2017 – Local Entrepreneur Launches Diverse Organic Product Line

Published in the Bay State Banner, January 11, 2017

Photo: courtesy Made Organics

There are few things more comforting than a mother’s touch — whether it’s a homemade meal, a note in your lunchbox, or a buttery moisturizer.

Bernette Dawson, mother of two, sells handcrafted organic, grooming products using only fair trade ingredients through her business, Made Organics, LLC. The “made” stands for Mother Approved Daily Essentials, which is organized as a limited liability corporation.

With items like white mint cocoa whipped butter or cold-pressed argan oil, Dawson creates simple, but luxurious beauty staples that everyone and anyone can use.

Formally Lady B Naturals, Made Organics began as a home experiment. During one of Boston’s harsh winters, Dawson set out to make a soothing, safe and all-natural skin remedy for her son.

She spent about three years researching and working in her kitchen, trying out different ingredients and recipes. “When I found something that worked, I used it for myself and my sons,” said Dawson.

Friends and family were soon clamoring to try Dawson’s creations, and one friend even asked her to include one of her creams in a gift basket she was giving away at an event. “At that point, if I wanted to put this product in this basket and people liked it, I wanted them to be able to go to a website and order more if they wanted,” said Dawson.

Early support

In 2015, when the company started out with the name Lady B Naturals, Dawson was selected as a cohort for Babson’s College’s WIN Lab accelerator program.

The program is open to Babson College students and alumni, with only a couple spots given to Boston-based female entrepreneurs via a partnership with the City of Boston’s Women on Main Initiative. Dawson recalls a pivotal moment during a pitching session with a live audience and a panel of judges.

One of the judges was brutally honest. “She said, ‘I love your product and story, I hate your brand’”, said Dawson.

She was undeterred, however, and gained invaluable advice from the critical judge. “After the pitch, I pulled her aside and asked her what I could do better,” said Dawson. “She said ‘Lady B Naturals is not you. Tell your story.’”

Hardly unable to sleep, Dawson thought about what the judge said for the rest of the night and woke up the next morning with a new idea. “I don’t know why but Made has to be in the title of our new brand,” Dawson told her husband Abdul, who she considers her business partner. A focus group on Facebook with 60 friends and family helped the Dawsons decide on Made Organics, and the new company was born.

Read the rest here.

2016 – A Maverick Approach to Liquor Licensing

Published in DigBoston, September 8, 2016

Photo provided by Maverick Marketplace Cafe

It’s a Wednesday summer evening, and Sean Von Clauss is performing in the corner of a dimly lit cafe in East Boston. Behind the venue’s nine wooden dinner tables, patrons at the eight-seat bar watch along enthusiastically. An antique-style rug covers most of the room, giving the place an intimate feel.

Von Clauss finishes a song, his soulful vocals backed by an acoustic guitar, and the small crowd cheers. “Have you been practicing without me?” someone yells. John Tyler, who owns the building housing the establishment, takes a couple of drinks over to guests sitting in the miniature beer garden outside, where lights twinkle and Von Clauss’s music floats into the early evening breeze.

Maverick Marketplace Cafe is a restaurant and bar housed in the similarly named incubator building, Maverick Marketplace, where 16 other small local businesses also live. As part of the incubator business model, budding entrepreneurs rent space to grow their enterprise in a community environment. For a small restaurant in this part of town, this opportunity is more unique than some may realize.

The cafe holds one of the 75 liquor licenses that the Massachusetts legislature, under pressure from Boston City Councilor-at-Large Ayanna Pressley and other advocates for neighborhoods where nightlife options are sparse, granted Boston in 2012. Of those licenses, 80 percent were allocated to businesses in areas like Eastie that have been historically underserved and underrepresented.

Due to a current state-imposed cap on licenses in the city, those which are available can sell on the private market for upwards of $350,000. There is also significant bureaucratic rigmarole that applicants may have to endure, only to be denied in the end “without prejudice.”

“We wouldn’t even have considered the $350,000,” says Tyler. Along with his wife Melissa, John Tyler bought and renovated the former Welfare building on Maverick Street that had been abandoned for 24 years. The long road to the Welfare building’s transformation began in 2005 when the Tylers submitted a request to purchase the building from the City of Boston. After acquiring the appropriate permits and approvals and financing, the renovations began in earnest in 2012 with support from the city, financing by First Priority Credit Union, and more than $500,000 in owner equity.

