A neighborhood on the brink

Marshall Cooper waited all night to speak. He waited in his flimsy plastic chair as the presentation room in the Central Boston Elder Services building slowly filled with Roxbury residents. He waited as the Boston Planning and Development Agency representative introduced the meeting, one that would go over a proposed development in his neighborhood. He waited as the developers presented the packed room with their plan for Parcel 3, an empty lot in Roxbury that they hoped to turn into a retail and housing complex. He waited as his fellow community members, who know him as Mr. Marshall, asked question after question to the developers and the BPDA representative, each more piercing than the next.

“You consider that affordable housing?”

“This is the best y’all could come up with?”

“Where are all the people who live in that area going to go?”

Finally, the BPDA suit gestured to him. It was Mr. Marshall’s time to speak. He rose from his seat, cane trembling slightly, and adjusted a dark green beanie over his gray hair. He introduced himself. Then, he let loose.

“Y’all are just running the low-income people out so we can’t come back no more! You’re running us out of where we’ve been our whole lives!” he said. The developer looked down. The BPDA rep squirmed, tugging at his purple tie. Cooper pointed at them.

“You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

The meeting was originally supposed to be a chance for Roxbury residents to weigh in on the proposal, one that would involve more than a million square feet of apartments, shops and museums. Instead, it turned into an airing of grievances, a release of frustration for a neighborhood that is feeling the slow pressure of gentrification and outside development.

Roxbury has long been considered the center of African-American culture in Boston. Thousands of black southerners relocated to the neighborhood during the Great Migration, and for years, a black middle class thrived. When Martin Luther King Jr. came to Boston in 1965, he started his march in Roxbury, leading protesters down Columbus Avenue.

But now, it is at risk of losing its identity. Boston’s population has grown 14.2 percent since 1990 and the cost of living is nearly 40 percent higher than the rest of the U.S., according to census data. This combination has driven a storm of development to the neighborhood, with institutions and companies lusting after the cheaper real estate prices and relatively bountiful available lands. Northeastern University, perched right on the border of the neighborhood, has been one of the most aggressive intruders.

That pressure is rapidly raising property values to untenable levels. “We’re really at a tipping point, where if the market continues to heat up, a lot of people aren’t going to be able to live in Boston anymore,” said Helen Matthews, the communications manager for City Life / Vida Urbana, a local nonprofit that seeks to empower communities facing displacement.

Traditionally, Roxbury has been one of the poorest parts of Boston. The neighborhood has a median income that is roughly $20,000 less than the rest of the city, according to real estate tracker website Area Vibes. Combine that with the glut of developers eager to sink their teeth into the area, and you get a lot of residents who can no longer stay in their longtime homes. “A lot of the properties that have been bought, they’ve been displacing a lot of people,” said Steven Posey, a Roxbury resident. “We can’t afford to live here anymore.”

The neighborhood is fighting back, though. A community group called Reclaim Roxbury has been working to combat gentrification in the area, and in fact was at least partly responsible for the large turnout at the BPDA meeting. They sent out dozens of flyers, pleading for community residents to raise their objections.  Along the bottom of the sheet, in all bold, it was written, “COME OUT AND SAY THAT ROXBURY RESIDENTS WANT DEVELOPMENT WITHOUT DISPLACEMENT!”

And come out they did. After Cooper spoke, scores of residents gave their two cents. Whether spoken in a soft pleading voice or a booming yell, the message was the same: We’re tired of displacement, and we’re tired of losing our neighborhood. The BPDA representative tried to calm the crowd down, and assure them that there was nothing nefarious about what the developers were doing. Besides, he said, “this is just a proposal—we want to get your input on the matter, that’s what this is all about.”

A voice countered from the crowd: “You’re talking about changing our culture!” Without hesitation, Cooper piped up with his addition. “They did it with the South End, too. And now they’re trying to do it here.”

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Roxbury’s roots trace all the way back to colonial times.

“The dregs of urban renewal”

Roxbury’s official history starts in 1630. That was the year the Massachusetts Bay colony made landfall on the East Coast, quickly making themselves comfortable by settling six towns. Roxbury was one of them.

The Roxbury of today, though? That history starts in the mid-20th century. Mostly due to the enormous influx of migrants from the South during that time, Roxbury’s demographics did a complete 180 during this time period, according to the Roxbury Historical Society. What was once a mostly white neighborhood turned into a mostly black one, as white residents fled for the suburbs.

With that population change came a culture change, as well. Roxbury become a hub for civil rights activism, with Malcolm X living in the neighborhood for nearly a decade and Martin Luther King preaching at the Twelfth Baptist Church.

Certainly, the neighborhood has dealt with its fair share of threats, perhaps the direst being the city’s plan to build an expressway that would cut right through the heart of Roxbury. If carried out, it would have irreparably torn the neighborhood in half.  But Roxbury residents would have none it, and protested throughout the 1960s to halt the plans. Their V-day came in 1972, when the city formally canceled any construction.

