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GRI Distinguished Senior Fellow featured at Northeastern seminar on urban resiliency and race

Myra Kraft Open Classroom header image, Boston Brownstones

Myra Kraft Open Classroom is a public seminar series hosted every semester by Northeastern University. The theme for Spring 2019 is “Social Equity in a Just City: Race and Inequality”.

On Wednesday January 23, the topic of the class was Urban Resiliency and Race. The discussion was led by Ted Landsmark — Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Director of the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, and affiliated faculty of the Global Resilience Institute. The panel members for this lecture were George Williams — Director of Initiatives & Partnerships in the Mayor’s Office of Resilience & Equity, and Dr. S. Atyia Martin — CEO and Founder of All Aces Inc., Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Global Resilience Institute, and the former Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Boston.

The evening’s discussion centered around the current status of racial equity in Boston and its implications for citywide resilience. In January 2019, Mayor Walsh’s office continued to support racial equity in Boston by signing the Executive Order to Promote Racial Equity and Resilience into law, as partnered with its Resilience and Racial Equity Office, established in 2015. It entails the education of city employees on racism and racial equity, starting in City Hall before expanding the training program to all other departments. The City of Boston’s “Dialogues to Action” program is another education-based initiative, comprised of public, facilitated discussions about race throughout the city. The ultimate goal of these policies is to take a step towards institutionalizing equity, as prioritized in Boston’s citywide resilience strategy released in 2017.

Boston’s resilience plan was produced as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program beginning in 2014. Dr. S. Atyia Martin was appointed as Boston’s first Chief Resilience Officer to coordinate the plan and to conduct research on a broad range of topics, from infrastructure to social opportunities, using her background as Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness at the Boston Public Health Commission. In this lecture, Dr. Martin discussed unequal access to services, such as reliable public transit, faced by certain Boston communities. She expressed that “the things that struggle most now are what will struggle most in a disaster”, thereby having a negative impact on the city’s resilience.

These inequities are not new for Boston: The wealth gap statistics illustrating the city’s staggering inequality are well-known to many Bostonians. The median net worth of White Bostonians is $247,500, while the median net worth of African-American Bostonians is $8, according to “The Color of Wealth in Boston,” a 2015 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Duke University, and the New School. Dr. Martin, however, has a solution in mind: stop seeing racism as an abstract concept, but rather as an institution to be disrupted.

To stop this passive racism, it is necessary to work outside the status quo and stop repeating the inequitable patterns of history — this means that leaders need to get comfortable addressing race-related issues, and to actively listen to the needs of those they serve. Dr. Martin stressed the importance of proper representation in decision-making, which requires leaders to expand their professional networks to access a diverse set of opinions. Keeping in mind the principle “nothing about us without us”, it is necessary to engage with the community by forming partnerships and initiating inclusive discussions.

The sidewalk project is an example of Boston’s current efforts on building equity into the public services. Previously, sidewalk repairs were completed per individual requests made in 311 calls. However, the 311 municipal service hotline proved inequitable due to reasons including language barriers, accessibility, and general distrust of the city government — consequently resulting in a large variation in sidewalk quality between neighborhoods. To remedy this, the city created a new system based on the expected lifespan of the sidewalks, ensuring that all sidewalks would receive equal maintenance, and eliminating the need for 311 reporting. Innovative, yet manageable, actions like this are what can best encourage equity. Likewise, increasing transparency by making project information available in both short handouts and extensive online reports can further compliment the engagement process and promote accountability of the city and developers. Such actions would advance the vision of Boston’s resilience plan: using the lens of equity to frame decision-making and fully integrate equity into city systems.

Another concern addressed in the lecture is the need for housing reform. As gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods continues, Roxbury residents are burdened by the fear of displacement, highlighting the necessity of affordable housing for not only low-income residents, but also those in the working and middle class who experience the lack of affordable options in their neighborhood. Support for home ownership would further help prevent displacement and reduce turnover. Housing plans especially require community engagement, as residents are hurt from false promises and distrustful of the motives of city planners and developers.

Community advocacy plays a vital role in issues like this: well-organized groups can harness the power of the community to protect their interests. Having a unified voice gives them power in discussions, and makes communities more resistant to predatory developers that leverage group division to push their own agenda. Sometimes, however, groups are still ignored despite their unity and organization. In such cases, Dr. Martin advises: “if there is no seat for you at the table, make your own table”. She encourages community members to make a difference where they are using resources that they have, and promises that the city and outsiders will inevitably take notice.

See: Africatown, Seattle, and Brownsville, NYC

Myra Kraft Open Classroom is free to the public, meeting every Monday from 6 to 8 PM in 020 West Village F
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