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^ John Barros ; emceeing Roxbury innovation community orum

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It would have been quite the item, had last night’s Forum discussion of the City of Boston’s projected Roxbury Innovation Center drawn a sizeable audience of Roxbury residents looking to get aboard or, at least, to hear more. Certainly the Orchard Gardens School Auditorium was big enough to hold 200 or more. Yet only about 70 people attended , almost all of them part of the 16 presenting teams.

Nonetheless, the project is moving ahead. Mayor Walsh is committed tlo it, his administration invested in its success. We shall see.

John Barros, formerly a Mayor candidate and now Mayor Walsh’s top guy at the Office of Community Development, emceed the Forum, assisted by Dana Whiteside, Deputy Director, and Dr. Dan Willis of G & W Associates in Dorchester. Barros is a convincing salesman for Roxbury innovation : before entering the mayor contest last year he had made a huge name for himself as an instigator of enterprise creation in Roxbury’s Dudley Square. Genially he introduced all 16 presenters and invited audience questions.

Few were asked, at least partly because there were so few residents on hand to ask them.

Very few, maybe none, of the faces familiar to me from constant attendance at Roxbury community meetings were evident in the auditorium crowd.

Yet the presenters showed confidence, some of them excitement, a few of them enthusiasm, a couple of them determination. All of these attributes will be needed.

It all comes down, of course, to money. At one point in the presentation John Barros noted that “there should be no assumption that any of the space in the Innovation Center will be free.”

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^ residents and non-residents coming together ; Future Boston and Workbar presents

One presenter, Dudley Vision Skylab — a team consisting of two determined women and one cheerful guy — noted that “Dudley Square is on the cusp of a renaissance.’ That it is. 500 employees who work at the Boston Public Schools Central Office will be moving into Dudley’s Ferdinand Building fairly soon, bringing with them spending money and an immense change of look and walk to a Square today peopled mostly by commuters passing through the Square’s vast bus station. What’s less clear is whether the spending money those 500 employees bring will attract the much larger sums of money needed to jump start the Innovation Center’s start-ups.

It really does all come down to money, and several speakers at the Forum noted that precious little gelt gets to the pockets of entrepreneurs in communities of color — as Roxbury has long been. It was also suggested, though no one chose to say it, that if entrepreneurial capital is now coming, it’s because so are Caucasian faces. At least two-thirds of the 16 presenters were Caucasian. They represent “the new Roxbury,” which is changing the area’s skin color faster than a runway model changes clothes. “The new Roxbury” has money and has access to a lot more of it. As one of the evening’s presenters of color said, “we in Roxbury can’t even afford to buy our own homes.” True : but the “new Roxbury’ can afford to, and is buying them.

I do not attribute the lack of entrepreneur capital in Roxbury today to racism. but I do attribute the neighborhood’s modest median incomes largely to it ; and the racism of that stretches back so many generations, and encompassing often inferior schools and much neglect by City Hall for decades prior to the past 15 years or so.

That era is over now, in big part because Boston’s communities of color are fully engaged politically, accepted as such in every neighborhood, and hugely integrated onto the City’;s political power structure. Unhappily, it is far easier to accomplish that than to get entrepreneurial money llowing. If the Roxbury Innovation Center does in fact happen, I am betting that “the new Roxbury’ will occupy the most of it. Certainly ;last night’s lack of resident attendees gave me no reason to assume otherwise.

Mel King, now 85 years old and in physical difficulty, attended the Forum but did not speak. i wonder what he, who has devoted most of his life to empowerment of people of color, thought of what he aw and heard…

The discussion continues. Maybe in the next phase the current Roxbury community will feel hopeful about the project, decide that it can have a solid share of its space, and join the talk.

— Mike Freedberg for Roxbury Here

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