Black & White Boston, a model to build on

A wonderful reunion was held Thursday, a celebration of the 20-year history of John and Diddy Cullinane’s stewardship of Black & White Boston Coming Together.  They have published a book commemorating the contribution of that organization and of many civic and business leaders to the economic and spiritual health of Boston, a community with still-open wounds from busing and from botched handling of the Charles Stuart murder case. Recent polls show Boston is still evenly divided on whether or not we are a racist community. But every once in a while, we can learn from focusing on something positive.

Many of the activists gathered at the Harvard Club last week to reflect on what had been accomplished and to lay out the case for continuing to build economic opportunities for all parts of Boston. Diddy Cullinane had grown up in Dorchester, a good Catholic girl from a large family, whose charitable impulses ranged far and wide. Husband John was the founder of Cullinet, the first entrepreneur to prove that software could be sold as a stand-alone product. The technology pioneer was also a social entrepreneur, whose contributions to civic society are also manifold.

At a difficult time in the city’s history, Black & White Boston brought together blacks and whites from corporate, media, clergy, academic, sports and public sectors to further understanding between the races, give a leg up to young people seeking to improve their lives, and spur economic initiatives that could further the goal of equal opportunity.  Its new book recalls certain milestone events, from Nelson Mandela’s visit, to a series of fundraising galas supporting a variety of minority programs, working in collaboration with other organizations like Catholic Charities or the Kennedy Library.  For a decade, “Black & White on Green” golf days raised funds for summer jobs, mentoring and scholarships. For two decades, business community breakfasts fostered diverse work environments, skill development and access to capital.

There have been many great success stories in the African-American community. The late Archie Williams founded Freedom Industries, always seeking to expand the economic base of the inner city.  His family carries on his mission. Clayton Turnbull, David Lee, Ken Granderson, Ken Guscott, Ed Dugger, Edward Owens, Ron Homer and scores of others all helped to lay the groundwork for the work that continues today, to expand opportunity and close the income gap between blacks and whites.

White leadership has worked collaboratively.  According to Diddy Cullinane, Mayor Tom Menino never missed a meeting of Black & White Boston, starting when he was a City Councillor.  And he was just one of many, including Bill Van Faasen of Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Paul La Camera of WCVB-TV, Ira Jackson of BankBoston, the Chamber’s Paul Guzzi, Fleet Bank’s John Hamill –  a list of leaders too numerous to name.

In 2008, after two decades, Black & White Boston closed its doors, having proven its “goodwill demonstration” that people of different races can work together to advance an agenda.  But the challenge remains. It’s no longer a black and white issue.  In 2000, Boston became a majority minority city. Asian and Latino populations have grown twice as fast as African-American populations, and, combined, exceed the black population. (Blacks are 22.4 percent; Hispanics, 17.5 percent; Asians 8.9 percent.) With immigration, whites represent 47 percent of the population.  Boston speaks 140 languages.

Today, Boston is a wonderfully vibrant place to live, but it is the U.S.  city with the greatest income disparity, according to The Brookings Institution. It’s not a first place we should covet. Income for the top five percent was $226,224, while the bottom 20 percent earn $14,925.  That study echoes the Boston Fed study on The Color of Wealth.  The money gap reflects enduring racial divides.

While  Black & White Boston ceased to exist as an organization, its spirit endures. Richard Taylor, real estate management executive and former transportation secretary under Governor Bill Weld, spoke about a group called New Boston Hospitality,  one of several entities working with Omni Hotels to create a thousand-room hotel in the Seaport District near the convention center.  MassPort issued a request for proposals that encouraged the use of powerful joint ventures to increase  economic opportunities for those traditionally unable to get a meaningful piece of the action.

As Taylor put it, those undertaking such initiatives are standing on the shoulders of Diddy and John Cullinane and their efforts to make Boston a better city, one that will no longer be the butt of racism one-liners on programs like Saturday Night Live.

