I first met Dante in 2011 in the CityLab of the urban studies department at Worcester State University. At this time, I was teaching and he was a WSU student, passionate about learning how cities work so he could be a more effective change maker in Worcester. We both bonded over our work as community organizers. Dante is what social network theorists might refer to as a “hub”, a main source of connection and communication for those working to make a better city. Who has over 2500 facebook “friends”? A troubled adolescence led him to his deep commitment to community work including his efforts in reaching out to youth-at-risk. He has worn many hats in his active career – political consultant and campaign manager, neighborhood organizer for the Pleasant Street Neighborhood Network, founder of Worcester Local First and now co-owner of a juice bar with his partner, Martha Assefa. He makes me a juice. We sit down and talk for several hours interrupted at times by his serving customers who enter the store.
Dante is filled with good ideas of how to build a thriving Worcester – changing zoning ordinances to allow for more food production including the keeping of bees and chickens, promoting the importance of reusing the Memorial Auditorium, perhaps as a Quincy Market type of usage in order to anchor the Salisbury Street neighborhood, focusing on supporting small, locally owned businesses as the main stimulus of a healthy local economy. He believes in the importance of “neighborhoods” and is excited about his upcoming move to an old Victorian house with a porch, huge windows and solar panels in Main South, a place where the neighbors gather in the local community garden, play bocce and share summer barbecues.
A real Worcesterite, born here
"I was born here. My dad was born in Sicily. When he was young, he immigrated to Harlem. My mom was born in Queens. Her parents were Hungarian and escaped from World War II. They ended up moving to Worcester because my dad got a job in engineering. That’s how I was born here in Worcester. When I was 9, my dad got a new job at Silicon Valley. So, we moved to the Bay area in California to Santa Cruz. I lived there until I was 17."
Santa Cruz transplant, living as a street kid and drug dealer
"Anytime parents transplant kids anywhere, it may not be the best thing. I had a whole crew of neighborhood friends I grew up within Worcester and then I was just transplanted somewhere else. It was a beautiful place to move to – Pacific Ocean on one end, mountains on the other side. You had this amusement park on the ocean. It was the surfing capital, the skateboarding capital. It also had a large underground economy. People are coming there for recreation and inevitably you are going to have people who are going to take recreational drugs. It was easy for me to get sucked into this underground economy especially for me who didn’t have any friends. I wanted to be a part of a community, right!?"
"In Santa Cruz in the downtown, there were lots of particular communities...the punk rockers, skateboarders, people participating in hip hop culture, ravers and they were all street families. This was appealing for myself who was turning into a teenager. These were kids who had their own tragic stories. Maybe they ran away from home. They might have been going in and out of foster care systems. Maybe they had some sort of warrant out and were hiding from something or maybe they were just raised in poverty. Santa Cruz was a place where these kids could go for opportunity and make money. These were good people. They were not your stereotype of what constitutes someone in the drug trade. I got sucked into it. Unfortunately, it didn’t take me long to start experimenting with drugs. I was fourteen, dropped out of high school, ran away from home, living with my own street family. It was really exciting times and at the same time, really traumatic times."
Escaping back to Worcester
"I started making a significant amount of money in the drug trade. At that point, I was starting to get noticed by rival gangs and drug dealers who thought I was cutting into their market share. So someone tried to kill me. The person they sent to kill me, he was actually a friend of mine. So, he shot me in the leg. I think he shot me in the leg because he really didn’t want to kill me. When I was in the hospital, notification was sent to my mom that I was there. She hadn’t heard from me for a while. So, she came to pick me up. When I got to her car, she wouldn’t say a word, but I saw that all of her stuff was in the back seat. We were driving endlessly and as we were driving over mountains, I was thinking that we must be going back to Worcester. She was doing the only thing she could think of doing, to take her son out of the element. That’s how we ended back in Worcester. I was firmly engrossed in that culture and that is hard to get out of you. Naturally, I would find a similar scene here. It took years to reform myself. What really helped was someone got me a job at her engineering firm. They were gracious enough to teach me I.T. That was really key. It was quite the feeling to be this street kid in this professional office environment. It took a while to acclimate to it. I had to change the way I spoke and my mannerisms. I had to learn how to be professional. I was doing good work so they retained me. At the same time, I was going back to school at Quinsig. I was trying to occupy my free time with as much community work as I could do. I was thinking, “Well, I may as well give back to the community since I took so much away from it.” I liked the feeling of giving back."
From drug dealing to community organizing
Dante put his full energies into his community work, citing Matt Feinstein as one of his first mentors inspiring him to work for social justice. After organizing for the progressive online movement, MoveOn, he channeled his organizing efforts into managing the campaigns of local political candidates. One of his first stints as a campaign manager was for Green-Rainbow party candidate, Grace Ross in her run for city councilor at large in 2007.
