Magazine

Diversity

12 ideas for making Boston more inclusive

Imagine a city where no one stands on the outside, where everyone has dignity and an equal chance. Doers and dreamers are hanging their hopes on efforts like these to make it so.

Scott Bakal

1) CREATE SPACES WHERE PEOPLE FROM ALL WALKS CONVERGE

  • What does it take to sustain community in one of Boston’s most culturally and economically diverse neighborhoods? For Spontaneous Celebrations, a community arts center and coalition in Jamaica Plain, it requires a balance of spontaneity and intentionality: programming that is responsive while building tradition, leadership that reflects the neighborhood’s diversity, and a building whose look and feel actively resists the sweep of gentrification that has transformed the neighborhood.

  • It doesn’t hurt to have a history of activism, either. In the 1970s, the group’s founders helped initiate a movement that saved large swaths of Boston from being sliced literally in two, defeating the expansion of Interstate 95 and spawning a celebration, Wake Up the Earth, that has grown into a massive spring festival drawing some 10,000 people.

  • “From the beginning, the intention of Spontaneous Celebrations has been to use the language of the arts to build a community and celebrate what can be accomplished when people from all kinds of backgrounds come together,” says administrative director Marco Goldring. The organization’s second largest gathering, the Jamaica Pond Lantern Parade, rings the pond in a 4,000-person procession of light on two nights in October.

  • Over the years, the group’s building on Danforth Street has welcomed a wide range of programming from partners — samba and square dancing, social-justice training, dialogues on faith, stilt-walking lessons, martial arts classes, and more. Goldring describes the facility as a physical symbol of the center’s commitment to inclusiveness in the face of growing economic divides.

  • “We are a place that is designed to be comfortable for everybody, no matter how long or how short they’ve lived in JP and no matter how close to the edge they may be living.” 

  • — Francie Latour


2) HELP SKILLED IMMIGRANTS GET RE-LICENSED

  • Mauricio Garces came to Massachusetts in 2008 from Medellin, Colombia, where he worked as a bone marrow unit nurse. He arrived with a green card and hopes that he could quickly resume his nursing career. But despite his specialized skills and a national nursing shortage, Garces would have to navigate a maze of bureaucracy, take seemingly endless English classes, and work survival jobs at TJ Maxx and a Mexican restaurant in Winthrop before he could even take the test to get his Massachusetts nursing-assistant license.

  • “I was always depending on others,” says the 44-year-old Garces. “It was very frustrating.”

  • The problem of immigrants with foreign medical training who end up in unskilled jobs is a common one. According to the American Institute for Economic Research and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, physicians with foreign degrees are five times more likely than their American-trained colleagues to be underemployed or employed in fields other than the one they trained for; in Massachusetts, foreign-trained nurses are seven times more likely to face that reality.

  • Internationally trained doctors who pass three required US board exams must still repeat their residencies here and must have US clinical experience, which for new immigrants is impossible. Meanwhile, demand for primary care providers and clinical staff throughout Massachusetts is growing.

  • In the coming weeks, the Governor’s Advisory Council for Refugees and Immigrants Task Force on Immigrant Healthcare Professionals is expected to issue a report with recommendations on how to improve the situation.

  • There are already local efforts and national models designed to alleviate the problem. For example, since its start in 2005, the Boston Welcome Back Center at Bunker Hill Community College has helped nearly 300 foreign-trained nurses get their RN licenses here, providing them with scholarship money for ESL and test-prep courses as well as assistance getting their foreign credentials certified.

  • Patients stand to benefit, too. “Many Massachusetts residents have limited access to health professionals who speak their language and understand their culture,” says Allison Cohn, an educational case manager at the Boston Welcome Back Center. “As the Massachusetts population continues to diversify, the health care workforce should better reflect the current population.’’

  • “They helped me fulfill all my goals,” Garces says of the people at the Welcome Back Center. After working his way up to nursing assistant, he finally got his nursing license in March, six years after contacting the center. Now he is employed as a nurse at Mass. General.

  • — Omar Sacirbey

Scott Bakal

3) BRING HIGH-TECH OPPORTUNITIES TO THE INNER CITY

  • There’s a crowd around the table at the top of the stairs leading to Roxbury’s technology incubator, Smarter in the City, in Dudley Square. Two young Cape Verdean entrepreneurs work on their Web startup with one of the incubator’s mentors, who is white. He has a file from his laptop displayed on the room’s white board. Across the table, a visitor, who is black and interested in becoming a mentor, talks with Gilad Rosenzweig, Smarter’s white founder and executive director.

