Ask how we as a community are doing on diversity, and you’ll get myriad answers. Some will say we have come a long way. Others will say we have far to go. We decided to pose this question and others to leaders who deal with this issue day in and day out. Participants in the roundtable included Massachusetts State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, former Cambridge mayor and current City Councilor Denise Simmons, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong. Diversity Boston editor Kortney Stringer conducted the interview at the Globe, and what follows are edited excerpts from the discussion:
Globe: Where are we now in terms of diversity in the region?
Menino: Boston’s made a lot of progress over the last several years. It’s not the Boston of old. We’re a minority-majority city. But the issue is we have to assimilate them into the power structure of Boston. That’s the challenge we have.
When it comes to education, it’s very important that our school system works, because education is the key to success for a lot of young people in the city.
We’re working very hard on the education piece and also the job training piece. You know, folks come to Boston looking for that city of hope. How do we train them for those jobs?
Simmons: I’d say we’re on the road, but we’re not there yet.
We often talk about minority-majorities, but very soon, the groups that are typically identified as minority are going to be the majority. We have to learn a new language, or we have to understand that when we’re talking about minority and majority, we’re talking about “minority’’ in the sense that these are the people that have the least amount of power.
And I will agree that education certainly is the passport to opportunity, but it’s more about training our citizens for a certain level of work, but really being aggressive about it.
We had a very interesting conversation in Cambridge not too long ago where a white parent said, “Well, the thing is, I don’t want competition for my child.’’ So what does that mean? And that was a bold statement, because people are not usually that candid. So how do you make room not only at the table of fairness, but also in our own minds, for everyone who deserves an opportunity?
Wong: Fitchburg is considered a gateway city because for a long time, really for over 100 years, we’ve been a gateway for new immigrants and new businesses to start up. So diversity has always been a key to the economic and cultural success of our city.
I’m actually really excited that we have the census this year. I know it sounds kind of boring, but the census gives us an opportunity to update all our statistics that are 10 years old. We have this melting pot, but let’s be more sophisticated. Let’s figure out what are their cultural differences, what are their backgrounds? How is this an opportunity for us to grow economically, to grow culturally, and to reinforce the reasons why we love this country so much: the freedom, the ability to succeed, and to get an education.
Chang-Díaz: We’re making progress. Sometimes we’re inching forward, sometimes we’re inching back.
But [recently] in the Senate, I think we took a real step back in terms of the appreciation and valuation of diversity in our state in the passage of what I like to call the redundancy amendments that really target this nonproblem, this nonissue, of undocumented immigrants accessing public benefits, which they are not eligible for currently. We have systems in place.
Menino: Sonia, I agree with you totally. This country was built on immigrants, and for us to file some kind of legislation on it is wrong. I don’t think the masses out there want us to do that. The people who make the most noise are the ones who force the elected officials.
Globe: It seems the state and the city may have a perception problem, and that’s a challenge in terms of attracting a diverse group of people. How do we counteract that?
Simmons: I think people believe and do come to our cities and towns — Cambridge and Boston — because they see it as a land of opportunity. The legislation that just passed really does send a bad message, but I don’t think it stops them from coming. The mother comes, the father comes, and then the children come.
What I think we need to work harder on, and certainly I talk about this in Cambridge a lot, is how do we make sure that access is provided, that they not only can get a good education, that when they go through all the different high schools to college or trade school, they can actually be employed?
Menino: Part of this whole discussion is the business community of Boston. Take a look at their boards. They all look like me. We need them to understand that if they’re really going to represent the business community of Boston and Massachusetts, they have to diversify their boards.
When we had the Democratic National Convention here in 2004, we put out a book telling people where to get the minority businesses. A minority business on Bowdoin Street in Dorchester supplied all the balloons for the convention. The national corporations wanted to do it, but we insisted. We’ve got to get these boards and the corporate world to understand they have to be diverse.
Simmons: You make an excellent point. When I go around my city and look at who is making the decisions, I do see one group more than the other. That’s why I say it’s really more about access, and genuine and meaningful levels of participation.
Let’s just talk about our schools in particular. When we invite parents to participate, parents often say, “The reason I don’t come back is they only invite me when it’s time to cook a meal, but when I want to be a part of the decision-making body, I’m not often invited.’’ How do we as a society, or cities, make genuine opportunities for leadership? When people feel as though they’re really given genuine opportunity for leadership, not only do they come, but they continue to participate, and they bring others with them. That’s what’s always been very difficult. When someone calls and says, “Gee, Denise, will you come and make some collard greens?’’ as opposed to, “Will you sit in on the hiring for this?’’
Chang-Díaz: I think we should recognize that while Boston has made great strides, we do still need to confront the lingering reputation that Boston has as a city with a real history of segregation.
The country watched during our busing — whatever you want to call it — debacle? I think that’s a scar that stays in people’s memories.
Menino: She’s right, we do have a national reputation from ’73, ’74, ’75. But the national media hasn’t caught up with what happened locally. We’re not the city we were. I know what it was, I know the hate there. We don’t have that hate today. We have to get people outside of Boston to think of Boston a little bit differently.
