Boston Committee helps communities solve problems that fuel racial strife

In the spring of 1982, racial tension in Dorchester was very high. The firebombing of a black family's house and the manslaughter of a black man by white youths at a nearby subway station left the community reeling.

Enter the Boston Committee, a small, private organization working citywide to promote racial harmony.

In the aftermath of these crimes, the committee teamed up with police to bring Dorchester's community leaders together. These residents from Dorchester's racially diverse neighborhoods identified issues that affected community life: public safety, a lack of youth activities, and housing shortages.

This group of residents formed the Dorchester Task Force. They formed committees to address the issues, and progress has been made on each one.

The key is that a potentially explosive racial situation was defused. But Boston is a city with persistent racial problems and the Boston Committee has a long way to go, despite the considerable headway it has made.

The committee was formed three years ago by some of Boston's high-visibility movers and shakers. But for the most part, it has maintained a low profile. Instead of relying on publicity, overblown projects, or the names of its founders, the committee has sought to build a legitimacy of its own and to gain support as a consequence of its success.

According to Frank N. Jones, Boston Committee president, the goal is to bring people together around issues and concerns that transcend race. As people focus on their similarities, racial differences fade, he says.

According to research sponsored by the committee, there are many areas where people can work together. A report issued in 1982 found that blacks and whites share many concerns about Boston problems, such as scarce housing, crime, schools, and limited job opportunities. Jones thinks the only way to combat racism is to get people working together to address these issues - issues which he says fuel racial prejudice. This will help eliminate a ''turf mentality,'' he adds.

The Dorchester Task Force is doing just that - and it's having a fair amount of success. For instance, public safety is a concern of many Dorchester residents. One member of the task force, Georgette Watson, says public drinking was a major contributor to this problem. Through the efforts of the task force, the fine for drinking in public places was raised from $25 to a maximum of $250.

In addition, she says, ''hot spots'' in neighborhood parks were identified. By working with the Boston parks commissioner, there has been a crackdown on trespassing and loitering.

William H. Jones, executive director of the Codman Square Housing Development Corporation, says the task force's housing committee is working with Boston officials to address the question of abandoned housing. The committee has prepared a manual on how to purchase, finance, and restore an abandoned house.

Kristen J. McCormack, youth coordinator for the task force, says young people play out many of the racial tensions. She says there were almost no youth activities in Dorchester - a vacuum created from years of neglect.

A sports league was created. More than 500 youngsters played on baseball teams this summer. In Columbia Point, she says, many boys had never played baseball before.

In addition, this summer 20 high school students were sent on an Outward Bound program on Hurricane Island in Maine. Participant Deborah A. Gilmartin spent her days rock-climbing and rowing a boat on the rough waters of the Atlantic.

She says the trip was challenging, and she had to learn to trust others in the group. And, she says, people really didn't give much thought to race.

Ms. McCormack says young people in Dorchester have as much talent and potential as children anywhere. They just need some resources to bring it out, she says.

That's where the Boston Committee helped. Besides organizing events and fostering communication, the committee is working citywide to link all sorts of groups and individuals. It coordinated raising money from many downtown businesses to send those students on the Outward Bound program. It has businessmen working on a project for safety in the public schools. It is working with Boston employers to find jobs for the city's youth.

And, working on all of these issues, says committee president Jones, helps to reduce racial problems in Boston.

After three years in operation, the committee held its first annual meeting last week. Mr. Jones says the meeting was an occasion to report on the progress that's been made, but also to solicit more support.

Jones says he is convinced that people want progress. The committee already receives substantial backing from some of the Boston's major businesses and institutions.

But, Jones adds, the need is great for more people to become involved. Boston needs more sports leagues and jobs programs.

''Each one of us can make a difference,'' he says. ''So far, the Boston Committee has gone from A to C. Now we need to move from C to Z.'' He says that in all the Boston Committee is working on, there is some activity, some effort, in which everyone can take part.

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