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Who is Bruce Poliquin, and why we should care

Laurent F. Gilbert, Sr. and Ridgely Fuller of Maine

U.S. Sen. Angus King (Ind.) says the House-passed health care bill, “the most ill-conceived, damaging and downright cruel piece of legislation that I have ever seen,” will cost Maine people their health insurance.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is concerned about its impact on older and rural Americans, of which Maine has a disproportionate share.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) calls the bill “reckless.”

Last week, even President Trump called it “mean, mean,” though he had feted its passage in the White House rose garden. The repeal/replace Obamacare bill passed the U. S. House by two votes. Maine’s other Congressman Bruce Poliquin was one of them, and he makes no apology for that.  “Do I look like a mean person to you?” he asks. He does not. But the legislation in which he played a pivotal role may have some really mean fallout.

Rep. Bruce PoliquinFixated on our national debt, he is not disturbed by the fact that the House version of the Republicans’ American Health Care Act (AHCA) has the support of a scant 20 percent of the American people. He says his focus is on policy, not popularity. Speaking to The New England Council, the former businessman said “We all want the same thing: “we want our kids and families to be safe, we want our kids to have a good job, have health insurance and a good education.”

The impact of passage of the AHCA on Maine has been deeply analyzed, by the Center for American Progress, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Consumers for Affordable Health Care, and more.  According to their analyses, the AHCA would leave 117,000 fewer Mainers with coverage by 2026. Without Senate intervention, the impact would be felt not just by the 60,000- to 80,000 who get their coverage through Obamacare, but the tens of thousands who would lose Medicaid dollars. ($800 million would be cut nationally over the next decade, paid for largely by a massive tax break for wealthy Americans.) Others would lose employer-based coverage with the elimination of a rule requiring employers of a certain size to provide health insurance.

Poliquin disputes that the repeal/replace strategy would eliminate a ban on the use of pre-existing conditions to exclude people from coverage or charge rates to sick people high enough to make policies unaffordable. But the addition of a high-risk pool to cover those affected provides only a pittance of the money  that would be required to protect them.  He wants states to be able to set their own thresholds for benefits included, and, drawing from the state of Maine experience, places an incredible amount of faith in the states to do the right thing.

Poliquin is not a bomb-tossing Freedom Caucus type; indeed, he presents as thoughtful and earnest.  He says he has a child with asthma, mother with thyroid difficulties, and a father with high pressure – all preexisting conditions.  “I would never ever even consider voting for any piece of legislation that does not protect people with preexisting conditions,” he told Council members.  He voted for the AHCA because he claims it protects them.  But insurers would be allowed to raise premiums on people with preexisting conditions high enough to make coverage unaffordable.

He is rightly concerned that a third of counties in America are left with just one insurance carrier because the insurers can’t make money by participating in Obamacare.  Without competition, premiums have gone through the roof. But insurers are dropping out because of congressional threats and uncertainties in the market, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Poliquin says his preferred strategy is to find what works and fix what is broken, but he doesn’t want to mend/not end Obamacare. While I might have been reassured that he belongs to the “Tuesday Group” of moderate Republicans, he surely played a key role in the success of the House’s repeal/replace (baby-out-with-the-bath-water) approach. Things could get worse. We don’t know whether and to what extent the Senate version will remedy any of these issues because it is being crafted by 13 men behind closed doors, with no public hearing and, as yet, not even sharing of the draft with other Senate members.

Poliquin comes across as sincere and accessible and makes a big deal of making his cellphone number widely available.  One Boston hospital executive concerned about disabled children had thanked Poliquin for his accessibility. But on the sidewalk outside the Hampshire House meeting of the Council, about two dozen protesters -many having traveled to Boston from Maine – disagreed. Laurent Gilbert, Sr. was mayor of Lewiston, Maine from 2007 to 2012. “Sure, we have his cellphone number,” he said, “but he doesn’t return our calls.”

Ridgely Fuller of Belfast, Maine, faulted his failure to do town halls and other meetings. Without a dialogue, she said, “we have no way of understanding what his vision is for Maine.” (I called his office yesterday to ask for a list of recent public meetings but haven’t received a reply.)

