Monday, May 5, 2008

Civic Summit: Getting from Small to Large

The civic mind begins with small things.

Rough patches left in the pavement in Roslindale by a utility company. The way a precinct in Beacon Hill with low voter turnout in city elections keeps getting redistricted. Or the dissatisfaction by a Grove Hall resident with quality-of-life services: “Things just don’t get done,” she says.

When more than 450 people gathered Saturday for the “civic summit” at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, most of them were from either neighborhood groups or non-profits. Both kinds of groups usually cover a limited territory. For the neighborhood groups, it often means land use or public safety. For non-profits, it’s the economic development project, the social service, or advocacy for a particular need.

But the summit co-chaired by City Council President Maureen Feeney was supposed to help groups move beyond their usual boundaries. Even as participants arrived, they were given stacks of business cards so they could follow up on new contacts from around the city.

Feeney reminded them of a low point in Boston’s civic engagement, the 14% turnout of registered voters in the 2007 election for City Council. But Mayor Thomas Menino and the event’s other co-chair, the executive director of the Mass. Convention Center Authority, Jim Rooney, brought up some high points of civic engagement, from the War to Independence to the opposition that stopped the extension of Route I-95 through Boston.

The morning workshops were closer to the small things: zoning, organization building and resources, political action, and getting out a message through the media. But the people taking on these topics at the workshops were from all around Boston. And the topics themselves often require organizations to think beyond their own territory and natural allies—whether in a dispute over land use or in being portrayed by the media.

At lunchtime, there was a shift toward a larger perspective, in a talk by Dr. Thomas Sander, Executive Director of Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America at the Harvard Kennedy School. Sander compared the recent gains and losses in civic engagement to the beginning of the 20th century, when new groups took shape in response to immigration and the massive population shift from the countryside to the city.

A century later, Sander explained, there have also been dramatic changes. He acknowledged research indicating that racial diversity can make people close ranks more closely among their own kind, while being less trustful of others. But he vouched for the advantages of social capital, even on a small scale. One example: getting to know neighbors is more effective at reducing crime than increasing coverage by police.

“We didn’t think the answer is that we all ought to live in gated communities,” said Sander.

Likewise, during the town meeting after lunch, small things connected to something larger. Participants from Dorchester noted that desirable streets could be only stone’s throw from a “hot spot” for gun violence, just as a student attending a prestigious exam school can ride the same bus route on which another student was fatally shot last year.

When asked to identify the “most important issues” facing Boston, more than three hundred participants put education and youth development in first place, followed by economic development and public safety. They also identified education and youth development as the issue that would benefit the most from civic engagement, followed by public safety and the environment.

Other results from the town meeting showed there was a gap between the turnout at the summit and Boston’s population. Almost three-quarters of those at the summit were white, and two-thirds were at least 45 years old. They listed concerns about youth participation, a disconnect between citizens and government, even feelings of “us vs. them” in community groups.

But, for all the concerns and the demographic mismatch, participants tried to figure out their next move. For the year 2020, their goal was a city with a 100% high school graduation rate and a school system on par with those in the suburbs. For the year ahead, the list began with after-school tutoring, a campaign against litter and graffiti, and more summer jobs.

They were only lists, but the small things had gotten larger.

Crossing the Line from Violence to Peace

Kai Leigh Harriott and Anthony Warren had spoken to each other before, face to face. It was three years ago, in a courtroom. Warren apologized to the five year-old girl for the gunshot that left her paralyzed two years earlier. Harriott responded by forgiving.

Wednesday morning, at the Dorchester House Multi Center, Warren apologized once more, this time in a statement recorded at the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

“She gave me a second chance to really make a difference,” Warren said, “to show people here that forgiveness is good, to work on myself and change my life.”

Appearing on a screen and facing a darkened room, Warren was dressed in a prisoner’s outfit. After Harriott finished watching the videotape and the lights went back on, she responded once again.

“Thank you for making an apology,” she said, “because you can inspire so many people when you say don’t carry guns and don’t do bad things.”

As it was re-enacted, apology crossed boundaries, starting with the one between the offender confined to prison and the survivor confined to a wheelchair.

“Many of us are behind invisible bars,” said Harriot’s mother, Tonya David. For survivors of violence, David explained, the bars were the bitterness and rage trapped inside.

The excerpt shown at Dorchester House was part of a declaration of “peace month” by violence prevention groups, community leaders, and elected officials. The full-length video, with messages from nine inmates, will be shown May 10, at the Teen Empowerment’s “Youth Peace Conference.”

Randy Muhammad, who does prison ministry for Nation of Islam, Muhammad’s Mosque No. 11, said young people usually see violence represented in the glamorization of popular culture, especially in gangsta rap. Speaking at the “peace month” announcement, he said young people need to see the truth in the video or even in visits to prison.

“We have romanticized the idea of violence. Violence is promoted,” he said.

“A lot of the time, these images are glorified,” he said. “That’s not the reality.”

Community leaders also say people who go to prison can speak with the most authority to discourage violence.

“We believe those who are behind the walls are part of the problem,” said William E. Dickerson III, Senior Pastor of Greater Lover Tabernacle Church, “but they can be part of the solution as far as violence on the streets.”

An aide to City Councilor Chuck Turner, Darrin Howell, explained that getting the reality inside the prison on tape was an idea that came from another inmate, Darrell Jones. Howell said one reasons why Jones tried get out a message from behind bars was the death of his 23 year-old son, Darrius, on January 16. He was shot after leaving the funeral of a friend who had been killed.

Before the speakers began their program, 17 year-old Kevin Hurd, Jr. was looking over familiar faces and names on a traveling memorial to victims. He pointed to badges for two of them who were shot on bus rides just a few blocks away from each other in Dorchester.

“I know too many of them—way too many,” said Hurd.

“The majority of people up here, I knew their faces—around the neighborhood, playing basket ball with them,” he recalled. “So many good people.”

And why do bad things happen to good people?

“It’s life,” he said. “People with too much time on their hands do senseless acts.”

Some of the victims have also been described as “known to police.” The label implies the killing wasn’t random, and that people not involved with gangs would be less at risk. But that distinction broke down in 1993, when 15 year-old Louis D. Brown was killed by a stray bullet. He was on the way to a Christmas party held by a violence prevention group for teenagers.

Brown’s mother, and co-founder of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, Clementina Chéry, explained that the response to violence has to move beyond assigning blame.

“They’re our children,” she said. “And we have to look at the shame and the pain our children inflict on us and begin to turn that around.”

That happens in the annual Mothers’ Walk for Peace, when the faces of victims reappear as they were known to friends and family. Survivors walk side by side and cross the line from rage to compassion for other survivors. From there it’s only one more step to the exchange between Kai Leigh Harriott and Anthony Warren.

“We shouldn’t be shocked when a child says, ‘I forgive you,’” said Chéry. “That should be the norm.”

* * * * *

• Saturday, May 10, 1-5 p.m., Strand Theatre (543 Columbia Road, Dorchester). Boston Youth Peace Conference, organized by Teen Empowerment.

• Saturday, May 10, 6 p.m. Annual vigil in memory of Bobby and Mathew Mendes, at Dudley and Wendover Streets, Dorchester. Organized by the Bobby Mendes Peace Legacy.

• Sunday, May 11 (registration begins 7 a.m.), starting from Town Field, Dorchester. Mothers’ Walk for Peace. Proceeds to benefit outreach to survivors and elementary school program to aid in prevention and healing.