Electeds of color hear residents’ priorities
Listening sessions designed to shape agenda
Community members had the ear of the state Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and other elected officials of color Tuesday night last week. The event at Roxbury’s Hibernian Hall was one of three listening sessions — and the only in Boston — scheduled before legislators start their next session in January.
Attendees spoke on a range of concerns including climate change, economic development and minimum wage, affordable housing and health care. Criminal justice reform priorities took some focus, with the following day’s Council of State Governments’ working session expected to be the last meeting before the group submits reform bill recommendations. But the message that came through above all, said Black and Latino Legislative Caucus Chair and state Rep. Russell Holmes, was that attendees want more resources for public district education.
“A lot of the tone of the meeting in Boston really drove that education is still one of biggest challenges we have,” Holmes said.
The listening session series is intended to help elected officials identify community concerns and build public support for potential solutions as they plan their next agenda. The first session was held in Springfield earlier this month, and a meeting in Lawrence was scheduled for last Thursday. Speaking to the Banner on Wednesday, Holmes said Springfield residents focused their concerns on poverty, economic development needs and lack of resources, and he expected Lawrence’s to focus on public safety.
Holmes told the Banner he anticipated an upcoming legislative discussion of charter reimbursement and state public education aid, saying the defeat of Question 2 — which would have raised the charter cap — sent a clear message that residents want attention put on providing greater resources to district schools.
“The vote [on question 2] made it very clear we should focus on getting more money into public education and less emphasis on raising limits on charter schools, but still have seats available for charter students,” Holmes said.
Caucus Vice Chair Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz has pushed to update the foundation budget formula which sets the level of state aid. An investigative commission she organized reported last year that the formula is decades out of date and vastly underestimates costs. Holmes said, however, that while discussion is likely, updates are not, due to budget constraints.
Several members of the Mattahunt community turned out to protest the school’s anticipated closure. Holmes said he personally believes converting the Mattahunt to an early learning center and sending children elsewhere is the best option for them, but realizes many in the community felt the process was rushed and that elected officials did sufficiently listen to them.
Another message, Holmes said: the call for turnaround schools to continue to receive additional resources even after they improve and rise in level rankings.
Other attendees said Roxbury Community College seems to be slipping out of community control and that staff and contractors no longer seem to represent local people of color sufficiently. Multiple teachers took the mic to report that their schools lack enough trauma counselors to properly serve children and disrupt the school to prison pipeline.
At the meeting, criminal justice reform requests covered the full gamut, ranging from prevention to anti-recidivism measures.
Too often, childish misbehavior by children of color is treated as criminal activity, said Theresa Conti, detention diversion advocacy project director at the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps. She recounted an incident in which two thirteen-year-old students were arrested, cuffed and brought to court to be arraigned after they threw their milk cartons at each other during lunch.
Conti and several youth attendees spoke of the need for juvenile record expungement so that mistakes made as a teenager do not haunt a person through the rest of his or her life. An expungement bill passed in the Senate last session but did not get through the House.
Several teachers said better provision of counselors at school could address childhood trauma before it turns into behavioral issues and criminal justice involvement down the line. Similarly, one resident said substance abuse assistance seems too often to be provided only to white youth and called for greater access so that drug use leads to recovery, not conviction. She recommended incorporating addiction into the Act to Eliminate Racial and Health Disparities in the Commonwealth bill sent to the House last March.
Rahsaan Hall, racial justice program director of the local ACLU, and others called for a repeal of mandatory minimum sentences.
James Mackey, coordinator for Opportunity Youth United, called for an end to using prisoners as sub-minimum-wage labor.
“The Thirteenth Amendment allows prisoners to work for private companies, making private companies a whole lot of money as well as prisons a whole lot of money, but they’re getting paid ten cents an hour,” Mackey said.
Hall said digital privacy measures are needed to protect against police mass social media surveillance of civilians, especially to ensure it does not lead to targeting activists for voicing dissent.
Segun Idowu, co-founder of the Boston Police Camera Action Team, suggested a measure to equip state police with body cameras be included in the criminal justice reform bill package expected next year.
Many speakers also made specific policy requests that would increase affordable housing resources.
Thadine Brown, vice president of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, urged legislators to target the state’s racial homeownership gap with measures such as providing a state matching commitment to loans made through the ONE Mortgage Program, which assists low-income first-time homebuyers.
Brown served as treasurer for the campaign pushing to implement the Community Preservation Act in Boston, which generates revenue for affordable housing and other causes. With more communities participating, she said, the state’s pool of funds from which to match municipal CPA revenue is being stretched thin. She requested the state’s matching level be raised to 50 percent.
Jeanne Pinado, chief executive director of Madison Park Development Corporation, and David Bryant, director of advocacy for the Massachusetts Association of CDCs, sought passage of a major housing bond bill. Bryant also asked that the community investment tax credit — which supports CDCs — be prevented from sunsetting in 2019.
Karen Chen of the Chinese Progressive Association called for changes to policies governing the bidding on state-owned land. With rents and displacement skyrocketing in Chinatown, Chen said, parcels owned by MassDOT should not go to the highest bidder, but the one who will prioritize community use.
Several attendees also voiced support for the Jim Brooks Stabilization Act, filed this month, which would limit the conditions under which large property owners can evict tenants. The bill emerged out of activists’ push for a “just cause eviction” ordinance last year.
Climate and health
Mariama White-Hammond, associate minister of Boston’s Bethel AME Church, asked for support for solar panels and other climate change limitation measures in local communities. An 83-year-old member of Mass Senior Action Council called for raising MassHealth’s asset limit and increasing access to Medicare savings programs in order to assist the many seniors statewide who are struggling to afford basic needs.
Economic development and wages
Madison Park’s Pinado praised state grant programs that support commercial economic development, saying such projects are often underserved by funding resources. Some attendees also called for living wage standards, a higher minimum wage and measures to facilitate minority participation in the legalized marijuana business.
Beverly Johnson of the Mass Minorities Contractors Association sought transparency and consistency in standards for inclusion in the state’s Supplier Diversity Office. Governor Charlie Baker announced last year plans to extend SDO program inclusion to businesses owned by people with disabilities or who are LGBT, and to expand provision for veteran-owned businesses. Johnson stated that expanding the types of businesses certified would shrink the available offerings for minority- and women-owned enterprises. Thus, she said, any new types of enterprise only should be added after meeting the same evidence requirements that MBEs and WBEs met, establishing persistent discrimination leading to economic injustice.
“Minority-owned enterprises and women-owned enterprises will be impacted if any other groups are added to the program,” Johnson said. “The slice of the pie gets smaller and smaller.”