  • Just by its existence, the accelerator is creating a more inclusive environment for technology entrepreneurs in Boston. “We’ve had a constant flow of tech professionals, investors, bankers, marketing professionals, lawyers coming down for meetings here every single week. That’s new,” Rosenzweig says. “They would not have been in this building, not this square, six months ago.”

  • That ability to germinate small businesses in places where startups don’t traditionally happen is one reason why the US Small Business Administration gave Smarter in the City a $50,000 Growth Accelerator Grant. The money will help the incubator as it gets ready to accept applications for its second class of entrepreneurs, who will start in February.

  • A dozen mentors are key to the prospective success of Smarter’s five startups, all run by minority entrepreneurs, two of them women. They started in July, hoping to break through the skewed numbers on minority entrepreneurs in the United States, where less than 7 percent of startups seeking angel investing are founded by people of color.

  • Most startups fail, no matter the race of their founder. That means most, maybe even all five, of Smarter in the City’s businesses won’t make it. But Rosenzweig says that his group has already achieved its goal of showing that good startups don’t have to be in Cambridge or the Innovation District. “They are collectively showing that this neighborhood and the community is a powerful force.”

  • — Michael Fitzgerald

4) GET HIGH SCHOOLERS TO CROSS CLIQUE LINES

  • In the corridors of Brookline High School, if you see a black kid from the Metco program hanging out with a white kid from the wealthiest side of town and ask how they got to know each other, they’re likely to say Abby Erdmann. The veteran English teacher in its School Within a School program has been fondly dubbed a “race warrior” for her innovative efforts, some dating back 11 years, to bring together racially diverse students who otherwise might not even acknowledge one another.

  • Race Committee, a weekly free-form class Erdmann teaches, draws kids of different racial and ethnic backgrounds to get together on their lunch break and have unusually honest conversations about diversity. At a recent gathering, more than 40 students crowded into Erdmann’s classroom, sat in a circle, cross-legged on the floor, and began to share their recent brushes with racism. There was no shouting, no yelling, just questions and more questions, insight, and advice. When the session ended after 30 minutes, the students rushed to get to their next class, but not without stopping to hug Erdmann first and thank her for creating the forum.

  • “Race Committee is really driven by the students, who often set the tone for conversation, challenges, and friendly debate,” says Erdmann.

  • Another popular program, Race Reels, screens monthly films — such as “The Loving Story” and “Dark Girls” — that touch upon racial issues. It’s open not just to students but anyone in the community. Afterward, audiences discuss and debate what they’ve seen and challenge one another’s interpretations.

  • “Brookline has good intentions, and yet there is still a major divide between students of color and white students,” says Erdmann. “Until we look at the structural racism in our school and design a curriculum that reflects other races, [until we] require all teachers, especially white teachers, training in anti-racism work, until we hire teachers and administrators whose race matches our students we will not be able to eliminate the opportunity gap.” 

  • — James H. Burnett III

Scott Bakal

5) ENSURE ACCESS TO PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION

  • Regular MBTA service is a given in many Boston communities. But too often, says Julian Agyeman, professor of urban and environmental planning and policy at Tufts University, transit plans neglect the poorest neighborhoods, isolating the very communities that most need reliable, affordable transportation. That is finally beginning to change.

  • Consider Dorchester’s Codman Square. Until just a few years ago, it took more than 40 minutes and multiple bus trips to travel on public transportation from there to the Newmarket industrial area, home to an estimated 15,000 jobs. Then, in November 2012, the Talbot Avenue MBTA Station opened, and suddenly Newmarket was just a single 10-minute train ride away. “We fought for 10 years to have this increased access to transit,” says Gail Latimore, executive director of the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation.

  • Today, other improvements on the Fairmount Commuter Rail Line may help more residents along its 9.2-mile corridor take advantage of economic and social opportunities elsewhere in the city. The line, serving more than 100,000 people in parts of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park — lower-income and largely minority neighborhoods — was once characterized by infrequent trips, few stops, and high fares. Many residents were unaware there was rail service in the area at all.

  • But in 2005, as part of the Big Dig, the state agreed to improve the rail corridor. Since then, two stops have been refurbished and three additional stops have been built. A fourth new stop is scheduled to open in 2017. Fares to ride the entire line were lowered from more than $5 to $2.10 for most stations, and hourly weekend service began in late November. The state has also announced plans to add diesel multiple units, a kind of train car that will allow more frequent service.

