Religion

How Reverend Mariama White-Hammond Is Bridging Boston’s Racial Divide

She’s hoping an environmental crisis can bring us all together.
Reverend Mariama White-Hammond

Photograph by Adam Detour

On an unseasonably warm day in late April, more than 150 people descended into the basement of the Arlington Street Church for a teach-in on “How to Be a White Ally for Climate Justice.” Seated in folding chairs, they were greeted by one of the marquee speakers from a rally demanding action on climate change earlier that day: the Reverend Mariama White-Hammond. Wearing a clerical collar, with a sweeping beige shawl draped over her shoulders, she asked, “How many of you have ever heard this statement: ‘I really just wish people of color cared more about climate and the environment’?” Many in the crowd of mostly older, mostly white women nodded their heads.

At the protest, which marked Donald Trump’s 100th day in office, she had addressed the crowd in a booming voice, but now her tone has softened. In fact, she tells her listeners in the church basement, a Yale/George Mason survey found that African Americans and Latinos actually showed the most concern about climate change. “Our notion that people of color don’t care about climate change isn’t true,” she says. It’s a diplomatic way of telling her audience: We’re not as far apart as you think—and it’s time for you to listen up.

For the past four years White-Hammond has worked pulpits and podiums across the city to bridge Boston’s racial divide, with a powerful—if somewhat blunt—unifying message: If the environment goes to hell, we’re all screwed, so we better start working together. If it’s a familiar idea, White-Hammond’s goal adds a novel, local twist: By reaching out to Boston’s white liberals about environmentalism—an issue that’s comfortable, uncontroversial, and often overwhelmingly pale—she hopes she can also get them to become more fervent advocates for racial justice. “Maybe I can push people with a little bit of white guilt,” she tells me later, only half joking. But if she can build such a coalition, she says, she’ll have a machine for change that will make everyone’s life a little better. And who knows? That could be a step toward Bostonians coming together on more-controversial issues such as sentencing reform and immigrant rights.

It’s an ambitious idea, but White-Hammond is uniquely positioned to make the case. The daughter of black church royalty, she was raised with a foot in both the African-American and white communities of Boston. Her father, the Reverend Ray Hammond, is a founder of the Ten Point Coalition against youth gang violence, a trustee of the Yawkey Foundation, and the former chair of the Boston Foundation, one of New England’s largest philanthropies, with more than $1 billion in assets. Her mother, the Reverend Gloria White-Hammond, is a trustee at Tufts and a leader in the movement to save Darfur. Mariama, who attended the Winsor School in Boston—an elite, private, and then almost entirely white all-girls school—knew Mayor Marty Walsh back when he was a state representative and has since worked on his Neighborhood Innovation District Committee; her husband, Rahn Dorsey, is the mayor’s education chief. She was a ward coordinator for Deval Patrick, has been active in Attorney General Maura Healey’s racial equity advisory council, and has been an outspoken advocate for issues ranging from making Boston a safe haven for refugees to the fight for a $15 minimum wage. Recently, she served as master of ceremonies for the Boston Women’s March, which brought 175,000 activists to the Common to protest Trump’s inauguration—possibly the largest protest the city has ever seen. She is, to say the least, no stranger to the corridors of Boston power. “Boston is a tribal city; it’s all about social circles,” says publicist Colette Phillips, who works on diversity issues in the business community. “Mariama is an example of why networking is important. She is able to leverage the tremendous network of her family, as well as her own network that crosses socioeconomic lines.”

Still, for a city where racism is often thought of more as a crime of omission than an act of expression, or dismissed as the purview of a few bad apples, the case Hammond is making can raise uncomfortable questions about why we’re as divided as we are. After all, can a green thumb really heal some of Boston’s oldest and deepest wounds?

 

Strange as this may sound, White-Hammond’s whole idea started with a garden. It was 2005, and for the past four years she’d been running Project HIP-HOP, a youth organization in Roxbury’s Dudley Square that used art and music to empower young people of color and provided a safe space in a sometimes-violent neighborhood. But it was draining, too. In one year, five of her students were shot, two fatally.