Rewrite those history books, you know? We’re talking about new Boston. Talk about how Boston neighborhoods have changed, I mean, the senator’s senatorial district, how that has changed. How where I live in Hyde Park, how that has changed. East Boston — look at East Boston. When I first got elected, it was 95 percent Italian. If that’s 40 percent Italian today, you’re lucky.
Simmons: But let’s not confuse diversity with tolerance. One of the things I like to do when time allows is to look into the history of my city, and there was an organization — actually, Boston had something similar — in 1945 that sort of grew all across the country, the civic unity committees.
These committees were brought about because veterans coming back from World War II were having problems being treated fairly. And the issues they were being treated unfairly about were housing, education, employment, and police-community relations.
Here it is, we’re in 2010, and what are the problems that we’re having? Housing, employment, education, and police-community relations. So, we’re on the road, but we’re not there yet. It’s hard to live down a reputation when people are still bumping up against that. The fact that I can live in Cambridge and Hyde Park, doesn’t necessarily mean people like me.
Simmons: Or respect me.
Simmons: Or want to give me a job or an opportunity. Or I go to school, and I graduate valedictorian, but I can’t get the same job as my neighbor, who doesn’t look like me. That’s the real work that has to be done, and that has to be done every day. It’s something that each person has to do as an individual, but we have to do as a group. And that’s hard work.
Chang-Díaz: Sometimes it’s hard to even wrap our arms around how do we even define diversity. What it is that we’re talking about.
Things like looking at Mayor Wong’s election in Fitchburg, or Setti Warren’s election in the city Newton. The city of Newton, an extremely white city by the numbers, is the first city in America to be represented by a black mayor, a black governor, and a black president simultaneously. That’s pretty great. I think that’s sign of something special, a step forward for Massachusetts.
Wong: I think what that’s saying is that it’s not those divisions people put on you, it’s not your race, it’s what you are inside. I know that Mayor Setti Warren, given his years of experience in politics, and also given his commitment to Newton, that’s why he was elected. Not because of what people might see, but because of what people know about him.
They always say, in politics, define yourself before you have others define you. If you don’t define yourself, of course people are just going to look at you, and they’re just going to define you based on what they see.
Think about that, and think about it the other way around, about the people we represent. How are we defining them? Are we defining them based on what we look at, and what we see, or are we really getting to know them?
Simmons: But also, this is a new generation. You think about the election of Obama, and who came to the polls. We’re talking about people who didn’t grow up in the same society I grew up in. I grew up in a society where I literally remember seeing the signs “Ku Klux Klan Country.’’ My children didn’t grow up in that society. So that is a little bit of a difference, too. Our youth are not encumbered, I hope, with the same amount of — and I don’t want to sound as if it doesn’t exist anymore, because I’m not saying that. But I am saying my children don’t have the same experiences, direct experiences, that I’ve had. And they think a little bit differently than I do.
Globe: What do we do going forward?
Wong: A hundred different things, and I can give you a few. We’re starting a program called Alcalde de su Calle [Mayor of your street]. In Fitchburg, of course, the ultimate symbol of “inside’’ in politics is the mayor’s office. I know people have never seen a mayor like me in the city of Fitchburg, so this is my opportunity to say to people, you can actually be a mayor, too. You can be mayor of your street.
We’re going to arm you with information on what I do, what you can do as a citizen. If you want to change things, whether it’s something small like a street light or a pothole, you can change it, and this is how. And you start there. You start small, and you build from that. And then they believe that anything’s possible, because they can change what’s happening right in their own street.
Menino: Empower people, give them opportunities through education, through economic opportunity, through housing. And also, have people understand they have a friend in government who wants to help them. It’s not the old city, with old politics. This is new politics. That’s what you’ve got to think about, how to move ahead.
Simmons: Really meeting people where they are, and then bringing them along. Let them know what their rights are, and really sort of push them to take advantage of the opportunities that are there for them.
Chang-Díaz: If I could just layer on: education, education, education. Education is the best ticket we have as a society for making sure people can access jobs, can access economic empowerment, and from there, political empowerment and everything that comes after that.
There are a lot of really specific things that we can do to make our small-democracy more accessible to people who have traditionally been under-represented in the halls of power. Things like Election Day registration; early voter registration so we’re getting kids when they’re in high school, before they graduate, so they can preregister, so when they turn 18, they’re already in the system and have built that habit so they can show up.
Things like public financing of campaigns — the money hurdle is a huge barrier for people of color, low-income folks, and women getting into office, just to rattle off a few. These solutions are very known to us, they’re very within reach, and they would make real, systemic differences for people in all the other things that are blocking them from full participation in power today.
Wong: This is just a last theme in terms of everything that we have said: We respect people, and we respect their ability to do things for themselves, and not doing things for them. Whether it’s education or giving them the tools that they need to succeed, or giving them access to boards and commissions, we’re inviting them in.
We’re saying, “You are people. You are what we represent. Come in, be a part of government.’’ Don’t have us be something completely separate from you. If we have access to the laws and the resources, you should rightly be a part of the discussion on how we disseminate those.