How to get good media coverage for your campaign
Grace probably got more media coverage than any other candidate in Worcester. That year, we had a lot of rain. Coes Pond had so much rain that it was flooding people’s backyards. It was completely climate change related too. We decided to organize a press conference where we would go to some of these backyards whose homes were about to be submerged and the media wasn’t even covering it. Here are properties that are endangered right here in Worcester because of things going on with our weather. Grace decided to have a press conference at these properties with the flooding behind them. It was a great imagery that the media would love to cover. So, we capitalized on these kinds of opportunities not only to inject messaging but also to get good coverage for my candidate. I remember other campaign managers coming up to me and saying, “How are you getting her into the news so often?” I just kind of laughed. I wasn’t going to tell them how to do it.
Agitation is important and so is working the system
"Community organizing can create change but political organizing is just as important. There’s only a certain amount of progress you can create by being an agitator. You also have to be diplomatic and you have to work with elected officials. Those are the people who make a lot of the decisions. I really started to get involved in a lot of campaigns. If I had a part in electing people especially progressive, not only is that making a difference but I also get to have more say in decision making…. There are some people who will work on a couple campaigns of only the ones they really like or know. I see the value of getting involved with everyone even the people you may not agree with politically but because you have influence over them, that’s an asset. I got very political and started getting involved in the Democratic party, senate campaigns, state rep campaigns, school committee, city council, gubernatorial campaigns. I had my own political consulting going."
Building a “buy local” movement, founding Worcester Local First
"One thing I learned about was economics and localization and what that means for local economies. I started learning about the impact of local energy production, local manufacturing, local food production…. These are all integral to healthy, sustainable communities. I started thinking about how do we encourage this…Sustainable Worcester started getting interested in “buy local” movements, transferring market share from chains to locally owned businesses because locally owned businesses recycle more money in the local economy. A hundred bucks spent at Walmart, maybe 30 bucks stay in the local economy while the rest goes somewhere else whereas a hundred bucks spent at a local business, a good majority stays in the local economy. The owners of the local business live here. They pay property taxes. They may have local vendors. In my business, I go through Commerce Bank, a local bank. We get all our supplies from a local restaurant business. We try to get our produce from local farms. So, local businesses tend to recycle more into the local economy."
"One of the pioneers of the buy local movement happened to live in Cambridge, Laury Hammel. In his retirement years, he created this business, wellness club called Longfellow Club and he looked at these clubs like a community center, a place not only for tennis lessons and to work out, a café and a place where people could hang out, just a socially responsible business. I decided to learn from him ‘how do you go about building a buy local movement.’ Me, Steve D’Agastino and Bill Densmore, the former Vice President of Norton Company (he was actually interested in sustainability) went there and learned about it. I seem to remember Steve and Bill not being all that enthused but I was. I was, “we can definitely do this!” They were kind of overwhelmed with the amount of work that it would entail to create these kinds of efforts. First, you have to create a non-profit. But I was 100% gung-ho. I knew what this would mean for Worcester if we created it. I remember on the car ride home, they came up with all sorts of reasons why we couldn’t do it. I was just like, “”No! Let’s just try it!” So , I did."
" I had no backgrounds in non-profits so it was really learning it while I was doing it. We needed a steering committee with local reputable business leaders for it to have any clout. We were going to build our power and our message by creating a dues paying membership. No one was going to listen to this young kid going up to them and saying, “Hey, you should join this business organization.” So, Bill Densmore was really integral because if Bill Densmore is calling you, he’s really well known in the community, you are going to do what Bill Densmore says. He was great at getting business people to the table. We came out with this directory of local businesses …essentially educating people about all the economic advantages when you shop at locally owned businesses. I had a radical agenda not just to shift market share to local businesses but to promote local energy, local food production. These were business owners who really only cared about getting more business. When I started taking it in that (radical) direction, they were, like, “let’s get him out!” It had a personal effect. When I was ousted from it, that was a horrible feeling."
On being a socially responsible business owner
Could your business actually be an avenue for your social change values? Dante asked when he opened up Pure Juz less than two years ago. This business has become a channel for his community work – buying locally grown produce, using local vendors, providing food for teacher-parent meetings at the local Elm Park Community School, sponsoring a fundraising for Art in the Parks when the public art exhibit was vandalized last year. Knowing the role that employment played in his own turn-around, he offers jobs to at-risk-youth, showing his belief in them to learn how to turn their lives around
How the city should help local small businesses
"The city needs to consider all the external factors that contribute to hardships for businesses when you consider state and federal taxes and regulations. I consider myself a democrat and hard core progressive but I think I disagree with my fellow democrats when it comes to the need for all these regulations. I’ve been thinking about this since becoming a business owner.. It’s an unfair advantage for chains that are able to navigate these regulations really easy. They are able to figure out how to cut corners which usually means being irresponsible as a business, paying your employees much less, figuring out getting tax subsidies. We don’t do that as small businesses. It would be neat if the city had different standards for what they are asking from small businesses versus national chains."