Town plans forums on race
Series spurred by new demographics
The town of Milton is tackling the sticky topic of race this fall in a series of public discussions aimed at making the increasingly diverse community more welcoming.
Town Administrator Kevin Mearn says the “Race and Place’’ program was not prompted by any particular incident but was relevant because of the town’s changing demographics.
Milton, which was recently voted the second-best US location to live in 2011 by Money Magazine - number one was Louisville, Colo. - has a population of 27,000 and is about 82 percent white, according to the latest census figures. Thirty years ago, Milton was only slightly smaller and almost 98 percent white.
“People think because you’re having a dialogue, there’s a problem,’’ Mearn said, acknowledging that Milton has faced racially divisive issues in the past. “This is not about dwelling in the past but about the future of this community and celebrating differences.
“Milton has come a long way, and this is a time to share in that and move forward and see the future in a positive way,’’ he said.
The four-part series starts Wednesday and uses the 2003 PBS documentary “Race: The Power of Illusion’’ to prompt discussion about assumptions and misconceptions about race and the impact of racism on social policy, particularly housing. Other towns - including Westwood and Marshfield - have also used the film in their own forums about race relations.
The Milton programs will continue on Sept. 21, Oct. 5, and Oct. 12; all sessions will be held in Milton Public Library from 6 to 8:30 p.m. The final session will focus on specific steps to improve the racial climate in the community.
The idea to bring the race discussion to Milton came from the “emerging leaders’’ program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, which is aimed at promising young professionals in the Boston area and requires participants to address community issues as part of their 10-month leadership training.
By coincidence, five people in the program lived in Milton. Two of them - Andrew Russell and Wendy Lee O’Malley - decided to form a small group that would focus on a project close to their homes.
Russell, who is white, grew up in Buffalo and is director of corporate relations for the Museum of Fine Arts. He lives near Milton’s racially diverse Tucker Elementary School, where his child attends kindergarten.
O’Malley grew up in Milton, interned in the selectmen’s office while in high school and college, and recently moved back to town.
“Milton is somewhat unusual for a Massachusetts suburb in that it’s somewhat diverse,’’ Russell said of the decision to hold the program here. “It’s also a ‘No Place for Hate’ community and has a history of working on the issues’’ with groups including Citizens for a Diverse Milton and Celebrate Milton.
“There’s a history of constructive dialogue to draw on. We don’t feel like we’re inventing the wheel,’’ he said.
There’s also a history of racially charged controversies.
In 2004, Northeastern University singled out Milton in a study of racial profiling of minority drivers. In 1985, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination charged eight Milton real estate companies with racial discrimination.
And more recently the ongoing debate over how to finish the state’s Neponset River bike path took on racial overtones when some expressed concerns about connecting the town to the more urban, and racially diverse, Mattapan.
O’Malley said the issues weren’t a factor in choosing to do the race program in Milton, although they will make for lively discussion. And she said she’s seen from personal experience that the racial climate in town has improved.
“I am Asian, and growing up in Milton, I was one of the few minorities in town at that time,’’ she said. “There was discrimination when I was growing up. I feel Milton has made great strides, but I think we can always do more.’’
As a mother of a 2-year-old daughter who is both Irish and Chinese, O’Malley said, she has a personal stake in working on the race issue. “We don’t think we can change the world overnight, but if we can keep the conversations going, that’s our goal,’’ she said.
The Rev. Parisa Day Parsa, minister at Milton’s First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, is helping with the Race and Place program, which is cosponsored by the town, the UMass program, the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston, Direct Energy, and the Milton Interfaith Clergy Association.
Parsa, a native of Iran who is married to a Chilean, said Milton has reached “the tipping point’’ in its population diversity and needs to talk about it openly.
“We’ll see an increase in problems if we don’t have a conversation,’’ she said. “Milton is not unique in this. It’s always better to have open conversation, so people can have safe places to ask questions.’’
The group is hoping to draw at least 50 people to the forums; about 30 had signed up as of early last week. More information is available at http://sites.google.com/site/raceandplacedialoguemilton/
Johanna Seltz can be reached at email@example.com.