Mel King sits on a bench on Columbus Avenue in Boston’s South End. A few feet away is the entrance to the busy South End Technology Center (SETC).
It’s a beautiful summer afternoon in one of Boston’s most vibrant neighborhoods. And it appears that Mr. King knows, and is known by, everyone.
People stop to shake his hand. Motorists slow down and yell out “Mel!” And King gives a friendly wave to virtually every passerby.
For more than 60 years, King has been – you name it – an activist, a fair-housing advocate, a politician, an educator, a writer, a fighter for urban neighborhoods and less-advantaged families. So perhaps it’s not surprising he’s met a few people.
His focus now is on the organization he started in 1997 with help from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was an adjunct professor. SETC enables young Bostonians to gain 21st-century computer skills.
“It seems to me there’s a gap in our culture. It has to do with access to tools and resources that allow you to move up educationally and economically,” he says.
Xia Josiah-Faeduwor, a grateful young woman who has been taking classes at SETC for seven years and worked this summer as a college mentor, calls him a “visionary.”
SETC trains boys and girls, ages 7 to 13, from throughout the city. Some students later return to join other teens, as well as college students, in helping to train the next generation. King first used the idea of young people training even younger people in the 1960s when he was running a settlement house in league with Boston’s Northeastern University.
“Our youth are the most underutilized resource we have,” King says. “They are creative. They are willing to work to make a difference in their lives and the lives of other children.” King calls this a “role-models program” and a place for “leadership development.”
Amon Millner, assistant professor of computing and innovation at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., provided help in developing SETC programs and continues to advise SETC.
“SETC staff realized that developing and celebrating the design, engineering, and inventing prowess of neighborhood teens would translate into early interest in [technology] among their younger peers,” Dr. Millner says in an e-mail.
This summer SETC provided courses at 20 neighborhood organizations taught by 35 youth teachers. Along with dozens of computer work stations, SETC headquarters has a “Fab Lab” – a cutting-edge invention area where young techies collaborate on designing and producing their own projects using computer-guided tools.
King himself faced a long and challenging road as he was growing up in Boston’s South End. Even now, as a distinguished community leader, his unwillingness to remain quiet when he sees what he perceives is an injustice can put him on a controversial collision course with local authorities or businesses.
Two years ago he was among those arrested, arms and legs shackled, for blocking the doors to Boston’s Municipal Court building. He and the others were protesting housing evictions. Also recently he butted heads with the Boston Redevelopment Authority – the city agency overseeing development – and Simon Property Group, a real estate developer, over details of a large project planned for Boston’s Copley Square area. King and others objected to the low number of affordable housing units to be built in tandem with the project.
Tito Jackson, who serves on the Boston City Council, says King is “willing to stand up and to fight and to be arrested. He is willing to pay [the price] to advance what is right.... I don’t know anything that Mel King is afraid of.”
In the early 1950s, when King was in his teens, city officials decided that a 24-acre area of the South End called New York Streets would face the wrecking ball. More than 800 families – including King’s – would have to find someplace else to live.
A prominent Boston newspaper had labeled the area “Boston’s Skid Row,” which King says “was crazy. We called it home.” He describes it as a friendly, diverse community filled with working-class people. Still, it was torn down by September 1957.
King never forgot how people in his old neighborhood – and in other neighborhoods – were unable to say “no” to various urban renewal projects, and how many residents were left to fend for themselves for housing. So a key part of his activism has centered on giving local residents a say in housing, education, and job policies.
To this end, King has helped start a number of neighborhood organizations aimed at empowering families. He also served for almost 10 years in the Massachusetts State legislature, during which time he helped pass laws to enable community-based development and to require the state to divest itself of investments in companies doing business in South Africa under apartheid.
Mr. Jackson and others who have followed King’s career say that his work has helped create hundreds of affordable housing units throughout Boston – most notably, in the Tent City Apartments complex in the South End.
In 1968 Tent City was a large parking lot, the city having torn down the brick apartment buildings where scores of people had lived. King led a protest that occupied the lot and denied commuters a place to park. Encampments were erected on the site – including tents. Before protests ended several days later, King had faced angry motorists and been arrested.
But the protests paid off. Plans for market-rate-only development were stopped; not till 18 years later did groundbreaking take place for a 269-unit mixed-income complex that now occupies the site.
Remarkably, it was the man who defeated King in a two-person runoff election for mayor of Boston – Raymond Flynn – who enabled Tent City to finally be built.
In 1983 Mr. Flynn, a city councilor, faced King, the first black finalist for mayor in city history. They came from very different neighborhoods – Flynn from largely Irish South Boston and King from the multiethnic South End. But both Flynn and King were advocates for communities.
Although hard fought, the election was not acrimonious. Instead, some believe it helped to unify the city. “It was an election that no one lost,” Flynn says. “The debate was spirited, but completely on the issues.” Flynn served as mayor 10 years before becoming US ambassador to the Vatican.
“They changed the direction of the city,” says Jim Vrabel, who worked in the Flynn administration and recently wrote a book called “A People’s History of the New Boston.” “Neighborhood interests [became] paramount.” Flynn “was more effective because Mel King was there to lay the groundwork,” Mr. Vrabel says.
Today, it’s SETC that is changing Boston. And one reason SETC is effective, says Susan Klimczak, education organizer at the center, is because “everything is ... shaped by the young people.”
On a busy afternoon at SETC the rooms are filled with energetic young people working together on projects involving the newest technology. Some already are doing computer programming. But Dr. Klimczak says SETC doesn’t just work with technologically proficient kids; it recruits across the city and at schools where administrators say no students will be interested.
“Mel used to pick up pennies,” Klimczak says. “I’ve come to understand [what this symbolizes]: That no one is not worth picking up; no one should be thrown away.” King, she says, treats children with as much respect as he does the prominent people who sometimes call or stop by to visit.
During a reflective moment on the bench in front of SETC, when no one is stopping to shake his hand, King is asked what has motivated him. “The major piece is love,” he says. “The technology of the heart is love, the art of relationships with people.”
Even after many years of often bruising battles with adversaries, King nonetheless adds: “There is only one human family.”
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