Summit crowd tackles diversity

May 30, 2008
By

DAVID TABER


Photo by Margauz Jaffe Sue Naimark records comments during a workshop at the JP Neighborhood Summit on May 17 on working across race and class lines to improve public schools.

“Diversity is not hard. Diversity has a lot to do with birth rates and things that are actually fun. What is hard is inclusion and equity.”

That was the keynote message of Rubén Lizardo, associate director of the Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit PolicyLink, to over 250 community activists at the Building an Equitable Community JP Neighborhood Summit at English High School May 17.

The day-long summit, convened by the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), included 15 panel discussions and workshop sessions on a host of topics. The subject matter ranged from discussions on challenges and opportunities facing women and people of color looking to break into the construction field to strategizing to maintaining vibrant independent commercial districts and affordable housing stock in JP.

And at the heart of it all was what one afternoon workshop title referred to as “”JP’s Famous Diversity.”

Noting that the United States is on the cusp of becoming a majority-minority country, with experts predicting that there will be more non-white than white people living in the country by 2040, diversity appears to be inevitable, Lizardo said in the keynote address.

And, he said, the white population is statistically older than the non-white population, meaning that pretty soon the white population of the United States will be dependent on a tax base “provided by black, Latino and Asian communities.”

“The question of diversity is not just a mere convenience. Its really a strategic conversation,” he said.

JP itself is, according to the 2000 census, 50 percent non-white, and the significance of that diversity was very much on summit attendees’ minds.

Referring to comments made by residents in “Voices of JP”—a collection of video interviews that was screened earlier in the morning—Tim Andrews, who moved to JP in August, said, “I agree with some of the people on the film who say that JP can feel a little segmented. This is a neat opportunity to break out of that a little bit.”

Kenneth Emeliano, a high-school-aged youth organizer with the Hyde Square Task Force (HSTF) who sat on a morning panel titled “Playing on a Level Field: Civic Engagement Across Differences,” expressed similar sentiments about the mix of ages and races at the summit. The panel “felt like a good conversation between the adults and us,” he said.

At the same time, “A lot of these people are not on the block. We need to get people to see the raw truth out there. If you have never been robbed before you don’t understand,” he said.

Emeliano said he lived in Jackson Square for five years and now lives in Roslindale. He told the Gazette he spent his first years in a close-knit community in South Boston. “I was not exposed to weed or to gangs…the parents all knew each other,” he said. “The community was what a community should be.”

While the HSTF organizer said he loves JP, he “saw things I don’t think a kid my age was supposed to see.”

His move to Roslindale is connected to problems he was having as a result of those experiences, he said.

Emeliano’s story is very different from the experience of many other conference attendees the Gazette spoke to, many of whom said they had learned about the event through an informal discussion group hosted by JP resident Maddie Ribble, who co-moderated the Civic Engagement panel on Saturday.

“New residents of JP, especially middle class residents, need to be more involved in promoting equality in our neighborhood, in coalition with others,” Ribble told the Gazette, explaining the impetus for the discussion groups. “New residents don’t know [local] history, and there are social constraints and barriers to being powerful allies.”

He said the group others referred to is a “various circles of friends networking to educate themselves about the neighborhood and gentrification—starting at a really basic level of thinking about the role of new middle-class residents in the neighborhood.”

In addition to Emeliano and Ribble, the Civic Engagement panel included Gabi Leyton-Nolan, another HSTF youth organizer, Lizardo and David Crowley from the Woburn-based nonprofit Social Capital Inc.

The panel afforded the HSTF youth the opportunity to discuss their work, including current efforts to institute a mandatory upper-level civics curriculum in the Boston Public Schools and a past campaign to combat sexual harassment in the schools.

And, according to Lizardo, that in itself represented a small success. “Part of the problem we have is we don’t talk to each other about what we are doing,” he said. “Part of what we have to do is talk to each other about our successes,” he said.

At one point during that discussion, Beatriz Rivera, who moderated the Civic Engagement panel along with Ribble, pointed out that there were three people of color on the panel and very few in the audience. “What are we doing that is not bringing Latinos here?” she asked.

The attendance at one afternoon workshop, “Keeping JP a Gateway for Immigrants,” demonstrated even more starkly that sector of the local community was under-represented. Of the six workshop participants, none were from JP’s immigrant community.

“Something is going on here, something is wrong,” one of the workshop presenters from the immigrants rights group Centro Presente said.

In talking to the Gazette Emeliano downplayed those dynamics, in the Civic Engagement workshop at least, saying he is mostly interested in communicating with people who care about what is going on in the community.

And the proof of that, he said, will be, “if we have people following through.”

Richard Thal, executive director of the JPNDC, told the Gazette he is optimistic that follow-through will happen.

In particular, he said, an afternoon discussion on “Working Across
Race and Class to Improve Our Schools” and one about confronting health disparities seem to have generated a significant amount of interest.

Thal said the summit was organized specifically with follow-up in mind. “One of the clear pieces of feedback we got from people when we were planning the summit is that really what will be most telling is how people will move into action,” he said.

For their part, the youth at the summit, both at the morning panel and in an afternoon discussion on “Youth as Community Leaders” said they wanted to see more active engagement from adults in the community.

“Young people are organizing to advance an agenda with elected officials and people in power,” one youth in the afternoon session said. “Having adult allies support us puts more weight behind our arguments.”

Overall, Thal said he thought the summit was attended by a “good mix of people.”

“It was really encouraging to see a lot of new blood. It was also neat to see a representation of people who have been around for a long time,” he said.

A follow-up meeting to the summit is scheduled for June 23 at the Nate Smith House. [See sidebar and JP Agenda.]