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Mayor leads city forum on racism

Discussion is first of several city-wide conversations planned

Karen Morales
Mayor leads city forum on racism
Boston Mayor Martin Walsh addresses city residents gathered for a public discussion on the state or racism in Boston at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. (Photo: Photo: Mayor’s Office)

The Cutler Majestic Theatre was at full capacity on Saturday morning with students, educators, elected officials, community organizers and other Boston residents who were ready to have a difficult but necessary talk.

Mayor Martin Walsh, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and Emerson College, hosted a public discussion on the state of racism in Boston and the steps the city can take to become more “socially cohesive and resilient.”

On the web

A video of “Boston Talks About Race” can be viewed at:

For more information on the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Racial Equity, visit:

For information on the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, visit:

“This is the right conversation in the right time to have it, in the right city,” said the mayor, who described seeing sadness and frustration among the people of Boston the day after the presidential election results.

The event’s keynote speakers included James Rooney, president of the Boston Chamber of Commerce; Otis Rolley, 100 Resilient Cities regional director for Africa and North America; Debby Irving, author of “Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race”; Ceasar McDowell, MIT professor of community development; and two teen empowerment organizers, Kendra Gerald and Dante Omorogbe.

Before an audience of 600 people, each speaker spoke to what had been for many years in Boston the elephant in the room.

“As a city, we’re hanging on to a whole lot of messed up crap,” said Rooney, referring to Boston’s history of redlining, segregation, hostility and school desegregation. He announced that the Chamber of Commerce will be engaged in action-oriented reflection over the next year, in partnership with the mayor’s office, on issues of small business, diversity, workforce development and economic mobility.

“Racism may seem to some an issue that exists in relative isolation from the rest of the city’s problems,” said Rolley. “It does not.”

Irving, who spent years working on racial equity work, shared her own previous misconceptions, which undermined her best intentions. As a white woman, “I had a limited understanding of racism,” she said. “I thought it was just about people not liking each other and I was so wrong.” She spoke to the audience about the importance of acknowledging the normalization of whiteness, the whitewashing of history and the myth of meritocracy.

Kendra Gerald, a sophomore at Boston Latin Academy, said “Breaking down stereotypes is just the first step. There also needs to be a commitment to root out the systematic racism.”

Walsh’s own view

Walsh said that although he believed this was the first time racism was discussed on such a large and public scale in Boston aside from “pockets of neighborhoods, maybe in a church, coffee shop, or street corner,” this wasn’t the first time he engaged with it at length and it won’t be the last.

He told the audience that when he ran for mayor three and a half years ago, one day he was campaigning in Jamaica Plain answering residents’ questions when a black woman stood up and asked him what he thought about the current state of race in Boston. He said his awareness back then of the complexity of race in America only scratched the surface, so responded by saying, “We’re doing better today than we did before.” The Jamaica Plain woman persisted, inquiring about the diversity within his campaign team.

“I was angry because I didn’t have the right answer,” he said. “I started considering seriously, where are we really with race in Boston.”

Resilience strategy

With the help and support of other city leaders, Boston sent in an application to participate in 100 Resilient Cities. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, 100 Resilient Cities is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to physical challenges such as earthquakes, floods and climate change, as well as everyday stresses like racism, economic inequality, unemployment and affordable housing.

To put together a cohesive strategy in facing and preparing for these issues, in August 2015, Mayor Walsh announced Dr. Atyia Martin as the city’s first-ever chief resilience officer.

The culmination of these efforts will be included in Boston’s “Resilience Strategy,” due to be released next spring.

Attendees at Saturday’s event were given a copy of “The Blueprint: Preview of the Principles & Framework for Boston’s Resilience Strategy,” a booklet describing the specific visions and corresponding goals the strategy will address in more detail once it is released.

The report lists four main visions. The first is “a Boston that reflects upon its history and confronts present realities of racism in daily life and during emergencies.” The second is “an inclusive and collaborative city that offers residents a meaningful role in decision-making processes.” The third vision is access to social and economic pathways that close the wealth gap, and fourth is an increased connectivity for communities of color to adequately prepare for natural disasters and environmental dangers.

The resilience strategy also encompasses all other citywide initiatives that have been in the works, such as Imagine Boston 2030, Boston Creates, Climate Ready Boston, and The City of Boston Small Business Plan.

Challenging neutrality

At the program’s end, the floor was open to members of the audience who had comments or questions for the mayor, moderated by Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College.

“To those with privilege, equity feels like oppression,” said Andrew Vega, principal of the Phineas Bates Elementary School. “Something that I hope comes from this is that those with privilege understand that with equity, they are not losing anything.”

He added a final thought. “And a personal challenge to you, Mr. Mayor,” he said. “In your opening remarks you talked about the importance of not remaining neutral in these times. Please tell our governor that.”

Some civil rights activists have been critical of Governor Charlie Baker for not speaking up against what many see are racist policies espoused by president-elect Donald Trump and his appointment of controversial cabinet members.

According to the city’s press office, additional race conversations will take place in neighborhoods across the city in early 2017.