But the community’s victory was not complete. The proposed highway was just one part of a broader urban renewal program, one that put aesthetic desires over the needs of the community.

“They just came in and razed businesses,” said Bruce Bickerstaff, a Roxbury resident since the 1970s and the former chair of the Roxbury Neighborhood Council. “Coming here, you had the dregs of not only a depressed economy but the dregs of urban renewal.”

The fallout from this period brought heightened crime rates and poverty, two factors that burnished Roxbury a new reputation. It became one of those parts of town that you simply don’t go to. In the words of Charles Fountain, a longtime journalism professor at Northeastern University: “Around Columbus Avenue [in Roxbury], that used to be considered a combat zone.”

But Boston kept growing around Roxbury, both economically and in population. Before long, outside developers and institutions began encroaching into the area, eager to take advantage of the cheap property values and choice location. By the turn of the century, Roxbury was once again under threat. “When we first get a sense of outside interests, it was probably around 2000. That was when you really got a sense that a change was occurring, and the sense of gentrification has just gotten more intense every year [since then],” said Bickerstaff.

According to Japonica Brown-Saracino, a sociology professor at Boston University and the author of a book analyzing urban change in the city, there are early indicators of gentrification that can be easy to spot. “There are many signals, but one of the most immediate is that the racial and ethnic characteristics may change,” she said. Sure enough, between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, 1,180 white people moved into the neighborhood.

Another statistic is even more revealing: Between 2010 and 2015, Roxbury’s median housing costs saw the biggest jump of any neighborhood in the city, rising by nearly 70 percent, according to an Imagine Boston 2030 draft report. For comparison’s sake, the median housing cost in Boston as a whole increased by 36 percent. The rents in Roxbury are literally rising twice as quickly as everywhere else.

The question is no longer, “Is gentrification happening in Roxbury?” Instead, it’s, “Who is causing the gentrification and what can we do to slow them?”

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International Village looms over Roxbury. 

Benefiting off of other’s sacrifices

The answer to the first part of that question is wide ranging. In the BPDA meeting held at the Central Boston Elder Services building, the culprit was Feldco Development, a real estate development company with projects in New York and throughout New England. The Boller Building, a shiny new structure in Dudley Square that houses several trendy cafes and businesses, was spearheaded by Mecanoo, a global development firm.

One institution, though, has been a particularly present force in Roxbury and serves as a microcosm of the gentrification threat: Northeastern University. The college has built a multitude of facilities in Roxbury in the past 20 years, slowly creeping into a community that is starting to resent it. The group Reclaim Roxbury made combatting Northeastern one of their main action points, and Tito Jackson, the city councilor for the district, has minced no words in describing the school. “They’re the absolute worst,” he said.

To understand that tension, however, you must first understand the history of Northeastern. Starting with its inception in 1898, the school earned a reputation for providing education to the working class. Small in size and nondescript, it was primarily a commuter school that served the city of Boston and its surroundings. “This was the ‘give us your poor, your tired, your hungry, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ campus,” said Fountain.

But then came the University of Massachusetts Boston. The newest addition to the state university system had a similar focus as Northeastern, in that it provided a shot at higher education for those who otherwise might not have gotten it. A noble pursuit, but one that cut directly into Northeastern’s corner of the market. “Once UMass Boston was built, we started losing students rapidly,” said Barry Bluestone, founding director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern.

Less students meant less tuition money, a formula that spelled trouble. On the verge of bankruptcy in the early 1980s, the school had a harsh reality to face: Adapt or die. Administration chose to adapt by going bigger.  “What was decided was to become a national university,” said Bluestone.

That moment marked the launch of a concerted effort to rise in the rankings and gain prestige. The vision of being a school for the people of Boston shifted to becoming a school for the intellectually elite. Forget UMass Boston. Northeastern wanted their company to be Boston University, Boston College and Tufts.

By all measures, they were successful. Northeastern is currently tied with Boston University in the U.S. News and World Report rankings at 39, and 70 percent of their student body now hails from outside of Massachusetts. But that growth didn’t come without costs. All of the out-of-state and international students meant that facilities had to be constructed at a rapid pace. Just since 1999, 14 new residence halls have been built. Some of the largest of those were built in Roxbury, including International Village. At 22 stories, it is the tallest structure in the neighborhood. Quite literally, Northeastern looms over Roxbury.

All that development has dramatically increased rents in the parts of Roxbury adjacent to campus. “If there’s an institutional involvement, rents will go up quickly. [Realtors will] use new developments as a sign to raise rent prices,” said Brown-Saracino.

That impact has been undeniably felt in the neighborhood. “It puts some fear in my heart,” said Posey. A graduate of a now-defunct youth program hosted by Northeastern called GearUp, Posey has long been a supporter of the school. But as the development has continued, he has seen more and more of his neighbors become disillusioned with the institution. “When you mention Northeastern, [Roxbury residents] have such a disdain in their mouth,” he said. “It’s disheartening, because I love the university. I just feel like sometimes they’re just not thinking. They’re just thinking about their bottom line and what’s going to be cost effective.”

