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REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

Making history in the Valley
Museum exhibit spotlights 25-year-old coalition

BY PENELOPE OVERTON  

Twenty-five years ago, as factories across the Brass Valley shut their doors, local churches, unions and citizen groups came together seeking hope, and maybe even jobs, for the region’s growing number of unemployed.

The Naugatuck Valley Project initially tried to prevent the closures, either by negotiating with factory owners or by organizing workers to buy their factories, but it soon branched out, seeking to better the lives of the workers left behind.

“If all the people ... are banded together to make it a better place to live, then it will be a better place to live,” Theresa Francis, an early group leader who has since died, told the group’s historian. “That’s what the Naugatuck Valley Project is all about.”

Over the years, the project has counted several dozen Valley organizations from Derby to Torrington as members. Its main focus has been to train people facing a crisis to identify and solve their own problems through collective organizing.

Since its inception, the group has amassed a string of victories, ranging from a worker buyout of a Seymour wire factory in 1984 to the construction of an affordable housing co-op in 1991 to a $750,000 settlement from local groups accused of predatory lending in 2006.

A look back at this local group’s colorful history and the people behind its development will be on display in the local history room at the Mattatuck Museum Arts & History Center. The “Banding Together” exhibit will open Saturday and run through Jan. 17.

The group will hold its 25th annual convention at the museum to celebrate the opening. Bishop Peter A. Rosazza, one of the founding members of the project, is returning to the city to address the group. A member will premiere a short film about the housing co-op.

The creator of this exhibit, author and historian Jeremy Brecher of West Cornwall, said he has been documenting the Naugatuck Valley Project since its inception, attending meetings and actions and accumulating hours and hours of recorded interviews.

“What I found most remarkable was how (the Naugatuck Valley Project) taught regular, everyday people who felt they had no power over their lives to find their voice, their power,” Brecher said. “Housewives, factory workers, immigrants — all transformed.”

As time has passed, the coalition has seen some of its biggest accomplishments fade away. The Seymour factory that the group helped employees buy out shut down in 1992. A home health aide company it launched in 1991 closed eight years later.

Despite that historical ebb and flow, the Naugatuck Valley Project is excited about the future, said new President Cynthia Vergauwen. Given the recession, the group’s expertise in saving and creating jobs is m ore relevant than ever, she said.

The group is currently conducting “house meetings” across the area to find out how the economic meltdown is really affecting people’s lives. What they have heard so far, from an estimated 200 participants, is how many households have been hit by job loss.

Vergauwen knows what she is talking about. She joined the Naugatuck Valley Project through her church, Our Savior Lutheran Church in Thomaston, four years ago, but when her husband was laid off last year, Vergauwen suddenly found her own family a victim of the downturn.

“This is a bottom-up kind of organization, so whatever the people tell us, that is what all our energies will be focused on,” Vergauwen said. “People are worried about crime, about health care and pollution, but they say all of that would be OK if they had jobs.”

Given the group’s approach to problem solving, longtime member Steven Schrag said Naugatuck Valley Project leaders will probably try to turn the unmet needs of the public into jobs, a strategy it has employed successfully in the past with health care and polluted lands.

“Take a liability and turn it into an opportunity,” Schrag said. “When you get handed the lemon, don’t just make a face. The city has 40 brownfields?

Well, let’s get some sugar and some water. Let’s train people how to clean up the pollution. Let’s make lemonade.”

Leaders of churches, trade unions and citizen groups from as far south as Derby to as far north as Torrington come together in 1984 to form the Naugatuck Valley Project.
People working through the Naugatuck Valley Project pose outside affordable housing units they renovated on Chestnut Avenue in Waterbury.
The Naugatuck Valley Project organized tenants of the Shamrock Ridge Apartments in Waterbury to demand better living conditions. The group eventually organized many Shamrock Ridge tenants to build Brookside Housing Co-Op, a 102-unit affordable, cooperative-owned housing complex.