Embrace our differences, but eliminate inequality

Use yah blinkah to signal change in direction

Our cherished local accent – known as the Boston accent, really more a northern New England accent – was put on display recently by MassDOT marketing officials who brought attention to an important road safety issue by poking fun at our distinctive mode of speech (“use yah blinkah,” the signs say.) This is the accent that received worldwide notice in the early 1960s, as John Kennedy talked about the use of American “pahwa” (broadening the “o” and dropping the “r”) in places like “Cuber” (replacing the “a” with an “r”.) As New Englanders, and Bostonians in fact or in spirit, we embrace our unique way with words, and our accent has become a durable identifier that separates true New Englanders from all others.

Our accent is more than a regional quirk, more than the punch line of good humored jokes. It is a reminder of our historic roots and the people who first settled this rugged, rock-bound New England territory to tame it and make it their own. The origins of the accent can be found in East Anglia, the part of eastern England that curves around a shallow indentation of the North Sea known as “the Wash.” It is there, toward the northern end of the Wash, that the original Boston can be found, the place of origin for many of the first settlers of the Shawmut Peninsula. One of the distinguishing features of Boston, England, is the Stump, the 270-plus-foot tower of St. Botolph’s Church. That church was the place of worship for many non-conforming Anglicans who believed in a more pure, less Roman approach to expressing their religious views, and St. Botolph’s Church led by the Reverend Joseph Cotton became a breeding ground for religious dissent in the early seventeenth century. The name St. Botolph has its own important relationship to Boston – it is (as told by Nathaniel Hawthorne) the origin of our place name, the word “Boston” having been “shortened, in the course of ages, by the quick and slovenly English pronunciation, from Botolph’s Town.” Try it out sometime: if you say “Botolph’s Town” rapidly and carelessly over and over again, it starts sounding strangely like “Boston.”

The etymology of words and the distinguishing sounds of regional accents help us understand our past, and in that understanding can come insights into our present and future. For me, the Boston/New England accent is a reminder that most of us are the descendants of immigrants, of people who came as strangers to this land seeking a better life. The first settlers to this region were looking for freedom and for refuge from a king who would not tolerate their religious differences. John Winthrop wrote to his wife explaining that he was seeking in this new land both a “shelter and hiding place.” The great irony of these first settlers was that they imposed their own strong and intolerant attitudes toward others – their notion of freedom of expression did not include equal opportunities for other non-conformists. While the ways of those strict, uncompromising Puritans may be off-putting today, their journey to Boston reminds us of the importance of providing people an opportunity to embrace their differences, and to have freedom to express those differences.

We are today very much a city of differences. Some of those differences make Boston a vibrant place. Other differences are less appealing, particularly those that threaten to transform the city into a permanent socially and economically stratified place.

How many among us today have come to America to find refuge from oppression or poverty, or to seek opportunities that may not exist in other lands? Immigrants who settle in the precincts of Grove Hall or Maverick Square, or in places like Lawrence, Massachusetts, or Lewiston, Maine, or countless other cities and towns across the region, are today’s pilgrims. Whether it’s a gay Ugandan who must leave his homeland for fear of imprisonment or death at the hands of a brutal regime, or a family from East Asia hoping to raise their children in a society that treats daughters and sons equally, or Latinos from South and Central America seeking a more stable, safe society in which to thrive – these and many more represent an organic continuum, a healthy expression of hope and optimism that the future here will be significantly better for them than it would be in the places they have left behind.

Many of these newcomers aspire to upward mobility, but the pathway is steep. Language barriers and social differences make equal opportunity more a slogan than a reality for large numbers of people. The pathway is no less daunting for many men and women who have historic roots here, people both white and black who may not have had the kind of education, family life, or opportunity that would enable them to navigate successfully through often turbulent waters. If there is a defining challenge presented to us, if there is one pressing issue of our time, it is the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, between those who have a clear pathway to improving their lot, and those who do not. This is not simply a matter of income disparity, although that is a serious issue. It is also a matter of disparities in education, in opportunity, in access to power, access to jobs, and access to information. And it is the widening gap that our innovation society may be unwittingly enabling and exacerbating. In a fast-moving techno-centric era, our society may be leaving many people behind, condemning them and their children to a permanent existence outside the contemporary economy that enables personal growth and success.

Whenever I talk to groups about the importance of leveraging technology to improve mobility, I always remind them that when we do so – for example, when we talk about smart mobility enabled by interactive smart phone apps – we need to be sure that we are reaching out to everyone who uses our system. There is a danger that we take for granted that everyone has equal and identical access to technology and the opportunities that come with that. That is simply not true for many in our city, whether they be the elderly, or people who have been less fortunate in their lives.

Gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker spoke recently on this topic, warning at a recent forum that “we very much have two economies, we have two educational systems, and we have two kinds of communities.” Baker cautioned that “if we don’t do something strategically to deal with those issues, we’re setting ourselves to become even more inequitable than we’ve become.” When the presumptive Republican nominee for governor is talking about ingrained social and economic inequality, you know that the issue has transcended ideology and become a matter for serious attention.

There are solutions to this. They begin with a more widespread and candid recognition that these widening gaps exist, and that they must be addressed. Government has an important and critical role to play in closing these gaps. I’m not advocating social engineering, but rather a sustained, effective effort to level the playing field. That can be done in many ways: increased expenditures on pre-school and adult education, unlocking the power of ubiquitous technologies (sensors, smartphones) to advance social equity, finding ways to bring charter school outcomes to public school children, offering corporate tax incentives for companies that can demonstrate meaningful contributions whether in direct financial giving or in-kind contributions of personnel and other resources directed specifically toward initiatives designed to open up opportunity and access to those who need a helping hand.

Ultimately, this effort must be driven largely by the public sector because the public sector, unlike the private sector, is not driven (and shouldn’t be) primarily by profit. The public sector must take risk and spend money strategically knowing that its return on investment is something that may come only after a long period of years, a return that may be difficult to quantify quickly or even accurately. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has shown a willingness to make such investments, recently announcing an initiative to bring a specialized innovation district to Roxbury focused on jobs creation in areas like software development and biotechnology. Boston could build on this effort and embark on an historic effort to level the playing field by a combination of public and private sector initiatives – call it Boston LAB for “lift all boats.” We’ve got the academic and institutional infrastructure, as well as a passion for innovation, that combined could be a powerful way to close the gaps and even out the opportunities.

Meet the Author

Our unique Boston accent is our calling card, the way we introduce ourselves as of this place. There is pride in that, and history as well, a history rich in lessons that we can learn from. Perhaps the most important of those lessons can be summed up in this way: embrace the differences that enrich us, and eradicate those differences that prevent all citizens from sharing in opportunities to improve their lives. When we put our accent on equality, we are expressing what is best in us, and building a better future for Boston and the region.

James Aloisi is a former secretary of transportation.