Op-eds

October 27, 2017
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Pivotal moment for criminal justice reform

By Local Sonia Chang-Díaz

Thanks to years of significant public pressure, the state legislature is now preparing to take action on criminal justice reform. This is a pivotal moment, and it may not come again for many years.

The State Senate recently released a much-anticipated criminal justice reform package, to be voted upon by the end of the month. It doesn’t go as far as other states on community reinvestment or repealing mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses. But it’s a sincere compromise, with solid reform elements and comprehensive breadth. It will unquestionably make our justice system fairer and more effective.

Over the last 40 years we gave huge power to District Attorneys in sentencing – and with it they oversaw a system that grew into a costly, ineffective, and racist mess. Today, Massachusetts locks up more than five times the number of people we incarcerated in the 1970s. Our state ranks in the top 15 percent highest incarceration rates compared to other nations. And, insidiously, while black and Latino people make up less than one-fifth of the total state population, they make up 75 percent of those who get mandatory minimum drug sentences.

In my district, I see whole city blocks where families are eroded from their full strength because brothers, mothers, fathers, sisters are gone for years at a time, and come back more broken than they went in. We also suffer mightily from the drug trade in Boston. But has the quintupling of our jailed population in Massachusetts solved that problem?

Then there are the monetary costs. On any given day, there are approximately 20,000 people incarcerated in the Commonwealth. You and I spend $53,000 per inmate per year to house these men and women.

These policies – so expensive in dollars and human lives – have little to show for themselves in terms of safety outcomes. More than 40 percent of former inmates re-offend after they are released and drug addiction is no less prevalent since these policies began 40 years ago. Saying “we’re getting tough on those drug dealers” feels good politically, but it does nothing to solve the actual problem.

Our state is wasting precious resources on a system that isn’t just and doesn’t work. Yet there are fairer, more effective options. We can return authority to judges to consider the facts of each case, and equip them with more tools to divert those who need it to treatment and rehab. We can use public resources responsibly, on those sentences and programs that fit the crime and that prevent crime where we know we can. We can save millions of dollars, and re-deploy those savings to ensure our neighborhoods are well-served when ex-offenders return to them.

For years, grassroots activists and their allies in the State House have advocated for these crucial reforms. For years, we have been told to wait.

We can’t wait anymore.

I urge you to be impatient and hold your elected officials accountable–for delivering not just half-measures that provide political cover but leave fundamental problems in place, but true reform.

Solving the affordability and displacement crisis

By Danielle Sommer and Mike Prokosch

Housing costs a lot in Boston. It’s getting harder to find a home you can rent or own. And people of color are being pushed outside of the city, increasing segregation across the state.

If we don’t take a stand now, not only will people be displaced today, but the crisis will get worse. Protecting affordability, especially for lower-income households, helps stabilize costs for everyone. Otherwise, as lower-income residents are displaced, moderate-income residents will increasingly become priced out as well.

So community organizations decided to ask: What new housing is being built? Some striking facts emerged.

Half of Boston households make $55,000 or less a year. Households of color and renters, who are both majorities in Boston, make even less. About 9 percent of housing built from January 2011 to June 2017, or 1,975 out of 21,955 units, is affordable at these income levels. For households most in need, making less than $25,000, 2.9 percent of new housing (636 units) is affordable.

The City also currently defines affordability based on incomes up to $125,000, including units with $2000-3000/month rents. At these income levels, another 9.5 percent of new housing is income-restricted. Another 22.0 percent is market-rate but considered affordable.

So, depending on who you’re talking about, 2.9 percent to 40.5 percent of new housing is affordable. Visit bit.ly/2y0cA7o to analyze the data yourself.

We must look at these results now and in the future, including their impact based on race. People of color on average, especially Black and Latino people, have less income and wealth than white people. City policies, even when apparently race-neutral or well-intended, can widen racial disparities; instead, we must ensure that policies promote racial equity.

What are the mayoral candidates proposing to do?

To find out, 11 community organizations sent a questionnaire to Mayor Marty Walsh and Councilor Tito Jackson. We asked where they stand on housing for lower-income residents, neighborhood stabilization, and community control of development.

Walsh and Jackson agreed broadly on some points. Both said it’s important to increase the City’s housing goals for households that make less than $25,000 annually. Both pledged to reexamine the Inclusionary Development Policy, which requires developers to include affordable housing or pay into an affordable housing fund. Both said they support community land trusts, affordable home ownership, and reducing homelessness.

Their specific commitments differ, however. So do their positions on affordable housing funding; affordability standards on City-owned land; the Boston Planning and Development Agency; and increasing community control over development. You can see their full responses at bit.ly/2xYC8ql.

The better informed we are, the better we can ensure our elected leaders get housing policies right – policies that will determine who’s living in Boston in ten years. Do we want to protect our diversity and build current residents’ wealth, or do we want less diverse communities that prioritize wealthier newcomers? We need to know the facts. We need to know the candidates’ positions. And together, we – and the next mayor – need to solve the crises of affordability and displacement.

Danielle Sommer is a member of Keep It 100 of Real Affordable Housing and Racial Justice, and Mike Prokosch is a member of Dorchester People for Peace.