First, she started obsessing over an orchid from Ikea, then growing herbs on her porch, then vegetables in a community garden. “I was facing so much death, these things that were producing life became really important to me,” she says. It was the beginning, she now realizes, of an environmental awakening that connected the natural world to the issues she was taking on in Roxbury. “I feel like God intended us to be connected to the animals, connected to the plants,” she says. “Some of this violence and anxiety and depression we’re experiencing are because we are not living the right way.”

She inherited that spiritual outlook on the world from her parents, who started their careers as doctors. When White-Hammond was young, though, they founded a school with members of their church to teach children pride in their African-American heritage. It was part of an upbringing that exposed her to an exceptional range of people. Rosa Parks met her and her classmates when Hammond was four. Later, Neil deGrasse Tyson would babysit. When the family moved to the tough neighborhood of Grove Hall, between Roxbury and Dorchester, the local kids called them the Cosbys. The Reverend Arrington Chambliss remembers her having an electric personality at age 15, and to most people around her, it was clear that White-Hammond was going to do something that made use of her ability to grab the spotlight. “She had a presence that just commanded attention,” Chambliss says. “There was a confidence that came from growing up in a family that has taught you that you can do anything you want to do.” And she did. Attending college at Stanford, she became known as an artist and singer, active in an a cappella group on campus. “There is a diva in me,” White-Hammond says.

Like her parents, she wanted to leave a mark on her community, so she started staging guerilla-theater protests on buses to challenge fare increases and discrimination on the MBTA, and organizing flash mobs in Copley Square to draw attention to issues of sexual harassment. “There is no ‘off’ button on Mariama,” says former director of the T Riders Union Khalida Smalls, who had an office in the same building in Dudley Square. “She is bold and full of energy and passionate about so many issues.”

Slowly, though, White-Hammond started to see pollution and the environment overlapping with the causes she cared about. In 2009, as part of a prestigious Barr Foundation fellowship, she took a four-week trip to Brazil and was inspired by how connected the activism she saw was. “Social politics in Brazil is much more intersectional,” she says. “The landless people’s movement sees itself as connected to the street children’s movement, who see themselves connected to the economic justice movement. I really felt like, ‘Okay, we need a consciousness shift in this country.’” That led her to wonder if there might be a different way to forge connections in radically segregated Boston.

Despite its history of leading abolitionism, Boston has a long history of racial and economic inequality. A report by the Brookings Institution last year, for instance, found that Boston has the highest level of economic inequality in the country, with the top 5 percent of households earning 18 times what the bottom 20 percent makes. That disparity plays out clearly along ethnic lines, with whites in Boston having a median wealth of almost $250,000 while wealth among blacks and some Latino groups is effectively zero, according to another report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. It plays out along environmental lines as well, with one study by Northeastern finding that communities of color in Massachusetts averaged 7.5 times as many hazardous waste sites and 10 times as many pounds of toxic chemical exposure per square mile as white communities. That pollution has taken its toll on health, with black and Hispanic children in Boston seeing rates of hospitalization for asthma between four and six times those of whites.

White-Hammond decided to take action. When she enrolled in BU’s School of Theology in 2014, she started looking into what African-American churches were doing about environmental justice. She didn’t find much, so she decided to take up the fight herself, joining her parents’ current church in Jamaica Plain as an ecological justice minister. There she began speaking out on environmental issues. On a national level, she helped push the AME Church to adopt a resolution on climate change, the first historically black denomination to do so.

Then, last summer, a new outlook started to take root.

Local environmentalists were planning a protest of the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline, which Houston-based Spectra Energy hoped to build in order to bring natural gas from fracking fields in Pennsylvania up to Boston. When West Roxbury activists asked for White-Hammond’s help—wanting faith leaders to lend gravitas to the protests—she hesitated. Growing up nearby in Grove Hall, she always looked at the wealthy, white neighborhood as a symbol of power in the city. “I was like, ‘West Roxbury’s got this,’” she says. “My feeling was, ‘If this pipeline was in Roxbury, would you show up for us?’”

