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Greater Boston residents meet in person to talk about race

Gatherings are organized in each neighborhood to discuss Spotlight series

Karen Morales
Greater Boston residents meet in person to talk about race
Race in Boston meetup participants in conversation in Jamaica Plain. (Photo: Courtesy of Paul Yin)

The Boston Globe’s ambitious seven-part Spotlight series on race in Boston, released in December, sparked diverse reactions, including shock, praise and sharp criticism. Now, individuals are organizing neighborhood meetups all over Greater Boston to continue the conversation face-to-face.

After reading about the various historical and institutional ways racism is embedded in Boston’s social fabric, Paul Yin, a Waltham resident with a master’s degree in social work from Simmons College, was left saying, “Now what?”

He believed the dialogue shouldn’t have to end at the series completion, so he created a Facebook group dedicated to organizing small gatherings to discuss the complexity of racism in Boston with other people “who are not like us.”

In other words, Yin set out to create a safe space for diverse individuals of all backgrounds to get together in an informal, casual way and talk about issues that might at first be uncomfortable to talk about.

“It’s a way to talk to other people from different perspectives, a way to maybe bond over a cup of coffee or food,” he said. “I want [the meetings] to grow organically and naturally.”

Trust through dialogue

The Facebook group, “Racism in Boston (RIB) Spotlight Series Meet-ups” has over 100 members, and meetups have been scheduled in several neighborhoods including Roxbury, Cambridge, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, and East Boston, as well as Greater Boston areas such as Quincy, Waltham, and the South and North Shores.

With the help of other co-organizers, dates, times and meeting places, usually local restaurants, bars or cafes, are regularly announced in the Facebook group.

Over the course of two weeks, just a handful of people have attended the meetups, including one on Christmas day in Waltham, where four people showed up.

“So far, it’s been a lot of introductions, sharing what people have experienced themselves and what they found really compelling about the Spotlight series,” said Sunessa Schettler, a co-organizer for the Cambridge meetups.

A personal trainer for a women’s gym in Cambridge, Schettler has set up two gatherings so far during lunchtime in Harvard Square, in between her training sessions with clients.

“I’ve found it’s convenient for those who work in the Harvard or Central Square area and want to take an hour for lunch to talk with someone different and maybe build some sort of trust through dialogue,” she said.

Quaime Lee, a career counselor for university students in Boston, organizes the Hyde Park meetups.

Lee immigrated to Boston from the West Indies as a child, first living in Roxbury, then in Hyde Park. He plans to use the meetups as an opportunity to express and discuss his thoughts on the Spotlight race series, in which he found the analysis “could have been richer and more nuanced than it was,” he said.

The co-organizers

“When talking about the black experience in Boston, one should include the experiences of those not born here and those who had to adjust to U.S. culture like my family did, in addition to being a person of color,” said Lee.

“I felt it was limited to anecdotal information from residents who have lived here a while, which was accurate, but were things that I think many of us already knew about,” he added.

Originally from Taiwan, Yin’s family immigrated to the U.S. when he was a young boy, and lived in Cambridge during the 1970s. Now, with his background in social work, Yin said, “I really enjoy talking about these issues with people, the way it opens your eyes to different points of views.”

Betty Chan, an organizer for the Newton meetups and a licensed independent clinical social worker, owns a practice that specializes in Asian American mental health. “As a ‘1.5 generation’ Chinese-American who grew up in Hong Kong, I have a bicultural perspective and personal knowledge of the struggles of immigrant families,” she said.

According to Chan, Newton has a rapidly growing Asian population, the majority of whom are Chinese, but they are still absent from city government and not reflected in appointed and elected bodies.

“I got involved with RIB because I hope to make positive changes in the racial divide in Newton and promote intercultural dialogue,” she said.

Chan believes that while the Globe series showed black and white race dynamics in Boston, there is also systemic racism toward other people of color, including Chinese people.

“Chinese people are still lumped together into one monolithic group coping with the ‘model minority’ stereotype, which on the surface [looks like] a positive stereotype, but is [actually] a double-edged sword because it pits Chinese and Asians against blacks,” she said.

“I like the meetups, but I’m daunted,” said Schettler who is originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and moved to Cambridge in 2000. “I’m not really a political organizer.”

Even so, Schettler recognizes that it is now a critical time in Boston and in the rest of the country to call out social divides and inequities. “In our meetings, we always circle back to the question of, ‘Why are we here and what should our goal be?’” she said.

She continued, “I think we just want to hear each other out first and own up to our racist history and everyday realities.”