Karen Handel won yesterday in Georgia’s 6th, (one of the nation’s most highly educated districts) in part by distorting what’s in the AHCA. She avoided mentioning Donald Trump.  She will be a comfortable companion for Bruce Poliquin.  Moderate rhetoric aside, they and their colleagues should be judged in the 2018 mid-terms for how their actions meet or fail to meet the needs of Maine, Georgia and the rest of the United States.

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Final Kirby Perkins “A+” scholarship awards given

Kirby Perkins was a Channel 5 reporter with a breadth of interests who especially loved politics and sports. The station’s “High Five” series of profiles has long celebrated high school athletes. But Kirby thought that academic performance should be equally honored.

His efforts led to WCVB’s “A+” series, highlighting students who achieved academically while overcoming some of life’s greatest challenges.  Shockingly, in 1997, at the age of 49, Kirby (the husband of WGBH’s Emily Rooney and a dear friend) died.  But “A+” lived on. A year after his death, Emily, Channel 5 executives and colleagues, and friends established a scholarship fund in Kirby’s memory to provide financial assistance to the most deserving of these accomplished students.

Over 20 years, more than 100 scholarships totaling over $300,000 were given out, and on Thursday the last group of outstanding young people were presented with scholarship checks (full disclosure: my husband, Jim Barron, has been honored to serve on the award committee).  As in past years, the group is highly diverse in racial, ethnic and cultural background. These young people have battled ill health,  poverty, language barriers, and family dysfunction yet stayed the course of completing high school, and are now bound for college.

Listening to their compelling stories was inspiring. One student, emancipated from her parents,  has bounced among various relatives but has virtually grown up on her own. She will be paying for college by herself, as she has been surviving for years.

Despite the daunting challenges these students have faced, they have done sports and arts, worked after-school jobs, and still found time to volunteer to help others. Their stories left few dry eyes among station executives, alums and current staff participating in the event.

This final year’s scholarship winners included Brianna Seaver – Taunton High School,  Ivan Sebuufu-Bazitya – Worcester Academy, Kit Nguyen – Holliston High School,Merline Mathieu – Boston International Newcomers Academy,  Michael Nderitu – Leicester High School, Nazanin “Naz” Beigi – Fitchburg High School, Nicholas Correia – Brimmer & May School, Orgelio “Jay” Soares – Greater New Bedford Regional Voc-Tech, Pamela Francisco – Foxboro High School, Taylor Goodman-Leong – Lawrence Academy.

All of them are driven to succeed, despite the travails that have confronted them. They have worked hard and never given up hope.  They are an inspiration to those coming after them and a reassurance to us older folks that the younger generation should be capable of overcoming the mess that we older ones have left in this world.  Kirby Perkins would have been proud of each and every one of them, and this Channel 5 initiative was a fitting testament to his vision and hard work.

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Free speech, incitement and civil discourse

Both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Speaker Paul Ryan issued stirring calls to unity following the horrific shooting this week of Republican Congressman Steven Scalise and several others at an early morning softball practice in Virginia. At the same time, others, including former Speaker Newt Gingrich,  are now blaming the Democrats,  the media and on entertainers who have been critical of President Donald Trump. For anyone who has listened to the President incite crowds at his rallies to violence, this charge is ludicrous. Even teachers are noticing the so-called Trump effect on children in schoolyards, the increase in bullying and racial taunts.  So let’s for a moment say there’s more than enough blame to go around for the coarsening of language and lack of civility.

But there’s a difference between incitement to violence and satirizing the flaws of public figures for purposes of illuminating, understanding, and, yes, entertaining. For many people, the late night talk show hosts have been a lifeline during these early stages of the Trump administration. (If you can’t stay up that late, there’s always the DVR.) Being able to laugh with others rather than cry at the daily outrages perpetrated by the President has had a high therapeutic value. Are some of the presenters over the top?  You bet. Kathy Griffin’s holding up a bloody head of Trump  (no Salome holding the head of St. John the Baptist) is a case in point. It was disgusting and offensive and a reason to click her off.