  • Despite this progress, there is more to be done to capture the full benefits of improved transit, says Jeanne DuBois, executive director of the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation. Groups like hers are fighting to stave off gentrification by laying plans for affordable housing and small business growth that will allow current residents to stay — and thrive — in the neighborhoods they call home. For that to happen, two more stations are needed along the Fairmount line at Columbia Road in Dorchester and River Street in Hyde Park to connect more people to work, school, and shopping, says DuBois. “If it’s going to function like a real transit line, that’s what we need.”  

  • — Sarah Shemkus

6) NURTURE URBAN BUSINESSES

  • Nine years ago, when two bankers left jobs at white-shoe financial firms and set up their laptops in Roxbury’s Hibernian Hall, they couldn’t get food delivered. “We would order and they wouldn’t deliver,” recalls Ronald L. Walker II, cofounder and president of Next Street Financial, a merchant bank and advisory firm aimed at inner-city businesses.

  • Fueling after-hours strategy sessions was just one of the challenges Walker and his partner, Tim Ferguson, faced in starting Next Street. They were entering a market that many thought was impossible — providing high-level advice and capital to small and mid-size businesses in Boston’s inner city. The two believed that if urban business owners had access to consulting and capital, “we could create jobs and wealth and opportunity,” says Walker.

  • Next Street has succeeded on all three counts. The company reports that through 2012, its clients have created or retained 6,000 jobs. It still has its first five clients, at least one of which has sales near $40 million a year. Next Street itself has 45 employees and operates in six other cities. Slightly more than half of its clients are minority-owned businesses.

  • Next Street could have failed, says Richard Ruback, a Harvard Business School professor who coauthored a case study on Next Street. “High-quality management advisory talent is a tough space” when aimed at companies of any size, Ruback says. And small businesses of any sort are tough, because they often don’t have the management and financial resources to respond to opportunities. Things get harder when you’re in a neighborhood where you can’t get pizza delivered.

  • That business matters even in inner-city neighborhoods should be obvious. “It just makes sense,” says Alicia Robb, a senior research fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation who studies entrepreneurship issues. “People need businesses near where they live. And people live in inner cities.”

  • But common sense and common practice have not meshed in many urban environments. Robb’s research found that minority-owned businesses were approved for loans less often than those of whites. Minority-owned businesses also don’t get as much follow-on capital as similar white-owned businesses, and one-10th the number of loans are made to companies in predominantly African-American areas versus those in mostly white areas.

  • The challenge for a revitalizing neighborhood is that it becomes more expensive. Walker and Ferguson acknowledge that Roxbury is already seeing some gentrification on Fort Hill. But Walker predicts that Roxbury won’t lose its socioeconomic diversity. He can, he says, get a wide variety of takeout now. Next, he hopes, a couple of nice restaurants might open.  

  • — Michael Fitzgerald

7) SPREAD THE HEALTH

  • Boston has a wealth of hospitals and clinics, but they’re out of reach for many of the city’s residents — especially people in poor neighborhoods. For some health care organizations, the solution is to bring services directly to them.

  • Since 2002, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has been sending its mammography van — a medical office on wheels — around Boston to provide breast cancer screenings to women who otherwise wouldn’t get checked. And in recent years, Dana-Farber has honed its approach, using data from patient surveys to determine exactly where the mobile unit’s services are most needed.

  • “We very much look at data to ensure we’re meeting the needs of the community,” says Magnolia Contreras, director of community benefits at Dana-Farber. “They drive what we do.”

  • The institute has also partnered with others, including YWCA Boston and Neighborhood Health Plan, an insurer that primarily serves people with low incomes. Based on its own data, Neighborhood Health Plan has targeted black women in Dorchester, Hyde Park, Mattapan, Roxbury, and Roslindale with signs, ads, and phone calls, encouraging them to get screened. Dana-Farber’s mammography van gives women in these communities an easy way to do so.

  • The approach appears to be working, Contreras says. The mammography screening rate in Boston is above 80 percent. She’s hoping that ongoing programs like the van will bump that up as high as 90 or 95 percent. Staffed with workers who speak English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole, the van screened about 3,000 women last year, helping to ensure that language and location don’t serve as barriers to good health.  

