Activism In Suburbia: Art, Anti-Racism, and Community In Marlborough, MA

By Liz Smith for Boston Compass Blog

July 24, 2020

I am so grateful to be living in Boston during this time of revolution. The city is home to many empowering activists and community leaders who I have the privilege of learning from and I am able to attend weekly protests and demonstrations. Many organizations with clear mission statements, demands, and plans of action exist in Boston. It is often said that the best thing to do, especially for white activists such as myself, is follow the lead of organizers who have been fighting this fight for a long time.

However, I wonder about communities where established activist organizations are few and far between, like in suburbs. The protests inspired by outrage over the killing of George Floyd and repeated instances of police brutality have been happening all across the country, not just in major cities. It made me wonder more about activist efforts in smaller communities that may face additional challenges to organizing, such as lack of public transport or large public gathering spaces.

I decided to do some research on my hometown of Marlborough, MA. While I am currently a college student, studying and living in Boston, I attended Marlborough Public Schools, played town sports, and called the community my home for 18 years. Like many, I am vaguely aware of occurrences in my hometown from Facebook and the occasional gossip with friends from home. Recently I’ve been proud of my community’s organizing from afar, as they held a Marlborough Against Racism Peace Vigil on June 4th and later a Juneteenth Freedom Tribute. I wanted to get a closer look at the recent events in Marlborough and check in with community leaders to learn what the battle against white supremacy looks like in my hometown.

I had the opportunity to chat with Mike D. Joseph, co-chair of One Marlborough. Mike has lived in Marlborough for 18 years. After moving from Waltham when he was 10 years old, he attended Marlborough Public Schools, went to the Boys and Girls Club, and played on the high school football team. In our conversation, Mike was clear: racism certainly exists in Marlborough, as acts of racism happen in every community, however he wants to emphasize all the welcoming and open minded people of Marlborough as well.

With so much experience living in Marlborough, it makes sense that Mike is one of the founders of One Marlborough. One Marlborough is an emerging organization of residents advocating to end systemic racism and promote community unity within the city. One Marlborough came out of connections between community leaders such as Sam Pearlman, the youngest woman ever elected to the Marlborough City Council, and Pamela McNair, whom Mike credits with the ideas for the Peace Vigil held on June 4th. Phone calls between these community leaders, led to the formation of the One Marlborough Facebook group.

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Photo taken by Julia Seymour at One Marlborough's June 4th Marlborough Against Racism Peace Vigil

One Marlborough has big plans for the future. One of their initial goals is to act as a bridge between the public and the police. One Marlborough recognizes the need for an outside entity to be responsible for investigating and monitoring police activity in our community. Mike is hopeful after recent discussions with the Chief of Police that they will be able to increase police accountability through making policing data more transparent.

Diversity and inclusion are also paramount. As One Marlborough continues to establish and organize themselves, they are dedicated to creating more diversity in leadership in Marlborough. Mike specifically highlighted the need for more teachers of color in Marlborough Public Schools and the need to remove police presence within the schools. Advocating for LGBTQ+ and immigrant rights are also important pillars of One Marlborough.

As One Marlborough continues to establish and organize themselves, they are dedicated to creating more diversity in leadership in Marlborough.

Another Marlborough group has been taking an active role in the Black Lives Matter movement. Marlborough Makers was founded by Jamie Andrade after they moved to the city two years ago. After attending MassArt, Jamie was looking to move to the more affordable central Massachusetts area, but was hesitant to leave the vibrant arts community they found in the city. Jamie was told “move to Maynard or Hudson. That is where the artists are. ” True to these sentiments, Jamie found Marlborough to be a city lacking in a local art scene, but that didn’t deter them. Instead, Jamie founded Marlborough Makers to highlight the arts and culture that the city had to offer.

Marlborough Makers is a volunteer group with no subscription fees. Jamie is clear that many artists already live and work in Marlborough even if they don’t consider themselves as such. “If you make something that makes you an artist,” Jamie states; they aim to empower these makers by creating low stakes environments where emerging artists can pilot showing their wares and building confidence.

“If you make something that makes you an artist”

One such initiative Jamie has undertaken is maintaining a table at a local Farmers Market. By putting in the financial effort and manual labor into obtaining vending opportunities, Jamie creates very accessible opportunities for first-time sellers. In the future, Jamie hopes to continue to empower local residents through Marlborough Makers. They want to expand their efforts to assist local artists with grant writing for themselves. Additionally, Jamie is hoping for more volunteers and to create an inclusive arts scene where public art is accessible.

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Speechless 💗

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Now Jamie finds themself taking on an active role in Marlborough’s Black Lives Matter movement. The connection between art and activism? Jamie explains Marlborough Makers needs to reflect community values. “Art is supposed to be in service of the community,” Jamie underlines. And the community response indicates that Marlborough values anti-racism. Both Jamie and Mike spoke positively of the two recent BLM gatherings held in Marlborough. Previously Mike thought, “most white people don’t see the world the way we do,” but the support and gathering of many white Marlborough residents was encouraging, he believes now many white folk are willing to learn and listen.

