Cambridge has neglected our Black community through decades of conservative fiscal management and failing to make up for hundreds of years of oppression and harm from slavery, housing discrimination and the war on drugs. Sadly, there are no quick-fix solutions to breaking the cycle of trauma, poverty, violence and grief that we are experiencing. Frequent shootings in The Port neighborhood should serve as a reminder that our efforts to date have fallen short. We need to get on the same page about directing our city’s vast resources toward lifting up the most vulnerable and finally commit to making an immediate and comprehensive investment in every aspect of our Black community.
Cambridge’s tale of two cities is widely documented. The city has accumulated lots of money from the post-rent control commercial development boom, which also drove up property values and rents, displacing thousands of low-income Black residents. Just between 2013 and 2019, the Black population in The Port decreased by 7.5 percent while median household income rose by nearly $25,000 and the neighborhood got 10 percent whiter. The recent Cambridge Community Foundation report explains how the innovation economy remains largely inaccessible to Black youth growing up in Cambridge. When large corporations such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon open satellite offices in Kendall Square, the jobs and wealth those companies bring to town do not get distributed to Black youth growing up in Cambridge. Instead, they get pushed out by the resulting increase in the cost of living. Thus far the city has failed to make any meaningful effort at racial equity, and that has to change.
Cambridge civil rights icon and education pioneer Bob Moses, who passed away recently, identified decades ago that “sharecropper education” and America’s apartheid policies had to be dismantled for Black people to achieve equality of opportunity. As of 2020, educational outcomes for Black students in Cambridge continue to lag behind their white counterparts to a shocking degree. We must ensure that everyone gets an education that allows them to participate fully in the economic, social and political life of the community. It’s imperative that we provide economic opportunity for everyone, not just the lucky few who manage to gain acceptance at brand-name colleges.
Cambridge has hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank, including an additional $65 million just received from the Biden administration as part of the American Rescue Plan to help us recover from the Covid pandemic, which disproportionately affected our Black residents. We have an unprecedented opportunity to dismantle the racist systems in our city that continue to oppress and displace Black residents. Here’s a partial list of immediate investment opportunities that the city should be funding:
- Restitution for anti-Black housing discrimination. Providing stable housing is key to supporting people of African descent and providing them with an opportunity to remain in Cambridge. I’ve partnered with city councillor E. Denise Simmons to propose that the city make an unprecedented investment in the construction of affordable homeownership opportunities preferentially available to first-generation, first-time homebuyers who grew up in Cambridge with the goal of redressing past racial discrimination and providing opportunities for our most vulnerable children to be able to stay in their city. The city should issue a bond of no less than $500 million over the next 10 years to pay for these units in addition to investing significantly more tax revenues into affordable housing construction. It is easy to forget that Cambridge did not spend property tax revenues on affordable housing construction before 2018, when councillor Dennis Carlone and I convinced the city manager to start doing so. While we work hard to increase the affordable housing supply, we also need to beef up our rental assistance programs and ensure dignified, non-congregate shelter for everyone who is unhoused.
- Expand our education and youth support systems. That includes:
Universal pre-K: It is now well established that universal pre-K offers tremendous benefits to young people as they become adults. Despite years of conversation and committee hearings, the city has yet to commit to a full universal pre-K program for every child in Cambridge. We are told constantly that classroom space is a limiting factor, but there are vacant storefronts all over the city that could be rented out at any point.
21st century public education: Invest in the Young People’s Project and other efforts that help Black students succeed in school and in life, while supporting their efforts to eliminate institutional obstacles to their success.
After-school and youth programs: The King Open Extended Day after school program is a great model that should be expanded across the entire district. Our youth centers and summer youth employment programs also offer tremendous benefits to young people growing up in the city, but there are limited slots and mostly nothing on weekends. These programs should be expanded so they are available to all children in Cambridge, and Saturday programming should be added.
RSTA: The Rindge School of Technical Arts is an important piece of the puzzle, but it too is underfunded and under-resourced. Important programs such as electrical and plumbing education are no longer offered, and we need to create options in sustainability such as energy efficiency, solar panel installation, urban agriculture and urban forestry.
