On Saturday, the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Racial Equity hosted the 2nd Annual Boston Talks About Racism at Northeastern University. A continuation of last year’s discussion on the city’s race issues, the event was guided by Dr. Atyia Martin, the Hub’s chief resilience officer, and featured an audience Q&A period with Mayor Marty Walsh, plus breakout sessions led by moderators.
Martin, who has helped lead the city’s “resilience strategy focused on addressing racial equity,” said during the event that it is everyone’s responsibility to tackle racism in Boston.
“When we think about the relationship of resilience to the policies and practices and our own roles as individuals and organizations, the idea here is that we take responsibility,” she told the packed crowd of more than 800 people. “We take responsibility for the fact that we’re a part of building resilience in the city, but also the actions that we take can also detract from that resilience.”
Martin continued: “That also means we take responsibility for how we confront racism, not just outside ourselves but inside of ourselves. Because we are all struggling with these issues, whether we are a person of color or whether we are white.”
Specific issues were addressed. During the Q&A, Walsh sparred with audience members who questioned his effectiveness and suggested that the Walsh administration has taken actions that hurt communities of color. For starters, one audience member asked why the conversation was held in a university auditorium and not in communities of color. She added that some people of color may not have heard about the event. In response, Walsh said the talks don’t necessarily need to be held in Dorchester, Mattapan, or Roxbury.
“The conversations have to happen in other neighborhoods in the city of Boston,” Walsh said. “The conversation on race has to be understood across the board.”
McKersin Previlus, a professional dancer and community organizer who lives in Dorchester, said that he views these talks suspiciously. The Walsh administration, he says, shows little interest in investing in communities of color.
“They [the Walsh administration] have all the power,” Previlus said. “That’s why when they have talks about racism, I see it as a complete fraud. It’s just a fake presentation to get you to shut up for a little bit until things happen again… The black community, the Asian community, the Latino community, we speak on these issues all the time. We invite white folks to speak with us about these issues. The city knows nothing new.”
A Mattapan resident asked, “Why is the city of Boston balancing the BPS transportation deficit on the backs of single black mothers and four-year-olds?” Her question referred to the Boston School Committee’s recent vote for later start times (for older students) and earlier start times (for elementary school students), a decision opposed by many parents and the Boston Branch of the NAACP.
While those groups argue that the changes will harm families of color, Walsh defended the decision, saying that studies show later start times work for high school students. But to Yvette Modestin, founder and executive director of racial and social justice organization Encuentro Diaspora Afro, this decision was unconscionable.
“For a city with income that people are making with two or three jobs, their kids are coming out at 2 o’clock and they’re getting off at 5 o’clock and where they’re going to put them?” Modestin said. “Now you’re telling them to give up their second job to pick up your child because someone didn’t think this through?”
Modestin, who participated in the process that yielded the city’s resilience strategy, pointed at the problem of citing studies instead of listening of voices of color. “The report was great because it brought folks into the same room, but even in that room, people were trying to dismiss people’s reality based on what they’ve studied,” Modestin said. “Unless you are black in America today … you cannot tell me you studied it better than I’m living it.”
Another point of contention brought up during the event was the construction of the Seaport District. An audience member asked, “In regards to the Seaport, there were billions of dollars poured into the Seaport. How did the African-American community prosper from that?”
Walsh responded, “The Seaport’s a whole different situation. A lot of the development is private.” The mayor then shifted to address the need for more developers of color.
For the majority of the event, Walsh chose to focus on microaggressions, emphasizing the importance of having dialogues so that people of all races understand the day-to-day challenges people of color face.
“This is about the city having a dialogue on race and racism and finally addressing the issue of race and racism,” Walsh said. “What we have to do is to understand how do we work to deal with the issue so when a black man or a black woman or a Latino man or Latino woman is walking down the street, they don’t feel they are being looked at. When a person walks into a store to buy a shirt or pair of pants, they are not being followed around, because when I walk into a store I don’t get followed around.”
Wendell Joseph, city of Cambridge municipal planner living in Roxbury, said the dialogue failed to grasp the urgency of the predicament that many in the room face every day.
“A conversation is great, a dialogue is great, but there’s a sense of urgency, and until that is recognized by everyone, we’ll keep having these conversations and feel good about ourselves,” Joseph said. “But there’s a sense of urgency. Time’s running out.”
Previlus said that systemic racism is far more difficult to discuss. As a result, it is oftentimes avoided. “Fixing the problem takes more work,” he said. “[When] people in power have to start making things fair to others, they feel like they’re being attacked. Equality in their eyes is not equality, it’s oppression to them.”
Modestin said the talks are nevertheless a step forward, but they are futile if subsequent actions aren’t taken.
“We haven’t seen a shift in resources to community organizations,” she added. “I haven’t seen a shift in addressing the issues. I haven’t seen an action that really addresses the disparity, which means making our schools more equitable, better transportation in our neighborhoods, lowering the rent, addressing developers who are coming in and moving people out … Unless the city is ready to have these dialogues and put these into concrete action, we’re going to be talking, talking, talking, and getting nothing done.”
“[The Walsh administration] think they are the ones that should be leading the conversation?” Previlus said. “All they need to do is to show up to our communities where we are having these conversations. And then learn and implement what we ask for and talk about.”
Olivia Deng is an arts and culture writer who also covers politics and social movements. Her work has appeared in DigBoston, WBUR, Boston Magazine, The Atlantic, Boston Art Review and more. She is also an illustrator and painter.