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What are Boston’s biggest barriers to inclusion?

Community and nonprofit leaders, academics, activists, and others discuss problems and priorities.

Peniel E. Joseph

Professor of history, Tufts, and author, “Waiting ‘til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America”

The biggest barrier to stability is lack of dialogue along race and class lines. The City of Boston and state of Massachusetts should bring people together, across fields and disciplines, to tackle issues of access, opportunity, and deep democracy. We could do this through an arts, humanities, and science and technology initiative that would sponsor forums at various schools and in diverse communities. Such events are all about follow-through. Initiatives sponsoring research-driven dialogue, public forums, and symposia on these issues would go a long way toward ensuring access, equality, and inclusion for all residents.


Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

Medford, MA 013114 Tuffts professor of History and author Peniel E. Joseph (Cq) was photographed at the Tufft's Center for Study of Race and Democracy his office on January 31, 2014. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)/ MAG

Giles Li

Executive director, Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center

Boston Public Schools must articulate a strategy for engaging families, especially working-class families, immigrant families, and families of color. Nine out of ten BPS students are of color, four out of five are low-income, one out of two speaks a language other than English at home. Boston is becoming more and more diverse by the day, and you can see it demonstrated in our classrooms. Boston can be a national leader by investing in partnerships between district, schools, teachers, and families. But everybody needs to be on the same page to pull it off.

From left: Patrick Chung, Giles Li, and Jeremy Lin.CHRISTOPHER GAYOWSKI

Marty Walsh

Mayor, City of Boston

We’ve taken some hard looks at the current status quo in Boston . . . and begun to quantify the opportunity gaps and taken even stronger steps toward bridging that divide. Through our work with President Obama on the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, to hiring the city’s first chief diversity officer, to building and strengthening relationships with community groups to form a diversity and inclusion team, we have taken great steps forward, with an exciting path ahead. Boston needs to be a city that works for every resident.


Steven Senne/AP

Valerie Fletcher

Executive director, Institute for Human Centered Design

The Census Bureau identifies 57 million Americans not in nursing homes as disabled; only 3.6 million use wheelchairs. Then there is the huge and growing population of elderly. These people don’t want to be isolated. The city should think about making it easier for people to get out, looking at seats with arms so people can push themselves up, the length of crossing lights, surface conditions of roads and sidewalks, and way-finding, installing more signage and improving Web design so people can plan their trips better. Functional limitations have become an ordinary reality, and we have to wake people up that we share this and can’t make it fall on the next generation.

The Rev. Laura Everett

Executive director, Massachusetts Council of Churches

We need to start shifting minds and attitudes. As someone who has chosen to make Boston my home, I struggle with the divide between people with deep roots here and new residents trying to find their way. I propose a shift in attitude. Let’s stop asking “Are you originally from here?” It often seems laced with race, class, and ethnic presumptions about authenticity. Instead, let’s ask people to tell us about their Boston or Lowell or Holyoke and invite conversation about the glorious internal diversity of our cities and towns.

Monica Grewal

Partner and cochairwoman, diversity committee, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP

Especially in the professional ecosystem, inclusivity is a challenge because of a limited number of role models and change agents. We have an advantage because Massachusetts is renowned for its concentration of higher-education institutions. We recruit the most elite and diverse students to our schools and, therefore, turn over incredibly capable individuals. Business leaders have a responsibility to provide opportunities and support to keep those talented and diverse students in the Commonwealth.


John Stauffer

Professor of English and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University

The greatest barriers to inclusivity relate to segregation. Boston is in certain respects a classic “donut” city: poor blacks and minorities in the inner city; lily upper-middle-class whites in suburbs. There are exceptions: Cambridge, which has low-income housing--not the “bad” model of massive high-rise structures, but instead many units of 10-12 or so spread throughout neighborhoods in the city. Residents often don’t even know they’re low income. The schools and neighborhoods in Cambridge are remarkably diverse and inclusive. It was easier to achieve in Cambridge because rent control ended not that long ago; and in effect certain forms of rent control remain in place in a shrewd way: low-income housing.

Yusufi Vali

Executive director, Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center

I believe two steps must be taken simultaneously. First, state and city governments should appoint underrepresented minorities in important public official positions. Second, foundations should invest significant money in civic/political engagement trainings for underrepresented communities. The point here is that when underrepresented minorities have a real say in their governments’ affairs and understand how to practice that say, they will feel included. It will lead to an inclusive state


Janson Wu

Executive director, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders

Inclusion depends on people mixing together, living together, and working together. That becomes harder and harder as housing becomes less affordable in Boston, particularly for the LGBT community, which suffers greater economic insecurity due to discrimination. In addition, while Massachusetts is the proud leader of the marriage equality movement, not everyone in the LGBT community has been included in that progress. We must double down our efforts to ensure equal opportunity and dignity to the most vulnerable in our community, including LGBT youth, elders, transgender individuals, and people of color.

Paul Watanabe

Director, Institute for Asian American Studies, UMass Boston

Diversity and inclusion enhance mutually beneficial opportunities. For individuals, it can mean opportunities to realize their full potential. For the society as a whole, it means the opportunity to benefit from the talents and contributions of everyone. Since inequity limits opportunities, organizations and companies need to take affirmative and corrective measures to reduce those inequities and expand opportunities. This could involve hiring, education and training, promotions, mentoring, etc.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Somerville, MA - 9/12/2013 - Paul Watanabe (cq), Director of the Institute for Asian American Studies and Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Massachusetts, Boston spoke during the panel. The First Annual National Dialogue on Race Day took place at Tufts University in Somerville, MA on Thursday, September 12, 2013. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff) Slug: 13conversation Reporter: akilah johnson LOID: 6.2.1069301212

Mason J. Dunn

Executive director, Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition

Over the past five years we have seen the attitudes towards transgender people begin to shift from widespread misinformation towards tolerance and acceptance. I hope that we can keep this momentum and create a community where all people, including those who are transgender, no longer fear harassment, discrimination, or mistreatment in any facet of their lives. We must educate our communities about the realities that transgender people face in order to create a more inclusive city for all. From our schools to our universities, businesses to corporations, congregations to health centers, and everywhere in between, we must learn how to respect all perspectives and experiences, and spread that awareness to all those around us.


Sharon L. Applegate

Executive director, Deaf Inc.

We aim to increase substantially the number of citizens in Massachusetts who can sign. If we can fill offices, buses, trains, firehouses, police stations, classrooms, restaurants, hospitals, courthouses, shops, and streets with people who are proficient in American Sign Language, we can improve accessibility for the deaf and hard of hearing in the medical, legal, social, municipal, and education areas and change the state of accessibility forever.

Marie Trottier

Consultant, former disability compliance officer at Harvard University

The biggest barriers to inclusion continue to be caused by society, not by anyone’s individual difference, since we are all different. Negative attitudes toward differences result in discrimination. Lack of awareness and traditional prejudices are still significant, and individuals assume and don’t ask questions or communicate, making the person trying to be included mask who they really are.

Related coverage:

- 12 ideas for making Boston more inclusive

- Boston’s 1st diversity chief vows inclusion

- Grant will help city nurture dialogue on race

- Group to track Walsh’s diversity record

- More from the Magazine

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