Skip to content

Monthly Archives: March 2016


High School Quiz Show Dover Sherborn vs. Lexington YouTube

Image via High School Quiz Show / YouTube

March 29, 2106


Structural racism is the problem … now what’s the solution?

WGBH’s “High School Quiz Show” is great. So great that adults like me watch it on purpose regularly. And that’s why I’ve noticed something problematic about the show over the past few years.

There are very few Black (or Latino) contestants. Which is really weird. Because there are lots of Black students in Boston. And in a number of other Massachusetts cities as well.

Take a look at High School Quiz Show’s Facebook photos, and Instagram page, and YouTube page. Look for Black students over the seasons that WGBH has documented. Those who you see mainly appear during the program’s annual Super Sunday—where teams from 120 high schools try out for the next season. But the teams with Black students on them generally don’t make the cut for the show.

Why? Structural racism. And how does structural racism determine who shows up on “High School Quiz Show” every year? Because structural racism leads to educational inequality. Let’s take a look in broad strokes.

People with access to good jobs, housing, schools, and social supports have similar outcomes intellectually. But Black families nationwide, and Boston is absolutely no exception to this, continue to struggle more than their white counterparts economically and politically.

Without rehearsing the entire history of racism in America, Black families since World War I did not benefit from the major federal social programs that enabled huge numbers of white families to move up from the working class to the middle class … and beyond. Especially Federal Housing Authority loans that were targeted to new suburban developments that were kept lily white by use of racially restrictive covenants—which said that properties could only be sold to white people. Keeping Black families out of most white neighborhoods, towns and cities into the 1960s.

Suburban towns also passed zoning that stopped the building of multi-family dwellings—that is, apartment buildings—and tried to minimize housing construction of any kind in the richest towns. Making them accessible only to those who could afford to live there, even as major victories by the Civil Rights Movement finally made it possible for Black workers to move into better jobs across all economic sectors and for more Black families to start to move into the middle class.

Today, mainly white suburban realtors, lenders and insurers continue to discriminate against Black renters and homebuyers. With the result that quite a few towns and cities outside of Boston remain almost entirely white. And quite wealthy.

With many large expensive homes, these wealthy—and some middle class—suburban towns also have an impressively robust property tax base from which to fund excellent public schools. And wealthy parents kick in extra money to provide world class facilities for those schools—amenities that are completely absent from urban public schools. Plus they are able to send their kids to special after-school training programs and summer camps. Giving their children opportunities to excel academically that most urban kids simply do not have.

Add to those points the fact that since the 1960s, top students from East Asia and South Asia have been attending Boston universities in significant numbers, finding jobs in the professions here, and making enough money to move to the suburbs opened up to people of color with money by the Civil Rights Movement. Which remain off-limits to the vast majority of Black families that have been kept in redlined urban neighborhoods (even after suburbanites killed rent control), sold subprime mortgages on terrible terms for the houses they can buy there, and are still facing vicious discrimination in the job market. Ensuring they don’t make decent money or build capital as white families have been able to do for decades. And keeping them out of expensive white suburbs.

Forty years later, that’s how you get your typical “High School Quiz Show” team. From elite public and private suburban high schools in towns like Sudbury, Wellesley, Sharon, and Andover. Made up almost entirely of white and Asian students.

Regarding potential remedies for this particular manifestation of structural racism, there aren’t any easy ones. One suggestion, though. The “High School Quiz Show” FAQ currently says: “It is strongly recommended that teams include both male and female students.” Maybe amend that to conclude: “… and be as racially diverse as possible”? That would be a good start.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.



Image by Kent Buckley 

March 25, 2016


General Electric’s Boston charm offensive presents dilemma for Boston nonprofits, others

General Electric is back on top of the Boston news cycle again. CEO Jeffrey Immelt made the rounds of pressers in person this week, starting with the announcement of a new 2.5 acre GE headquarters site—to be purchased from Procter & Gamble and carved out of their 44 acre Gillette campus. Right on the Fort Point Channel across from South Station and the main Boston post office. After refurbishing two former NECCO buildings on the site and erecting a new third building in the current parking lot, the company expects to spend $80-100 million on the complex.

However, the plot of the GE Boston Deal has thickened once again. It turns out that part of the promised $145 million in tax breaks and direct aid to the company from Boston and Massachusetts will only be possible because the Boston Redevelopment Authority plans to purchase the NECCO buildings and lease them back to GE. Neat trick for a much-hated neighborhood-destroying planning agency that only just got a six-year lease on life from the Boston City Council on Tuesday. Over the protests of the three councilors with any spine on the issue: Tito Jackson, Ayanna Pressley and Josh Zakim. No word yet about why Boston needs to spend an additional $100 million to repair the Old Northern Avenue Bridge at GE’s behest now that the multinational will be sited right near two perfectly functional bridges further up the channel. Or why the state has to throw in another $25 million to make the area around the new headquarters plot more pretty. But Mayor Marty Walsh and Gov. Charlie Baker will no doubt be able to explain that to us in the near future. Or perhaps not.

