Tackling racial ills: 'We can change if we work together'

"You can't be paralyzed by history." From his hastily furnished downtown office, former civil rights lawyer Frank Jones talks quietly about a group that now absorbs all of his considerable energies -- and is beginning to attract attention around the nation. Its nondescript name -- the Boston Committee -- belies its highly charged purpose: to reduce racial and ethnic tensions in Boston.

The Mississippi-born Mr. Jones, who spent three years as vice-dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, describes Boston's history as one of "racial exclusion," surfacing publicly in school desegration problems and privately isolated violence.

But Jones, who headed President Carter's task force to investigate the Miami disorders last May, says Boston is better placed than most other cities to deal with racial problems.

"Racial problems [here] have not been swept under the rug," he told the Monitor in an interview, adding that there is no "historical precedent of hatred as we used to have in the South."

The committee, formed by Mayor Kevin H. White early in 1980, hired Jones as president last July. It began as a way to give a public face to the kind of back-room private agreements that, many think, are the way to get things done in Boston.

Accordingly, the mayor persuaded (some say strong-armed) three of the city's top movers and shakers -- First National Bank chairman Richard D. Hill, Boston Globe chairman William Davis Taylor, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston , Humberto Cardinal Medeiros -- into setting up the committee.

Its approach, under Jones, may be unique. Refusing to ride briskly into town with detailed plans for action, he has chosen instead to discuss racial tensions with community leaders, downtown executives, city administrators, and the public at large. His purpose: to convince blue-collar whites in East Boston that their economic and social problems are the same as those of blacks in Roxbury -- and that "we can change if we all work together."

As specific proposals develop, he hopes to use the clout of the committee (which he is expanding by 16 members) to help pry loose funds and slice through red tape to get them started.

The result is a plan that may serve as a model for the rest of the nation. "I think it's the first program of its kind in the country," says Jones, noting that the Ford Foundation has expressed keen interest in it.

The going has not been easy. He has encountered, he admits, "layers" of pessimism both from those who want immediate results and those who think nothing can be done. "I've been called everything from a front man for the mayor, to someone on the make for himself, to someone out to exploit the community," he notes. Yet he remains an optimist. "We're on the runway and we've got the nose up," he says in a metaphor reminiscent of his years of dealing with Washington bureaucracy.

An articulate and intelligent thinker, however, he shies away from what he calls the "easy lexicon" of many public programs. "You have to go below the euphemism," he says. And, in a more contemplative vein (although he insists that "I am not a religious person"), he says simply, "You have to have a spiritual sense of the brotherhood of man."

The results are beginning to appear. The committee now works closely with the city's 20 neighborhood-based community development corporations, with law-enforcement groups in East Boston, and with the South Boston Multi-Service Center.

It also has taken a hand in establishing summer youth programs -- an issue of deep concern here, where federal reductions have cut last year's 8,000-job program in half.A still-unannounced study done in conjunction with the United Community Planning Corporation will peg at $410,000 the cost three key summer programs:

* Swimming pools. Boston's financial crunch led to plans to close the city's six free- admission pools. Now, pending the resolution of potential insurance problems, the committee hopes to use its influence to draw out private funds to keep them open.

* Basketball teams. The Boston Neighborhood Basketball League, a prototype for other cities, also was unfunded. Serving 5,000 people -- and involving many more as spectators -- it plays an important role in keeping youths off the streets. Funding needed for pools and teams amounts to $370,000.

* Subsidized jobs. Another $50,000 will be recommended for funding of 200 summer jobs. Under this program, to be administered through structures already established by the Private Industry Council, neighborhood businesses will be subsidized by $250 pe r job.

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