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Yawu Miller reflects on his Banner career

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Yawu Miller reflects on his Banner career
Yawu Miller, far right, at a 2014 City Council debate with At-large Councilors Michael Flaherty, Ayanna Pressley and Michelle Wu, and Dorchester Reporter Managing Editor Gintautas Dumcius (standing, rear). COURTESY PHOTO

In 1998, I went undercover as a motorist, driving with a friend through Brookline at 1 a.m. to determine how long it would take for police in the town to pull over a Black motorist. We lasted 20 minutes before three cruisers boxed us in on Beacon Street. An officer asked us whether we were lost and noted that I was from Roxbury.

The experience wasn’t my first time being pulled over in Brookline — I was stopped on my bike there when I was 10 — but it was my first time documenting such a stop. The experience reinforced my faith in the power of the pen. As a writer for the Banner, I was able to bring broader attention to something friends, neighbors and family members had experienced, but was seldom talked about outside of my community.

The story received national attention thanks to the growing popularity of the internet, then a relatively new tool for mass distribution of content, and helped drive a growing national debate on the common practice of cops pulling over Black motorists without a legitimate pretext.

Yawu Miller COURTESY PHOTO

My first articles for the Banner were before that, in the 1980s, under the tutelage of then-managing editor Brian Wright O’Connor. After graduating from college, I worked on the business side of the paper, then worked again as a reporter under managing editor Robin Washington before becoming managing editor myself in 1996. The newspaper, published until last month by my uncle Melvin B. Miller, has accounted for all but seven years of my professional life and has provided me a remarkable vantage point on the growth and evolution of the city I have called home for my almost entire life.

As a Roxbury native,  I scoffed in the early ’90s when a friend who had witnessed the gentrification of the Georgetown neighborhood in D.C. told me Roxbury would soon see an influx of well-heeled whites. For all my life, the neighborhood had existed as a Black enclave that whites generally avoided, and that Boston Magazine regularly rated as the “worst neighborhood” in Boston.

Now, attending open houses in Roxbury and Dorchester condos, I’m still awed by the fact that the overwhelming majority of home buyers in attendance are whites, many of whose parents would never have deigned to set foot in the neighborhood.

While writing about pressures from rising rents, home values and speculation in the real estate market, I watched as many of my Roxbury neighbors were priced out of the city, departing for Brockton, Canton, Randolph and other communities south of Boston. The exodus has left me wondering whether the whole city will go the way of the South End — a neighborhood where Black and Latino and Asian middle-class families have been priced out, leaving a racial hierarchy with an overwhelmingly white professional class living alongside, but substantially separate from, the people of color who remain in the public housing units there.

Every now and then, I recall efforts to maintain economic diversity in the South End, such as the 1980s-era South End Neighborhood Housing Initiative (SENHI) agreement with the city that aimed for development of publicly owned land to include one-third low-income, one-third moderate-income and one-third market-rate housing. That effort, which was ignored by the Menino administration, produced a handful of mixed-income developments that were insignificant in comparison to the billions of dollars of private development there.

As a pre-teen paperboy in the 1970s, hawking the Banner at the corner of Massachusetts and Columbus avenues, I watched as South End businesses and residences changed hands — corner stores turning to boutiques, apartment buildings to condos — and witnessed the resulting change in the complexion of the neighborhood that up ’til the 1960s was the geographic center of the city’s Black community. Later, as a reporter in the early aughts, I watched as many of those condos began the process of consolidation back into multi-million-dollar town homes, returning that neighborhood to its 19th-century roots as a wealthy enclave.

When the Banner moved its office from Dorchester to the South Boston waterfront in 1996, few could have imagined the transformation of that former industrial zone into a somewhat sterile neighborhood of steel-and-glass apartment and office towers that is now one of the whitest and wealthiest corners of the city. After the newspaper was twice forced to move — its rent trebled by building owners — the paper returned to the Lower Mills section of Dorchester.

The last 10 years at the Banner have been among the most interesting. I came back to the newspaper in 2013 after seven years in the nonprofit sector and state government — a time during which I intermittently contributed freelance articles to the paper. Once again doffing my reporter hat, I was treated to a front-row seat to the ever-changing dynamics in Boston. I marched alongside Black Lives Matter protestors and women and men protesting Trump’s assaults on women’s rights (and on women themselves). I documented the creativity and wit of the city’s Caribbean Carnival masquerade bands. I witnessed hundreds of middle and high school students protesting cuts to Boston Public Schools.

I covered the astounding political changes in the city. In 2013, as had been the case for nearly 100 years, Irish American men held a majority of elected offices in city government. But by 2018, when Ayanna Pressley and Rachael Rollins shattered glass ceilings, people of color and women had shifted to the majority — defying political pundits’ prognostications.

I reported on the local charter school movement as activists sought a rapid expansion of the sector, only to see voters embrace local school districts and local control after a ballot referendum campaign that broke records for spending.

I saw opiate use, long associated with Black and Latino communities, reach deep into white communities across the state, and reported on the sea change in whites’ public opinion on opiate use. Little more than a decade after Massachusetts voters rejected a measure that would have allowed judges to swap prison sentences for treatment in drug cases, opiate use was effectively decriminalized in Massachusetts.

From my first jobs at the Banner — sweeping the office and cleaning toilets for $1 a day and selling papers in Dudley Station for 15 cents each — to my last role as managing editor, I have learned much about Boston and its multifaceted communities. I’ve learned that I love documenting its events and talking with the people who have shaped this city.

I’ve left the Banner before, and I know it will continue to thrive in my absence. I will remain active in journalism. Experience has shown me it’s the only profession I’m fit to work in. I’ll soon announce my next assignment.