On Thursday, Immelt gave a speech to the Boston College Chief Executives Club at the Boston Harbor Hotel. Which raised more questions than it answered. Some of his more noteworthy offerings follow:

  • “This move for GE is all about the next 40 years. What do we want the company to look like, how do we want the company to be challenged?” [Reuters] So does that mean that GE’s HQ will be staying in Boston for at least 40 years? Probably best not to hold your breath on that one.
  • “And we think by the time it’s all said and done there should be, you know, let’s say 4,000 jobs around the ecosystem in Boston.” [WCVB video] OK, so we know that 800 jobs that will be sited in the new headquarters will be almost entirely white collar and many jobs will simply be transplanted from GE’s current headquarters in Fairfield, Conn. So what are the other 3,200 jobs that will be conjured into existence by the company’s presence? To the extent that any new jobs are being created at all, since Immelt is careful not to provide any specifics or make any explicit promises. But let’s think: cleaners, counter staff, delivery people, baristas, clowns, and office temps generally make lousy money and get no benefits. Bartenders, servers, dealers, muscle, and high-class sex workers do rather better financially. But again no benefits. And what with their proposed helipad, many of the GE execs probably aren’t going to stick around at night anyway. So it’s not clear that there are going to be many decent jobs created in this apocryphal “ecosystem” Immelt keeps mentioning. After all, this is a corporation that has destroyed tens of thousands of good working class jobs in Massachusetts in the last few decades. But fingers crossed, one supposes.
  • “More recently we’ve worked on community health and even more recently we’ve focused on employability. We like to do things where it’s more than money. You’ll have hundreds of GE people that are mentoring in schools …” [BBJ] Yeeeeeah … General Electric absolutely does not like to do things where it’s “more than money.” They like to make money. And more money. And screw anyone that stands in their way. Lovely attitude to instill in school kids, right? Ask Connecticut how everything worked out down there to get a good idea of Boston’s future with this deal.

Still, this brings up an interesting discussion. Even before the impressive walkout of Boston Public School students a couple of weeks back, GE must have been perfectly well aware that Massholes across the political spectrum are furious about the millions in free public money being shoveled into their coffers. And they’re also well aware that Boston, where they are just setting up shop, is a city that rose up to smash the deal for the Boston 2024 Olympics—a very similar boondoggle—last year.

So we can be sure that Immelt and his crew are going to start spreading money around to local community nonprofits. Especially social justice organizations that are likely to spearhead the fightback against the GE Boston Deal.

Seems like they haven’t been doing much philanthropic giving in the Boston area in recent years either. Other than money to universities like MIT that are going to produce researchers and upper management for them. Looking at the 2013-2014 annual report of United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, GE is listed as giving in the $500,000 – $749,999 category in a region that covers eastern Mass and southern New Hampshire. Yet GE didn’t make the Boston Business Journal list of corporations that donated more than $100,000 to Boston charities for either 2013 or 2014. Meaning Boston wasn’t a place they were trying to buy friends until it lately became necessary.

Given that GE will certainly increase its local donations, that presents a moral dilemma to Boston area nonprofits: Will they take this tainted money? Will they accept funds from a multinational corporation that is quite literally part of the reason that we have such an unequal society with so much poverty and immiseration? Money that many organizations must certainly need badly in these difficult times, but that will merely be a fraction of the PR line for a known corporate criminal with a $117 billion operating budget this year. Are they willing to sell themselves so cheaply?

Moreover, are Boston-area residents willing to continue to work with nonprofits that would be willing to take money from GE?

One way to find out is to shine the light of public attention on the matter and see what transpires. So if you hear about a Boston area nonprofit that knowingly took money from GE—directly, or through a front group—drop me a line at If your info checks out, I’ll add the organization to a public list. Let’s call it a Naughty List. And then we’ll see how much its community continues to support it. By the same token, if you know about an area nonprofit that did not take money GE offered them, definitely contact me and I’ll put it on a Nice List.

Now that I think about it, I can add politicians to the Naughty List and the Nice List, too. And business leaders. And academics. And journalists. I tell you, it’ll be like Christmas in July. Just not for the collaborators.

Welcome to Boston, GE.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.



Photos by Chris Faraone

March 18, 2016


Last week, the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board—appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2015 to run the transit authority—voted to hike fares by 9.3 percent. Claiming the move is absolutely necessary to stop the T’s perpetual budget crisis from worsening. Which is just pathetic. Because if ever there was a manufactured crisis, our state government’s refusal to properly fund its multiple mass transit systems is a prime example.

