How Culture and Creativity Build Power in Communities of Color

Held on Tuesday, March 15, 2022
Watch a full recording of the event, or scroll down to read a recap and watch event highlights.

Recap by Amelia Murray-Cooper

The Boston University Initiative on Cities, the BU Arts Initiative, and the BU City Planning & Urban Affairs Program held a discussion with Boston’s community leaders to explore the impact that culture and creativity make in places. Amid Boston’s development boom, communities of color are grappling with maintaining and amplifying their identity, and questions of belonging in places will determine the future of the city.

The event featured Tania Fernandes Anderson, Boston City Councilor of District 7 and former Executive Director of Bowdoin Geneva Main Streets, Michael Monestime, Business Strategy and Development at Morningside Real Estate Group and Founding Partner of Starlight Square, and Anita Morson-Matra, Creative Entrepreneur and Founder of the Baldwin in the Park and Nubian Nights. The event was moderated by F. Philip Barash of the City Planning and Urban Affairs Program at Boston University.

Barash explained that there is often a false sense of dichotomy between infrastructure deemed necessary for survival in cities versus “frivolous” artististic infrastructure. Legacy tools that were designed for purposes like economic development or keeping cities safe can be reimagined to support the arts. For example, existing models like Business Improvement Districts and Cultural Districts can be used to uplift creativity, sustain communities of color, and encourage tourism and visitation.

“Creativity, culture, and belonging are just as essential as clean water,” said Barash. “This is not just rhetoric. Study after study shows us that social infrastructure can impact quality of life, longevity, our ability to withstand a major crisis like a pandemic, and our ability to withstand chronic trauma over time.”

The Healing Power of Art

Monestime explained that the arts have a unique ability to heal communities and uplift people during times of hardship. Considering the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic, there are new opportunities to rebuild communities and create a stronger sense of belonging through art.

“The last two years broke so many people and showed how cities are broken,” said Monestime. “COVID has exposed how the arts are this amazing opportunity to heal. Arts have always been this healing potion, coming out of war and other pandemics. There’s just this incredible moment right now. I think that’s a huge opportunity in front of us actually.”

Morson-Matra added that COVID has pushed people to understand the importance of connectivity and how arts and culture are linked to economic development. This is a reminder that arts, culture, and the creative economy are important drivers of the success of a changing neighborhood. For example, Nubian Nights and the Jazz Urbane Cafe in Roxbury offer glimpses into the possibilities of reimagining vacant spaces and uplifting cultural anchors throughout the district.

Artists often handle complex social issues in their work, which can support advocacy and self-discovery in communities. Morson-Matra highlighted the importance of honoring creatives and paying them for their contributions to social cohesion and bringing new activity to dormant spaces.

“It’s really about understanding and honoring the creative process and what it contributes to our healing and our evolution, and then also making sure we are respecting and honoring payment, acknowledgment, and appreciation of those creatives and the contributions they are making,” said Morson-Matra. “They’re not only short term, they’re long term impacts in the community.”

Holding Space for Creativity in Cities

According to Monestime, urban planning builds environments where people live and flourish, and creative placemaking gives people a sense of belonging in those cities. Creativity offers a sense of distinctiveness and wonder in urban areas. It’s important to create spaces where people see reflections of themselves, even during rapid real estate changes.

For example, expanded student housing and development in Kendall Square pushed out much of the existing community and forced the arts to leave. Despite these changes, Monestime explained that planners were still able to hold space for creativity by creating a stage where cultural and economic development events are held. These events include farmers markets and small business fairs, inauguration for the City Council, speaking events, and high school proms. Monestime added that the first step is creating space for expression, and then a community can see what pours into that space and what can be celebrated there.

Morson-Matra explained the importance of demystifying developers in urban planning. While developers are interested in revenue, they also care about the success of their development projects. Artists must think about partnering strategically with developers to serve the best interest of the community.

“There are some folks who are really thinking outside the box about creating and engaging with beautiful structures, and how they can really enhance the meaningfulness of a place by a few additional conversations and really having coalitions inform the way they’re creating these structures,” said Morson-Matra. “Thinking about how you’re partnering with the community and the cultural anchors, versus competing. It’s a win-win when you put that money, power, and force behind folks that have been able to weather the storm and love the community even in its hardest times.”

Supporting Young Artists

Intergenerational connections between artists and creatives can preserve the history of the area and help young people learn about those who came before them. Morson-Matra noted that if a community goes through a transformation, particularly when it is renamed, there is a fear that the character of the neighborhood will be lost. There were periods of strategic disinvestment in Roxbury when communities of color persevered through hardships. It is important to honor all past iterations of a place and ensure that the stories of people who came before are not forgotten during new periods of development.

Monestime added that urban planning conversations should include as many young people as possible. In Boston, there are limited opportunities for creative expression and support for emerging artists. Young artists face hurdles such as where they can afford to live and how they can distribute their work. There must be negotiations with developers to make more space for young people to create art and be discovered.

“There are less places that are small and intimate where creativity can happen. Everything is at the scale of the House of Blues or these big venues that really white-wash what gets to be presented in front of the general population,” said Monestime.

Creating Equity

Anderson is a Boston City Councilor for District 7, which is the poorest district in Boston, and she is concerned with understanding the wealth gap and racial divide in the area. Anderson explained that in the City of Boston, the percentage of white people who own homes is much higher than Black people, and the net worth of a Black person is much lower than a white person on average. She suggested that the Boston Planning and Development Agency should return land to the Mayor’s Office of Housing so they can sell it to people who will make the spaces more equitable for historically disenfranchised communities.

“I believe that in order for us to make true change, we have to create opportunities for people to have economic mobility, to create generational wealth. To do that, you have to have real estate, some sort of insurance or retirement plan,” said Anderson. “In order for us to feel like we don’t have to change our identity or not celebrate who we are, we have to own. We have to be integrated economically. In order for us to leverage with government, in order for us to not have civic death, we have to be able to have that level of power to be included as a community.”

This event was part of a series on Race, Place, and Space, co-hosted by the IOC, the BU Arts Initiative, and BU Diversity & Inclusion (D&I). The series explores the ways in which racial and ethnic groups access, inhabit, occupy, shape, and are memorialized in urban contexts—as well as the ways their contemporary and historical contributions have been made invisible, disregarded, or denigrated.