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Taking Up Residence

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Roxbury, Mass.

Racial harmony and equal opportunity weren't the only dreams the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had for the children of Roxbury, Mass. First and foremost, he knew, these children needed decent homes and thriving communities.

"The vision of a new Boston must extend into the heart of Roxbury and into the mind of every child," King proclaimed to an enthusiastic crowd here in 1965. "Boston must conduct the creative experiments and the abolition of ghettos, which will point the way to other communities."

This message did not command the headlines of King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington. But his audience understood its importance only too well. "Houses in Roxbury, not Bombs in Vietnam," read one of the placards a resident waved that day. "Decent Housing and Schools," implored another.

Some 30 years after King's pronouncement, a rough-and-tumble Roxbury neighborhood has transformed a triangle of burned-out houses and trash-strewn lots into flourishing gardens and sparkling new homes. The community-development effort, known as the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, has united residents of this multiracial, multilingual community in a 12-year struggle to clear away the debris wrought by decades of discrimination by developers and illegal dumping by trash companies.

The Dudley Street community spans a 1.5-square-mile area less than two miles southwest of downtown Boston. Census and police statistics define the neighborhood--which includes parts of Roxbury and Dorchester--as the poorest and one of the most ravaged by unemployment and crime in the city. But its commitment to community defies stereotypes.

With support from local foundations, agencies, and churches, African-Americans, Cape Verdeans, Latinos, and whites have fought City Hall together. They've labored side by side to shovel away the rubbish and map out a revitalization plan. Along the way, they even won the power to buy back private land from real-estate speculators so they could build homes, children's play areas, and community centers.

A Boston film company that spent several years watching the story unfold recently premiered a new documentary called "Holding Ground: the Rebirth of Dudley Street." A book chronicling its history, Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood, has also raised the community's profile.

Yet much remains to be done. The neighborhood is far from free of vacant lots, boarded-up houses, and streets strewn with litter. There are still too few playgrounds and parks, too much drug activity, too little upward mobility. But there is a sense of hope as the neighborhood coalition embarks on the next phase of its mission.

"One of the biggest challenges we are facing now is the creation of jobs and employment opportunities consistent with the mission of the Dudley Street initiative," says Greg Watson, the group's executive director.

Revitalizing the area's schools--many of which sorely need repair and reform--would seem a logical next step. If ailing schools don't get fixed and dropout rates don't decline, it is hard to imagine how young people here will acquire the tools they'll need to keep Dudley Street's mission alive.

It is open to question how much a grassroots alliance fashioned around housing issues can do to turn a school system around. The challenge is especially daunting in a system as buffeted by politics and embattled by school-busing policies as Boston.

The group's leaders, in fact, have backed away from launching a formal plan to address school reform. Their education focus so far has centered on informal mechanisms to teach the young and old roles they can play in shaping their community. Other strategies for schools, they say, will emerge out of a wide-ranging plan to design an "urban village."

"This conversation is not going to be had in isolation," says Andrea Nagel, the director of human development for the Dudley Street effort.

Behind the scenes, the group lends support to projects ranging from renovating schoolyards to teaching young people about the area's rich cultural history. Directly or indirectly, its work has inspired some parents to stand up for better schools.

Debra Wilson, a single mother living in an apartment on the other end of Roxbury, was seeking a brighter future for her two sons when she signed up for homeowner classes through the Dudley Street project. But her involvement in the community catapulted her into a school leadership role. She not only co-chairs the parent council at her oldest son's high school but also helped spearhead a successful campaign for renovations to try to win back the school's accreditation.

"A lot of my sense of power came from seeing what the Dudley Street initiative and other residents had done," she says. "It drove me to do more because I saw what just a small handful of people could do."

"When I bought the home," she says, "I had to take responsibility for my community."

People in the business of revitalizing neighborhoods don't cross paths often with people in the business of reforming schools. Yet the two worlds are inextricably linked. How can a neighborhood sustain long-term economic health if its children aren't well-educated? How can schools nurture the best and brightest in neighborhoods where children can't walk, play, or sleep in comfort and safety?

Bringing health and social services to schools may treat the symptoms of poverty and despair, but what holds families and communities back most are the thornier issues of housing, jobs, and crime. It's been hard enough getting educators and child-welfare workers to talk and work together; adding economic development experts to the mix on a meaningful scale may take a Herculean effort. Until then, the best lessons Dudley Street can offer are about what happens when citizens gain the confidence to speak out--and what's at stake if they don't.