  • — Priyanka Dayal McCluskey

Scott Bakal

8) BUILD MORE MIXED-INCOME HOUSING

  • Developer Joseph E. Corcoran helped fund Boston College’s new Corcoran Center for Real Estate and Urban Action with a lofty ambition. “Our hope is to tell the world how to remove ghettos from our major cities,” he says.

  • As Boston rents skyrocket, both developers and government officials are looking to mixed-income housing as an important strategy for creating stable, affordable communities. Corcoran’s namesake center will study the development of such housing and how it can help improve life in urban neighborhoods.

  • Corcoran has long believed that mixed-income developments can create diverse and harmonious communities like the one he recalls from his childhood in Uphams Corner in the 1940s. “It was a mixture of all kinds of folks, including Polish immigrants, Italian immigrants, Irish immigrants — which my parents were — and Yankees. . . . Some of the people were wealthy, some of the people weren’t. But all of us . . . thought it was wonderful.”

  • Mixed-income communities thrive on the diversity of their members, says Richard Thal, executive director of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation, which has helped establish more than 600 affordable units. “It helps break down barriers if you have people with a variety of backgrounds and life experiences and lifestyles,” he says.

  • Mayor Marty Walsh, who released a report in October calling for a 20 percent increase in Boston’s housing stock over the next two decades, supports the idea, too. “Diversity — age, income, race — strengthens our neighborhoods,” Walsh said via e-mail. “Areas with opportunities for a variety of housing options, homeownership and rental, are more stable and create a balance in housing at all income levels.”

  • Corcoran himself has put the philosophy into action, building mixed-income properties — often replacing run-down public housing — since the 1970s. His nationally recognized Harbor Point complex, opened in 1988, helped revitalize Dorchester’s Columbia Point neighborhood against all odds. “With American society economically polarized as never before, creating an environment in which rich and poor live amicably side by side is no mean accomplishment,” “Architect” magazine wrote about the project last year.

  • As Boston considers more such projects, partnering with low-income residents at all stages of the process will be key, Corcoran says. And for a simple reason: “They feel pride in it.”

  • — Jeremy C. Fox

9) PROTECT THE RIGHTS OF TRANSGENDER PEOPLE

  • With same-sex marriage now legal in more than 30 states, building understanding and legal protections for transgender people constitutes the next frontier for many activists involved in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. Could Massachusetts, the first state to recognize same-sex marriage and long a leader in LGBT equality, be at the forefront in ensuring rights for the transgender community as well?

  • Efforts here to guarantee transgender people access to public accommodations have stalled at the state level, so activists turned in 2014 to cities and towns, working with governments in Brookline, Newton, Salem, Somerville, and Worcester to pass ordinances protecting access. There already were longstanding protections in Boston, Cambridge, Amherst, and Northampton.

  • While the Massachusetts Transgender Equal Rights Act, which went into effect in 2012, outlawed discrimination in employment, housing, and credit, it didn’t protect access to places like stores, hotels, hospitals, and public transportation.

  • The new effort has two goals, says Mason Dunn, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition. “Our thought is to pass things at the city level to provide coverage, as well as to gain momentum,” Dunn says, “with the intention of reintroducing the public accommodations nondiscrimination bill in the next session.”

  • Opponents had labeled a proposal that included public accommodations “the bathroom bill,” claiming it would allow biological men access to women’s restrooms and locker rooms.

  • Salem’s mayor, Kim Driscoll, says there was no such resistance in her city this year. “I think there’s an understanding in Salem, given what happened here in 1692, that we want to be a place that’s welcoming to all, and this issue really wasn’t raised.”  

  • — Jeremy C. Fox

10) CULTIVATE INCLUSION EXPERTS

  • Inclusion is a practice that can be nurtured. And when you train inclusion experts, the benefits ripple out. Boston is lucky: This year, the University of Massachusetts Boston opened its School for Global Inclusion and Social Development, which university leaders hope will spur positive change not only for the city but even for the world.

  • This ambitious program — believed to be the first of its kind — focuses on training leaders who can build more equitable policies and programs for groups that have traditionally been underserved because of gender, race, economic status, or any other reason. The hope is that graduates, equipped with master’s or doctoral degrees, will go on to careers in nongovernmental organizations, public policy, politics, and education.

  • “Our mission,” assistant professor Sindiso Mnisi-Weeks says, “is to ensure that public policy is sensitive to the needs of populations that are normally marginalized. These groups are by some counts a majority, but they’re excluded because they’re not part of mainstream discourse.”