Activism in Jamaica Plain through arts!

By Mindy Fried and Marie Ghitman

The arts save lives. We know this because we have lived it. Music, dance, theatre, spoken word, storytelling and other forms of art bring people together in community, and give us an essential outlet for unity, and for creative and critical expression. In our collective work over the years – teaching dance, facilitating interactive arts experiences, playing music with young and old, and more recently, producing music and arts festivals – we have seen hundreds of people come alive when they perform or participate in arts-based activities. The arts build community, and we’re lucky in JP to have a history of community-building arts events, exemplified by Spontaneous Celebrations’ Wake Up the Earth and the Lantern Parade, which began in 1979, as well as today’s bevy of arts festivals and events, including the JP Music Festival, JP Open Studios, and more.

Artists have always been on the front line of speaking truth to power. Sociologist Ron Eyerman says, “Music, song, poetry and works of visual representation are important in creating and communicating a collective narrative, articulating who we are, where we come from, what we stand for and what we are against… (The arts) also are means of overcoming fear and anxiety in trying situations.” We believe that the arts are particularly important today, given our current political landscape. JP is home to a number of organizations and groups dedicated to using the arts as a tool to call out racism and xenophobia and to create space for diverse voices to speak out, sing out, dance out and more. JP Porchfest is one of those groups, now expanded into year-round programming to build upon the good vibes of our summer festival. Our mission is explicitly about building community – across the divides of race, class, culture and immigrant status – through the power of the arts. Because we want to sustain the positive feelings and encourage the connections made at Porchfest, we are collaborating with local organizations to produce ongoing opportunities for people to connect through the arts. Three years ago, we started with “Porchfest Inside”, and had weekly concerts at The Haven, as well as First Thursday music nights. And with Wee the People, we co-sponsored an arts activity and musical parade for young children and their families about freedom, social justice and protest.

After the 2016 election, we were frustrated and angry with the state of our country, and decided to channel this anger into a new arts series called ResistARTs. We started with a “counter-inaugural” celebration called Together We Rise! at the Strand Theatre, and have continued to organize a series of events throughout the year, including “Open Arms”, created in partnership with JPNDC and held at the Julia Martin House, an affordable housing development for elders. We included music and poetry and spoken word by seniors, as well as immigrant youth spoken word artists. Other ResistARTS events have included fundraisers for local non-profit groups, including “Resistioke” (live band singalong), adult read-aloud with live music (with Wee the People) and more. And on Nov. 2, Hoopla/ResistARTS will co-host with First Baptist Church, “Speak Out, Sing Out”, a fundraising event for Black Lives Matter Boston, featuring great local roots/reggae musicians and a spoken word performance.

Below we’ve listed a smattering of the many arts-filled initiatives in JP that have an activist agenda. Apologies if we haven’t listed all related initiatives; this is not intended to be a complete list.

*Bikes not Bombs – Nonprofit that, in their own words, “uses the bicycle for social change.” Bikes not Bombs runs a youth program and participates in JP Porchfest every year, with housing activist bike/arts tours.

*Egleston Main Streets  – Focuses on building community in the Latino community, strengthening the business district and revitalizing public spaces, using the arts as a vehicle and featuring performers of color.

*Hyde Square Task Force – Youth leadership development nonprofit with an extensive cultural program. Youth study and perform music, dance and theatre, and last year co-wrote and co-produced El Barrio: Boston’s Latin Quarter Musical, an interactive show grounded in Afro-Latin arts and culture that featured the stories of countless immigrants, youth, and hardworking families that have contributed to the fabric of the Hyde/Jackson Square area of Jamaica Plain.

*First Baptist Church – Religious institution that is dedicated to providing a haven for all people. The church hosts a monthly vigil for Black Lives Matter, and partners with community groups to produce arts-based events that build community.

*JPHonk Band – An “open” band that welcomes new members and performs at local events, including marches and rallies for progressive causes; currently partnering with East Boston’s Banda de Paz, Central American musicians committed to fighting racism and hate. After the 2016 election, JPHonk members led the creation of Boston Area Brigade of Activist Musicians, a cross-band group with 200+ members from regional bands, performing joyful music at rallies/protests amidst challenging struggles.

*JPNDC – Nonprofit that manages affordable housing in JP, and is dedicated to supporting low-income residents through a wide range of programs. JPNDC’s mission is to create a vibrant, stable and diverse community, and is a frequent partner of JP Porchfest/Hoopla Productions.

*Spontaneous Celebrations – Community cultural center that works to create and sustain a community cultural life that unites and empowers people for positive change through the arts, and produces seasonal celebrations in the Jamaica Plain and Roxbury neighborhoods.

*Urbano – Nonprofit community arts studio that brings together professional artists, local youth and community, using participatory art as a vehicle for personal transformation, community cohesion and social change.

*Wee the People – Arts-based series of programming and events for young kids exploring social justice and the power of protest, inspiring children to find the power of their own voices, and empowering parents to start conversations about race, class and difference with age-appropriate tools.

We are living in challenging times but perhaps one silver lining is the fuel that’s been added to the fires of JP’s many arts initiatives.

Mindy Fried and Marie Ghitman are the co-producers of the JP Porchfest.

 

 

 

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