Postsecondary education support: Last but not least, we need to provide additional career and secondary education support to our young adults after they graduate high school. We should be creating jobs training programs, professional certificates, internship programs, continuing education and more to help our students transition from high school into the workforce if they are not going immediately to college.
- Remove barriers to employment. We must identify and dismantle the racist policies and systems that prevent Black people from accessing jobs in the public and private sectors. For example, the city could sponsor trainings offered by groups such as the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council and others on criminal record expungement, transformative justice, cannabis cultivation and other ways for those who have been most affected by the war on drugs to regain access to the job market and society. The city should provide more funding for tenant legal counsel, especially for people who have eviction records that prevent them from finding housing.
- Generate more economic opportunity. We need to make sure that there are well-paying jobs for our Black graduates not pursuing traditional college-based career trajectories. This year, I introduced the Green New Deal Zoning Petition for Cambridge to use building emissions offsets to create robust green jobs programs and economic opportunity for the most vulnerable members of our community. But the city does not have to wait for new funding mechanisms; we could be funding green jobs training programs today! The city could buy properties and rent them at affordable rates to Black entrepreneurs, cooperatives and local businesses to create more economic opportunity. We also need to make more space for urban agriculture, so people can grow their own food and build livelihoods around local food production. And we should expand the mayor’s basic income pilot to permanently provide a basic income to all people who make less than a certain amount of money, so they can sustain themselves and their families while getting further education and training or starting their next business venture.
- Create an alternative crisis response. I could not be more enthusiastic about the Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team. This program proposes a community-based response to mental health, domestic violence, substance abuse and other crises as an alternative to the current option of calling 911 and summoning the police. Police are not the right people to handle the vast majority of these situations, and their very presence can lead to violence, incarceration and trauma. The Heart proposal was developed through a true community process led by the women of the Black Response. It has been a privilege to be a witness to the birth of this very promising alternative approach to public safety that seeks to provide compassionate care to those in need of support in the most difficult moments of their lives. By investing in the creation of this program, Cambridge has an unprecedented opportunity to improve the lives of its most vulnerable residents.
- Invest in mental health support. The Cambridge Health Alliance has been divesting from mental health service delivery for years. Here is a direct quote from the CHA website: “Therapy: The Outpatient Addictions Service does offer therapy for some patients, but our capacity is very limited. Most of the care provided is group psychotherapy.” It is time to provide free mental health services to anyone who needs them, for any reason, through a direct contract between the city and the CHA and other providers of mental health services, including affinity healing programs owned and managed by Black practitioners. An infusion of cash from the city would increase the number of people who get the mental health support they need and could even expand options beyond group therapy, which does not meet everybody’s needs. Providing strong mental health and substance use support is critical to helping traumatized youth make the transition to adulthood. Unfortunately the level of support available to Black youth in Cambridge is inadequate and disjointed, and I do not support the shift toward housing this type of service in the police department.
- Issue reparations and restitution. The city needs to grapple with its complicity in slavery, housing discrimination and the racist war on drugs, which have traumatized thousands of residents and cheated many of their freedom, education, economic prospects and in some cases their very lives, necessitating an apology for the harms done and an effort to offer reparations and restitution. I’ve been able to support a growing conversation among Black Cantabrigians on how to move this forward, and I’m working with colleagues to put several proposals on the table that Cambridge can invest in to provide restitution for the war on drugs and reparations for slavery.
- Develop vacant properties in our most vulnerable communities. Neighborhoods across our city need significant investment in the built environment in a way that meets the needs of Black residents. For example, city-owned properties in The Port such as the Cherry Street lot, the former school at 105 Windsor St. and the triple-decker on Main Street in Lafayette Square have sat vacant for far too long. I’ve called on the city to turn the Windsor Street property into a dynamic and multifaceted community space that meets the needs of the Black community in particular, determined through an inclusive process. Many agree that the Cherry Street lot should get 100 percent affordable housing with lots of family units and a robust tree canopy, and the numerous city-owned parking lots around Central Square should be developed to meet community needs as well. We should renovate the Central Square branch library and expand it to include a cultural center in addition to knocking down the Green Street Garage to build dense affordable housing. The city should aggressively buy properties that become available for sale to secure their future for affordable housing, open space and other community needs.
Quinton Zondervan is a city councillor.