Bickerstaff similarly believes that Northeastern has lost its connection with the community. “I think that the institution across the board thinks, ‘Oh, we’re doing them a favor for the neighborhood [by developing].’ Well, if you’re walling off the rest of the community, then you’re not doing a favor. You have to give us a larger access, more opportunities,” he said. “Not to say that Northeastern is an ogre, but if you look at their expansion over the last decade, they’re absolutely need to be a balance.”

Roxbury has found an ally within the school in the pursuit of that balance. Not from anywhere within administration, however. The support has come from a student group. The campus coalition Students Against Institutional Discrimination (SAID) has made combatting gentrification in Roxbury one of its top priorities, setting up a task force specifically designed to help address the issue.

Joe Tache, a third-year entrepreneurship major and head of the task force, is disheartened by what he perceives to be a misalignment of priorities. “I get the impression that to Northeastern, the priority is becoming this global university and having the most prestige. Whatever has to be given up in that process is fair game,” he said. “I can respect the growth, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up the identity of being in this community and having commitments to the community.”

Bluestone has noticed the same problem. From his perspective, the school has become fixated outwards. “It’s not paying as much attention to the community that it’s part of,” he said. “My greatest fear is that the current administration at Northeastern is so focused on globalism, on building, that we sometimes forget that we live right here.”

For its part, Northeastern administration does not seem to believe that a problem exists. University spokesperson Matt McDonald neglected to acknowledge the outward growth of the school. “The university is not expanding, but rather, is building on land that it has owned for decades, with the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex and the Burke Street residence hall being examples,” he said.

The technical details of who owns what land is secondary, however, for many residents. It is the effects that development has had on Roxbury in terms of rising rent prices that are the most impactful. For many, Northeastern has failed to sufficiently address that concern. “You have to hold yourself on account to the community and mitigate costs. Some people might like the rise of property value, but there are a lot of people where that rise just makes their rent higher,” said Tache.

“We’re benefiting off of other people’s sacrifices. People had to give up their homes. To not care about that? It just doesn’t sit right with me.”

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A sketch of the development currently planned for Parcel 3 in Roxbury.

Looking ahead

Going forward, an unavoidable dilemma is looming in the relationship between Northeastern and Roxbury. One of the largest fuel sources for gentrification in the neighborhood has been the increasing number of students moving off campus. Often from more affluent backgrounds than Roxbury residents, Northeastern students (or their parents) are generally able and willing to pay more for somewhere to live.

“The single biggest issue has been student housing,” said Gerald Autler, a senior project manager at the BPDA. “As Northeastern has undergone a transformation from a regional commuter school to a residential campus with an international profile, that’s meant that the number of students who are living at home has shrunk. That’s created an impact on the local housing market, especially in Roxbury.”

According to Bluestone, the college has “done a decent job in housing our undergraduates.” But many, especially in the higher grade levels, still opt to live outside campus borders. Bluestone estimates that about 40 to 50 percent of Northeastern students still live off campus.

The solution to keeping kids on campus, then, is to build more dorms to accommodate more students. But without much acreage to work with, one of the only options for administration is to build on land outside of campus. Meaning, build in Roxbury.

“What that means is that even when they’re trying to house their students, they’re still going to be putting a lot of people in the surrounding communities,” said Steve Meacham, the organizing coordinator at City Life / Vida Urbana. “It will transform Dudley from being the heart of a black community to a whiter, wealthy enclave.”

It’s a Catch-22 for Roxbury. Either they pressure Northeastern to stop building in their community, and thus risk students taking over crucial housing, or they allow Northeastern to build more housing to hold those students, which could very well end up aiding gentrification anyways.

There are other avenues through which Northeastern can help ease the injury being done to Roxbury, however. The first is simple—just be better neighbors. “It’s not like UMass Amherst,” said Posey. “You’re actually stepping into a community. You join my community when you join the school. You treat it at as your home, because really, it is your home away from home.”

For Posey, that means getting involved in the neighborhood and giving help what you can. “The students need to volunteer in the community,” he said. “If they made that a graduation requirement, [Northeastern] would get so much love from the community. It opens the [students’] minds to a whole new different world.”

Autler proposes investing educationally in Roxbury. “You need to increase educational opportunities for people in those neighborhoods. Northeastern should do everything they can to help you achieve a college education,” he said.

For Bickerstaff, who also serves on a Northeastern-created task force that aims to gain community input on institutional development, thinks that making the relationship more cooperative than imperial is critical. “I would like to see them become a partner in development. I think Northeastern could be a staunch ally of developing along Columbus,” he said. “We have models, it’s not like we’re inventing the turducken, you know?”

Bickerstaff hasn’t yet seen that, however, leaving him pessimistic about the years to come: “[Based on their] previous interactions with the community, [I don’t] feel warm and fuzzy about future negotiations.”