In 2000, the Commonwealth reversed its previous “backward funding” policy of simply paying any MBTA costs that fares didn’t cover at the end of each fiscal year. The move to so-called “forward funding” has been a disaster for mass transit in the Bay State ever since. The goal was to make the MBTA function like a for-profit company—which would somehow do more with a restricted budget allotted at the start of each fiscal year—and less like the indispensable public service that it is. The funding policy was later adapted for the other 15 regional transit agencies statewide. But in practice, as is often the case with such privatization moves, it has forced them all to struggle for survival. Leading to endless deficits anddoubling MBTA fares since its introduction.

There is a straightforward solution to this non-crisis. The state must go back to fully supporting the MBTA budget, must increase the mass transit budget statewide, and must raise taxes on the rich and corporations to cover any conceivable budget shortfalls for such an important public good.

But that simple, just and obvious solution isn’t “realistic” to neoliberal legislators, pundits and advocates that prefer to squirrel around the edges of the problem in ways that let the rich and corporations that they serve off the hook. While allowing critical mass transit systems to continue to deteriorate. And I count all five members of the Control Board among the “realists”—including union leader Brian Lang,whose yes vote on the fare hike was especially disappointing. Although he did successfully push some amendments that softened the blow for low-income riders.

The problem is not the lack of solid policy solutions. The problem facing MBTA riders in the Boston area and riders across the other regional transit agencies statewide is a lack of a big enough popular movement to push through such solutions. And therefore a lack of political power.

This is not to say there aren’t transit advocacy groups. There are over a dozen area organizations with solid track records in transit policy. Most are members of the Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA) coalition—which has made good progress toward the broad goal of properly funding public transit statewide through the passage of initiatives like the 2013 Transportation Finance Act. But even such gains are constantly under threat, and difficult to defend—let alone build upon—without lots of active public support. As we’ve seen with the state reneging on the portion of the act that “guaranteed” that MBTA fare hikes would never be more than 5 percent every two years going forward. So much for that, right?

What’s missing is basically a larger statewide version of the T Riders Union (TRU)—a project of T4MA member Alternatives for Community and Environment. Many of you will already be familiar with TRU because if there’s a media-savvy protest on transit issues in Boston, they’re probably at the center of it.

The problem is similar to the one I outlined last week when discussing the difficulty labor unions have turning their members out for public protest actions in light of the success of the BPS student walkout. Groups like TRU, and their allies in coalitions like T4MA, can turn out dozens to protest key government meetings as they did for the most recent MBTA Control Board meeting and the series of  public hearings on the fare hikes before that. They can occasionally turn out more people, hundreds, for rallies and marches. But they can’t turn out thousands, and tens of thousands, on transit issues.

Yet that’s what’s needed. If a political movement doesn’t have money like big business, then it needs lots of people protesting to have significant effect on the progress of key public debates.

Numbers like the 2,000-plus BPS students that turned out last week—in the right places at the right times—can change what’s politically “realistic” overnight. Smaller, largely symbolic protests generally cannot do that.

Also, smaller organizations and coalitions have a hard time mustering enough troops to deal with the everexpanding number of issues in a broad policy area like mass transit. For example, MBTA advocates don’t just have the fare hike to deal with. There’s also the late night bus debacle. And the unrelentingattacks on unionized transit workers. And the idea of privatizing more services by handing them off to companies like Uber and Lyft (because handing Commuter Rail service off to corporations has beenworking so very well). And the increasingly savage Green Line Extension fight. And that’s just Greater Boston. Start looking at the crises facing the regional transit agencies, and there are dozens of other issues that need more public attention.

That’s why it would be great to see TRU—and all the transit organizations already on the ground—get stronger. And it would be awesome to see groups like TRU sprouting up all over the state wherever they don’t currently exist. The more grassroots, the better. All linked together more tightly than they are today. In every neighborhood, town, and city served by the MBTA and the regional transit agencies. Because that’s what’s ultimately going to make it possible to win the simple, just solutions that will get mass transit out of hock in Massachusetts, and back on the global cutting edge.

The more people in the streets for transit justice, the better the outcome for Massachusetts. A pretty simple political equation.

Think that over. Then act. Before public transit is just a memory.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.


2016-03-07 14.04.16

Photos by Chris Faraone

March 10, 2016


With their schools facing up to a $50 million deficit next year, over 2,000 Boston Public School students from all over the city marched on the Massachusetts State House and Boston City Hall this week to demand that BPS be properly funded going forward.

