Saturday, May 03, 2008

Boston Civic Summit Brings Together Community Organizers

The first Boston Civic Summit took place Saturday at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in South Boston, providing a chance for civic leaders -- and foot soldiers -- from across the city to network with each other and craft a vision of how Boston could look a decade from now.

City Council President Maureen Feeney explained how the idea for the event grew out of a meeting months ago over coffee at Gerard's Restaurant in Dorchester with BCEC Executive Director Jim Rooney. They were looking at "ways to revitalize civic life in Boston," and seized upon a meeting of civic leaders as a way to draw people together from many different neighborhoods in the city.

Roughly 400 people from across the city met for seven hours to talk about community organizing strategies, improving communications with the media, fundraising, and their vision for the city's future.

"Don't Just Tell us What's Wrong"

Mayor Thomas Menino breezed in -- and out -- of the convention center probably feeling a little bit unwelcome. The event was conceived and organized without his input, faced his early opposition, and only provided him five minutes to speak to the crowd.

The event's program (as of one week ago) didn't list him on the program as a speaker; later in the week (and in the published program) he had a five-minute slot at the end of lunch; and only today did he manage to move his speaking slot up to a time right before event's keynote speaker. That the Boston Civic Summit wouldn't look to the Mayor as a keynote speaker speaks to the chasm between between the city's civic leaders and the municipal government's leaders; Boston Herald muckracker Howie Carr says that Mayor Menino privately calls the activists "agitators." The Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services only provided perfunctory visible support to the program -- sending out an announcement of the event to Allston-Brighton residents on April 29th, four days after registration for the event was supposedly closed on the 25th. Gee, thanks for the shout out, I guess.

Anticipating trouble might be brewing at the event, Mayor Menino tried to head it off at the pass: "Voice your concerns. Ask tough questions. Don't just tell us what's wrong."

But describing what was wrong with city government was apparently what happened at the first session of "Managing Community Development / Zoning". I was at a parallel session at the time, but word on the street was that the zoning discussion dove right into institutional expansion and animated BRA-bashing, leading to former Councilor Larry DiCara -- who led the session -- being instructed to keep the discussion in the subsequent session on the zoning process rather than the failings of the BRA. Which he did.

How could a discussion of zoning and community development avoid talking about the elephant in the room, namely the issues of institutional expansion and the BRA's role as possible facilitator? Because she said so, that's why. Councilor Feeney reportedly told one participant that this whole summit was supposed to be about civic involvement rather than reforming city government. A number of summit participants, however, didn't understand how one didn't involve the other.

It was without any apparent sense of irony that Mayor Menino noted how opposition in the early 1970s to the proposed Southwest Expressway faced down the "bureaucrats [who] tried to divide us." He obviously recognizes how civic engagement directly relates to government, although it must be tough now to be on the side of the equation.

"Rugged Idealism"

Keynote speaker Alan Khazei, the Founder of City Year, spoke about how he sees the United States being founded on the ideas of "rugged idealism," rather than the term "rugged individualism" that everyone is taught in high school history class.

Khazei gaves examples of the Boston Tea Party, the work of abolitionists in the 19th century, the suffrage movement of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott -- and the Boston Ten-Point Coalition, which focuses on "the issues affecting Black and Latino youth, especially those at risk for violence, drug abuse, and other destructive behavior."

"Idealism works," said Khazei. "It has the power to change lives." He concluded with a rejection of Ronald Reagan's argument in the 1980 presidential campaign that people should ask, "Are you better off?" Instead, Khazei thinks that people should focus on the question, "Are we better off?"

Aging Population of Community Activists

The wireless tools used by AmericaSpeaks in the "Town Hall" session enabled instant identification of the demographics of the civic leaders of the city -- and the comparison with the city as a whole.

Community activists here have lived in Boston far longer (50% have lived in the city more than 30 years, compared to 10% of Boston residents), are more predominantly white (73% of activists vs. 50% of Boston residents), and are heavily skewed towards older residents (67% are age 45 or older, compared to 38% of Boston residents) than the population at large.

The worrisome message that grows out of these demographics is that those civically-engaged residents are aging but not being replaced by younger activists.

The only silver lining was identified by speaker Dr. Thomas Sander of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who referred to recent research showing that people who were in college at the time of the events of 9/11 are turning out to be more politically active than their immediate predecessors.

But Sanders pointed to a steady decrease in the average rate of membership in large organizations since 1970 -- bringing activism rates, at least as measured by involvement in large organizations, down to a rate not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Top Issues Facing Boston

Participants identified education (61%), economic development (43%), public safety (37%), and housing (33%) as the most important issues facing Boston. Yet economic development (26%) and housing (15%) were low on the list of issues that they felt they could impact most through their civic participation, being trumped by education (65%), public safety (52%), and the environment (41%).

Political leaders often speak of economic development as key to the city's future, and point to the companies and institutions as drivers of the economic engine. The need for affordable housing is often repeated on the campaign trail, too. That the civic leaders of the city feel so powerless to affect change on these two issues is telling as to a disconnect between government and the people.

Vision for Revitalized Civic Engagement

The participants in the town hall session arrived at a common vision for how Boston might appear twelve years from now, should their civic activities produce meaningful change:
Participants envisioned thriving civic engagement in Boston in 2020 and discused how we would know we have achieved our vision. The group identified the following concrete, measurable things that would indicate we have reached our vision of revitalized civic engagement in our city:
  • Boston has a 100% high school graduation rate and Boston Public Schools are as good as schools in the suburbs;
  • Neighborhoods are green and sustainable (more green development, clean public spaces, decreased reliance on cars);
  • The digital divide has been eliminated, partially through free wi-fi throughout the city and city services are more easily accessed through the web;
  • Lower crime rate, "zero murder rate every year"
  • Young people fully involved in civic programs;
  • City government is more transparent (fully utilizing new technologies, participation is more fully encouraged); and
  • City government is more representative -- both ethnically and of the neighborhoods.
It takes little imagination to suggest that these issues will be front-and-center in the 2009 mayoral election campaign.

Image of old man by Pulpolux, and image of BCEC by silver marquis, through a Creative Commons license.


the zak said...

J. Bernstein on the Council staff, maintains a little used resource available for researching civic matters is our Boston City Council Library... "The City Council maintains a reference library which is open to city employees, students and the general public. The library contains City Council Minutes, Municipal Registers and City Documents dating from the early 1800’s to the present. In addition, the library contains current publications relating to municipal law and finance."

the zak said...

Where is there any audio from the Boston Civic Summit?... speeches?... presentations?... etc.?...

yvonne said...

Interesting--so if Councilor Feeney altered the dialogue on Zoning at the Forum that would explain why so many of us were stunned when neither development nor zoning appeared on the list of concerns from the 'town meeting' excercise. Perhaps the Theme Team responsible for tabulating reponses had also been instructed to exclude the "reform" issues from the top ten lists...