Housing Justice and Racial Inequality in Jamaica Plain

A reflection on the 5th Annual State of Our Neighborhood by Hero Ashman 

The  5th annual State of Our Neighborhood, organized by JPNET, JPNDC, SJPHC, ESMS, JP Forum and numerous neighborhood organizational co-sponsors was held on Febuary 26th. Over three hundred people came together to discuss housing justice issues within Jamaica Plain and Boston. The audience heard from several local officials as they committed to promote just-cause evictions, secure more affordable housing and fight for livable wages. Whilst the dialogue focussed on rising rents and increased evictions, Malia Lazu, the mistress of ceremonies, began the night by grounding the issue in its broader context: racial justice.

SOON 2015 ElectedsRacial equity in JP, a neighborhood where almost half the population are people of color like in the city of Boston as a whole, was addressed in several performances before the panel discussion got underway. Through a series of sketches, ¡Acción! Community Theatre and Hyde Square Task Force raised the question of how the Latino community is affected by gentrification. JP is home to the largest Latino business district in New England but we saw in the documentary Ain’t Know One Can Afford This, by local filmmaker Helen ‘Homefries’ Matthews, that independently owned businesses are being forced out of JP by rising rents – again mirroring the trend throughout Boston, the most rapidly gentrifying city in the US.

Lifting Up Local Voices
JP residents  shared their own stories of injustices – personal stories which connect to a broader narrative of injustice. Malia Lazu emphasized how important it is that we support the people who will capture our stories, tell our history and in so doing, legitimize our place in the neighborhood and society at large.

Another means of legitimizing and amplifying people’s call for racial equity is by demanding a city government that reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of Boston. At the start of the evening Abigail Ortiz, on behalf of the Boston Racial Justice and Equity Initiative, asked the audience to sign a petition for Mayor Walsh to establish a Racial Justice and Equity Commission that would guide every city department in setting goals to reduce inequities in their area of work. She stressed that the Mayor needs to create a Boston for Everyone.

Jamaica Plain for Whom?
Audience SOON 2015
The question of “Boston for whom?” was brought into the context of the State of Our Neighborhood with Lazu’s more specific “Jamaica Plain for whom?”. Unquestionably, land – and by extension property rights and house prices – has been used for centuries to continue oppression. This oppression is based not only on economic status, but also on race. This fact led to Lazu asking several more questions of the audience: how has land ownership affected your life?  Do your people have a history of being displaced?  Have you lost neighbors who helped create this community due to rising pricing?

Ultimately, are we going to recognize the symptoms of property injustice and racial inequity in Jamaica Plain and demand action against it?

Action For Racial Justice in Housing
It became clear through the night that taking action against racial injustice could take many forms. Representatives and elected officials discussed seven specific topics aimed at planning, regulating and providing resources for a more equitable JP. Check out the  Asks from SOON 2015.  Two topics which emphasized the role that housing plays in systemic racial inequality were:

  1. Just Cause Eviction Campaign – the discussion surrounding this topic highlighted the negative effects of gentrification and the disproportionate consequences of expensive and economically unequal cities on low income families and communities of color. Community organizers at the State of Our Neighborhood challenged city officials to adopt a Just Cause Eviction law limiting eviction to certain circumstances and including a mediation procedure.

  1. Adopt the Boston Median Income in place of the Metropolitan Area Median Income – community members on the panel wanted to know why developers in the city of Boston used a measure of median income that included very wealthy neighborhoods outside of Boston and gave a distorted image of the low levels of income that many people in Boston face. In Jamaica Plain, for instance, 37% of households have an annual income below $37,000, compared with the metropolitan area median household annual income of $71,738. Not only does this lead to unaffordable housing units being developed, but it also furthers the silencing of low income families and communities of color. When people’s economic realities aren’t reflected in official data, then the problems they face aren’t going to be addressed in policy debates.

Promises from Local Officials
Indeed, one of the crucial aims of this years’ State of Our Neighborhood was to expose the economic realities, specifically the housing conditions faced by people in JP, and to further demand that officials take action to improve them. The final part of the evening was reserved solely to hear commitments from the representatives and local officials. Click here for the SOON 2015 Commitments.

Uncomfortable and Challenging Issues
At one point during the discussion a man from the audience called out an elected official for making light of her experience having been arrested while protesting an eviction. As a young man of color his experience with the criminal justice system is markedly different from the elected official’s. His point highlighted the fuller context of the night’s topic: it is not enough to tackle housing injustice, we must also examine the structures of racism that underlie many injustices; injustices which include housing, but also include mass incarceration of men of color and under representation in local government, to name a couple. It was an uncomfortable moment for many in the audience and on stage, but as Malia Lazu had pointed out at the start of the night,  “We go deep here, we talk about issues that help us expand and maybe even get a little uncomfortable.”

Summing up the magnitude of the challenges ahead, but also the feeling of optimism that lingered throughout the night, Ayanna Pressley, a Boston city councillor, concluded that “in order to meet our shared ideals, we need to be challenged.” The State our Neighborhood challenged those that attended to recognize those “shared ideals” and charged them to amplify their work to bring them about.

If you missed it, check out these two videos: Jamaica Plain for Whom? and JP, What matters to you? made by Jamaica Plain News elaborating on the event’s emphasis on racial equity. Also check out these Pics

Redesigning Civilization: Permaculture’s Vision for a Just and Sustainable World

by Hero Ashman

In early February, just under a hundred of us gathered to hear Toby Hemenway lecture on permaculture, it’s development and why it is a necessary part of our vision of a new world. Hemenway is a renowned permaculture and ecology expert and authored the book Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture – the world’s bestselling book on permaculture for eight years running.

