By Ashley D’Souza

Brookline community members gathered last Thursday evening at the Florida Ruffin Ridley School to celebrate “Our Community, Our Story: The Understanding Brookline Launch,” an event organized by the Brookline Community Foundation (BCF). The event launched BCF’s new research series and community indicators database and included a panel discussion about inequity and meaningful change in Brookline. Local elected officials, including Brookline school committee members and State Representative Tommy Vitolo, attended and mingled with the crowd. Event registration was capped, and BCF estimates that 250 people showed up.

The event opened with remarks from Aba Taylor, BCF executive director. “BCF is one of the smallest but mightiest community foundations in the country,” Taylor announced to a full auditorium. “We are living in incredibly challenging times, and we need significant change. I’m hopeful that this is something we can address together.”

Caption: Ginelle Vasquez gives opening remarks

Attendees then heard from Ginelle Vasquez, MSW, LICSW, and former tenant of the Brookline Housing Authority. Vasquez shared the hardships she and her family faced when they moved to Brookline, noting how her daughters felt othered at school due to race and class within a primarily wealthy and white demographic. She emphasized the roles of supportive programs like Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath) and assistance from BCF in helping her thrive and reach where she is now. EMPath is a Boston-based nonprofit that provides direct services, advocacy, research, and a global learning network to create individualized pathways out of poverty. “When I moved here, I was broken. That program really carried me through,” said Vasquez.

Meghan Guidry, BCF’s director of communications, then gave attendees a first look at Understanding Brookline, BCF’s new community indicators database, and provided a live walkthrough demonstrating how to navigate the database. Understanding Brookline provides real-time, continuously updated data on 50 indicators within the community, economic equality and justice, education, essential needs, health, and racial equity metrics. It also allows users to create and customize dashboards, which are summaries of indicators from multiple categories within a single panel of view. Guidry explained that the tool empowers users to identify patterns and relationships between issues, address root causes, and create lasting change. For more information and to use the database, visit

An hour-long panel discussion followed. The panel was comprised of the following leaders in public health, education, and racial and economic justice:

  • Malcolm Cawthorne, teacher and METCO Director for the Public Schools of Brookline
  • Dr. Chris Chanyasulkit, President of the American Public Health Association (APHA)
  • Dr. Raul Fernandez, Senior Lecturer at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education and Human Development
  • Dr. Linus Guillory, Superintendent for the Public Schools of Brookline
  • Kim Janey, CEO of EMPath and former Mayor of Boston
  • Bob Van Meter, Interim Executive Director for the Brookline Community Development Corporation

The panel began by discussing diversity and inclusion, with Cawthorne highlighting how the already low proportion of African American residents in Brookline — less than 3% — continues to decrease. Dr. Chanyasulkit also mentioned that Asian residents are severely underrepresented in town government despite making up nearly 20% of Brookline’s population. The panel connected issues of diversity and inclusion to the housing shortage, stating that Brookline should be ashamed of its continued unaffordability. Van Meter noted that due to zoning laws, many of the existing multifamily buildings in Brookline could not be built today and that these zoning laws were enacted knowing that it would mean fewer affordable homes and less diversity.

The panel brought up the hypocrisy in Brookline’s presented attitudes towards diversity — seen in abundant lawn signs stating that “Black Lives Matter” and “Refugees are Welcome Here” — given the reality that affordable housing is inaccessible in Brookline. They emphasized the urgency of creating stable housing for all as a fundamental prerequisite to both economic and educational progress. “‘Refugees are Welcome Here.’ Where?” demanded Dr. Fernandez. “Where can they afford to live? Or are they just welcome to pass through?”

Caption: Kim Janey speaks on panel

The panel discussion then moved to the topic of economic injustice. Janey spoke about the recent trend of increased focus on economic and racial injustice and urged the audience and her fellow panelists to act on economic mobility before the trend stops. She emphasized the importance of helping those pushed to the margins of society to participate and thrive and noted two EMPath programs created to address economic injustice: the Career Family Opportunity Program (CFO), a five-year program aimed at developing self-sufficiency for participants, and the Newton Economic Stability and Mobility Initiative, a partnership with the City of Newton to support low-income families through intensive coaching over two years. Janey also addressed skepticism of universal basic income and stated that when implemented, universal basic income leads to significant improvement in economic mobility and addressing injustice. “The data shows that it works,” she said.

Throughout the panel discussion, Dr. Chanyasulkit urged attendees to vote in local elections in order to tackle inequities in all spheres, including public health. She explained that supporting change at the local level can make Brookline a model for other cities, states, and municipalities so that addressing inequity becomes a nationwide trend. “Vote in local elections,” she urged. “It is the zoning, it is the public housing sites: this is where health happens.”

Caption: Full panel and moderator Aba Taylor

As the panel discussion neared its end, the conversation moved to disparities in public school education in Brookline. When asked how to address these disparities, Dr. Guillory advised parents and schools to focus on improving literary work for children between birth and grade three to ensure that every one models reading skills from an early age. He highlighted the importance of supporting and uplifting parents to prepare their children. “What are we doing before grade three so that we aren’t chasing afterward to close the gap?” he asked. The panel also advocated for providing universal Pre-K as a foundation for the youngest children’s education, rousing cheers of agreement from the audience.

After an evening of enlightening discussions, passionate calls to action, and vulnerable stories of hardship, the event closed with words from BCF Board President Gioia Perugini and State Representative Tommy Vitolo. Vitolo urged attendees to support local nonprofits like BCF by not only attending and participating in events like Understanding Brookline but also by donating. “BCF is doing the work, and they’re doing it for free,” he said. “So, put in.”

Caption: Attendees mingle and wait for event to begin

The event also included live music by the Washington Square Jazz Ensemble and desserts by Tappan Green, a student-run restaurant at Brookline High School. The Brookline Community Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to creating opportunity and promoting equity in Brookline. They partner with donors to fund local organizations supporting education, health, racial equity, and more and conduct research to identify community needs. To learn more about the Brookline Community Foundation or to make a donation, visit their website at