Activists hold court at civic summit

Many were from Dorchester. But they were also from Back Bay, Roslindale, Brighton and Mattapan. Most of the 450 attendees, many of them leaders in their communities, stayed at the unprecedented civic summit through the drizzly Saturday afternoon, trading business cards with each other and taking in workshops on fundraising, zoning, communication and voter education.

"It's a remarkable gathering of people," said Joyce Linehan, a Dorchester resident who works with First Night, the city's New Year's celebration. "The biggest problem with community organizing is we tend to work in silos."

"We think this is the first step, but we also recognize we don't want that energy to dissipate," City Council President Maureen Feeney, who organized the summit, told the Reporter this week. Feeney, along with fellow event co-chair James Rooney, who heads the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority and helps operate the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, put together the summit after the dismal turnout at citywide elections last fall.

"It became clear there was a need for that and this was the vehicle for that to happen," said Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a watchdog group.

For a first time event, "I see it only building," said Richard O'Mara, chairman of the Dorchester Park Gala Celebration, who assisted in leading a workshop on fundraising, helpfully telling the dozens of workshop attendees that, "'No' is just a long way of saying 'yes.'"

"I think it's good for people to come and have a better understanding of what they have to do," he said afterwards.

Summit participants, punching in priorities through an interactive "virtual town meeting" set-up, called for creating an after-school mentoring and tutoring program to engage retirees and college students, establish a city-wide litter and anti-graffiti campaign and expand the city program for summer employment among at-risk youth.

Participants signed up to take part in "action teams," which will meet June 3 at the convention center at 6 p.m. "We have a lot of work to do," Feeney said, adding that an advisory committee will also go over the results of the summit.

The 332 afternoon participants, who were polled through high-tech keypads at tables of groups of four to ten people, were shown to be mostly from Feeney's district (20 percent), overwhelmingly white (73 percent), mostly female (55 percent) and between the ages of 45 to 64 (55 percent). Thirty-nine percent identified themselves as taking part in civic or neighborhood associations.

"I would like to have seen more diversity that reflects the demographics of Boston," said Ron Bell, head of Gov. Deval Patrick's Office of Civic Engagement, who gave a lunchtime speech to the crowd. "But you have to start somewhere," he added. "We need to continue to have forums such as this to build a relational community. We need to change that reputation as a cold city."

Bell pointed to Patrick establishing a statewide youth council last month, with 28 kids ages 14 to 20 meeting quarterly, as one example. The administration surveyed similar outfits and came up with its own version. "We need to break down some of these barriers," Bell said. "And it'll trickle down to our young people."

Feeney and others say they always anticipated Dorchester, where politics and civic engagement is almost a cottage industry, being the largest segment to attend, since it is one of the largest sections of the city and the most organized.

"It was a pretty good representation," Feeney said, noting the summit came on the same weekend when there were potential conflicts aplenty, including baseball and first communions. "We would always like to see everybody there."

Lawrence DiCara, a former city councillor who led a workshop on managing community development, said all of the city's neighborhoods were represented at the summit, more than just the "usual experts."

"That's a very good thing," DiCara said.

The crowd also heard from Mayor Thomas Menino, who briefly stopped by to give remarks, despite his skepticism of the event when Feeney first announced it earlier this year.

The event was sponsored by the State Street Corporation, Bank of America, the Boston Foundation, the Boston Globe, John Hancock, National Grid, Northeastern University, Verizon, and Mt. Washington Bank, among others.