Talking at the same time - A community organizer’s thoughts about community benefits on construction projects in Boston

By Travis Watson

Picture this: You are a developer prepared to present your plans for a new project at a community meeting. You have previously vetted the design with residents and feel confident that it is something that they want in their neighborhood. You take the podium and begin to go over the renderings and receive mostly positive feedback. Before you can flip to your next slide a resident yells out “ What about community benefits?!” Before you can even get a word out the crowd erupts in conversation. No one is taking turns. You can barely understand what anyone is saying because everybody is talking at the same time.(1) You get through the remainder of the meeting the best you can. You pack up your stuff and leave. Exhausted, you debrief the meeting but have no idea how to continue the conversation about community benefits.(2)

What I just outlined above, while fictional, isn’t too far off from how many of these types of meetings tend to go. The problem isn’t that communities don’t know how to successfully achieve community benefits on local projects. It’s that we as neighborhoods aren’t sending developers a single, coherent message. Some developers intend to provide little, if any, community benefits on their projects. Others are left to fend for themselves, trying their best to sort through the comments, emails and phone calls to determine the best way their project can provide community benefits. Often times what happens is they simply say, “forget it” and don’t provide community benefits at all. 

The good thing? 

This is the best time in the history of Boston for residents and neighborhood associations toengage developers in community benefits negotiations as there are now concrete examples(3) of how to achieve them and a city full of people ready to help. 

Support at the top

Mayor Martin J. Walsh, former head of the Boston Building and Construction Trades Council, has a proven track record of working to create job opportunities for Boston residents, minorities, females and minority/women owned business enterprises (M/WBE). His Chief of Economic Development, John Barros, is the former Executive Director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI). While at DSNI, Mr. Barros led the effort to secure community benefits at historic rates at both the Kroc Center and the Quincy Heights Choice Neighborhoods Projects. 

Developers have been stepping up too. 

In the past year, Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation committed to hiring standards of 51% Boston residents, 51% minorities and 15% women on their projects, standards that are even higher than the City of Boston’s. These standards were developed as part of the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan process in which residents decried the lack of local residents, people of color and women on neighborhood construction projects. Additionally, both Dorchester Bay & Quincy Geneva Development Corporation just completed the above mentioned Quincy Heights Choice Neighborhoods Projects with some of the highest levels of employment for residents, minorities women and M/WBEs in recent history.

Don’t forget about the grassroots community-based nonprofits. 

Grassroots community-based nonprofits have been leading efforts for years to secure community benefits from local development projects. DSNI just recently partnered with Project R.I.G.H.T. in the Grove Hall neighborhood of Boston as lead community planning partners on the Quincy Heights Choice Neighborhoods Project referenced earlier. Prior to that, DSNI played the role of lead community planning partner on the construction of the Ray & Joan Kroc Center, Boston, which is looked at citywide as a model for how to successfully build a building while providing high levels community benefits.

Coalitions anyone? 

The Boston Jobs Coalition, led by a number of long-time activists, including former City Councilor Chuck Turner and Janet Jones and John Walsh from the Dorchester/Roxbury Labor Committee, as well as the Boston Workers Alliance, are providing a platform for residents and activists to get involved in three areas of development: the enforcement of hiring commitments, ensuring construction projects provide high levels of community benefits and ensuring that there are permanent jobs for residents when a project is complete

How can you get involved in this work?

As outlined above, there are a number of people, community groups, and institutions, including folks from The City of Boston, developers, nonprofit organizations and coalitions that are all working to increase community benefits on construction projects. What’s the next step? A call to action: DSNI will continue to work with partners to push for resident leadership and community benefits on neighborhood construction projects. What can you do? Get involved in this work by voting for elected officials with track records of advocating for community benefits. Become a member of a nonprofit organization like DSNI or join a coalition that is working on these issues. 

Make space for each others' voices at organizing meetings. Go into conversations with developers having a clear, unified and consistent message. Create a climate where developers know that if they are doing business in your neighborhood then they must provide community benefits. None of this can happen though, if everybody is talking at the same time. 

1.  Inspired by the Tom Waits song Talking at the Same Time from his 2011 album Bad as Me.

2.  Community benefits in this article refer to providing local residents, minorities, women and minority and women owned businesses with job opportunities. In the Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods of Boston many advocates see this as being 51% of the total construction hours going to residents, 51% to minorities, 15% to women and having 30% of the total value of the subcontractor awards going to a minority owned businesses and 10% going to a women owned businesses.

3.  The Kroc Center Boston and The Quincy Heights Choice Neighborhoods projects are examples. Case studies on both are available at


Travis Watson is a senior organizer & communications manager at Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. He was the lead organizer on the construction of the Ray & Joan Kroc Center, Boston as well as the Quincy Heights Choice Neighborhoods Projects. Case studies documenting both projects can be found at He has been with DSNI since 2007.