Panelists Explain ‘Geography of Opportunity’

The Gabelli Presidential Scholars Class of 2021 hosted a panel Tuesday on the “Geography of Opportunity,” inspired by a recurring theme in their summer PULSE placements. Three panelists discussed the role of social justice in their work in areas from transportation to housing.

Moderator Amy Glasmeier, a professor in the department of urban studies and planning at MIT, opened the night by explaining the evolving history of opportunity in the United States. She discussed the notion of previous generations that everybody deserves a chance, but this belief has become more and more unrealistic, especially in the last two decades.

First to speak was Domonique Williams, deputy director of the Office of Housing Stability for Boston. As a member of the METCO Program, Williams attended high school in Newton despite being a resident of Roxbury. It was this opportunity, followed by a chance to attend college and law school, that inspired her to give back to communities like the one she once lived in.

Barry Bluestone, a founding director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and a former BC professor, grew up in Detroit. He reminded audience members that at that time Detroit was the wealthiest city in the nation. All this started to change, however, when white families began to move to the suburbs in the mid-20th century. Racism and segregation forced the black population of Detroit to stay in the city. When the auto industry left, the value of city housing fell drastically.

“It’s got a slate roof, it’s got a beautiful library, a formal dining room, living room, four bedrooms, bathroom, finished basement, two-car garage, backyard, and a screened-in porch. Two years ago, that home sold for $30,000,” he said.

This was only the beginning of the divide that split Detroit. With higher property taxes in the suburbs, children living there were able to attend better schools. Meanwhile, people in the city were going bankrupt, unable to afford good schools or transportation.

Angela Johnson, the Transportation Justice Organizer at Transportation for Massachusetts, is a Texas native. She spent her childhood in a mixed-race Houston neighborhood known for its middle-class African American baby boomer families. Simulating the lives of their white peers, they bought private cars. When the city was expanding its bus system, the people of Missouri City said “no.” Johnson was curious as to why the neighborhood would turn this down.

“‘We don’t do buses,’” her mother told her.

It opened her eyes to the way that modes of transportation are a sign of one’s status in the United States.

“If you didn’t have a car, you didn’t have a life,” Johnson said.

She moved to Boston, inspired by a city with less land and a good transportation system. When she arrived, however, she realized that she had come to the most unequal city in the country. The neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan are largely minority and immigrant populations, and also happen to be the most underserved by Boston’s public transportation system.

A presentation from Glasmeier revealed the growth of “gateway cities,” smaller cities with growing lower-income populations due to rising costs in larger cities. In Boston, a family of three must make approximately $70,000 in order to afford rent. Working class families are forced to leave for cities like Worcester, Lynn, and Lawrence. Job opportunities remain limited, though, and housing is still unaffordable for those making below a living wage.

The audience seemed to be taken aback by some of the statistics Glasmeier noted. The average income of people moving within Boston was $44,888, while the income of those moving to gateway cities was less than half at $20,258. Students in lower-income neighborhood schools always performed worse on third grade reading tests. In Weston, spending-per-student was in the area of $20,000, while in Brockton it was only $2,500.

Each member of the panel appeared passionate in doing their part to make the Boston area more socially just. Domonique Wilson’s eight-person staff works on city policies and with those evicted from their homes, as well as the homeless population. Bluestone’s work continues through the Dukakis Center at Northeastern University. Through the Transportation for Massachusetts coalition, Johnson advocates for those who feel left behind by the public transportation system, especially those farther from Boston.

They also remained hopeful about the future. Bluestone, who has taught at three universities, commented that he sees a commitment to social justice more on this campus than almost any place else. Domonique Wilson was happy to have an opportunity to speak about the disparities facing Boston with its student residents.

Johnson, angered by the lack of public transportation in the city of her alma mater, University of Texas at Arlington, urged students to educate themselves on the topic. “Transportation… is designed [in a way] that will impact you for the rest of your life,” she said, adding that the transportation sector is in need of a new generation of energetic workers.

Featured Image by Jess Rivilis / For the Heights