He is not the only one skeptical that Roxbury will be better off soon. Tache looks back on history and doesn’t see a precedent for development actually improving the neighborhood. “Maybe it’s hypothetical that gentrification can make a neighborhood safer and help businesses. But I’ve yet to see to an example of institutions expanding into communities of people of color without displacement and further marginalization,” he said.

Brown-Saracino is similarly conditioned to believe that Roxbury will have a difficult time warding off the clutches of outside development. “On the whole, most neighborhoods and most areas have been quite unsuccessful [in combatting gentrification.] We let the market do what the market wants to do,” she said.

The market has made clear what it wants to do. Build and profit. Rinse and repeat. If some residents are forced out, so be it.

Northeastern is just one developer. The wave of gentrification is sure to continue as long as the city keeps booming and Roxbury stays cheap. And right now, it might even seem like a boon for Boston. Every city wants to flourish economically, to have every neighborhood be a Beacon Hill or Back Bay.

It’s a nice principle, but an ill-fated one. “In the long term, this is something the city will have to grapple with and confront,” said Brown-Saracino. “What happens when you don’t have an economically heterogeneous population? There are real consequences for the place and culture and character of the city.”

Part of the development plan proposed for Parcel 3 is a museum. Massive and modern, it would be a center for African-American arts and culture. In an area with as rich a history as Roxbury, it would seem fitting.

But at the raucous BPDA meeting, a women named Stacy, adorned in pink and white glasses put it this way: “How about instead of having an African-American museum there, we build housing units instead so people can look at African-Americans who are still alive?”

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Why do so many people like Future?

Think of the best year of your life.

Maybe it was the year you graduated high school or the year you got a car. Maybe it was the year you finally snagged a girlfriend or the year you finally bought a place of your own.

Now, multiply the positive things from that year by the number of tattoos Young Thug has. That is how good 2015 was to Future.

Future had one of the best years in rap history, thanks to an unprecedented mixtape and album run. On the back of the releases of Beast Mode, 56 Nights, Dirty Sprite 2, and What a Time to be Alive, he went from “popular rapper” to “cultural icon.” As much as any one person can own a period of time, Future owned 2015.

But you knew all that. His achievements have been applauded in article after article, and you would have to be living under a rock with very bad cell reception to be unaware of his exploits, both musically and socially. What you might not know though, is why precisely he has become so successful. Future is truly a musical enigma of sorts, because it is incredibly hard to pin down one reason for his mass acclaim, much more so than with other famous artists. Drake has beautiful dexterity in both singing and rapping, Kendrick Lamar is unmatched lyrically and J. Cole is as earnest and likeable as he is skilled. But what does Future have that makes him so special?

Lyrics are most definitely not the answer. As author of the New York Times bestseller “The Rap Yearbook”, Shea Serrano, puts it, “If you actually listen to what he’s saying, it’s some of the dumbest sh*t in the world.” Future simply can’t hang with many other rappers in this regard, often leaning on basic rhyme schemes and shallow lyrics. As descriptive as it is, lines like “I just took a piss and I seen codeine coming out,” are not going to set you apart.

And that is something even his fans can agree on. Adrian Kombe, a first-year student described Future’s lyricism as “not creative and pretty degenerative.” Ayorinde Ifatunji, a second-year student and Future fan, went with “terrible” when asked to label it.

The thematic content of his songs is nothing special either, unless you are super into lean and/or strippers. He occasionally touches on the poverty of his upbringing and his love life, but for the most part, his subjects of interest are limited to money, drugs and sex, and the way he discusses them is not novel or unique.

So with those ruled out, what is left is “his sound,” that vague term that encapsulates everything from production to the inflections in his voice. Somewhere in this murkiness is the key to figuring out Future’s appeal.

The sheer originality of his production and enunciation of lyrics could explain it partially. He doesn’t rap so much as he lets the words fall out of his mouth in a stream of syllables, and it is all laid over complex and layered beats. “It’s weird and eclectic, and you’re not really sure if you like it at first, but then you get into it and you’re like ‘Oh, this is bomb,’” said Ifatunji, an experience that countless Future fans can undoubtedly relate to. “The way he enunciates things is very different, but it’s consistent and sounds good,” said Kombe.

But that still fails to fully explain the mystery of Future. After all, most of those descriptions could be used for Rich Homie Quan, and he is nowhere near the importance level of Future. Serrano, however, may have deciphered Future’s appeal with one quote: “It just feels like he’s plugged into the universe.”

It sounds silly and vaguely ridiculous, but it hints toward a much greater truth; Future is excellent at relaying the emotions and feelings of the world around him, and he does it without stressing about lyrics. “He’s the first real post-word rapper. What he says doesn’t matter; it’s the emotions behind it,” said Serrano. “He was the first guy to be able to [relay emotions] without worrying about what he was saying.”

