Atyia Martin. Photo: City of Boston

By Alicia Zou

Under the leadership of Atyia Martin, Boston, a “city of firsts,” is making strides to address racial inequity, a key challenge city officials see standing in the way of the city’s growth.

Appointed by Mayor Marty J. Walsh in 2015 to build a resilience strategy for Boston, Martin is one of many chief resilience officers in the 100 Resilient Cities initiative supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. Each city develops a strategy to address major shocks and stresses in the face of disaster. Boston plans to focus on social and class divisions to build a more socially cohesive city, says Martin.

For Martin, concentrating on racial injustice is a crucial component.

“When we look at the challenges with racial inequities, it’s an indicator that there’s something really wrong with the system, with the government, with the specific process, policy, practice,” she says.

Data collected to support Boston’s resilience strategy shows that there is social segregation among the city’s racial groups.

“That means at a very fundamental level, we don’t have the social cohesion that we need in order to thrive after emergencies… We can’t call ourselves resilient if more than half of our population is still struggling in the ways that they are right now based on the data,” says Martin.

A key factor in creating a resilient city after a disaster is social cohesion or the ability and willingness to cooperate with people within and outside communities. The main disruption to building social cohesion globally as well as locally is racism, Martin says.

“Racism is a huge resource waste. It’s a waste of human resources, waste of intellectual resources, waste of emotional resources, it’s a waste of lots of resources,” says Martin.

The threat to Boston’s resilience is the same one affecting the United States, notes Martin. She says what worries her is the inability of people to look beyond their blindspots and “breakdown the barriers.”

“We have a hard time seeing the connections across struggles … there’s this unnecessary competition across groups that takes hold and we all are really dealing with the same issues we just don’t see it that way,” she says.

Boston hopes to build resilience for all individuals and communities within the city. With resilience across the city, there can exist unity in all areas, including infrastructure, environment, and economics, Martin says.

City leaders, such as Andrea Patton, the communications director of Boston City Council President Michelle Wu, are hopeful that this initiative can bring progress.
“We join together a lot more and work together a lot better when we have resilient planning and when we have equitable planning, so I think that we are likely to see better economic growth, better opportunities, and opportunities for more people to call Boston home,” Patton says.

As one of the many cities across the world taking part in the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, Boston is not alone in addressing its inequities.

“One of the ways that we are all similar is that we are proactively wrestling these issues and trying to build an environment where it’s OK to have a growth mindset,” says Martin.

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