Promoting Equality: Ahead of ‘The Embrace,’ Project Partners Discuss How to Create New, Inclusive Destinations on the Common

In anticipation of the arrival of “The Embrace” – the 22-foot bronze memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King – on the Boston Common next Martin Luther King Jr. King Day, the leaders of two organizations partnering on the project met up for a virtual conversation to discuss how creating new destinations like this can help promote equity and inclusivity in the park.

“We wanted to create more destinations on the Boston Common,” said Liz Vizza, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Public Garden, which in partnership with the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, cares for and maintains the Common, as well as the Public Garden and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. “We did it about a dozen years ago with the Brewer Fountain, and it really has become a popular outdoor living room.”

Imari Paris Jeffries, executive director of King Boston, sat down with Liz Vizza, president of the Friends of the Public Garden, for the first virtual “Conversations with Friends.”

Likewise, Vizza said during the first online “Conversations with Friends,” she expects the 1965 Freedom Plaza, which will be home to “The Embrace,” will also be an “incredible draw and destination for a whole new population of people that don’t come to the Common so we’re very excited about that.”

Imari Paris Jeffries, executive director of King Boston, the nonprofit that has been working closely with the city and the Friends on “The Embrace” since the project’s inception in 2017, said in addition to the Dr. and Mrs. King, 65 other yet-to-be-identified Greater Bostonian individuals or organization active in the civil rights movement between 1950 and 1970, either living or deceased, would be honored by perhaps having their names emblazoned on or around the plaza grounds.

“We want to put as much into this space to make it feel special,” said Paris Jeffries, who added they also don’t want to transform the Common into a “sculpture garden.”

The imagery of “The Embrace” by artist Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group, which depicts several clasped arms, is particularly poignant amid the pandemic, said Paris Jeffries, at a time when people couldn’t physically be with or hug their loved ones.

For Vizza, “The Embrace” is a roadmap for how to connect the Common with Nubian Square in Roxbury at a time when both the Friends group and the park are struggling to reflect Boston’s diversity, as well as an expression of the new partnerships being forged between organizations citywide, as is the case with the Friends and King Boston.

But Paris Jeffries said he believes “The Embrace” is part of a larger dialogue on whether existing memorials  accurately reflect the mores of contemporary society, or whether they instead belong in a museum or somewhere else “not in the public sphere.”

To illustrate his point, Paris Jeffries pointed out that Abraham Lincoln has more monuments dedicated to him than anyone else in the country, but there are more monuments to Robert E. Lee in the U.S. than there are to Harriet Tubman.

“It’s the idea of acknowledging and lifting up other folks in this country to tell story of our city and really our nation and redefining what monuments and memorials mean for public spaces,” he said. “We can do the good and we can create the spaces, but we also need to tell a message that resonates outside the city. People come here to get their idea of America reinforced through the Freedom Trail and the sites they can see in  the park. We need to do another job reinforcing their experience around equity.”

One voice Vizza would like to see better represented on the Common are Native Americans, since the park was originally owned by the Massachusett tribe before it was taken away from them by settlers.

“The Boston Common has an enormous amount of  artifacts from the Native Americans who lived on the land so what can we do to honor and bring people’s awareness to their history,” Vizza told this reporter.

Paris Jeffries said their “charge” for the next decade leading up to the 400th anniversary of the founding of Boston in 2030 should be “to tell story of a different America – a real story with a bright future.”

With this in mind, Vizza said the Friends is now in the process of helping to convene,  a new “Monument and Memory Task Force,” which would include myriad voices, including the city’s, to “find ways we can lift up the untold stories using a variety of innovative approaches.”

Vizza told this reporter, “First, we need to critically examine the monuments in the park, then  choose a couple of key examples and have the Task Force look at their impact on the community, and look at this through a broader perspective than we would have two or three years ago.”

Vizza said “a lot of creative work has been done to bring awareness this issue in other cities,” including Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cambridge – all places that have convened groups to look at the role of monuments in their respective public squares.

“It’s not only about what we have in the parks; it’s about which voices are heard and which are not,” said Vizza.

The Common also “shows the things not working in society,” said Vizza, as a place frequented by people struggling with homelessness and addiction. “These places belong to them as well,” she said.

The Master Plan for the Common, which the Boston Parks and Recreation Department is now developing in collaboration with the Friends and design consultants, Weston & Sampson, aims to ensure that “The Embrace” and the surrounding plaza are “integrated with the rest of the park in terms of topography and paths,” said Vizza.

One new amenity proposed for the park in the Master Plan are  basketball courts.

“It will be a powerful opportunity, a powerful magnet, to say that kids from other parts of the city who play basketball are welcome in the park,” Vizza told this reporter.

Meanwhile, “What Do We Have in Common?” –  last fall’s temporary art installation to mark the Friends of the Public Garden’s 50th anniversary – was well received by visitors to the Common and opened up new possibilities for the park.

Vizza believes the exhibit was so powerful because as opposed to permanent public art, which loses its impact as people see it and grow accustomed to seeing it over time, temporary art can be more impactful due to its unfamiliarity.

“We learned that temporary art can be a vehicle for sparking, dialogue, curiosity, and enhanced awareness,” said Vizza.

Visit friendsofthepublicgarden.org to view the first virtual “Conversations with Friends,” and to learn more about the Friends of the Public Garden.

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