Mel King: Practical Visionary

On Wednesday October 10, 2012, Mel King shared his wisdom with a group of 100+ students, faculty, alumni, and friends at the Colloquium of the Tufts Department of Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP). On this special evening, Mel — one of our great practical visionaries — reflected on a lifetime of building community power and working for social and racial justice. He responded to questions from several UEP folks (Fran Smith, Tracy Brown, Lenz Bayas, and me) about public education, the role of universities and policy and planning professionals, community development, and electoral politics. Click here for the video of this remarkable session (thanks to videographer Ryan Nichols).

Mel King was born and still resides in Boston’s South End. He has been a teacher and youth worker. He served as a State Representative for 10 years. His historic Boston mayoral campaign in 1983 launched the local and national Rainbow Coalitions. He founded the Community Fellows Program at MIT Dept. of Urban Studies and Planning, where he was Adjunct Professor for 25 years. The Mel King Institute of Community Building was launched in 2009 in honor of the major role he has played the community development movement. Mel is the author of Chain of Change and co-editor (with James Jennings) of From Access to Power: Black Politics In Boston. He continues to direct the South End Technology Center at Tent City.Mel was recently named as the inaugural winner of the Edward J. Blakely Award, presented by the Planners of Color Interest Group of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning for his extraordinary service towards greater social justice in urban planning and development for communities of color.

Mel greatly influenced me as a young person, while a student at MIT. When we were trying to get the university to divest from South Africa, he was the one there encouraging us to stand for what was right and to see that each generation has a mission or calling to better things for the next. When we were protesting the militarization of technology and research, he urged us to think differently about technology: Low Tech is High Tech. Technology that serves human and community needs is high tech, not just the pure processing speed of our computers.

Mel offered many insights. Several that stood out to me are paraphrased below:

  • Self definition is the first step. Don’t let others define you and your community. You have to define yourself first on the road towards social justice and community development.
  • What we are working for is a “new and informed humanity”, not “equal opportunity in a dehumanized society.” (From Vincent Harding’s book There is a River.)
  • The innovation we need is “technology of the hearth.” Technology comes from the earth. In that word is “art” which is the technology and “ear” which means listening. Really listening means a willingness to change. When you listen in this way to someone else, you affirm their humanity.
  • Our work is like “pulling the pig’s tail.” If you pull it, it can straighten out, but if we let go, it goes back. The victories that were won in decades past need to continue to be worked on, as there are forces that are pushing the other way.
  • We need to treat every child as if they were our child. In the Boston debates over school segregation and student assignment, this is the attitude that is needed.
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