Before I arrived in Boston, one of my program directors extolled my group to “take note of the things that we see and the things that we do not see”. As a rising college sophomore coming to a city of over 30 colleges, I expected to see college paraphernalia all over the place. After living in Durham for a year and living in the area surrounding LSU for three years, I am used to seeing the giant Duke “D” every time I walk into a restaurant or dorm room, just as I am used to seeing the phrase “Geaux Tigers” on literally everything that one could possibly conceive of. So I expected nothing different from a city with as many colleges as Boston. When one also takes into account the fact that Boston is right across the river from Cambridge, Massachusetts, the only logical expectation is to see plenty of shirts, hats, and everything in between from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The idea that I would be constantly surrounded by students from these elite institutions was something I took for granted and something I really gave little thought to as I arrived in Boston. And yet on my first day here, college paraphernalia played an enormous role in orienting me to the city where I would be spending my summer.
As I walked out of my new dorm to step onto Boston’s subway system, commonly referred to as “The T”, I was greeted by an older African-American man sitting on the ground with a cup of change asking if I could spare a dollar. The idea of poor people asking me for change was nothing new to me, growing up, my parents took me to New Orleans fairly often so I was used to seeing people who were down on their luck asking for change. What I was not prepared for was the words on the man’s hooded sweatshirt, which read “Harvard Law School”. It was such an oxymoron that really reflected the sort of paradoxical situation that the city of Boston was and is facing today. In this bastion of progressivism and liberalism that contains institutions that lead the world in theories of change, people are still homeless, people still go hungry, and people still live without their basic human needs being met. For that gentleman asking for change, he could honestly care less if his sweater said, “Harvard” or if it said “LSU” what mattered was that sparsely filled cup of change that he was relying on filling so that he could take care of himself.
According to a 2014 study, 21.6% of Boston’s population lives in poverty. When you look solely at African-Americans, that number goes up to 23% and when you look at the Latino community that number increases to 34.8%. Massachusetts has an incredibly innovative healthcare system, they offer fuel assistance, job training programs, and a very large social safety net in comparison to other states. But despite all of the reforms and initiatives that have been put in place, Boston is still facing severe effects of urban decay and that is why classmates and I have been sent here to assist in a mission that will still exist long after we have left the city. I knew all of this before I arrived and I went to great lengths to come in with a real sense of what the city was facing. But despite how stunning these numbers were and despite all the background knowledge that I gained in preparation for the program, seeing that man on my first day here allowed me to put a face to my mission and give me a constant reminder of exactly the sort of inequality I was trying to address during my time here.