I recently had the opportunity to visit with one of the Boston Women’s Fund’s grantees, South Boston en Acción (SBEA). SBEA organizes and develops the leadership of the Latina residents of living in South Boston’s public housing developments. The Latino population in South Boston has grown significantly and rapidly, and Latinos are the largest ethnic group residing in the South Boston public housing developments. SBEA grew out of an ad-hoc group of women who began meeting sporadically in 2004 to talk about family concerns. Many of these concerns resulted from the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) settlement of Latino families in a neighborhood where they encountered linguistic and cultural barriers and experienced social isolation. In 2007, SBEA received a 3-year grant from the Hyams Foundation that led to weekly meetings, the opening of an office, and non-profit incorporation.
I was very impressed with all that South Boston en Acción has accomplished in its short lifetime, particularly given the history of racism in South Boston. It made me eager to learn more about the history of racism and desegregation in Boston’s public housing. Although, among my colleagues there existed first-hand knowledge of the desegregation of the Boston Public Schools, we did not have in depth knowledge on the desegregation of public housing. I did some online research and talked to Kathy Brown of the Boston Tenant Coalition and Edna Carrasco of the Committee for Boston Public Housing.
In 1988, the Boston NAACP sued the Boston Housing Authority for maintaining racially segregated public housing through site-specific waiting lists. People of color were discouraged from applying for public housing in the predominantly white neighborhoods of South Boston, Charlestown, and East Boston. As a result of the lawsuit, the Boston Housing Authority was forced to integrate all of its white housing developments and to compensate those applicants who had been denied or discouraged by their practices.
How is it that today the majority of the people of color living in the South Boston developments are Latino? One reason I had heard was that while African Americans did not want to go to South Boston because they had experienced the racist violence of the desegregation of the Boston Public Schools, the newer Latino immigrants were not familiar with that history and violence against people of color. Perhaps that was a factor. Edna Carrasco said that another factor that one has to look at is the wave of immigration at the time and when those immigrants became eligible to apply for public housing.
In any case, the people of color who were sent to the white housing developments experienced harassment and violence. They had bricks and bottles thrown through their windows, feces thrown on their doors, and they experienced physical violence. There were no protections for them. Whenever tenants experienced such hate crimes, they were encouraged to apply for transfer. But the perpetrators were allowed to stay. There was no police involvement and no reports written.
In 1999, there were a series of violent acts committed against people of color living in the developments. A couple of community organizers living in the South Boston developments finally got fed up when young pregnant girl got beaten up with hockey sticks. There was also a new staff member at the West Broadway development who took a stand with them. They started organizing meetings amongst themselves. They called HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) and filed a report. They met with HUD and provided evidence of the harassment and violence—medical reports, pictures of feces on doors, etc. What resulted was the Jane Doe lawsuit against the Boston Housing Authority. From that lawsuit there was a big investigation that found that the housing authority was hiding the harassment of people of color and protecting the perpetrators of this violence/harassment. Staff were moved around and perpetrators had eviction proceedings started against them to move them out. BHA staff were all retrained. The new policy was that managers were required to start an immediate investigation of incidents of hate crimes.
This is the historical backdrop against which South Boston en Acción’s work with Latina residents in South Boston’s housing developments takes place. That they have been able to accomplish so much given this history and in such a short period of time is amazing. For example, because of SBEA’s success in organizing the Latino community, elected officials are paying attention to the Latino voters in the neighborhood.
Thank you to Kathy Brown and Edna Carrasco for their help.
For more information about South Boston en Acción, please see http://www.sbaccion.org/en.