Youth Perspective: Why We Need Equity and Empathy to Move Our Communities Forward

by New Dream   |   April 16, 2019


In April, New Dream program manager Raag Appadurai spoke with Josmar Torres, a political organizer from Boston and former New Dream Youth Fellow, about the challenges facing his community and the important roles that empathy and political change can play in creating a brighter, more equitable future.

Tell us a bit about who you are, what you do, and what your passions are.

As a political organizer, I've worked on campaigns for people like Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and State Representative Nika Elugardo, and I also volunteer for a few different campaigns. My day-to-day right now involves working for an organization called Keeping it 100, which focuses mainly on gentrification and affordable housing in the Jamaica Plain area in Boston. I meet with the community about once a month or so, and we talk about these issues. 

A recent study from the National Academy of Sciences pointed to some of the inequities facing communities of color today. It found that while white Americans consume a far higher share of the goods and services that contribute to air pollution, people of color disproportionately suffer from the effects of this pollution. What are your thoughts on these findings?

They aren’t surprising to me, but they are disappointing. Ideally, this wouldn’t be happening—we wouldn’t be experiencing disproportionate pollution like this in communities of color, like mine. But it makes sense, because racism exists, and it is perpetuated by people in power. And because of the way things work out, those of us who live in communities of color have to deal with pollution to a much higher extent than, for example, most white folks.

When you and your community think about or address these issues, how do you see people’s consumption habits as playing a role?

Consumption plays a huge role in creating the emissions that get us sick in the first place. So things like how much you consume, how much is being put into the environment, and how much is being used up are really important. If we weren’t consuming as much, the pollution impacts wouldn’t be as big of an issue, right? But as a society we are consuming more than ever, by the day, which makes us so much more worse off in terms of these negative impacts.

This might be a big, over-arching question, but how do you think people's consumption habits, and the impacts, mean different things to different communities?

When people have the means to consume, and they don’t really see a reason why not to, they will—that’s just what happens. I feel like the people who are probably contributing the most to this problem don’t even know that they’re doing so. They aren’t worrying about the impact their actions have. This is also the nature of capitalism—to just consume, because that's what's done, and not to question why or how, or what the consequences might be.

"I feel like the people who are probably contributing the most to this problem don’t even know that they’re doing so. They aren’t worrying about the impact their actions have. "

How do the findings of the study show up in your own life? How do people in your community experience this?

Well, a lot of us have asthma because of local air pollution, so it's affecting us in a very direct sense. Asthma rates go up substantially if you’re in a community like mine, where you’re surrounded by these toxins day in and day out, and you don’t really have a way of skipping out on them. Meanwhile, a person who is more affluent, who has more privilege and access, could just escape to Vermont, let’s say, where this type of urban air pollution is almost non-existent. I don’t have that luxury, where I can just go somewhere to avoid all the toxins that are being put in the air by the buses that I can’t even afford to ride every day.

MBTA dirty diesel caught in action by the Green Energy Consumers Alliance, 2017

Can you talk a little more about how the bus system relates to the pollution challenges in your community?

For a long time, the city wasn’t even considering the fact that they needed to put filters on diesel buses in Boston or to improve their emissions—they were either unaware or apathetic to the fact that these emissions are actual poison to local residents. I feel like many people who take the bus today are fully aware of this, but the people who run the bus systems don’t have a vested interest in improving the problem because it would cost them money. 

The MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority] is millions of dollars in debt because of its own financial mismanagement, so it won’t spend the money. But this really isn’t on the consumer. The MBTA uses this as an excuse to not fix the buses, but it’s their job to do so, because they're poisoning us, literally. So why isn’t that being considered? Why aren’t they looking at this problem and saying it has to be taken care of right now? Of course, it’s not a government agency’s prerogative to do something proactive for people—they'll do it only when it’s in their best interest.  

Also, many people in my community don’t have any other option but to take the bus, but most people can barely afford it. Just to get somewhere on one trip can add up quickly, so for someone without a lot of disposable income, it isn’t feasible to rely on the bus. They keep raising the rates, without realizing that the same people aren’t able to pay for it. And on top of all this, is the pollution aspect. So it’s like, you don’t really have a choice, but the choice you do have is really bad.

So for people who aren’t able to afford the bus, what are their mobility options? Are they walking, or just staying in their immediate communities?

Yes, they're walking and just staying local. And that's what creates the isolation we experience in our communities. Many people don’t even know anyone outside of their own neighborhood, because they don’t really have the means of going anywhere. And this has its own set of problems.

I want to step back for a moment and connect this to the larger concept of consumption inequities that we touched on before, and that the pollution study mentions. What is your understanding of the term “equity”? Do you think it's relevant to what's happening in your community, and in the world more broadly? 

Equity to me, very simply, means being given the things you deserve and need. Equality is giving people the same thing, equity is giving people what they need. We all need different things, and that’s why it’s important. It would be dandy if we were all actually getting the same things, like health care, but we’re not. So we need to recognize what’s needed, and that we aren’t all getting these things to the extent that we need them.

"Equity to me, very simply, means being given the things you deserve and need. Equality is giving people the same thing, equity is giving people what they need."