Tchintcia Barros, a 17-year-old senior at Boston Latin High School, has applied to nine colleges and universities, many of them Ivy League schools. Her plans include studying government and maybe pursuing law school. And she could teach her professors a thing or two about what it really takes to move the system.

In 1986, Barros' parents had the misfortune to buy a house here adjacent to a trash-transfer station--a holding ground used to dump garbage before it is sorted and sent to a final disposal point. With five such stations operating in the Dudley Street area--three of them illegally--residents were fed up with having everything from abandoned cars to sides of beef dumped on neighboring lots. The rats and stench rising from the rubble--not to mention trash trucks rattling by at all hours--posed a major health hazard.

But when Barros' younger brother was stricken with a mysterious infection, the community had had enough. The 2-year-old Jolcesar spent 11 days in the hospital fighting off the infection, which may have been caused by a bite from a mosquito that fed on the garbage. Dudley Street organizers demanded meetings with key officials and staged a demonstration--that drew massive media coverage--to block the entrance to one of the transfer stations. Scores of angry residents wielded placards pleading "Don't Dump On Us." Within a couple of weeks, then-Mayor Raymond L. Flynn himself showed up to padlock the gates of the transfer station.

Barros has vivid memories of marching in the Don't Dump on Us campaign. She also spent many an hour sweeping away garbage in neighborhood cleanups. Today, she is a co-chair of Nubian Roots, the youth-organizing arm of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. The group is working on such issues as scouting out meaningful jobs for teenagers and setting up tutoring and mentoring programs for younger children.

"A lot of public schools we have in our area are not the greatest," Barros says. "Children come home and have no homework, and they finish behind" their peers in suburban areas.

Barros and her peers believe they can make a difference because they've learned by example that their voice matters.

The Dudley Street project got its start in 1984, when a small, local foundation got a call from La Alianza Hispana, a Hispanic social-service agency trying to raise money to install new carpeting in its offices. When foundation trustees came to check out the carpeting, they found a neighborhood where much more than rugs had unraveled.

"Buying some carpeting just didn't seem the thing to do," says Robert Holmes, a trustee of the Mabel Louise Riley Foundation.

Once a modest hub of commerce for many Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants, two-thirds of the neighborhood was now nothing but vacant lots. Urban-renewal policies that had displaced the poor and people of color from other parts of the city set off a chain reaction of disinvestment by banks, white flight, and redlining--the term for a practice used by lenders and insurance companies who deny loans or insurance to people in certain neighborhoods or charge them exorbitant rates. A rash of frightful arson fires cost some people their lives, drove more families out, and left the neighborhood in embers.

Although the Riley trustees didn't buy La Alianza a rug, they set their sights on a redevelopment effort that has channeled some $3 million to the Dudley Street project and other neighborhood groups over the past 10 years.

Foundation officials painstakingly assembled a steering committee with representatives from various agencies and drew up an agenda they thought sure to entice the community. But their plan backfired. At a standing-room-only community meeting at Dudley Street's St. Patrick's Church--with simultaneous translation in Spanish and Cape Verdean Creole--a brash woman named Ch‚ Madyun stood up and asked, "How many of you live in this neighborhood?"

The angry reactions of Madyun and other residents at first stunned the experts on the panel. But they did recognize that it was a serious breach not to take direction from the people who lived here. "We immediately agreed it was an oversight, and we knew we had to go back to the drawing board," Holmes recalls.

In a series of smaller meetings, committee members and neighborhood residents set up a structure for a board with a majority of community members and representation from all of its ethnic groups. Madyun was voted in as the board's first president.

The board put together an organization that has teamed up with other community groups to bring many improvements to the area. A couple of dozen staff members coordinate the initiative from a modest storefront office on Dudley Street, just across from the Ideal Sub Shop. A large poster in the office window depicts a silver key dangling over the words: We Hold the Key to Your New Home.

Community organizers have trooped door to door to recruit citizens for various committees and campaigns--including an offensive to fight city redevelopment plans that would have forced more poor residents out. But the group's most significant victory came when it negotiated with the city to win the power of eminent domain--a privilege usually reserved for governments to buy back private property for public use.

