Mel King, my friend, my teacher, my collaborator
By Marie Kennedy
My practice as a teacher and practitioner of what I term transformative community planning owes a great deal to Mel King, Paolo Freire, and Myles Horton. Of these three, Mel is the most important since I was privileged to work directly with him and in coalitions which he led, to enjoy long conversations with him about what we called “Planners Without a Plan”, and to have been friends for many years with Mel and his wife Joyce. Through his example and teaching, Mel opened for me and many others a vision of how to work with communities across divisions based on transforming relations between groups. His approach to doing this, which I have tried to emulate, is to confront the issues that divide us from a perspective of respect and love—or, as he often put it, to move from the love of power to the power of love in our work to build a just society.
I first encountered Mel when I was working with the Urban Field Service at Harvard. Two of our projects involved working with anti-urban renewal, pro-community development groups in Boston’s South End, Mel’s home neighborhood. My first direct contact with Mel, was in the Spring of 1968 during the protest of the demolition of housing to create a parking lot near Mel’s home. Mel and others organized a tent city protesting the demolition and demanding that affordable housing be built on the site. I and my students working in the South End joined the protest. The students, who were all men, were allowed stay in the encampment, but women were not allowed to stay overnight as Mel felt women would not be safe. This was the only real disagreement I can remember ever having with Mel! Nonetheless, I joined the demonstration until nightfall. After many years of struggle, affordable housing was built on that site and named Tent City Apartments.
Over decades, I interacted with Mel in widely varied settings. The weekly brunch in which Mel would treat guests to a fish fry, was an informal way to participate in wide-ranging discussions, sometimes reacting to a specific presentation, more often a free-flowing conversation of whatever issues folks brought to the table. The workshops that Mel and I co-facilitated with the staff of neighborhood planning groups in Cuba and those with a group of rebel MIT planning students were more structured, as was our work co-editing with Luis Aponte Pares an issue of Planners Network on “Racism and Planning, in which Mel offered “A Framework for Communication and Collective Action” among communities of color, stressing that: “The politics of scarcity can only be countered by the politics of hope.” Mel also taught me (and many others) lessons by challenging us to place ourselves in learning situations. Working on Mel’s 1983 campaign for mayor of Boston was an opportunity for me to understand the racial dynamics of Boston communities in a more visceral way than I had before. Communities of color led the campaign. We white supporters were sent to do canvassing in segregated white neighborhoods and experienced having racial slurs yelled at us, doors slammed in our faces and, in one case, dogs set on us sending a couple of canvassers to the hospital.
Two particular collaborations with Mel illustrate his distinctive approach to getting communities involved in the planning process. One was a very practical initiative to mobilize community members from Roxbury and surrounding areas, the core of Boston’s Black community, to assert control over their future. The other was a more intellectual exercise, an attempt to clarify and to some extent codify along with others our shared understandings of participatory community-based planning and how committed planners could practice these ideals.
The creation of the Greater Roxbury Neighborhood Authority was one of many instances in which Mel helped communities come together, build power and, quite simply, plan. In the early fall 1984, Mel and other community leaders began to build a community coalition within the Roxbury/North Dorchester area to promote and guide development of jobs and housing that would benefit the current community and poor and working-class people, particularly in the Black community. Mel built on community leadership that had been developed and strengthened during his 1983 mayoral campaign, and he and others pulled together an extraordinarily broad group of activist leaders. One impetus for the initiative was that the Washington Street Elevated transit line (or ‘El’) that ran through Roxbury, Boston’s primarily Black community, was due to come down in 1988, opening up development opportunities.
Suddenly, events began moving very rapidly. Just before the community coalition’s first mass meeting was to convene to discuss what would constitute real community control over neighborhood development, the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s (BRA) secretively produced “Dudley Square Plan” was leaked. It was a plan sure to promote gentrification. At the same time, my since deceased colleague Mauricio Gaston and I had completed a report looking at development options for the heart of Dudley when the El came down. We had concluded that community development without gentrification could be achieved only if popular local control could be won over impending development decisions. Our major recommendation was the establishment of a community-controlled neighborhood development authority that would have many of the powers and resources traditionally held by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Mel decided to distribute both our report and the BRA’s plan to the general meeting. Within months, The Organizing Committee for a Greater Roxbury Neighborhood Authority was born, and implementation of the BRA plan was halted. The newly elected mayor understood that Mel might have lost the mayoral election, but that Mel’s campaign and the resulting Rainbow Coalition were a force with which the city government would need to contend. Mel’s incredible ability to convene diverse leaders and factions, to motivate people to work together for change, and to convince those around him that their visions could become realities—that “another world is possible” to use a familiar phrase—had triumphed again.
The more intellectual collaboration was our attempt to understand more deeply what a truly collaborative process that lifts the voices of those most affected by development decisions would look like. Mel, Mauricio Gaston and I began to meet to discuss these ideas with the thought that we would write a book together, tentatively called Planners without a Plan. Mauricio died early in the process. Mel and I decided to continue exploring the concept and began inviting many community and labor activists and scholars to collaborate. We never wrote the book, but these conversations led us to the concept of transformative planning, a concept that transcends participatory planning. To quote from an article of mine inspired by these discussions: "Transformative planning is a way of working with communities across divisions. It is not based on the superficial pasting together of short-lived, issue specific coalitions, but on transforming relations between groups. In this sense, it is participatory planning which empowers the community to act in its own interests."
Glancing today at transcripts of these conversations I am reminded of the way in which Mel tended to speak less than others, but asked the most generative questions, often gently challenging us to be more precise, to question our own ideas, to be open to the ideas of others. In facilitating community planning, I learned from Mel to slow down, to actively listen, to help people express what they know in order to communicate clearly to others, but at the same time to challenge people to overcome exclusionary thinking. I don’t always manage to do all this successfully, but when I slip up, I imagine Mel quietly and gently urging me to do better.
Mel offered so many insights over the more than fifty years I knew him that, in fact, I would often “hear” his voice even when he was not there. I still do.
Marie Kennedy is Professor Emerita in Community Planning at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a recent Visiting Professor of Urban Planning at the University of California Los Angeles. Throughout her academic career she has combined the roles of activist and scholar, working in and writing about transformative community development, planning education and participatory action research, with a particular emphasis on developing racial and cultural awareness in community planning and on participatory planning methodologies for community empowerment. Over the years, she has worked extensively with community organizations and social movements in the Greater Boston area, as well as in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua and Palestine.