So while it may seem ironic for a trap rapper who talks mainly of drugs to be an expert in emotions, it could very well be the case. The reception of each of his individual mixtapes and albums is prime evidence. Heading into the release of Honest, his first studio album, it seemed like Future was set to blow up. Pluto and Pluto 3D set the scene for heightened commercial success, and Honest becoming a hit was the natural progression.

But it flopped, at least in terms of critical reception. It was a stark departure from the more brooding Future of before, and people did not like it. This was most likely because despite the title, the album felt dishonest. It felt overly poppy and seemed like a “play for radio attention,” in the words of Serrano. It was only when he returned to his introspective and darker roots with DS2 that he became an icon. It felt gritty and real, adjectives that definitively cannot be applied to Honest. “[With DS2] he wasn’t worrying about anything but getting his true sound out,” said Serrano. That necessity of honesty is critical to understanding Future’s success. Future can’t effectively display his emotions if he is not truthfully reporting them, and without that emotional layer to his music, he is nowhere.

It’s not just Future’s emotions that make his music so beloved, either. It’s the fact that his songs leave space for the listener’s emotions as well. Most of the population can’t identify with the events or topics in Future’s lyrics, but they can identify with the feel of his sound. It is impossible to listen to “Turn On the Lights” without sympathizing with Future’s loneliness, just as it is impossible to listen to “Where Ya At” without feeling his confident defiance. People don’t listen to him because they want to hear what he is feeling. They listen because they want to rouse those same emotions within themselves, an appeal that extends to tons of people, not just rap fans. “What’s common about everyone who listens to him is that it’s a reflective thing for them,” said Serrano.

Future will never be a lyrical genius. But he is an auditory one, in the sense that he can contort his words and sentences in ways people never really considered before. Combined with top-notch production from producers like Metro Boomin’ and DJ Esco, Future has authoritatively unlocked a new way to appeal to the masses. His music is less a refined and finished product and more of an open tapestry, one with ample room for listeners to inflect their own feelings and thoughts. Future’s triumphs are your triumphs, and his insecurities are your insecurities. That two-way emotional street is exceptionally rare in music, and it defines his rise to the top.

Originally published in Tastemakers Music Magazine

The gender gap in Marino’s weightroom

The Marino Center’s weight room radiates masculinity. Hulk-like men grunt and squint as they will their bench press bars up for one more rep. Sweat falls from foreheads and dots the rubber mats on the floor. Bicep curls are done in front of the wall-to-wall mirror so that weightlifters can admire their handiwork in real time. If there are any women, they are the vast minority.

Theoretically, the weight room is a genderless space. It’s meant for anyone who wants to pack on muscle, burn off stress or release endorphins. But for many women at Northeastern, this is not the reality. The room is dominated by sleeveless tees and testosterone; an unofficial boys’ club perched on the top floor of Marino.

“It’s just a lot of dudes bro-ing out,” quipped fourth-year law student Amanda Bradley. Keila Sheetz, a fourth-year biochemistry major, described it as “a lot of sweat and muscles and men.”

This bro-dominance at gyms is not restrained to Northeastern, either. Even though women make up roughly half of the gym population nationally, only 20 percent use weights at the recommended rates of at least two times per week.

Some of that figure can be chalked up to a simple lack of knowledge about the benefits of weightlifting, according to health website SparkPeople, but it is also undoubtedly due to the feeling that women don’t belong.

Sarah Konstantino, fifth-year marketing and management major, is one of the leaders of a female-only weightlifting class at Marino called Women of Iron. She described that often when a female lifter walks in to the weight room, the immediate thought is, “Oh … there are only men in here.” And fairly frequently, she has felt pressure from men to wrap up a workout so they can use the equipment. “If I’m on a machine, a guy will stand near me and wait. They ask me when I’m going to be done instead of the guy next to me,” said Konstantino.

Her co-leader of Women of Iron, second-year physical therapy major Aisling Dennehy, echoed this sentiment. “I’ve honestly felt pretty intimidated in the weight room,” she said. “That’s part of the reason why I don’t go in there very much. The only reason I ever really go in there is for the [Women of Iron] workout.”

This intimidation has created an environment where even when women do want to lift weights, they often have trouble finding someone to help them get familiar with the equipment (Since men dominate the weight room population, it is far more likely for a male to know a possible mentor and feel more comfortable in the weight room). This stunts most aspiring weightlifters before they can even lace up their sneakers. Establishing a weightlifting routine simply has a different level of difficulty than just hopping on a treadmill (And while Marino does have many female personal trainers, women should not have to dip into their wallets to find a weightlifting mentor).

“Everywhere else in the gym you can do your thing and it doesn’t really affect other people,” said Sheetz. “But in the weight room, if you’re doing something wrong it could affect someone’s ability to get a rack. Your workout is more connected to other people’s workouts; you have to know the etiquette.” Sheetz managed to break through this obstacle thanks to a friend who showed her the ropes. “It’s definitely good to have a way in,” said Sheetz.

