TBF News July Aug 08 header

Race, Class and Cultural Participation
How the Arts Can Bridge Differences

Robert Lewis Jr photo Anita Walker photo
The three organizations that sponsored the forum were represented by the Boston Foundation's Robert Lewis Jr. (above left), the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Anita Walker (above right), and The Wallace Foundation’s Catherine Fukushima (right). Catherine Fukushima photo

José Massó photo

José Massó (above) left the podum to involve audience members in the dialogue.
Jerry Villacres photo Sam Yoon photo
Panelists, clockwise from top left: Jerry Villacres, Sam Yoon and Shirley Carrington Shirley Carrington photo

The Commonwealth Compact

During the forum, the panelists praised the Commonwealth Compact, a project organized by Boston's civic and business leaders that is committed to reversing the reputation Boston has as a city that is not welcoming to people of color. Its goal is to take concrete steps, including reporting on diversity within the region’s businesses and nonprofits, to create a city that is a welcoming, diverse place to live and work for all people. The Boston Foundation helped convene the project and is one of the “Founding Signers” of the Compact. For more, visit the Compact website.

Robert Lewis Jr., Vice President for Program at the Boston Foundation, opened a highly interactive forum on the role the arts can play in bridging diverse cultures by remembering his experiences during the school desegregation era in the ‘70s. “Especially in public housing, the arts really brought communities together,” he said. “They helped us to learn how to reach out to people who were different from us. Let’s start a conversation like that today and then let’s continue it.”

The two-hour ‘conversation’ was co-sponsored by the Boston Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the New York-based Wallace Foundation.

“You are doing the work,” said Anita Walker, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, speaking to the audience, which was made up of cultural organization staff members and individual artists. Ms. Walker said that she had just returned from an inspiring visit to Caracas, Venezuela where she had witnessed El Sistema, a classical music education program that bridges differences of class for some 300,000 children.

Catherine Fukushima, a program officer at The Wallace Foundation also spoke briefly. “There are many organizations in Boston that are learning how to reach out to people who are different from them,” she said, “and the key is learning to listen, so I am here to do just that.”

The moderator of the discussion, José Massó, Vice President of Communications for Nellie Mae Education Foundation, introduced the panelists:Sam Yoon, Boston City Councilor At-Large; Shirley Carrington, Interim Executive Director of Boston Connects, Inc.; and Jerry Villacres, Managing Partner at a Latino public relations firm called Ultra-Linx Marketing Group.

“It’s wonderful to be here,” said Mr. Yoon, “because we need to talk about who we are becoming. As of 2000, 25 percent of Boston’s households are foreign-born and one-third speaking a language other than English.

“The vast majority of students in the Boston Public Schools are children of color— and Asian and Latino populations are growing the fastest. So, we know the trends and we can either anticipate the future or wait and react to it after it happens.” He added that Boston has a reputation for its lack of openness to people of color and immigrants and praised the Commonwealth Compact for taking on that reputation and any reality behind it (see sidebar).

Ms. Carrington spoke from the lessons she has learned during her many years of community organizing. “The most important thing about organizing is that it is a continuous learning process,” she said, “one in which all approaches must be suited to the cultures you are reaching out to.”







Mr. Villacres said that he had moved to the U.S. from Ecuador in the 1960s, because he was enamored of America’s music and art. “Art, like love,” he said, “can make us better human beings.”

After the panelists made opening remarks, Mr. Massó left the podium to circulate among audience members and engage everyone in the conversation. Topics covered included rethinking the ways that people hear about cultural offerings, translating materials into other languages, and the importance of developing diverse boards for cultural organizations. “What I’m hearing from all of you is that, ultimately, embracing diversity is about building relationships,” summarized Mr. Massó. Participants left the forum with fresh ideas and a new resolve to celebrate the diverse cultures that make up our city.

Back to TBF News July/August 2008