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So much art, creativity and passion at Marlborough’s first Juneteenth celebration. . . If you see your sign and want credit please let us know how to tag you!

A post shared by Marlborough Makers (@marlboroughmakers) on

The dark cloud hanging over these beautiful displays of community has been the apathy from the Mayor of Marlborough, Authur G. Vigeant. At these events, many residents used a QR code to send a pre-written letter to the mayor, to which no responses had yet been received when I chatted with Jamie in early July. Perhaps more troubling than the lack of response to these letters has been the statement issued by Mayor Vigeant in June. The statement begins with Vigeant’s declaration that he is just as “upset as all of you” about recent instances of police brutality. However, Vigeant then spends the majority of the letter defending the Marlborough Police Department, and goes on to write that as long as he holds the Office of Mayor, under no circumstances will he ever consider a proposal to defund or abolish the police.

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Photos of the Digital Activism Bulletin Boards at the Juneteenth rally prompting residents to email letters to the Mayor

While many, myself included, are outraged by the lack of empathy and understanding from the Mayor’s statement, Mike believes attacking the Mayor is not the way to go. He says, “if you want someone to change you can’t ostracize them. You need to educate and open up that dialogue.” One Marlborough has plans to meet with Mayor Vigeant in the future where Mike hopes to begin that dialogue towards mutual understanding and compassion. Mike also said, “[Mayor Vigeant] is a reflection of all of us, but the people of Marlborough are better than that statement”

"If you want someone to change you can’t ostracize them. You need to educate and open up that dialogue.”

Both Jamie and Mike agreed that the lack of transparency of information is a major hurdle to overcome. To combat systemic injustice in Marlborough, information such as policing data and polling dates and locations needs to be widely accessible. That includes reaching the city’s large Spanish and Portugese speaking populations.

enter image description here Photo taken by Julia Seymour at One Marlborough's June 4th Marlborough Against Racism Peace Vigil

Marlborough residents can engage in local politics and push for transparency in a variety of ways. First and foremost, residents should stay informed by joining the One Marlborough Facebook group. One Marlborough is forming subcommittees for residents to engage in specific areas. Currently they are looking for volunteers for a judicial committee, school committee, and local government committee. All three subcommittees will be regularly meeting with Marlborough’s leaders and sharing the mission of One Marlborough.

One Marlborough also has a website, Instagram, Facebook page, and Twitter for residents to stay informed about upcoming events.

Residents can also voice their concerns directly to the Mayor's Office by calling (508) 460-3770 or emailing and including "ATTN Mayor Vigeant" in the subject line. Marlborough community member Emily Wilde has created and shared a template email for residents to copy, edit, and send.

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Photo taken by Julia Seymour at One Marlborough's June 4th Marlborough Against Racism Peace Vigil

In addition to getting involved with One Marlborough, residents can help develop Marlborough into a city with a vibrant and thriving arts community. Marlborough Makers is leading the way and Jamie has started by addressing the current laws making public art illegal in the city of Marlborough. Currently, all public art must be directly approved by the mayor. Jamie is pushing for a more democratic system by submitting a Mural Ordinance to the City Council. People can tune in to the virtual meeting and speak on the record or submit written testimony. However, with back-ups related to COVID-19, the review of the mural ordinance is not scheduled. Follow Marlborough Maker’s website or Instagram for future updates.

Jamie also has broader art activism goals for Marlborough, and they believes the next step is addressing the status of Marlborough’s Culture Council. Currently, the Council serves as a steering committee with little agency to pursue their own projects. Jamie says Marlborough’s Cultural Council needs to be an active governing body.

What can other people living in suburbia do?

So you don’t live in Marlborough and you made it this far into my article? Good for you and fear not! Mike has tips for others looking to be politically active in smaller communities where they may not know many like minded folks. He reflects honestly saying, “I didn’t think anyone in Marlborough was for the movement.” He began engaging by going to Boston to participate in demonstrations. Mike recommends others go to a community that is active and learn from their style of organizing then take back their knowledge to their own communities. He learned a lot from speaking with Boston-based organizers.

Next Mike recommends using the power of social media, put out content to figure out who is like minded and join groups online. He emphasizes that action starts with small efforts that then generate attention and inspire more people. He says, “it doesn’t matter if it's just you, just you is enough.” And lastly, of course, there are a plethora of options for those who aren’t able to attend protests in the midst of COVID-19, including signing petitions, donating to local organizations, and sharing information on social media.

“It doesn’t matter if it's just you, just you is enough."

I know from personal experience that in suburbia it is easy for white folks to believe “racism doesn’t happen here” and when confronted by our communities’ deficiencies it is easy to feel ashamed and turn away. But it is imperative that we continue to bear witness to our community’s white supremacy and inequalities as identifying these issues is the first step to dismantling them.

When I hear from leaders like Jamie and Mike, I’m not ashamed of what Marlborough lacks, but proud and hopeful for the future.

The cover image for this article was also taken by Julia Seymour during Marlborough's June 4th Marlborough Against Racism Peace Vigil