Creating Change in the City

By Jack Stedman

"City of Boston" is a staple of the first-year experience at Commonwealth. Every ninth grader takes this ten-week long course, in which students examine how Boston's neighborhoods differ from one another and how they have changed over time. Frequent field trips and classroom discussions focus on the costs and benefits of segregation and economic development, as well as environmental justice. In a way, this class is a mini course in what it means to have a multi-ethnic, multicultural democracy—a question our country has been debating since its inception.

Throughout, the class asks two linked questions: Who decides how cities change? And who should decide? 

When "City of Boston" asks students who decides how a city changes, the answer is often someone they've met at assembly, Commonwealth's weekly forum welcoming a dizzying array of speakers, including local politicians and administrators.

This past fall, those decision makers included Sumbul Siddiqui, Mayor of Cambridge, and William Gross, Boston Police Commissioner. (While Cambridge is not technically a part of Boston, it is Boston's sister city, as Commissioner Gross referred to it.)

Both guests spoke candidly about what their cities do well and where there is still room for improvement while welcoming insightful and even provocative questions from students and faculty. Keep reading to learn more about their work and the insights they shared with students.

Investing in Community

Siddiqui, who emigrated from Pakistan to Cambridge at age two with her parents, and Gross, who moved to Dorchester after being raised in a rural Maryland pig-farming community, both highlighted where they came from and where they lived in the Greater Boston area as keys to how they approach their work. They know firsthand the issues each city faces, and they want to give back. 


Mayor Siddiqui on Zoom during assembly.

Siddiqui's love of her community is rooted in the idealism of the American dream, as she put it. Cambridge played a central role in allowing her parents to settle in and giving her space to flourish in a new country. Affordable housing, quality public schools, and the Head Start program allowed her to "focus on being a kid," she says. And now she wants to provide the most vulnerable populations with that same access to resources. 

Siddiqui says she is also committed to bringing younger voices to the table, another motivator to run for city council. She noted seeing herself in Commonwealth students—the eager young people starting political clubs and activist student groups and pushing to make an impact.

Many of those same politically energized students posed pointed questions of Siddiqui about youth-focused issues: lowering the voting age, lowering the price of student MBTA passes, and allowing non-citizens (like many college students) to vote in local elections. 

"Get involved in your local community," Siddiqui encouraged. "Everyone's journey to public service looks different. Mine was driven by identity and experience. You have to do it for the right reasons. For me, it's really about people and relationships and getting to help people every day."


Commissioner Gross during assembly. 

Commissioner Gross, the city's first African American police commissioner, shares that same love of his community, Dorchester, and brings that life experience to his job every day. 

He came to Boston at the height of racial strife born from forced busing, and as a thirty-three-year veteran of the Boston Police Department, has seen how power politics, favoritism, and racism have plagued the city.

"You will have no legitimacy if you ignore the past," he said. 

Gross's belief in community policing—practices based on empathy, respect, and care—echoes Siddiqui's call for more public resources. Police officers, he acknowledges, wear too many hats. Instead, he urges investing in more robust social services and building up teams of mental health professionals, social workers, doctors, and EMTs who can respond to crisis situations that typically fall to police. Broader solutions, such as affordable housing, economic justice, and access to education, all play a major role here as well. 

"Nobody was born with a gun or knife in their hands. It's about survival, coming from poor communities and not having resources," he says, adding that you cannot just "arrest problems away." 

His enthusiasm for engaging with young people was clear, as he lamented not having more time to answer questions. If scheduling allows, Gross wants to be back for another assembly, solely focused on fielding questions from engaged students. 

"If you want change, be the change," Gross urged students. 

What's Next?

Gross and Siddiqui, in their ongoing work, illustrate that while much has been accomplished, much more work remains to be done to ensure Boston and Cambridge are equitable, welcoming, and nourishing communities for all people.

With the usual peppering of insightful and probing questions from eager students, Siddiqui and Gross were receptive and candid in diving into the issues that still need to be addressed. 

For Gross, that means working with the Baker administration on the recent police reform bill, further research into stop-and-frisk practices, restorative justice, qualified immunity, and mitigating biases in 911 callers. Siddiqui also addressed a question of policing and the need to partner with more organizations to respond to various emergency situations, among other plans like creating equal access to community bike paths. 

From the start of their time at Commonwealth, students learn to be involved in their city by walking its streets in "City of Boston," and, over the course of their four years here, are privy to conversations with local leaders like Gross and Siddiqui. All the while, they are encouraged to ask what they can do next and consider how they, too, might one day  be the people who decide how cities change.