asked Gomez and Gonzalez to commit to “work with your colleagues in our legislative delegation to bring Gov. Healey to Springfield for a town hall meeting in the fall to discuss the future of the use of revenues from the Fair Share Act? Gomez agreed on the spot. Parrish said PVP wants Fair Share Act funding to be directed to the communities, which would then make decisions about where the funding was most needed.

Before ending the meeting, Lewis encouraged people to get involved with PVP and community activism. He told the residents, “If our neighbor’s not doing well, we’re not doing well.”