  • The school developed out of (and now houses) UMass Boston’s Institute for Community Inclusion, which focuses primarily on promoting equal opportunities for people with disabilities. The institute’s successes led to the recognition that inclusion initiatives can benefit many other groups and that there is a need for this work on the international level, says William Kiernan, director of the community inclusion institute and dean of the School for Global Inclusion. “Dozens of US schools have international footprints in health and public health, but we saw an opportunity to teach about a different and equally important kind of human wellness,” Kiernan says. He’s referring to a wellness that focuses on developing the full human potential of marginalized individuals — and thus of the whole society.

  • The program has partnerships with NGOs, businesses, and schools around the world, including China, India, Micronesia, Spain, Tanzania, and Turkey, and its students get experience doing community work here in Boston. “We’re training students to be world changers while integrating classroom learning with social-justice programs,’’ explains Mnisi-Weeks. Locally, students have worked with institutions including Children’s Hospital and the Boston Public Schools.

  • “The heart of inclusion is the ability to give dignity to others,” Kiernan says. “By cultivating this quality, we are changing the city.” 

  • — Nadia Colburn

11) CELEBRATE DIVERSITY THROUGH THEATER

  • In 1859, William Wells Brown, a fugitive slave, abolitionist, lecturer, novelist, and performer, read his play “The Escape, Or, A Leap for Freedom” on the abolitionist stages of Boston, playing all the roles himself. But over the next 100 years or so, diversity in Boston’s theater scene did not grow, instead diminishing.

  • That has started to change. Promising efforts have taken root to make the face of Boston theater more like the city’s urban mix, as companies, playwrights, and artists begin to push for a greater diversity of voices and perspective.

  • Exhibit A: the mission of Company One Theatre, challenging the status quo by connecting diverse communities through socially provocative art that may, for example, feature Hindu gods, examine black-white relationships, or include deaf cast members. “You have to be reflective of where you live, where you work,” says Summer L. Williams, founder of the nonprofit theater company, “and not be dismissive of the stories that are surrounding you. It makes us a better community when we have the opportunity to engage with people of all sorts, not just people who look like us.”

  • Company One is not alone in considering inclusiveness a given. The arts program at Hibernian Hall, in Roxbury’s Dudley Square, has historically focused on African-American works and audiences, though artistic director Dillon Bustin has recently expanded that mission to include the entire African diaspora, bringing in works and playwrights from Haiti, Cape Verde, and Ethiopia. Escene Latina Teatro in Jamaica Plain produces works in Spanish. The Boston Center for the Arts funds female playwrights developing new scripts though a program it sponsors in collaboration with Company One. It recently supported Nigerian-American actress Obehi Janice’s one-woman show “FUFU & OREOS.”

  • “Empathy for all stories, from all backgrounds is essential in creating a long-lasting theatrical culture in Boston,” says Janice. “It’s important to create works of high caliber so anyone who sees them will be transformed and contribute to a better cultural consciousness in our city.”

  • — Cindy Atoji Keene

12) TEACH TOLERANCE TO CHILDREN

  • Perhaps the first step toward making a community more inclusive is to make it more tolerant from the start, teaching young children to understand and respect different races, cultures, and classes.

  • It is exactly that goal that Cambridge Friends School teacher Chris Hoeh, who won a Teaching Tolerance award from the Southern Poverty Law Center this summer, aims for with his yearlong second-grade curriculum. The program traces the process of creating cotton clothing, incorporating math, science, art, writing, history, and music along the way.

  • “It’s using the story of cotton and clothing as a way to teach academic skills as well as the history of anti-bias and social-justice movements,” Hoeh says.

  • At the beginning of the year, students investigate the fiber content of their clothing; with cotton the most common element, it becomes natural to learn more about the fabric, Hoeh says. In the weeks that follow, they learn about cotton’s connections to slavery and Jim Crow and write persuasive speeches advocating for abolition, which they deliver at Boston’s historic African Meeting House.

  • The focus is on positive action and role models, on being the “flame, not the ashes,” Hoeh says. “I want them to experience how they can use their skills and talents to make a difference in the world.”

  • Though the students are generally just 7 and 8 years old, they rise to the occasion in impressive ways, Hoeh says. “The way I can be surprised is the sophistication of what they can do and the connections they can make.”  

  • — Sarah Shemkus

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