TARSY AndrewBoston Needs to Get a Few Things Right; Right Now
by Andrew TARSY
31 May 2015

As I wrote in a piece just published in the New England Journal of Public Policy, the “hub of the universe” is in a major transition and can get inspiration and real ideas from some unlikely sources, if its leaders are willing to look. Under new leadership for the first time in twenty years, there are clear signs of good intentions, which of course, is never enough.

An initiative that deserves a look – one that I had the chance via UMass Boston to witness in action – is the Forum for Cities in Transition. Diverse delegations from deeply divided urban locales use the forum as “group” to gain strength from one another as they build on fragile peace of one kind or another. Participants represent Belfast, Kirkuk, Mitrovica, Nicosia, Derry-Londonderry, Kaduna, Tripoli and more.

I observed an annual gathering of delegations from these cities last October, and discussed the forum’s method of bringing them together to learn from each other with its founder Padraig O’Malley who holds the John Joseph Moakley Chair in Peace and Reconciliation at UMass Boston. I open a small window into a few of their respective stories in the longer piece recently published. As for Boston, three principles I took away from the international meeting ought to be put into action here as a new generation of opportunity develops.

1. Confront the Past – But Not Just to Talk About It

Boston’s racial history is the elephant in the room. Mayor Walsh actually used that metaphor in framing his own signature initiative on city-wide dialogue. There have been many well-intentioned pretenders on the subject of learning from the busing era.The toxicity that African Americans of diverse origin and social strata experience in Boston is best known and most often discussed everywhere else but here. Confronting the past does not just mean talking about our feelings. It means looking at how public policy, economic development, private investment and other forces have shaped and institutionalized racial boundaries that are otherwise as unremarkable as they are tragic. Mayor Walsh: Confronting the past does not mean talking about the past. It means deconstructing the most influential moments of the past, drawing usable lessons from them, and then using those lessons. You know what those moments are better than I do – and better than most. You may just be the man for the moment.

2. Collaborate Inclusively – One Way or Another

If this town is going forward it means working together – for real. Race, gender, the Olympics, housing, schools, equity – whatever it is, doing the same good-natured progressive thing from the top down, but with renewed vigor just won’t cut it, no matter how good our intentions. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others have observed that people with power don’t voluntarily give it up. So that means that organizers in disenfranchised communities: this is your moment as well. With a city whose top earners have wealth unprecedented in the history of the world; with big ideas from the 2024 Olympics to new transit systems on the agenda; with new neighborhoods being created from whole cloth, and school reform on a major scale underway? Take a seat at the table — but first, insist on the shape of the table itself. The places we make collective decisions need to reflect the people directly affected by them, and if that means some big deals cannot get done with the margins required by REITS and Wall Street, then maybe we have to let those deals go. Maybe we have to get creative about a new future by creating a new definition of success. We can only do that by defining collective success together.

3. Ensure that Women Have an Opportunity to Lead

Women need to be leaders in whatever process unfolds for making the transition to a new era in this city – and any city. It would be great to see women in top government or civic roles but that is not the only definition or even a sufficient goal for gender inclusive leadership. The city has made some strong steps toward meaningful, data-driven strategies for removing barriers that keep women from being a part of leadership in many important contexts. This is not a social justice issue; it is about ending the self-imposed rationing of talent that cities like Boston allow when rules and norms that favor men and exclude women go unchallenged. Once again – women need to set this agenda and drive it because even the most well-intentioned men will struggle to come up with solutions that produce lasting change. Those who have achieved so much progress toward gender equality in the past may be entering an unprecedented present.

If you find these principles too general – too thin – then apply them to any of the following and see what you come up with for a concrete agenda:

  • Olympics 2024
  • Mayor Walsh’s City-Wide Conversations
  • Development of Allston, the Seaport, Fenway, or Downtown Crossing
  • A Persistent Achievement Gap in Schools
  • Criminal Justice Reform
  • Transportation – the MBTA and the roads
  • The Largest Gap Between Rich and Poor in the United States
  • New Investment in Affordable Housing
  • Homelessness
  • Job Creation for Those Not Qualified for the STEM Economy

Opportunity knocks, Boston. Sometimes when there is a changing of the guard in political institutions, the new team presents an agenda that it has been holding onto since a prior time in the limelight. Initiatives come from the play-books of local, invested players who have a stake in seeing their own blueprints followed. If the ideas on the table are just more of our own – we might consider insisting they be put aside. We might consider getting some fresh ones from some proud cities around the world we normally hear about only when they are failing; because many of them are making brave steps in the name of transition. Like I said in the New England Journal of Public Policy, at times like these, inspiration can come from unexpected places.

Andrew Tarsy is a Senior Fellow in the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development at the John W. MacCormack School of Policy and Global Studies at UMass Boston. He is the former President of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, and co-founder and President of the Alliance for Business Leadership. Previously he was chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League of New England. He works with leaders in business, non-profit and higher education institutions to close the gap between vision and impact.

Article originally published: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/boston-needs-get-few-things-right-now-andrew-tarsy