Last Thursday’s community meeting at English High School in Jamaica Plain began as a call to ensure equality and fairness in the distribution of Massachusetts’ portion of the federal stimulus package. It quickly evolved into a broader discussion about a host of issues that continue to plague minority communities, both in Boston and around the Commonwealth.
“It’s time to talk,” said Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, which hosted the gathering. “We have to gain a seat at the table.”
About 100 people gathered to voice their concerns and to discuss the best ways to ensure that the state’s minority communities are not skipped when Massachusetts’ slice of the $787 billion federal pie is allocated for work opportunities, infrastructure projects or community programming. Gov. Deval Patrick has estimated that the state could receive between $6 billion and $9 billion in direct funding assistance through the stimulus package.
City Council President Michael Ross attended the English High event, as did City Councilor-at-Large and mayoral candidate Sam Yoon. Others in attendance included Ron Marlow, assistant secretary for access and opportunity in the Patrick administration, and state Department of Workforce Development Director Michael Taylor.
As the invited government officials looked on, community members and leaders of Boston-area nonprofits came forward to press for assistance on a host of issues.
Greater Four Corners Action Coalition Executive Director Marvin Martin said that most of the stimulus money will go toward projects like new construction and repairing bridges, and that those jobs were ones that typically did not go to minority workers.
“We need the state government to listen to us,” Martin said, calling for every project to be looked at through the lens of social justice.
Equity in the division of construction funding was a major concern for several attendees.
Kerrick Johnson, director of the Roxbury Builders’ Guild, an alliance of local minority construction workers, said one danger of the stimulus package was that it could trigger old inequalities. He argued that any project that employs only union members would guarantee low rates of participation for women and minority workers.
“There can be no excuse for letting old failures continue,” he said.
Johnson suggested barring developers with a poor history of employing minority workers from receiving stimulus funds. He also called for the inclusion of local communities in all aspects of the construction process, from hiring to building and project oversight.
Other builders echoed Johnson’s concerns. Wayne Smith, a member of a local pile drivers union, demanded the city vigorously enforce its equal work ordinances.
Brandishing his union card, Smith said, “I’m a member in good standing,” before demanding that the city crack down on the unions.
“People from outside of the city — Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island — come in here and work on these projects, while people like myself are not working,” added Smith, who said he hopes that “people in my community who are qualified, certified, able and available get the same opportunities as people who are non-residents and working on a continual basis.”
Several tradesmen at the meeting also said they were concerned by the lack of support in the city for vocational training.
“We need money to go to education, but not everybody is going to college,” said David Lopes, who owns Mattapan-based Wellington Construction. “We need vocational education.”
Later in his presentation, Lopes asked of the city officials in attendance, “When are you going to make a vocational institute that works for young people in this city? Because it doesn’t, and it’s not by accident. There are 600,000 people [in Boston] and we don’t have a vocational high school that is open in the evening for continuing education? That is insane!”
Lopes also argued for more employment of minorities by community development corporations.
“We’ve got community development corporations that go out of their way to hire majority contractors from outside the city. They hire them, they then say, ‘Try and hire minorities,’” he said. “Well, guess what? Minority contractors hire 90 percent people of color!”
Longtime South End community activist Mel King said such employment and hiring concerns are nothing new in Boston.
“The issues with respect to jobs and construction, we worked on that many years ago — not in meetings like this, but on the streets,” King said.
The former state representative and mayoral candidate also emphasized the importance of citizens holding public officials accountable for the disbursement of the stimulus funds.
“And I’m going to tell you, with all the stimulus coming, if we’re not in the streets to make sure that the mayor is going to do right and the contractors are going to do right, it will be simulation,” not stimulation,” King said.
“We’ve complained about the dirt, but we’ve got the broom in our hands,” he added.
Gabriel Camacho, board president for statewide Latin American immigrant advocacy group Centro Presente, turned the discussion toward what he said was the marginalization of his community’s stake in important matters.
“As representatives of the Latin American community, not only have our voices and needs been routinely forgotten, but we have been vilified and demonized in the mass media and publicly by politicians in normal political discourse from Capitol Hill to Beacon Hill,” Camacho said. “We have been scapegoats for all societal ills and then some.”
Later in the meeting, Edwin Argueta, a member of the board of the Chelsea Collaborative and an organizer for Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, called for money to be spent on after-school programs, hiring teachers and making adult education accessible to the immigrant community, as well as pushing for aggressive funding for English as a Second Language classes.
Other attendees, like Sean Pelzer, used the hearing to call for reform of the state’s controversial Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) laws — and to suggest that individuals whose earning power is impacted by their records should be able to share in the federal funds.
“My agenda is to make sure those with CORIs get some of that pie,” Pelzer said. “This [the stimulus money] is for everybody.”
It was an emotional meeting for some. One speaker, who identified himself only as “Brother X,” said, “Don’t give me a job today and fire me tomorrow.”
In an impassioned appeal, the man demanded that the government “remove that red line from around my body,” referring to the practice of “redlining,” or impeding access to essential services for residents of certain areas.
Underlying all of the specific calls made by attendees was the desire to see whatever stimulus funding comes to Massachusetts and to Boston spread out to those in greatest need.
“The stimulus package will not be effective unless it reaches down into bottom rungs of the society — that means those individuals who are in the street, in the gutters, who struggle every day to make ends meet,” said attendee Omar Martin. “If the stimulus package is truly going to be effective it has to reach down into the gutters of our city and lift up those who are in deep, who are the least in our society.”
"Tax cuts for the working poor, aid to the unemployed and educational assistance are just as important as infrastructure jobs to help turn the economy around," the Banner wrote in its Feb. 19, 2009, editorial. "President Barack Obama clearly understands the importance of avoiding a national sense of despair." More »
Gov. Deval Patrick met last week with the state’s congressional delegation, labor leaders, construction executives and economists as he tried to ensure that Massachusetts is ready and able to spend the money expected to flow from the economic stimulus bill that President-elect Barack Obama says is one of his top priorities. More »
Wish lists submitted by cities, towns and state agencies for a share of Massachusetts’ federal stimulus funds include hundreds of renewable energy projects, from a multi-community push to place solar panels on the roofs of public buildings across Cape Cod to a major wind farm in the Berkshires. More »