Besides help from local foundations, the Ford Foundation approved a $2 million loan in 1992 to help a land trust established under the project buy privately owned lots. In 1994, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative also won a seven-year, $3 million grant under the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Rebuilding Communities program.

There are still 1,000 vacant lots here. But the initiative has teamed up with local community-development corporations, private developers, and government agencies to fill 300 lots with new housing, community gardens, and play spaces. They've also rehabilitated more than 300 existing housing units. But the community's victories add up to more than changes in its landscape or plans for more new homes and meeting places. Neighbors know each other better and support each other more. Children are more gleeful and secure.

"It's just nice to see kids walking up and down the street and playing," says Mildred Shelton, a Dudley area resident who teaches in the nearby neighborhood of Jamaica Plains.

More important, Madyun says, "We have a voice downtown."

It would be easier for Dudley Street's leaders to organize around schools if they could single out the ones in their neighborhood. But court-ordered desegregation has fanned the children from the area out into schools all over Boston, while filling many of the seats in local schools with children from other neighborhoods. Boston's "controlled choice" program allows parents to choose from schools in one of three zones of the city but still hasn't recaptured the aura of neighborhood schools.

"If we are talking about real reform," Madyun says, "we have to look at the whole entire Boston school system."

The Dudley Street project's human-development committee has puzzled over how to meet that challenge. In 1994, its members issued a request for proposals to help them pull together an education strategy that would complement their community-development philosophy. They even solicited a proposal from former New York City Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez. But in the end, they didn't pursue any of the proposals.

"We really needed a lot more information ourselves in order to know exactly what we were looking for," explains JacQuie Cairo-Williams, the vice president of the Dudley initiative board who also heads up its human-development committee.

Looking back on the group's history, Nagel says, organizers realized that each of their successful initiatives came on the heels of an all-out campaign to win community support. They'll need that backing for the kind of education agenda they envision--a strategy for lifelong learning that extends beyond schools to parents and grandparents, churches and neighborhood groups.

To keep the focus on community empowerment, adds Najwa Abdul-Tawwab, a teacher who serves on the human-development committee, "we wanted to consider a more political strategy." The fact that Boston's school committee is appointed and not elected doesn't help, she and others say. But the group still wants to hold candidates for city offices accountable for their education positions, and get more people out to vote. "Although we see education as a top priority, we realize that politics do control what's happening," Abdul-Tawwab says.

Dudley Street will also be taking cues from the reform plans of new Boston Schools Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant. Payzant recently announced a reorganization plan that would divide the city's 117 public schools into 10 clusters under the direction of current principals and sharply curtail administrative positions. He brings with him a reputation for pursuing school-community links in other cities. But residents here have seen other promising superintendents crash and burn.

Even without a formal education component, the Dudley Street project has something to teach schools.

"A lot of urban systems will claim that they can't get parents involved," says Bill Slotkin, the executive director of the Community Assistance and Training Center, a Boston-based consulting firm that worked with the Dudley Street project in its formative years. "Yet in those very communities, when you look at who emerges as major neighborhood leaders, it is the very people the schools say they can't get involved."

Dudley area parents who have been inspired to work with their schools say they felt intimidated in the past but resented stereotypes--especially for minority parents--that they didn't care about their children. Some mustered the confidence to get involved by watching and listening to friends and co-workers working on the Dudley Street project; the initiative helped give others a jump-start by sending them to a conference sponsored by the National Coalition of Education Activists.

Another niche Dudley Street leaders hope to fill involves helping parents learn more about the school system--from what it means to be on grade level to how teachers will evaluate students under new standards and curriculum frameworks.

Turning over more control to parents through school-based management is only one part of the equation. "How are you going to manage the schools when you don't know what the teacher should be teaching?" Madyun asks. Another problem, Nagel says, is that parents--especially in language-minority communities--don't always have the facts they need to make good choices about schools and advocate for their choices. "There is a tremendous disparity in how information is passed out," she says.

The Dudley Street initiative's next phase includes plans for a training institute to help parents learn to fight for opportunities in a number of areas, including education.

Watson says the real issue for the community is getting its fair share of resources to bolster schools. He hints, though, that the group hasn't ruled out alternatives like starting its own schools. In fact, a neighborhood organization that has worked closely with Dudley Street organizers won one of the first grants from the state to start a charter school. The school will expand on a program launched here in 1990 by YouthBuild Boston, an organization that trains young people who have dropped out of high school to renovate abandoned buildings while completing their education.