But, to critics who fault Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers and others  for demeaning the office of the President, it’s clear it is the President  himself, with his inane tweeting, rewriting of history, lies, attacks on the media, and self-dealing, who  is demeaning the office of the President.

Satirist Jonathan Swift, whose savage wit eviscerated major figures of the early 18th century in England, often used pseudonyms to cloak his identity. Our 21st century satirists perform in their own names, combining courage with wit to stand up for those of us who lack their talent or platforms.

The attack on speech now extends to the arts.  Delta Air Lines and Bank of America withdrew financial backing from a New York Public Theater production of Julius Caesar that characterizes its central figure in a manner highly suggestive of Donald Trump. Note: five years ago Delta did not withdraw its support from Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater production of the same play that included the slaying of Julius Caesar portrayed as Barack Obama. (I don’t remember any outrage, Republican or otherwise.)

I well remember Barbara Garson’s 1967 play MacBird, a grotesque satire of Lyndon Johnson that sparked discussions of whether the playright was implying that Johnson was involved in the killing of JFK.

We have a long tradition of edgy art forms that are edgy and make you squirm in your seat even while entertaining you.  Words do matter, of course.  But we need to take a deep breath and find a better balance between the important goals of seeking a more civil public discourse and preserving our precious First Amendment freedoms.

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Fair Harvard got it right

I’ve written often that college students need to hear more, not fewer controversial points of view, that they need to learn how to function in the marketplace of ideas.  That’s what college is all about and how kids grow from being part of vigorous debate among the student body. Students shouldn’t be protected by trigger warnings or shielded from exposure to diverse political ideologies.   But that rationale does not mean that Harvard University was wrong when it rescinded admission to at least ten high school graduates for highly offensive behavior on Facebook.

All accepted students are put on notice that the University reserves the right to rescind the privilege if a student demonstrates behavior that “brings into question their honesty, maturity or moral character.”  Making jokes about the Holocaust and child abuse, suicide and minorities, as described in the Harvard Crimsonis surely behavior that reflects on their maturity or moral character. Whatever were they thinking?

Despite the contention of some (including my friend Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi) that the University is denying those students’ First Amendment rights, there is absolutely no reason they should be allowed to matriculate. They are still free to exercise their First Amendment rights; they just can’t do it to extremes that violate guidelines for being accepted into the class of 2021. There is no Constitutional right to attend  “fair Harvard” and “to thy Jubilee throng.”

A college or university has the right to set thresholds of behavior for those whom it invites to join its community, and what a student does online is part of who he or she is. Ugly memes are part of the applicant’s persona and “paperwork.” Colleges and universities, parents and teachers, deliver that message all the time.

Unfortunately for the punished applicants, they have learned Lesson One the hard way, but it is surely a lesson they will never forget.

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Getting around Trump obtuseness on climate

First, President Trump is wrong on the facts. The Paris Accords did not treat the United States unfairly.  Under the agreement, targets for greenhouses gases are voluntary, and every country can change how it will alter its plans for controlling carbon emissions. And, if its articulated goals are not met, there are no penalties for failing to do so. The President has said he will renegotiate the terms.  Leading member countries have already said that’s a non-starter.

Trump is on the wrong side of history. But that doesn’t mean we should all break out the gas masks or pile up the sandbags. The problems are real, but the drive to reduce emissions has momentum among corporations, state and local leaders. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and other governors on both sides of the aisle are joining a state climate alliance.   Among them,  Jerry Brown, Governor of the world’s sixth largest economy – California.  As former Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out, 37 percent of states representing 80 percent of the U.S. population have already adopted renewable standards. 

