The Responsibility of Intellectuals to a Changing City

George R. Greenidge. Jr. HGSE ‘96, Ash Center Democracy Visiting Fellow, doesn’t draw a line between scholarship and community advocacy, using both to combat gentrification and racial injustice.

On Sunday, November 29, 1992, as the clock neared 7:00 p.m., a rumbling crowd of students, scholars, and community members took their seats in Harvard Kennedy School’s JFK Jr. Forum. Harvard Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah took the microphone to introduce that evening’s event, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack.” Among the attendees was Ash Center Visiting Democracy Fellow George “Chip” Greenidge, Jr., then a 21-year-old undergraduate student at Morehouse College. He sat rapt as the panel of Boston-area advocates, community leaders, and Harvard professors discussed not only crack cocaine’s devastating impact on the local community, but the responsibility of the city’s Black scholars to be actively involved in staving off its destruction.

“That forum changed my life,” reflects Greenidge, who was home for Thanksgiving at the time. “It lit a fire under me about the role of the Black intellectual in urban communities and provided me a framework with which to see how badly written governmental policies can impact an entire community. This set the trajectory for my own activism to change how Black people see themselves in society.”

Growing up in Cambridge in the 1970s and 1980s, Greenidge had a front-row seat to a changing Boston. He recalls his early years as a teenager fondly. After school, he would walk over to Harvard Square to visit his grandfather, the head chef at German-food staple Wursthaus Restaurant. He’d often greet Frank Cardullo, the owner of Wursthaus and Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, who gave George and his friends free hamburgers and French fries on Saturdays when they visited. He spent his afternoons amongst the rows of comic books at the Million Year Picnic Shop on Mount Auburn Street and hanging out in the Harvard Coop.

Yet, he soon realized the landscape of Cambridge was destined to transform. When Greenidge returned from college in the early 1990s, he discovered the vacant lot next to his neighborhood had been developed. As new technology companies moved into Kendall Square, the surrounding areas became more desirable—and more expensive. Businesses, universities, and residents battled for space, often driving up prices. The combination of increasing cost and the elimination of rent control in the mid-90s, forced out long-term residents, many of them from minority communities. “My fascination with and work understanding the economic development of urban cities and its impact on displacement and gentrification of residents has always brought me back to my experience growing up in Cambridge, right in Central Square and Kendall Square,” he says.

Analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston now backs up what Greenidge observed; there is a staggering wealth gap between Boston’s Black and white families. While the net worth of a white family averages around $250,000, for a Black family that number is only eight dollars. Armed with this knowledge, we’re faced with the question of how we might connect Boston’s minority populations to prime job opportunities and if this, as an ideological whole, could be considered a breach of some larger social contract. Greenidge himself poses the question, “what does it mean to truly support the Black community and it not be considered a handout, welfare or affirmative action to correct these wrongs of past written government policies that exacerbated the wealth gap between Black people and white people in America?”

For Greenidge, the answer lies at the intersection of scholarship and community advocacy. Greenidge quickly realized he had a responsibility to use his education to serve his community, inspired by his attendance that day in 1992 as well as by his mentors such as Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree J.D. ‘78, the City of Cambridge’s first Black mayor Kenneth E. Reeves ’72, Reverend Eugene Rivers, and civil rights activist Bob Moses A.M. ’57. After graduating from Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1996, Greenidge held several non-profit and public sector leadership roles. While working at organizations like the Boston Foundation, the Boston Empowerment Zone, Boston City Hall, and Greatest MINDS, which he founded to help high school and college students become the next generation of civic leaders, he always made an effort to talk with both political leaders and community members to help solve the communities most pressing problems.

George Greenidge, hands folded in front, smiling to camera, in front of painted wall of many colors and bird imagery
Greenidge believes in the intersection of “town and gown,” using scholarship to actively improve the surrounding community.

A current Ph.D. candidate at Georgia State University, Greenidge uses these decades of conversations to inform his research on how gentrification and displacement impact minority communities and how cities can pursue equitable economic development. “I am strongly in favor of the ways in which citizens can work with local governments to combat gentrification and displacement through smart policies like inclusionary zoning or some form of rent control/relief,” he says.

In the culmination of his graduate work, Greenidge plans to address how economic institutions, such as city agencies, developers, and residential and commercial leasing companies, affect members of society, particularly marginalized sub-populations. He hopes his research can inform these organizations’ approaches to equitable development going forward as well as arm advocates with the information they need to prevent future displacement.

He sees the greatest potential for positive change in Cambridge and Boston. “Kendall Square in Cambridge has been cited as the most innovative square mile on the planet. Unlike other communities, we have resources to support this work. Here, biotech and tech companies should share the burden of our city’s needs—helping to ensure clean air, clean water, and transportation in addition to providing jobs for residents. With their collaboration, we can create a more inclusive economy for all,” he says.

Greenidge’s work exploring the relationship between equitable economic advancement and citizen engagement made him an obvious fit for the Visiting Democracy Fellowship program at the Ash Center, which helps scholars further their research on substantive democratic governance issues. Joining the Ash Center in the fall of 2021 was a “homecoming,” as he quickly got back into the rhythm of Boston politics. On any given day, Greenidge can be found organizing a vaccine campaign for Black youth in Roxbury, moderating a political forum on the inequities in Boston’s nightlife, or deep in discussion with students and scholars at the Kennedy School.

“It has been delightful to have George in our community of democracy fellows this year,” says Archon Fung, Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government and Director of the Democratic Governance Program at the Ash Center. “He brings deep and textured knowledge of Boston politics, with a broader insight about ways to deepen American democracy in the face of deep racial and economic inequality.”

George Greenidge, seated at a table, outside, talking with students Darold Cuba (right) MC/MPA ‘21 and community member like Kalu K. Ugwuomo, Jr. (left) Co-founder and Managing Partner at Kalgomex Ventures
Greenidge (center) can often be found meeting with students like Darold Cuba (right) MC/MPA ‘21 and community members like Kalu K. Ugwuomo, Jr. (left) Co-founder and Managing Partner at Kalgomex Ventures.

Greenidge plans to continue to putting insight into action after receiving his doctorate, and he encourages his fellow academic scholars to join him. “I suggest people go to community meetings, sit in the audience, listen a lot, and make friends,” he says. If that can happen, he has faith that collaborative efforts by scholars, non-profits, and the public sector can make a difference in bridging the deep racial gaps in urban America. “I have hope in my life as a scholar-activist that our American cities will get it right.”

And if Greenidge has anything to do with it, we will get it right. This year, the American Sociological Association awarded him their inaugural Community and Urban Sociology Section’s 2021 Publicly Engaged Scholar Award for his convening and advocacy, diversity, equity and inclusion programming efforts in urban communities/cities. “I hope one of the hundreds of the forums I hosted over the years will excite our college students to step up to the leadership mantle just like the forum here at the Kennedy School did for me 30 years ago,” Greenidge concludes.

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