A few days later, on her 37th birthday, she was arrested along with 22 other mostly white activists, including Al Gore’s daughter Karenna. They didn’t stop the pipeline, but it gave White-Hammond an idea. She saw an opportunity to rise above Boston’s racial divide and forge a connection across class and neighborhood lines. “A part of it is generational,” she says. “I don’t just have relationships with people in other communities that are transactional—these are my friends. I am very proud of who I am as a black person, but we are not going to win without really strong partnerships and alliances.”

 

Recently, White-Hammond’s environmental expertise has made her the go-to resource for other community groups. When the Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action (MAICCA), a faith-based group founded by Jewish and Unitarian activists in Wellesley, wanted to expand their work on climate change issues, they reached out to her for guidance. She invited one of their leaders, Amy Benjamin, to her kitchen to talk while she canned tomatoes from her garden.

White-Hammond’s influence changed the direction of the Wellesley group, Benjamin says: “The environmental movement has been too willing to throw low-income communities and equity issues under the bus when push comes to shove. When something has to come off the table, that’s the chip they hand back.” As a result, Benjamin says, when the group lobbied at the State House on climate issues last fall, it pushed for solar power for low-income communities in order to cut pollution, and lobbied for jobs for working-class residents as part of the push to close coal plants and create wind farms in poor communities such as New Bedford. In January, state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and state Representatives Russell Holmes and Michelle DuBois introduced legislation to provide rate credits from solar power to low-income communities, which is currently being considered in committee.

White-Hammond is increasingly focusing on lobbying, meeting with legislators, testifying at the State House, and trying to get her issues before the traditional power players. But she wants to bring her community in with her, too. “A lot of my work in the next year is trying to engage other people of color in the climate movement,” she tells me. She also wants to leverage this growing network to push for initiatives that will help low-income communities not just with issues of pollution, but also jobs and finances. Initiatives like bringing more green energy manufacturing to cities such as New Bedford would offer much-needed injections of capital, she says. But to make this all happen, to exert effective pressure on lawmakers, she knows she also needs the support of the people whom she was talking to at the climate-justice teach-in.

Back inside the Arlington Street Church basement, White-Hammond and activist Cathy Heller, who is white, led the audience through a series of exercises about forming diverse relationships. In the first, which they jokingly referred to as “social justice speed dating,” participants talked to a series of partners about their own cultural background, whose shoulders they stood on, what their own connection was to climate change work, and how they connected with other people. The mood in the room quickly became emotional, as one participant said, “There is this idea that we all have to do this alone. Thinking about the shoulder I stand on almost made me cry.” Another said, “It makes me realize that, as white people, we are actually quite different.”

Heller then talked about what she calls the “four I’s” of racism—interpersonal, institutional, ideological, and internalized—before introducing a fifth I, intersectionality. “Even if they are a white person, a person’s age, race, gender, and sexual orientation all intersect with one another,” Heller said. “That’s one of the core things we are talking about: How does our work for environmental justice intersect with our racial identity, age, et cetera?”

By itself, the workshop is a small gesture, but it points to a larger need that White-Hammond has often referred to: the need for both white and black activists to get to know one another first if they are going to work together on intersecting issues. Rather than just carrying signs together, what liberals really need to do is sit down and talk. “I think personally people want to do things differently, but then as human beings we get into our spaces, and we do what we usually do,” she says. “Part of my role is to hold people’s feet to the fire to have those tough conversations that go beyond transactional and become transformational.”

As an important next step, the organizers of the climate mobilization, which represent a cross-cultural section of the movement, have agreed to meet quarterly to start having those conversations. Likewise, the religious activists are talking about pairing congregations in white suburbs with black and Latino churches in the city to share their environmental concerns. These may be small gains, but they are ones that White-Hammond sees as having the possibility to lead to others. “People are actually hungry for spiritual homes that reflect what they are feeling in this moment,” she says. “I believe that white people are feeling the same thing that I’m feeling.”




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