The Power of Words to Preserve Diversity


That’s the number of languages spoken at Somerville High School.  Members of Groundwork Somerville’s volunteer community group, the URBAN FAMILY OUTREACH SQUAD, have been taking actions to undo systemic racism, improve the health within our communities of color and preserve Somerville’s diversity.  Systemic racism describes any kind of system of inequity based on race.

One valuable lesson we learned this year is that something as simple as how you say something has a huge effect on how people think.  Here’s an example of the same story told 3 different ways in different local publications:

1 “Rats Bite Infant” –– An infant left sleeping in his crib was bitten repeatedly by rats while his16-year-old mother went to cash her welfare check. A neighbor responded to the cries of the infant and brought the child to Central Hospital where he was treated and released in his mother’s custody. The mother, Angie Burns of the South End, explained softly, “I was only gone five minutes. I left the door open so my neighbor would hear him if he woke up. I never thought this would happen in the daylight.”

2 “Rat Bites Infant: Landlord, Tenants Dispute Blame” –– An eight-month old South End boy was treated and released from Central Hospital yesterday after being bitten by rats while he was sleeping in his crib. Tenants said that repeated requests for extermination had been ignored by the landlord, Henry Brown. Brown claimed that the problem lay with tenants’ improper disposal of garbage. “I spend half my time cleaning up after them. They throw garbage out the window into the back alley and their kids steal the garbage can covers for sliding in the snow.

3 “Rat Bites Reveal  ‘Racial Redlining’ in City’s Public Health Services” –– When rats repeatedly bit eight-month old Michael Burns while he was napping yesterday, the incident shed new light on the city’s failure to protect the public health in neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of people of color. Pauline Johnson, Chairperson of Active Residents in the South End (ARISE), a community group which has complained for months about the rat epidemic plaguing inner-city neighborhoods, charged the city with “racial redlining” in its delivery of public health services.  She pointed to drastic cuts in rat control and housing inspections in the South End, compared to other parts of the city, leading to a five-fold increase in rat bites in the South End. A Public Health Department spokesperson acknowledged that federal and state cutbacks have left the agency short-staffed, but refuted the charge that services were being delivered unequally.

Each of these articles tells the same story in vastly different ways. What was your reaction after reading the first story? How about the third? After reading the first article your reaction might be to blame the mother, but if you read the third article first you might want to start by pressuring city officials to focus health improvement efforts in this neighborhood.  Can you see the power of words? One story promotes a stereotype and criminalizes the mother. Another broadens the perspective and puts the focus on an institutional challenge that is perpetuating a problem of systemic racism.  Oh and one other question – after reading the first article, what race did you imagine the mother is?  The article doesn’t say but subtle nuances and word choice tend to imply a stereotypical image that the Urban Family Outreach Squad is fighting to prevent.  Newt Gingrich recently stereotyped African Americans as wanting Food Stamps instead of paychecks when the reality is that the majority of people who receive SNAP benefits are White Americans.  This goes to show that these stereotypes are not only inaccurate but will entrench themselves within people’s minds if we don’t address them.

So far this year we’ve learned that, although it might be uncomfortable to talk about racial inequity and racism, it is necessary to be explicit about this topic if we want to improve on it.  Urban Family Outreach has been intentional about addressing systemic racism and removing barriers that are preventing communities of color from getting involved in the processes that are having major effects within our neighborhoods and city.  We have been getting Clarendon Hill Housing residents involved in the redevelopment of North Street Park.  Clarendon Hill Housing has a high density of people of color and many of the residents that we engaged had never been a part of or even aware of the public meetings and plans for the redevelopment of this heavily used park right outside their door.  This was the result of practices and policies that we did not even realize were inequitable against communities of color, but which we are now working with partners in the City and other organizations to rectify.

Though the North Street Park development has been delayed until 2013, Urban Family Outreach is planning activities to maintain momentum and keep the community engaged in this process.  In coordination with the City of Somerville, we hope to make small, community-directed improvements until the park can be redeveloped. Things that we as a volunteer community group can take on include repainting, new nets for the basketball goals, chess sets, and murals drawn by the community.  We have asked organizations, schools, residents, businesses, and the City of Somerville to assist us with acquiring materials needed to complete these projects and have been well received by all.  We will continue to identify and engage communities of color here in Somerville to be involved in the changes that are affecting their environment and health, like MBTA fare increases and service cuts, and parks where people want active options for their children.

Our ultimate goal is to improve outreach practices and policies so that the full spectrum of Somerville’s diversity is represented in all public processes. We are open and honest in our discussion of these challenges and solutions. The Urban Family Outreach Squad is constantly growing and has a mission to decrease the health gap within communities of color. Anybody of any race, of any gender, of any age, is encouraged to join. Our next meeting is on March 8, 4:30pm at 21 Properzi Way, Somerville. We hope to see you there. Please call 617-628-9988 or email for more information.