What are some of these equity-based needs that either your community or others you know have?

Well, it’s different for everyone, but what my community needs, for example, is more buses—but in conjunction with improved bus routes and bus filters, so that people can actually get around, and get around safely. That would be more equitable. Equality is more of a surface-level solution, and equity is more of the in-depth look into what’s needed.

It boils down to how much you care about somebody who isn’t you—your ability to care for others and to be empathetic

What other issues are most deeply impacting you and your community right now? What does this look like?

Unaffordable housing is a big one. My uncle actually just lost his restaurant because he couldn’t afford to pay his rent here in Jamaica Plain, because of increasing rental rates in the area. The whole area is being gentrified, so he had to sell his restaurant. We did a march to the restaurant to support his business, and I found out from my parents the day before that the owner was actually my uncle!

People who can’t afford rent here either have to move somewhere else, or become homeless. Those are really their only options. There are no good options—those are the only ones. And people and the government are aware of this, but nothing is being done about it. That’s not to say that there’s nobody working on it, but just that nothing concrete has been done yet to combat the issue. I would say that gentrification is the cause here.

Gentrify This

Can you explain more about how these are issues of (in)equity?

The government isn’t providing resources for people who need them. They could be building housing that people can afford to live in and be safe in, but they’re not. They say it’s equal opportunity, because people have the same opportunity to buy the housing, but they don’t understand that for some people, this “opportunity” means paying more money than they have, only to not be able to keep up with rent and keep up with life. The reasoning just isn’t there. They can call it “equal opportunity,” but the equal opportunity is only there for the people who already have security, and not everyone does.

What, in particular, do you want to share with people about these issues—about your story and the lived experience of your community? Why do you want them to hear it?

There's a very strong community of activists in Boston who are very dedicated to doing this work, but we need the visibility and support of others. So if you're aware of these issues, I suggest you talk about them: talk to your lawmakers, talk to people. Just pay attention, and don’t forget about us.

People also need to understand that this is not a simple-fix issue. We've been trying for decades to change things. Especially here in Boston, things have been out of our control and not serving us for a long time. This is an ongoing and systemic issue that we need to address together. The decision makers here only care about money, so we need to shift that power.

You recently explained to me that, for you, empathy is deeply related to equity. Can you touch on that some more?

It really boils down to how much you care about somebody who isn’t you—your ability to care for others and be empathetic. And we need more of that in the world, which means we need equity. One of the main reasons some communities are not being treated equitably is because [the government] really doesn’t care about us, simply put. They just don’t. If they did, they’d be less worried about the money and they would just do the right thing. But they aren’t. We are dollar signs to them. If somebody really cared about the community, they wouldn’t be asking themselves whether they should make living affordable or not, they would just do it.

"One of the main reasons some communities are not being treated equitably is because [the government] really doesn’t care about us, simply put. They just don’t. If they did, they’d be less worried about the money and they would just do the right thing."

For people who might be new to this concept, or the language around it, how would you connect equity and empathy here?

I would say that your doctors show you both empathy and equity when they see you—because it’s the right thing to do, and they are bound by that and they know it’s their responsibility to take care of your health. Why can’t developers do the same? Yes, you could just make everything luxury condos instead of affordable housing—which is what they're doing—but should you? If you have the empathy for others and the awareness of the issues and struggles, you should do the right thing. It shouldn’t matter if it puts you or your money at a disadvantage, it’s just the right thing to do. 

The developers are accountable to no one, and this is dangerous. To an extent, they get to decide who lives and who dies because they are deciding who gets housing. Should they really have that kind of decision-making power? That seems like a lot of pressure to put on someone who just builds houses for a profit. They have a lot of power that they don’t really deserve or need, and shouldn't have.

Jp Houses
JP is the third most expensive neighborhood in Boston, according to the community group Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition. Meanwhile, 37 percent of households have an income below $35,000.

What opportunities do we have to unite around these issues? Where do you see the collective action happening on this? What could that look like?

Exposure! People need to be vocal, and the work that’s being done needs to be talked about. I feel like the people in Boston who are doing this work, myself included, put together good stories and education, but nobody really gets to see it. These people need to be given visibility and to be put out there. These issues are happening in part because people don’t know about them and they're not getting the attention they need! Otherwise nobody would allow this, and we would be holding corporations accountable. 

These issues affect everyone, but they affect people of color more. The most vulnerable people are the ones that have no protection or defenses. Which means that everyone—each one of us—has to be able to see themselves in this, to care enough and do something about it. If you don’t see yourself in the issue, you are less empathetic, and we need to change that by getting the information out.

What gives you hope? What does the "new dream"—the changed future—look like?

For me, the dream is that the current decision makers won’t be in power for much longer. I’m waiting it out until they’re gone, so I can make the change happen myself! What’s the saying—“If you want it done right, you do it yourself,” right? What keeps me going is the knowledge that this transition will happen, that the current decision makers will filter out, and that I and people I know who are doing good work in my community will take over and make the right choices for people.

Want to hear more perspectives from young people? Support the New Dream Stories Project and help us lift up stories not often told about the impacts of consumption on diverse communities. 
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