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MIT’s ‘Real Talk’ campaign gives likely voters a voice in Boston’s race for mayor

Researchers enlist grassroots activists to engage “invisible” residents about the future of the city.

Longtime Boston activist Ron Bell spoke at the press announcement held outside Madison Park High School, and the mural of Mel King, to announce the launch of Real Talk for Change.
Longtime Boston activist Ron Bell spoke at the press announcement held outside Madison Park High School, and the mural of Mel King, to announce the launch of Real Talk for Change.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff


For the past several months, Boston residents have heard a lot from the candidates running for mayor about their aspirations for leading this city.

But on Monday, a half-dozen residents came together as a part of a new civic engagement campaign, aimed at refocusing the narrative and giving voice to regular people, especially those who feel ignored.

The effort, called “Real Talk for Change,” was launched this summer by MIT researchers, who have enlisted community facilitators to convene roughly 600 residents from different parts of the city to share their stories — and dreams — about the future of Boston.

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“We see this as the first step to building what I like to call a new civic infrastructure,’’ said Ceasar McDowell, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor spearheading the effort. “We need new ways to do democracy in this country that are really about honoring the experiences that people have on the ground.”

Ceasar McDowell, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor spearheading the project, was at the press conference held outside Madison Park High School to announce the launch of Real Talk for Change.
Ceasar McDowell, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor spearheading the project, was at the press conference held outside Madison Park High School to announce the launch of Real Talk for Change.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Targeted community conversations in the run-up to an election are not new. But MIT’s approach combines grass-roots dialogue with modern technology.

The conversations, held either in person or online, are recorded and uploaded to a data dashboard on a system called Local Voices Network that allows users to hear, search, and highlight the various discussions.

MIT’s artificial intelligence tools organize the conversations, matching voices with transcripts. They identify patterns and trends in the conversations. The aim is to allow the candidates, or any user, to really listen to what the participants are saying.

The organizers said the technology provides transparency, allowing participants to see how their voices are used and, through public forums and the media, see that their voice can influence the election process, said McDowell, professor of the practice of civic design at MIT.

Over time, he said, this kind of visible action will encourage new voters and build trust between marginalized communities, the media, and local institutions.

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One of those conversations took place Monday in a meeting room in Back Bay’s Loews Hotel, where six participants sat around a table. McDowell asked them to craft a question about what they see as the future of Boston and their place in it. Then he urged them to explain how they arrived at their question.

“Will people who make less than $50 an hour have a future in the city?”

“When will there be more three-bedroom apartments or affordable homes?”

“How can we help get jobs for people of color?”

Geanier Moore, a 47-year-old Dorchester mother of two girls, wanted to know what will happen to Black or minority homeowners after the pandemic.

She explained that she has been renting out rooms in her home, which her late mother left to her. But since the pandemic, her tenants have stopped paying rent and flaunted the fact that she cannot evict them, she said. She also discovered that some of them were drug users.

“What am I supposed to do now,’' she said, adding that her problems only began after the pandemic. “What happens to homeowners like myself that decided to help people out?’’

Quanda Burrell, a 35-year-old single mother of two from the South End, shared the difficulties she has been having trying to find an affordable three-bedroom apartment to accommodate her growing family, which includes her 16-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son who each need their own space.

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The housing market includes mostly two bedrooms, some smaller than her current apartment. She is dreaming of buying a home one day, but the homes being built in Boston are not for her family, she said.

“You see all these buildings going up . . . and you’re like . . . those are not functional,” she said.

Tony Brewer, a state employee from Roxbury, addressed the topic of jobs, particularly for Black men and their families. He said he’s been receiving calls daily from men who have been recently incarcerated — people trying to launch or land.

But he’s had to track down elected officials to press them to help people most in need of jobs, he said.

“Why can’t they get a city job, where they can get a leg up and get back on their feet?,’' he said.

Jimmy L. Thompson Jr., a 58-year-old who runs his own security company, shared his concerns about the future of Black men, and Zakiya Alake, a Roxbury activist, worried about whether low-income residents will be able to survive in this city.

Corey Thompson, an affordable housing developer in Dorchester’s Codman Square neighborhood, spoke about the need for more mental health services and shared how he has been able to cope with the loss of his son, who died 11 years ago of an enlarged heart.

Thompson said his daughter also had an enlarged heart but it was detected early. “We knew about it. And she had treatment, along the way. He was a complete surprise. He passed away,’’ he said.

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He dealt with the loss by suppressing his feelings, but saw his marriage collapse and he struggled for years. But three years ago, he said, he finally began to “truly grieve,’’ after joining an all-Black male group. “We share our pain, and our struggles are equal,’’ he said, “And I found a certain level of peace.”

His quest now is to give back to his community.

Ron Bell, a longtime Boston activist and the “Real Talk” campaign manager, said he hopes the candidates for mayor will pay close attention to these conversations, not because the participants are “super voters” but because they are the “invisible voters,” who candidates typically don’t go after.

“These are the people who are in trauma in the pandemic,” he said, “and the power of their stories deserves to be heard.”

The “Real Talk” initiative aims to engage 600 people — 100 conversations in groups of six. So far there have been about two dozen such talks, but a lot more are being planned before the Sept. 14 preliminary election and Election Day on Nov. 2.


Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.