The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News

Roxbury activist Klare Allen speaks for justice

By James Abisamra

More than a decade ago, Klare Allen was homeless and living out of a hotel room. She was down and out and too helpless to defend herself against the smallest of scavengers.

“We had just spent $50 on groceries and had to keep them by the window to keep them cool because the room had no refrigerator,” said Allen, who was living with family out of the rented room because the welfare shelters nearby were full. “A seagull just came by and swooped up our groceries.”

Now, no longer homeless, Allen realized she was not really helpless. In fact, she could help others and fight seemingly Herculean hardships in the community.

In the early 1990s, Allen embarked on her community service work by founding a coalition, that helped homeless mothers in shelters. After being offered a home by a Roslindale man following her work, Allen stayed connected with the women she knew who were still living in shelters. She would visit these women, offer to listen to their problems and take them grocery shopping.

“I just felt compelled to help,” Allen said.

Following her work with homeless women, Allen decided to pursue more challenging goals to defend her community from injustice. In 1995, she joined the staff of Alternatives for Community ‘ Environment, a non-profit, environmental justice organization. While working there, she realized the “[Roxbury] community did not have to look the way it looked.”

“If we wanted change for ourselves, then we would have to fight for it,” Allen said.

In 2000, Allen created Safety Net, a community activist group based in Roxbury. She said her goal was to educate and empower the people of Roxbury and to have them not feel inferior to people who try to take advantage of them.

“Everybody is an equal,” Allen said. “Everybody puts their pants and shoes on the same way, some people just make more money.”

Northeastern became an opponent of Safety Net with one issue: the use of the Parcel-18 plot of land, on which a 1,200 bed, 22-story residence is being built.

This summer, Allen and Safety Net protested the building on Parcel-18, land that Northeastern has owned for more than a decade.

Allen said a Massachusetts guideline states projects like the building on Parcel-18 would require Northeastern to make a good faith effort in requiring at least 50 percent of the laborers on the site to be from the local community. Allen protested that the university was using less than the established 50 percent of local workers and little to none workers from Lower Roxbury.

“In the beginning, [Northeastern] would say that they would hire local workers,” Allen said. “But then construction begins and they put up a green fence to hide who is working. And when you see behind the fence, it is not local workers working but a bunch of white guys. And even when they hired a local worker, they were always the first to get laid off.”

Allen was onto something with her protests. The News previously reported that Joseph Warren, special assistant to the director in the department of government relations and community affairs at Northeastern, admitted that the university was not meeting its figures for hiring local workers.

Allen also noted that while she and Warren may have “butted heads during protesting sessions,” she still respected and did not hold anything personally against him because “he was just doing his job like I was doing my job.”

Fred McGrail, a Northeastern spokesperson, said in a recent interview with The News that Northeastern held more than 40 community meetings in regards to the plans of developing Parcel-18. McGrail also said dialogue between the university and the community, even through activism, was healthy.

“It is our goal not to have people protest the university, but we respect people’s right to free speech and try to come to an agreement,” he said.

Allen said university officials initially told her they could not find enough people in Roxbury to work on the project. That was not true, Allen said, and all the university had to do was “take their ass down Dudley Square and they’d find enough people to overfill their quota.”

“We don’t get anything out of this building [on Parcel-18],” Allen said. “So if the university is going to put this up in our community, and in our vision, then it should at least employ people from our community to help build it.”

Allen said her main opponent is another Boston school: Boston University. Since 2002, Allen and Safety Net have been fighting to keep BU from building a Level 4 Biosafety Lab in Roxbury.

Allen said the lab, which would be testing diseases like anthrax and hemorrhagic fever, would be a major risk to have in the community. Allen said this was an aspect of the lab BU tried to conceal.

“I asked them why they did not have a community meeting to discuss what they were building,” Allen said. “They told us no because the citizens of Roxbury were not competent enough to discuss the issues. From that point on, we told everyone in the community what was really being built!”

In 2003, Allen and Safety Net filed lawsuits against BU. This past December, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of Allen, prohibiting the Level 4 lab. BU appealed the decision but still cannot open the lab until at least 2010, when a federal court hears the case.

Because her name is commonplace is local media, Allen receives calls from many people asking for her help on issues involving everything from environmental justice to helping feed the hungry. And although she is taking on larger issues, she still feels compelled to help on more minute ones.

“What I am is a resident who went through different and difficult challenges in my life,” Allen said. “And in order to get respect for myself and those in my situation, I had to speak up.”

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