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The Boston College Citizens Seminars helped redefine Boston once

photo of Martin Baron and Greg WatsonWhen Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino stepped to the podium in a downtown hotel one morning last December to address the most recent Boston College Citizens Seminar, he focused at length on the city's ethnic and racial diversity. Speaking to the topic "Metro Boston in the New Global Era: The Dynamics of Change," Menino noted with pride that one of every four Bostonians was born outside the United States and that more than 140 languages are spoken in the metropolitan area. "Last year, when I gave my State of the City speech," he said, "we broadcast it in seven different languages. Could you imagine that in the 1950s? No way."

Delivered to a crowd of some 400 of the city's civic, political, and business leaders drawn together by the University, the Mayor's comments garnered enthusiastic applause, and not just because the attendees happened to be highly diverse. The subtext was that the Citizens Seminars--which, two or three times a year, bring Boston movers and shakers to bear on issues pressing to the city--have changed as the city has changed, adapting to Boston's needs and opportunities since the University began them nearly 50 years ago. Some changes are apparent from a glance around the room. (A photograph of the first seminar, held in Boston College's Fulton Hall in 1954, captured a wide sea of middle-aged white faces above dark business suits.) Others are reflected in the questions of the day and the resources at hand--now aimed at managing and sustaining growth rather than at stemming a city's decline.

Patrick Purcell, publisher of the Boston Herald and the current chairman of the Boston College Citizens Seminars, made clear in a short history he gave how far the city has come with the aid of the seminars. "In the 1950s," he said, "Boston was in a slump." This was an understatement; in the 1950s, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy. Inadequate schools and services were driving residents into the suburbs. The manufacturing industry was being decimated by outside competition. The shipping industry was being weakened by labor strife. And the individuals in a position to help--the city's Irish political leaders and Brahmin businessmen--clung to an historic distrust of one another.

In stepped W. Seavey Joyce, SJ, then the dean of BC's College of Business Administration. Joyce saw in Boston's grim condition an opportunity for the University to create a forum for the city's leaders on neutral turf--while simultaneously enhancing BC's prominence.

The first 10 years or so of the seminars were enormously successful, and they have taken on something of a mythic aura in Boston leadership circles. Out of them came plans for the Prudential Center, the expansion of transit lines, a new Government Center, a revitalized waterfront, the renewal of the market district, and more commercial construction than the city had seen for a generation. By the 1960s, Boston had recovered economically, and Boston College had become a highly visible agent of change.

What followed, however, was a period of stagnation. In the 1970s, with the big work of rebuilding Boston completed, the creative energy of the Citizens Seminars dissipated.

"Once the city rebounded, there was less of a need for anybody to push an agenda," says Peter Rollins, executive director of corporate and government affairs at BC's Carroll School of Management and, for the past decade, one of the main architects of the seminars. "The power structure stopped coming. Attendance dropped. The people who showed up were lower on the totem pole." Some of this was a consequence of a changing economy: Corporate consolidation had moved the headquarters of several large companies out of Boston. Furthermore, much of the work in civic planning had devolved to the state and local governments.

"The seminars did remain kind of a meeting place," says Jim Lehane, the executive assistant to University President William P. Leahy, SJ, and a longtime observer of the seminars. "But you weren't getting breakthroughs anymore. You had other organizations, you had the Vault"--the secretive twice-weekly meeting of influential Boston executives--"and you had strong mayors. So basically what happened was that the seminars became an untapped resource."

It is with this history in mind that the seminars' planners in recent years have been trying to forge a new viability. They have made the seminars more inclusive, expanding the invitation list to involve members of smaller civic and neighborhood organizations and emphasizing audience participation, which in the past was limited to a brief Q & A session. "Instead of having 60 or 70 businesspeople gathering," says Peter Rollins, "now you have a true gathering of community activists--people on the front lines in the metro Boston region." Meanwhile, the University has been joined by some powerful cosponsors: the Boston Foundation, the City of Boston /Boston Redevelopment Authority, and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

The new seminars are designed to face a new threat. "Boston has rescued itself from the oblivion into which it appeared to be headed," Paul Grogan, the director of the Boston Foundation, said at the seminar. "But we have to be careful of the complacency of good times." Boston's current problems--sprawl, traffic and transportation congestion, persistent poverty and social stresses, inadequate school performance--cannot be fixed quickly with an infusion of capital, as many of the city's earlier problems were, Grogan and others suggested. If the pertinent question asked at the first Citizens Seminar (by then Mayor John Hynes) was, Can Boston "regain its former place as one of the prosperous, forward-looking cities?" then the pertinent question in December (raised in a multimedia presentation by the Boston Foundation) was, "What is your vision for Greater Boston in the 21st century?"

It was a patient, all-comers type of question, and that was exactly what the planners intended. They had chosen the keynote speaker--Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000)--expressly for the emphasis he places on change from below and on the capacity of individuals to make an "extraordinary social impact."

But even grassroots organizers require resources, and the more diverse the participants in the seminars are, the more essential it is that they share a sophisticated view of the city in all its parts. In recent years, the Citizens Seminars have been working with a state-of-the-art tool: the report of the Boston Indicators Project. The Indicators Project is a citywide cooperative effort, sponsored by the Boston Foundation, that tracks data and trends in 10 aspects of city life: civic health, cultural life and the arts, economy, education, environment, housing, public health, public safety, technology, and transportation. A draft of the first Indicators Report, "The Wisdom of Our Choices," was presented at a Citizens Seminar in 1999, and the final report premiered at a Citizens Seminar in 2000. New reports will be issued every two years until 2030--Boston's 400th anniversary.

The symbiosis between the Citizens Seminar and the Indicators Project was most apparent at the concluding session, when the individuals in the audience, seated in roundtable subgroups, were asked to focus on one aspect of the 10 indicator fields (e.g., Changing Housing Needs, Family Self-Sufficiency). The conversations were often heated, and it was telling that many complained they were not given enough time to accomplish anything.

They weren't supposed to, explained Massachusetts BlueCross BlueShield Vice President Peter Meade, who served as moderator. The purpose of the new seminars is not to hammer out infrastructure plans, but to advance discussion and to trade information. Or, as Boston College's Peter Rollins puts it: "We don't need to build skyscrapers or banks anymore. We need to look at the base issues."

Daniel B. Smith

Daniel B. Smith is a freelance writer based in Boston

Photo: Indicators of progress: Boston Globe editor Martin Baron, left, and Greg Watson, vice president of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, at the December 12, 2001, meeting of the Boston College Citizens Seminar

Lee Pellegrini

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