City-led workshops guiding One Boston Resilience project

Josiane Martinez listens to Degupea Grupee, a college student from Dorchester duringa listening session held last Sat., Sept. 28 at the Codman Square branch of the Boston Public Library. Yukun Zhang photo

Between the walls of Codman Square Library’s community room, the 15 or so people formed a circle and opened up about their experiences with trauma and resilience. The circle was one of four activities in last Saturday’s community listening session for the One Boston Resilience Project, a city initiative aimed at creating a commemorative artwork honoring the resilience of the city of Boston and its residents.

The opening-up circle, a survey, a Scrabble-like game for people to add their keywords about resilience, and stories and thoughts shared in writing will all go into the planning process.

A mayoral-appointed Memorial Advisory Committee is overseeing the planning of the artwork, and Archipelago Strategies Group (ASG), a minority-owned consultancy and the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture is heading up the community listening sessions. This event in Dorchester was the fourth community where a session took place.

Alec Loftus, a coordinator from ASG, said the memorial project was inspired by the city’s response to the Boston Marathon bombings, but will also take into account those who have been impacted by violence in general.

When Josiane Martinez, CEO of ASG and coordinator of the circle activity, asked who had been somehow traumatized by violence, almost everyone in the circle took one step forward. One by one, they shared their struggles, their coping mechanisms—arts and families and friends—as well as their thoughts on how the city could be more resilient and supportive.

While the organizers of the event asked that the things shared in the circle be kept within the circle, a few participants told their stories to the Reporter afterwards.

Ronald Odom Sr., a retired mail carrier whose son Steven was shot dead on Evans Street at age 13 in 2007, talked about how he is only now able to verbalize his pain and sorrow after years of bottling them up.

“I didn’t have the words,” he said. “I just felt angry, and I didn’t want to talk about it. Every time I heard about another person’s life being taken… it would just make me clam up more because I know that another family will go through what I’m going through now.” He added that he didn’t participate in in things like healing sessions, but noted, “To be in a place like this, knowing that I’m going to have to say something, is my resilience.”

Stephanie Shapiro Berkson, who works with the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, hopes the memorial will commemorate both the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and all the young people killed by violence whose families didn’t receive the same amount of attention and support.

“If this is going to be a memorial that brings those two things together and truly makes it One Boston, that’ll be a beautiful thing,” Berkson said.
Degupea Grupee, now in his final year studying software engineering at Roxbury Community College, expresses his thoughts through rap.

“Do you want to go to college to get a good education/Or stop being a bad influence/Or one day get arrested by the police/And go to prison and lose all your freedom and rights…”

He wrote these lines about choosing one’s life paths in his sophomore year. Grupee suggested that what people shared in the circle could have highly positive effects, saying, “We need to change the world, and one thing we can do is to stop the violence.”

Added Alexis R. Smith, who works for Project R.I.G.H.T, a Grove Hall neighborhood organization: “What’s different about this session is that it’s people who live in the community are talking, and saying what we need together for all age groups.” In the circle, she said, people should not only talk but also commit to action. “I felt I had more input, I was heard, and I felt hopeful that things are going to get done,” she noted.

Christian White, founder of The One Day At A Time Dad in Roxbury, arrived after the circle session, but he wrote about his personal experiences and the meaning of resilience.

He wrote that he had been on both ends of violence, and he now advocates for mental health issues, building self-worth and addressing children’s needs.

“Growing up, resiliency just meant surviving to the next moment,” he said. “It was primal…just being resilient seeing a friend killed, being shot, dealing with the police, dealing with the court systems…whereas now I begin to understand it in a broader perspective, as resiliency crosses many different worlds.”

ASG’s Martinez, having coordinated all four sessions so far, said people’s honesty and willingness to share were very powerful. “We have been able to engage people in different corners of the city, and they have come forward to share the feelings from their hearts. This is something that is very pure, and we want to keep it that way…Looking forward to the research after we finish!”

Four more community listening sessions are scheduled this month in the Back Bay, Mattapan, Roxbury and West Roxbury. People who can’t participate in the sessions can also take the city’s online survey to share their thoughts about the memorial project.