Reviewed by Jason R. Harshman, The Ohio State University
Date Posted: 7/9/2013
“The spirit of Gaining Ground: Building Community on Dudley Street is captured in the words of John Barros, a resident and leader in the Dudley Street community: “Everyone in the neighborhood is an agent for change.” Regardless of age, race, ethnicity, class, or gender, if you believe that the people around you deserve more, there is a place for you at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI). By focusing on one neighborhood in Boston, Massachusetts, the directors capture how multiple issues intersect and how a neighborhood or residential area can be transformed, over time and through commitment and investment, into a community of activists.
With the financial recession and the nation-wide housing crisis as a back drop, Gaining Ground looks at the complexities of rebuilding a community: youth unemployment, responses to violence, crime, and environmental injustice; mediating conflicts between labor, politics, and citizens; intersections of local and state politics, and the future of DSNI.
The film begins by addressing youth unemployment in the Dudley Street community because 40% of the residents at the time of the film were 19 years old or younger. This issue is not only a starting point because of the economic climate of 2008 and 2009 when the film was made, but because the featured leaders of DSNI—John Barros, Jason Webb, Carlos Henriquez, and Alicia Mooltrey—have been involved in rebuilding Dudley Street since they were teenagers. Footage of the aforementioned individuals as teenagers speaking at neighborhood meetings during the 1990s is juxtaposed by their work as adults with youths who currently live in the Dudley neighborhood and who are becoming aware of how they can affect change in their community. As role models for the new generation of community activists, Barrow, Webb, Henriquez (who has a parallel storyline regarding his campaign for political office), and Mooltrey provide space so that, as one Dudley teenager states, they feel “empowered to make a change.”
The latter part of the film focuses around the construction of a community center (what will become the largest community center in New England) and how DSNI advocated to have the center that was going to be funded through a grant provided through the Salvation Army built in accordance with their values. Central to the construction of the center was the caveat that 51% of the workers be from the community, 51% be part of a minority demographic, and 15% be women. DSNI also required that 35% of the sub-contractors be businesses owned by minorities or women. At first such a request was seen as impossible, but through the work of DSNI leaders and community members, agreements were reached to ensure the community was involved in the construction of the center.
Another issue addressed in the film focuses on efforts to build affordable housing for residents during a time when foreclosures were pushing people out of their homes across the United States. DSNI negotiated land trusts so that new homeowners could own the home, but not the land, thus making living on Dudley affordable and sustainable.
Gaining Ground also addresses the concerns that arose when the center was ready to open and unexpected membership fees were to be put in place by the Salvation Army. Although this part of the film did not follow through all the way to how these concerns about affordability were assuaged, the importance of raising the consciousness of a community and why attending community meetings as involved citizens can lead to shared decision making across multiple players and investors is made clear.
The film comes full circle by following Carlos Henriquez’s rise from being a member of the DSNI Youth Council to a Representative in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. The closing scenes are of Dudley teenagers giving speeches to become members of the DSNI Youth Council similar to the opening scenes of the film when the current leaders first became involved. One young man says he wants to be involved with DSNI because of the work done by Henriquez, Barros, and other current leaders who got involved as teenagers.
Gaining Ground shows the potential for change and the possibility for betterment through community activism. As demonstrated by multiple generations of Dudley residents, community activism is not something one does on the weekend or in response to a single event, but is a shared and sustained commitment.”