"We chose to locate in this neighborhood because of the strong commitment and support of the Dudley Street initiative," says Jackie Gelb, YouthBuild Boston's executive director.

The school, which has a strong focus on community development and local history, will eventually take up residence in a refurbished furniture factory that will also share new office space with the Dudley Street initiative.

The Dudley office long ago became a safe haven for young people to gather after school to talk, do homework, or help out with the project.

"A lot of kids go there just to hang out or if they need help with something," says Nubian Roots member Liz Miranda.

Jason Webb, 16, has been hanging out there since he was 8, when his father, a carpenter, helped renovate the office. The changes he's been a part of bringing about in the neighborhood, he says, have inspired him to study community organizing when he goes to college.

"Before, people here didn't take ownership of community," he says. "Now, there's a sense that 'Yes, this is my community, and I belong here."'

The project has also offered young people outlets for creativity through multicultural festivals, a young architects' competition, and the painting of a mural to honor the accomplishments of Dudley Street residents.

Schools in the community have felt the Dudley Street project's reach in other ways.

Last September, Dudley Street leaders and parents greeted children at area schools to kick off a campaign they call, "Education is Phat"--a colloquial term for cool.

The group is also helping area schools apply for funds to transform asphalt schoolyards into playgrounds. It has worked with other organizations to help Samuel W. Mason Elementary launch an after-school program and to help Henry Dearborn Middle School close down a nearby crack house and fight area crime. Dearborn librarian Mary Smoyer also got a hand from Dudley Street leaders with a project that encouraged female students to study notable women in the community.

Parent activists here also spread the project's mission beyond their neighborhood. Abdul-Tawwab, who teaches 1st and 2nd grade at Dorchester's Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary, makes frequent calls and home visits to parents and uses her own resources and community connections to get help for troubled families. Her personal touches and high expectations have bolstered student achievement and earned her a citywide teaching award. In the Dudley Street community where she lives, meanwhile, she helps explain and interpret school district policies to her Cape Verdean neighbors.

Cairo-Williams also uses skills and resources she picked up in her Dudley Street work as a member of the site-management council at her granddaughter's school in East Boston. She has helped arrange for child care and translators at meetings, for example, and makes sure parents get stipends for helping out at the school. "I bring this type of information from my own community," she says. "We make sure the community makes the decisions, and the only way to do that is to have parents involved somehow in the school system."

But even the most dedicated parents can't always make the system work. While citing examples of exemplary educators, parents and students complain that even some of the best Boston schools are too quick to pigeonhole children. They bemoan methods and materials that are outmoded, buildings that are in bad repair, and curricula that don't reflect the cultures of their children.

Despite all their involvement and advocacy, Abdul-Tawwab and her husband couldn't get one of their four children enough attention and direction in the Boston schools to keep him from dropping out of high school. "I literally saw my son deteriorate before my eyes," she says.

Miranda also suggests that school counselors are too scarce and ill-equipped to help students get the most out of the system. "If a child wants to be challenged, you should give them the opportunity," she says.

Turning up the heat on schools is not the only challenge ahead for the Dudley Street initiative, though some wish it were.

Project leaders are still basking in the glow of the premiere of "Holding Ground," which drew a crowd of nearly 1,000 to Roxbury's majestic Strand Theatre. But the group will have to propel itself past this plateau of publicity to keep rebuilding an effective urban village. Its ultimate mission is to ease itself out of business as more community members assume responsibility.

A key question, says Newell Flather, an administrator for the Riley Foundation, is "how many people in the neighborhood really do feel part of the association?"

"A lot of people may be touched by it and really happy to have it there," he observes. "But that kind of allegiance is very elusive."

Resources

Medoff, P., and Sklar, H. (1994). Streets of hope: The fall and rise of an urban neighborhood. The book is available for $19 (shipping included) from South End Press, 116 St. Botolph St., Boston, Mass. 02115; (617) 266-0629.

"Holding Ground: The Rebirth of Dudley Street." To order the documentary, send $209 (shipping included) to Holding Ground Productions, 549 Columbia Road, Suite 301, Dorchester, Mass. 02125-2126; (617) 282-2126.

For more information on the project, write to the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, 513 Dudley St., Roxbury, Mass. 02119; (617) 442-9670, fax (617) 427-8047.

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