Women of Iron was created with that goal in mind: to familiarize women and give them a “way in” to the weight room. According to Dennehy, the program – while very new – has already made a tangible impact. “Definitely for the girls who come to our workouts, it has given them confidence to come into the weight room,” she said.

If Marino’s weightroom is to become a place of relative gender equality, programs like this are a solid place to start. However, creating lasting change will be more difficult than creating a few women’s workout groups.. Making the weight room truly a more welcoming environment requires societal change, something not easily attained or even imminently possible. Perhaps the fastest way to begin creating this shift is a heightened awareness of the issue and encouragement amongst both genders for a more welcoming space.

“There should be reassurance from women, but also from men,” said Konstantino. “Why are [men] giving me a hard time for being in here? Don’t [they] appreciate women taking care of themselves?”

If momentum builds to get more women in the weightroom, a positive chain reaction could very well form. “The more women that go in, the more women that will go in [in the future],” said Dennehy.

Originally published in Woof Magazine

The NBA All-Star Game is terrible – Here’s how to fix it

Every Adam Sandler movie backwards.

An intellectual discussion about life’s meaning between Tila Tequila and Kim Kardashian.

A lightbulb for the full duration of its lifespan.

These are all things I would rather watch than the NBA All Star game. The West won this year’s iteration, which took place this past Sunday, by the score of 196-173, and it could truly be defined as terrible watching experience. The shot selection would have been highly suspect at a pickup game at Marino, much less an NBA game, and defenders were literally hopping out of the way to allow the other team to score.

I know why it exists. February is squarely in the doldrums of the too-long NBA season, and fans need something to look forward to. It’s great publicity for the league, and undoubtedly brings in huge amounts of cash. But the game itself has become almost a parody. The players don’t care, the coaches don’t care and the public will stop caring very soon. It’s sad, too, because the NBA is the perfect league for an All Star game. No other sport in the U.S. has such widely recognized players, and no other sport expresses the athletes’ skill so constantly. Something needs to change. With that in mind, here are some ways to rescue the NBA All Star game from the pits of basketball hell and bring it back to at least something resembling a competitive sport.

 

  1. Give the winning conference home court advantage in the Finals.

 This is what the MLB does, and they consistently have the most competitive and exciting All Star games. So take note of this sentence, because it will probably never be written again: The NBA should take a lesson from the MLB on being more exciting.

Getting to play the majority of your games in a playoff series at home is huge, especially in basketball. It means traveling less, no hotel rooms and the privilege of playing a Game 7 in front of your own fans instead of your opponent’s bloodthirsty crowd. It can seem like a minute advantage, but there is a reason teams jockey so hard for the higher seeds.

If the NBA were to implement this, it is pretty much guaranteed that the players would actually break a sweat. Imagine Lebron James and Steph Curry going 100% in the fourth quarter, because they know it could very well determine how a meeting in May between their two teams goes. Imagine Kawhi Leonard hounding Paul George on defense, because he knows it could help bring him another ring a few months from now. It would actually add purpose to a currently purposeless game.

 

  1. Have each conference’s team get picked by fan-selected captains.

 The All Star game is essentially a pick-up game, right? The players are only together for one game, having fun is (slightly) more important than winning and there is always that one guy who keeps pulling up for threes even though he is .2% for his career on them.

Why not have the teams set up like a pick-up game too? The fans would get to vote on who they think should be captain of each league, and the player with the most votes gets top dog status and gets to craft his own team. Plus, it would all be televised. This year, it probably would have been Lebron in the East and Steph Curry in the West. Which of his teammates would Curry pick first, Klay Thompson or Draymond Green? Would Lebron pick Kevin Love first, his current teammate, or Chris Bosh, his old teammate and friend? Would Kobe Bryant murder Curry on camera if he slipped past the fifth round? The potential for drama is definitely there.

 

  1. $$$$

 In the words of poet and icon Big Sean, “Ain’t nothing more important than the moolah.” That truth can be applied to NBA players, and maybe especially so. Players today are hyper aware of their brand and business, and some have whole marketing teams behind them. If a considerable cash bonus was given to players on the winning team, and an even more considerable grand prize given to the top performers on each team, then we would probably see a notable increase in defense. The number of revolutions per minute at which John Wooden and James Naismith are rolling in their graves would hopefully be decreased as well.

Plus, it would add a whole other dynamic. All Stars still on their rookie contracts would be diving after loose balls, throwing elbows and boxing out with a vengeance. The insanely rich players could take the prize money and donate it to charity or something along those lines. And at least one player would blow it all at a strip club that night and promptly end up on TMZ the next morning. Who says no?

Originally published in The Huntington News

Why we can’t ignore the Manning assault allegations

Peyton Manning is not just famous, he is deified. He has transcended the football world, where he accomplished almost everything a quarterback could hope to accomplish, and become something much more: a cultural icon.