Clearly the messaging and targeting of the action owed a lot to BPS parents groups and teachers unions who have become more militant of late as the funding situation has grown worse. Thanks to budget-stealing charter schools being pushed by Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker—and the pair’s shameful recently inked deal to throw upwards of $270 million in public funds and tax breaks at General Electric to move their headquarters to Boston. Resulting in lots of “Million$ for GE, Budget Cuts for Schools” stickers and at least one “Fuck GE” sign being sported by the young activists. Plus at least one other student yelling “One Term Walsh” from a megaphone opposite Boston City Hall during the demo, according to Universal Hub. But no one forced these kids to take to the streets. They know when they’re being screwed. And who’s doing it.

All of which foreshadows the political payback to come. In part from the many BPS student protestors who will be able to vote in the next mayoral election. Leaving Walsh on the defensive at a speech to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau—a business-oriented think tank— the day after the student protest. Trying to explain how the massive giveaway to one of the worst corporate criminals on the planet is a fine idea that will somehow make Boston the first polity that it doesn’t completely screw over.

Which probably explains the Boston Globe subsequently reporting that the mayor was “fuming” about the protest in a piece that went fishing for evidence that the teachers unions were manipulating the students for their own ends. Walsh is running scared. Unfortunately for him, although coming off as rather eager to point the finger at union-led pro-public education coalitions like the Boston Education Justice Alliance (BEJA) and the national Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, the Globe discovered that the students really did organize the big protest themselves—with coalitions like BEJA playing only supporting roles. The Boston Herald, meanwhile, contented itself with straight union bashing.

2016-03-07 14.02.56

What’s unspoken is that the best proof that the unions didn’t have much of a role in the protest is that historically they’ve shown little ability to mobilize significant numbers of students in the Bay State. Typically, union-backed coalitions like BEJA will pull a few dozen to a few hundred people to such protests. Students or non-students, the story is always the same. The people who turn out will be a mix of union and nonprofit staffers—paid advocates, although often not specifically paid to work on a particular campaign and doing so in their spare time—and dedicated activists from the involved communities. That is, the generally small number of people who are motivated enough to take a stand on any given issue. Even one so important as the future of public education.

For really important actions, unions (and allied nonprofits) will do their best to bus in members from around the region. But even then, numbers will often be disappointing because—right-wing conspiracy theories to the contrary—unions don’t control their members. They can pay for transportation to make it easier for members to turn out to political actions from a broad enough geographic area to bulk up their usual numbers, but they have no way of forcing members to participate. Especially when important local and state hearings are often held at inconvenient times for working people and students alike.

If their control over their members is minimal, union control over K-12 students is nonexistent. This is one reason why last month’s BEJA-led protest drew only a couple hundred activists. A portion of whom were students who had been activated by BEJA member-organizations like the Boston-area Youth Organizing Project (BYOP). Yet it is precisely the ability of groups like BYOP to educate young people on important issues like public education funding over years that was really behind Monday’s action. Students, as human actors, are perfectly capable of looking at the available information on a topic like education reform and making their own decisions. But even the best grassroots political organizers can’t predict when or even if their educational work will ever pay off with mass mobilization on their core issues. Plus with every issue having at least two sides, it’s always possible that students will back the charters—and some definitely do.

In this case, and to their credit, lots of Boston students have decided to back the underdogs in the charter school debate—teachers unions, parents groups, and other advocates for a strong public education system. Rather than the extremely well-funded pro-charter groups. Many students heard about the looming cuts to the BPS budget, on the heels of years of similar cuts, from both the news media, their unionized teachers, advocacy coalitions like BEJA, and youth organizations like BYOP. Then they got angry. Then they got active.

So the big props for this student action go to the young people who turned out their classmates for what was—for many of them—their first protest. From Snowden International School students who sent out an initial call on social media last week to other incipient student leaders from Boston Arts Academy, both Boston Latin campuses, Jeremiah Burke High School, Brighton High School and many more, Boston’s best and brightest young people organized a cross-class, multiracial walkout. On a school day. At significant risk of getting disciplined by their pro-charter administration. To demand redress. To demand that their city and state governments fund their right to a decent K-12 education.

Some of the student protestors, including key youth organizers, were connected to the existing pro-public education coalitions that were inside the State House on Monday morning testifying to the Joint Committee on Education to #KeepTheCap on the number of charter schools allowed in Massachusetts. But it was the existential crisis facing BPS students that impelled so many of them to take action on their own behalf. On their own terms. Making it, without a doubt, one of the best grassroots political demonstrations Boston has seen in quite some time. Much like the Market Basket workers movementtwo years ago. And that’s why the students made such a powerful impression, and immediately won over large swaths of the general public over to their cause. Locally and nationally.

Mayor Walsh may be angry that the students were bold enough to call him out on the charter issue—and related issues like the GE Boston Deal. But he has only himself to blame. He can’t have it both ways: sucking up to the rich and powerful, and being a man of the people. He has to choose. Is he for the students of Boston? Or against them? Right now, it’s looking like the latter.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.