What is Permaculture?
Redesigning Civlization

Permaculture is an ecological design approach that offers powerful tools for the design of regenerative, fair ways to provide food, energy, livelihood, and other needs while letting humans share the planet with the rest of nature.

How did Permaculture Develop?
To set the scene, Hemenway first gave a comprehensive anthropological narrative of how cultures had developed based on how they collected their food. He broke down the three types of cultures in the following categories:

  1. Foragers and hunter gathers: these were the first types of societies and depended on primitive tools to feed themselves or close communities

  1. Horticultural: this was a brief period of time and marks a transition between the two other stages; horticulturalists cultivate land but on a small scale and grow what is available

  1. Agriculture: the vast number of societies today are agrarian; they depend upon pastoral production and industrialized means to grow, harvest and distribute crops en masse

How did we become an Agrarian Society?
Hemenway explained that there are competing theories as to why we became an agrarian society. The first is that life was going well until we started to use up too much of our resources and were forced into more ‘efficient’ means of production. The second is that we were doing alright until the climate started getting colder. Both of these narratives rely on the idea that scarcity led to an intensification of the food production process. However, Hemenway suggests that viewing the world through the lens of scarcity has led us to become less, not more, sustainable in our use of nature.

What are the Problems with Agriculture?
Hemenway stressed the idea that agriculture is equivalent to the domestication of the human species. It creates a dichotomy between wild vs. tame, which prevents humans from working as a part of nature – instead we try to harness nature for our own terms. This has happened through the spread of agriculture and Hemenway elaborated on the structures and consequences that accompany an agrarian society:

  • Grain agriculture (agriculture dependent on grain crops such as corn, oats and wheat) requires a hierarchical system in order to maintain it, which creates inequality in wealth and power.

  • It leaves a larger ecological footprint.

  • Despite our mass production of food, many societies go through cycles of famine

According to Hemenway, the world created by agrarian societies is unhealthy, unequal and makes us afraid of scarcity. Many in the audience agreed that this was an unsustainable future, but it is challenging to imagine a system different to the one we know and rely on.

Permaculture as the Alternative!
After the doom and gloom of the first part of the lecture, Hemenway raised the spirits of the hall by offering an alternative: permaculture. He described permaculture as a new type of horticulture, where people work with, rather than against, nature in order to tend to plants that in turn provide us with food. The ethics of permaculture asks three important questions of designed ecological systems:

  1. Will this care for the earth?

  2. Is it just and will it care for people?

  3. How we return or redistribute the surplus that may be produced?

The emphasis on sustainability and minimizing our impact on nature means that another important question to ask is when to do things where? Hemenway explained that we need to build up local economies that respond to local conditions. He illustrated the places we can look for produce in a diagram similar to the one here.

People in the audience were convinced by Hemenway’s conclusion that alternatives to the food structures we have in place now need to be created. Several audience members questioned the scalability of permaculture projects, especially in countries suffering from a severe lack of food. Others made connections between permaculture projects and movements for deeper democracy and greater levels of civic engagement. The night ended on a high note and neighbours were encouraged to attend Hemenway’s permaculture workshop at the Boston Food Forest.

Next Steps
For more information on Toby Hemenway’s work you can visit his website. You can also visit the websites of some of the successful permaculture projects that Hemenway mentioned in his talk:


State of Our Neighborhood 2015: Snowy!

Snowmen for saleIf you haven’t bought yours already this season, the Jamaica Plain Forum and JP New Economy Transition are selling unassembled snowmen complete with button eyes and carrot noses … Just kidding …

We hope you are all staying warm out there. If you need help shoveling, let us know by replying to this email and we will post your information on our social media. Now is the time for neighbors to come together.

Speaking of coming together, for each of the past four years, over 350 neighbors have come together at the annual State of Our Neighborhood forum, a community conversation about JP today and the neighborhood we envision in the future. Join us again this year on February 26th at 6pm, to lift your spirits out of the winter blues, as we gather together for this meaningful conversation.

Come participate and show your support for policies that advance racial equity through housing justice. Help us strengthen grassroots democratic processes in Jamaica Plain and Boston.

P.S. Check out our op-ed in the JP Gazette if you missed it.

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Cooperatives Event POSTPONED! Burning (Snow) Man Party at Doyle’s Cafe Instead

The Jamaica Plain Forum event “Cutting Edge Cooperatives” scheduled for Thursday, 2/12 is POSTPONED until further notice. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you.

Instead join us for a party to chase away those winter blues!

Burning (Snow) Man:  A Meet-up Celebration of the Good, Bad, & Ugly of Too Much Snow

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Thursday, February 12th, 6-8pm
Doyle’s Cafe, Backroom, 3484 Washington Street (map)
RSVP on Facebook  

Feeling overwhelmed? Elated? Defeated? Have you met new neighbors? Have you come to dislike your neighbors? How are you surviving?

Somehow make your way to the Back Room at Doyles Café for a “beat the winter blues” meet-up. Have a drink. We will provide the first 5 pizzas.

Mini-Story Slam: Come with a 1-2 min story about the good, charitable, ugly, selfish, deplorable, and inspiring aspects of the four plus feet of snow.

Other Possibilities: Share a song! Bring snow to burn. Meet more neighbors. Ask ourselves: Is there more we can be doing to strengthen our community in this trying time? Organize a shovel brigade to clear a dangerous intersection! Lobby for more resources for transit! Find someone new to complain to!

Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition (www.jptransition.org) is working to build community resilience in the face of ecological and economic change.