He is a late night TV staple, with multiple appearances on Letterman and Saturday Night Live, and his unmistakable smile and forehead have graced more commercials than any other athlete. His fame has reached the point where any negative publicity simply rolls off of him, waterproofed by the public’s adoration. Al Jazeera mounted serious HGH allegations against him earlier this year, a claim that would at least blemish the image of almost any other athlete. But the public response to it was firm and fast in favor of his innocence. How could Peyton Manning, the golden boy from a golden family, do anything immoral?

The latest Manning controversy could meet the same fate. A report of Manning sexually assaulting an athletic trainer at the University of Tennessee while he was quarterback there has resurfaced and is back in the eye of the public, yet there is a distinct lack of attention. It is our obligation to make sure we don’t write this off like we did the HGH scandal. We don’t know yet what actually transpired that day, and there is a real possibility we never will. But to let our preconceived image of Manning blind us from investigating the assault fully would be an undeniable moral failure.

Simply put, we treat victims of sexual assault poorly in this country. We are quick to doubt their charges, especially when a celebrity is the one being accused, and we shame them regardless of whether they told the truth. Jamie Naughright, the victim in the Manning case, said that she “feared for her job…and feared for her life,” in the report she filed following the alleged assault.

That fear is not unique to her. Countless victims end up derided or ignored after reporting sexual assault− Erica Kinsman, who accused then Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston of rape in 2012, didn’t have her case investigated for ten months and endured countless threats when it finally was. If we don’t thoroughly explore Naughright’s accusations against Manning, then we are perpetuating a cycle of misogyny in favor of keeping our favorite athletes propped up.

Manning’s case is also part of another broad problem: the lack of accountability for big time college athletes. We treat 18-year-old kids like kings, and the “student” part in the phrase “student-athlete” is a joke. This culture pervades Division I athletics, and Manning’s alma mater is a perfect example. A Title IX lawsuit is being levied against the Volunteers right now, accusing the school of creating an environment so poisonous that multiple rapes by athletes went unpunished. The football coach, Butch Jones, reportedly told a player that he “betrayed the team” when he helped a women who said she was sexually assaulted by two other athletes.

The priorities at schools like Tennessee are clear; keep your players on the field first, worry about potential crimes second. If the allegations facing Manning turn out to be true, then they won’t be some crazy exception. They will be symptomatic of a long-term institutional failure. Brushing off Naughright would be easy, given the star power of Manning and the long elapsed time since the incident, but it would be a huge miss in addressing the twisted state of college football.

The way our society is currently set up, this controversy should do nothing to Manning. According to a Seton Hall poll conducted after the allegations resurfaced, Manning has a 68% favorability rating. That is as much as Steph Curry and Lebron James combined. Not only did the allegations fail to put a dent in how people view him, that 68% is Manning’s highest ever. Coming off of a Super Bowl win, the number is slightly understandable.

But that doesn’t make it any more acceptable. We need to treat this case for what it is−a serious accusation of one man forcing himself onto a woman. The fact that the man is Peyton Manning, quarterback god, should not matter. For too long, we have ignored sexual assault victims and let athletic privilege run rampant. The Manning case is a chance to turn the page.

Originally published in The Huntington News

Combatting stereotypes with comics

When you hear the phrase “art exhibit,” certain images and memories probably pop into your head. Maybe you remember getting dragged along to stuffy galleries by your parents on long Sunday afternoons. Maybe you remember staring at a blank canvas that was secretly disguised as “modern art.” Maybe you even like art exhibits, and reminisce fondly over spending hours looking at old Renaissance pieces.

Visible Noize, the current exhibition at Gallery 360 here at Northeastern is nothing like that.

The walls of the exhibit are adorned with Afrofuturistic drawings and comics, with everyone from black teenage superheroes to Martin Luther King depicted in the works. While comics might not be the first weapon you think of combatting in racism, the exhibit raises critical questions and exposes major holes in the media and art industry.

John Jennings, an associate professor of art and visual studies at the University of Buffalo and award-winning author and artist, is the primary driving force behind the exhibit. Northeastern University officials reached out to him, and after those initial talks, it took about six months for the exhibit to come to fruition.

Jennings describes the exhibit as a “small retrospective of my work related to various modes of black speculative cultural production,” and notes that it is unique in part because it focuses heavily on the different steps of making a comic. “The show is very centered on process and shows a lot of original analog sketches and also large reproductions of sequential illustrations,” he said.

He believes that there is an undeniable lack of black pop culture figures in our current society, to the point where it is impacting minority children.

“It’s important for everyone to see themselves in the culture that they participate in,” said Jennings. “Any images that we can find that depict what society actually looks like adds to the self-esteem of kids of color.”

His drawings certainly seem to do that. A vivid and huge comic strip hangs on one wall and sticks out as particularly powerful. It depicts a hero in a crackling array of colors, narrating his purpose. One quote in particular stands out: “I fight because the whole of time and space is engineered so that I can’t win.” It is a startlingly honest and aggressive statement, one that accurately reflects the struggle of being black in America. It is not hard to see the effect they could have on a child who has traditionally only seen his heroes depicted as white males.

