A status check on diversity in Boston
Four local leaders sit down together to discuss Boston’s progress on diversity and offer their insights on what the future may hold.
PARTICIPANTS: Gerardo "Jerry" Villacres, retired founder of El Planeta newspaper; Carol Fulp, CEO of The Partnership, an organization that trains professionals of color; The Rev. Miniard Culpepper, pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Dorchester; and Suzanne Lee, a 2011 candidate for the Boston City Council and former principal of the Josiah Quincy School in Chinatown; MODERATOR: Kenneth J. Cooper
Kenneth J. Cooper: I want each of you to talk about the distance you think Boston has traveled on diversity.
Miniard Culpepper: I can really speak comfortably about growing up here and looking at Boston from a youthful perspective and looking at it today. The church that I pastor, my grandfather founded and built in 1939. Boston has come from a long list of challenges, desegregation, busing. I didn't realize how polarized and segregated Boston was until the [US District Judge W. Arthur] Garrity decision [in 1974 that found unconstitutional racial segregation in Boston public schools], and then it became clear that Boston had a lot of race challenges to overcome, specifically with the educational system. I think Boston has come a long way; I think we have a long way to go. I look at city government now, and the representation in upper management — 10 percent Hispanic and African-American [males], 12 percent women [of color] in City Hall leadership positions.
Carol Fulp: I would tend to agree. First of all, this is a journey, and we've come a long way. I used to live in Newton, and now I love the fact that my friends who live in Newton can very proudly say their mayor's black and their governor's black and their president's black. In Massachusetts, that you can say that, that's a long way on the journey. But I think the journey now is more complex. We, from a corporate perspective, are at a crossroads. Take a look at the election and the demographic shift. That shift represents the pool of candidates for corporate jobs. How do we make sure we're embracing this new talent pool and ensuring we have corporate climates where everyone can thrive? We're on our way, but I think there's real opportunity to strengthen that.
Suzanne Lee: I was a teacher at the old Josiah Quincy Elementary School in 1975, the year they started busing elementary school children. I rode the buses with children from the South End and Chinatown to Charlestown. Chinese parents, a group of mothers — limited English-speaking, garment workers — would come to me and say, "Miss Lee, what is this, where is this school, and where is Charlestown?" They just wanted to know how their children could be safe.
On the parents council, whites would have so many seats, blacks would have so many, and then there was a category called "others." Hispanics and Asians were considered others. Everything we would bring up, the School Department would say, "but you don't count. This is a black and white case."
Now we are always very aware of the diversity in the school population. Nobody's called "others." Yet when you look at the number of people who are working at the top level of city government, what do you say? There are 13 members on the City Council, and our city is 53 percent people of color. What percentage of the council [is people of color]? I feel the change on the ground more than in [top] positions.
Jerry Villacres: I have a different perspective because I'm here in Boston for only 14 years. I came to open some Hispanic radio stations, after all the upheaval. One of the things when I came to Boston that surprised me, was the Latino community held no positions of power basically at all.
Another thing I oftentimes think is there is no real connection between our communities, African-American, Asian, Latino. We live next to each other but not with each other yet. And that's not only in Boston, that's in the United States in general. My hope would be that we could share our stories.
Lee: We have to create opportunity for that [to] happen. I can cite an example that is really successful: Castle Square, a housing complex right between Chinatown and the South End. When there were more Chinese moving into the area, which is predominately African-American, people were really upset. Today they coexist and help each other and learn that the Chinese Progressive Association helped create the tenants organization. You have blacks and Chinese on the board.
Culpepper: One of the things that happened with this election, I think, [is] Asians, Latinos, and African-Americans saw how powerful that coalition is. I think we have that same coalition in Boston. I don't think we've yet realized that we have the power in our hands. I think we'll see the transition when — at some point, we're going to have a minority mayor.
Fulp: A mayor of color.
Culpepper: Thanks, Carol.
Fulp: Not a minority.
Culpepper: A majority mayor (laughter from the group). On economic equality, the gap is so wide when you talk about corporate America, law firms, and our city government. How do we close that gap? Now that the majority has flipped, we have to bring the manifestation of that majority into our homes and bank accounts.
Fulp: The responsibility is ours to take it to the next step. How do we change the culture so that those who are in charge economically understand a person of color can help me attract marketplaces?
Lee: I agree. The question is, do we need to have real, strong leadership on all levels to make that happen? We can see all this demographic change, and some people would react to it with fear. I feel like we are not as good at saying even louder, "look at where our common good lies."
Cooper: I want to come back to equality in schools. When the Boston NAACP started the push that resulted in Garrity’s order, the goal was access for black children to quality schools. Now, in trying to find a new student assignment process, there’s the same problem — the poor quality schools are in African-American and Latino neighborhoods.
Culpepper: I don't think there's any school assignment plan that will work until there are quality schools. Then it won't matter.
Lee: I cannot agree with you more. I have always been really concerned about quality public education. It can be done, because there are examples. The Quincy School is an excellent example.
Three partners you need for any school to work. Not only do you need a strong principal and teaching on one end, you need to be partners with families. When our families cannot play that role, for whatever reason, the community and the rest have to make up that difference. We have the human, institutional, and cultural resources to make that happen for every school. That's where I think we need to put our energy, and never mind the student assignment plans.
Fulp: The responsibility isn't only the civic community's, it's the civic and business communities', because this is our next generation of employees.
Cooper: Where do you think Boston is headed on diversity? What’s it going to look like in 10 years?
Lee: Boston always wants to be a global city. You cannot be a global city unless you are welcoming and on every level reflective [of diversity]. Now there's a danger. We can be a global city by hiring people from the whole world. But what happens to the people who grew up here? That has to be the real test.
Villacres: Economically, I think there's a lot of progress, but we still have a wide gap [between] people who are powerless economically. As a human race, we have advanced technologically, but emotionally we haven't had a true leap of loving each other in a healthy way.
Culpepper: I'm convinced in 10 years we will have a "majority" mayor. The coalition is set to go. But there has to be a leader to bring the coalition together. When that coalition comes to flex its muscle, the city will change.
Fulp: I agree. I think in 10 years, we will have a majority individual as mayor. I think the coalitions will come together and the commonality of our interest is so powerful that we will be represented.
Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a freelancer based in Boston.