Corporate leaders are speaking out, decrying the Trump decision and insisting that we go ahead despite the President’s wrongheadedness. Michael Bloomberg has pledged $15 million of his own money to help the U.N. agency charged with assisting countries make necessary changes. Many assert that, even without Donald Trump, we can meet the U.S. emission reduction goal by 2025.  And, if we fall short of our stretch goals, we could have tweaked them without walking away from the Paris Accords.

While Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said Thursday that Boston will continue its climate initiatives, on Wednesday he had gotten off on the wrong foot. Regrettably, he had announced he would cancel an international climate conference scheduled for Boston because, as he explained it, he wasn’t getting an cooperation from the White House.  Could he tell us, please, where he is getting cooperation from the Trump White House?  There is none, and the lesson of this past week is that the cities and states have to exert their own independence. (A new angle on states’ rights?)

If you plan it, they will come. And, with a little effort, projected attendees at that Boston conference would have shown up. In the 1990’s, there were two initiatives, International Boston and The Atlantic Rim Network. The first sought to make Greater Boston more global and less parochial than it had been. The second tried to create a vibrant global network of urban areas sharing ideas and best practices, on such  issues as energy, environment, education, trade, tourism, housing and healthcare.

These activities were rooted in the belief that, while nation states would continue to be the major actors in the world, creative leadership in coming decades would be driven  by private and public actors in dynamic regions anchored in great cities. The Atlantic Rim Network tagline was:  global concerns, local solutions, regional connections. (Full disclosure: both highly successful initiatives were run by my husband, Jim Barron. After 9/11, such international conferences slowed down dramatically, and the grassroots networking was supplanted by the development of the internet and greater ease of information sharing.)

So combating climate change can continue. Cities, states and companies will go forward. Green jobs in renewable energy will continue to expand; most coal jobs will not return due to the availability of cheaper natural gas.

The most devastating impact of Trump’s fulfilling his promise to his core political base is the diminution of United States leadership in the world. His isolationist rhetoric and practices are a gilded invitation to China to fill the void, and, even after Trump, it will be difficult to reclaim our primacy. China has already stepped forward with Germany, Australia and many other nations to reaffirm its commitment to the Paris Accords.

As with health care reform, if there were problems with the Obama administration’s implementation strategy on climate change, Donald Trump could have made tactical adjustments without abandoning fundamental values of saving the planet.  He didn’t need to diminish the United States on the world stage and pose a threat to our children and grandchildren.

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One Thing Donald Trump Is Good For

No, no, don’t click off. President Donald Trump is good for one thing. He is challenging me to expand my vocabulary. How many new ways can I find each day to say ignorant, childish, incurious, narcissistic, malignant, erratic, dangerous, insensitive, capricious, backward?

Take this morning, for example.  Two of the more outrageous and aggravating stories of the day. President Trump is teasing that he is about to pull out of the Paris accords, which joined 200 nations in commitment to reduce global carbon emissions, and some of his advisors claim he will make good on the threat. Even if he stays, he should not have engaged in this flirtation.  Guess who else stands outside that pact to address climate change?   Only Syria and Nicaragua.  Even North Korea has signed on.  Apparently the only green Trump respects is the color of money and of his putting greens (though he famously has sought government- subsidized protection  where his golf course properties may be affected by rising seas).

The other story that really got to me is that the Republican Party is asking the Federal Communications Commission to approve ring-less voicemail messages.  This would mean that political robocalls and other telemarketers could leave phone messages for you without having to alert you with a ring.  If your phone plan doesn’t permit you to interrupt a message to delete it, you might end up spending half your life waiting to eliminate the trash. Along with the GOP’s proposed end to net neutrality, this makes me wonder what ever happened to the conservative opposition to privacy invasion and stout-hearted protection of individual rights.

Add all this to the cruelty of the Trump budget, his lack of concern for the least among us, his willingness to stand outside the community of nations to protect the future of mankind, what words have I not tapped to express the observer’s frustration and anger? These stories are sufficiently disturbing that I’m forced to shrug off the news that hedge funds are seeing a rise in cocoa futures due to an impending end to the world surplus that has provided me the one narcotic that treats my despair over Donald Trump.

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