Kyle Taylor, a black first year student, believes Jennings’ art is working towards a more equal representation in media. “He is definitely taking a step in the right direction by using minorities so prominently,” Taylor said.

And while Jennings’ work is certainly different than most mainstream cartoons and graphic novels, he ultimately hopes that it will become a normal representation. “These images are not only necessary, but should be naturalized,” Jennings said.

The current state of diversity in pop culture may not be ideal, but Jennings is optimistic about the future. “I do see [representation] improving,” he said. “Even if it’s because of the rapid increase of people of color in our country and how that increase will create more markets.”

Taylor believes that art such as Jennings’ is a good preliminary step, but more effort is needed. “[We need to] consciously keep making an effort that promotes black people and minorities normally as opposed to having every black art be some kind of statement,” he said.

As for future endeavors, Jennings hopes to do more of the same. “I think that my work will most likely stay in the same vein,” he said. “I intend to try and get out more of my ideas by changing my formatting for my stories, methodologies, and also by more collaborations with other creators who are like minded.”

Right now, Jennings’ work is unusual in a whitewashed field. But if he has his way, art like his will no longer stand out as unique. It will simply be normal.

Originally published in Woof Magazine online

A Northeastern student’s perspective on gun control

Death has become routine in this country.

News alerts detailing active shootings and multiple casualties are no longer unexpected occurrences. They are an entrenched part of American life. We have apple pie, we have baseball and we have mass shootings. We run through the same tired motion every time: first comes widespread shock,  then comes the pleas from President Obama to improve gun control, mental health, or both. It dominates headlines for a few days and then fades away into a debate that everyone knows will go nowhere.

This is the new American tradition. For a country that has had more mass shootings than days this year, the logical assumption is that we would be doing everything we can to end this sickness.

We do not.

Instead, we wallow in our grief and then promptly assert that guns don’t kill people, people kill people; a timeless and idiotic argument that has somehow stopped any attempt at gun control in its tracks.

We are enamored with guns – with bullets – and then we pretend to be surprised when someone uses one to destroy the lives of multiple humans. We aren’t playing with fire anymore. We live in it. We get mad when it burns us, but do nothing to put it out. Our infatuation is so extreme that  there are 129,817 places where you can buy a gun in this country.

There are 36,569 grocery stores.

It is a colossal failure of reason. Keeping civilians safe is the number one priority of the American government, and yet we watch scores of our own people die every month because we want to preserve the liberty of owning a firearm. Even when the most vulnerable of our people die, like the victims at Sandy Hook or San Bernardino, gun-rights proponents and the National Rifle Association (NRA) stand strong in their beliefs, because they believe it is their right to own as many killing machines as they please.

They do have that right, thanks to the Second Amendment. But if they really want to keep it, then every pro-gun supporter and policymaker must take on the responsibility of that right: ensuring it doesn’t infringe on other’s rights to safety.

According to the Washington Post, we have not had a week pass since 2013 without a mass shooting event. That means every week someone has lost their husband,  wife, son, or friend. The damage lasts far beyond the immediate murder: the collateral effect a shooting has on families and friends is almost as unspeakable as the crime itself. So when gun-rights supporters argue for their liberty to own firearms, they have a moral obligation to deeply consider what is lost with every gun death.

And if they still want their guns after that, then there is no hope. This is the single greatest moral issue of our time, and there is no ambiguity about it. If we can’t bring ourselves to address it, then we have failed as a nation. It should be noted, addressing it cannot mean arming more citizens, as some have suggested. Increasing the proliferation of guns will only mean more blood, and lead to a dangerous increase in vigilante attitudes. A bullet is a death sentence, and there is a reason we do not allow citizens to make that decision.

We college students do not have the most power in the world. With many of us assuming thousands in debt, we may even feel powerless. But we are not, if only because of one big thing; We can vote, and that is an ability we are not taking advantage of enough. In the last presidential election, less than half the population in our age bracket voted. In off-year elections, it’s even worse. Collectively, we can substantially sway the vote and help shape our government. We can address what is important to us simply by checking off a box for a certain candidate. Massachusetts is already a fairly liberal state, but a significant chunk of the student body is from other parts of the country. Absentee voting, especially in states that have no definitive lean, lets you voice your opinion in a more impactful way than it might here.

Increased advocacy could also be a key instrument of change. It sounds corny, but writing to your congressman (or any politician) can help, particularly when it is done in a large volume. Participating in protests and starting or signing petitions are other possible outlets. We as college-age students are blessed with energy and passion, and channeling it towards these could yield positive change. Passivity is a choice, not a natural state.

After every mass shooting, Facebook and Twitter are filled with posts that express outrage, sadness and deep sympathy. If those emotions are truly genuine, we as a whole can take them farther than the black hole of social media.

If we truly do care about lessening gun violence, this is where we start.

Originally published in Woof Magazine online