Tyler adds that the newly available licenses were much more affordable and allowed them to diversify the cafe’s business. (When restaurateurs have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a license, they often have to sell expensive food and beverages).

East Boston has traditionally been an immigrant town: Irish and Canadians in 1855, Italians and Russian Jews throughout the early 1900s. Nowadays the locals predominantly belong to the Latin American immigrant population, particularly from countries including Colombia and El Salvador. The Tylers, however, moved to East Boston in 2002 from the United Kingdom, where John was a ship captain on private yachts traveling around New England and the Caribbean.

“For us, it was a no-brainer to invest in our neighborhood,” he says. Tyler works closely with Danny and Maria Cordon, the owners of his building’s namesake cafe, and adds: “The next act of progression was to keep putting our money where our mouths were and start up a restaurant in the space. We felt that there was a need for it.”

Read the rest here.

2016 – Little House Emissaries

Published in DigBoston, May 5, 2016

Photo by Alison Mead

From Martha’s Vineyard to Boston to Los Angeles, the small home movement struggles for acceptance at the end of the road

“That’s definitely tiny.”

Mike Mitchell is standing outside of a blue cottage with scalloped roof trimming on Martha’s Vineyard in an area known to locals as “The Campground,” or Wesleyan Grove. He’s a carpenter in his 60s with light eyes and a sunny demeanor, and he’s part of the minority (about 10 percent) of the cottage owners who remain on the 34-acre swath of land in the off-season. The cottages have an otherworldly quality: cobblestone paths, playful animal carvings, and whimsical sayings like “La Dolce Vita” or “Summer Love.” The compound seems like it came straight out of a children’s storybook setting, or Epcot.

This particular house is about 12.5 by 27 feet. It’s among the smaller of the cottages that are on the campground, which total just over 300, but everything about cottage life is relatively small compared to the typical American household. For Mitchell, Wesleyan Grove is a real-life example of what a tiny house community might look like, something that he hopes to one day see on Martha’s Vineyard.

“My vision is you take a land lot that can fit a four-to-six-bedroom house,” he says. “And instead of that, put four or six tiny houses, and you cluster them, kind of like the campground.”

“Tiny houses could be an affordable option for the island’s working class,” Mitchell adds. “This includes plumbers, carpenters, and teachers.”

Tiny houses have hit headlines for their eccentricities and, most recently, as a way to help the 44,000 homeless people in and around Los Angeles. At least, that’s what LA resident Elvis Summers was hoping for when he constructed and gave out 37 tiny homes to those in need. However, the small structures, which were parked along sidewalks, caught the attention of city officials and have been tagged for removal. Connie Llanos, a spokeswoman for LA mayor Eric Garcetti, told NPR that the tiny houses were safety hazards.

In some places, however, an increasing number of city planners and housing advocates are looking at small dwellings as a possible solution to housing pressures. On the famously elite islands off Cape Cod, that impact is most severely felt by people in the lower and working classes.

According to Philippe Jordi, executive director of the Island Housing Trust, there is a housing crisis on the Vineyard, where most market-rate homes start at around half a million dollars. He references the 2014 American Communities Survey on the state of housing in Dukes County (in which 99 percent of residents live on the Vineyard), which found that about 75 percent of housing units are valued at $500,000 or more, compared to 21 percent of housing statewide. Furthermore, at the time of the survey, 60 percent of homeowners in Dukes were paying monthly mortgages of more than $2,000, while 40 percent of all renters were paying more than a third of their income on housing.

Mitchell notes that Martha’s Vineyard is a well-known vacation destination for influential people, and even tells a story about the time former President of the United States Bill Clinton visited the campground. The Wesleyan Grove resident, who has a background in computer science, was working as a digital contractor for the Secret Service at the time and describes Bubba as a “very charismatic man.” Still, Mitchell’s idea is to welcome people in a much lower tax bracket than Clinton.

“They want it to be a place they can live in during the summer,” he says of wealthy tourists. “They can’t do that if the working class doesn’t have housing.”

Mitchell’s vision is a throwback to the Methodists who settled in the area in the 1870s and would gather at a meeting house called the Tabernacle, which still stands today. On these grounds 19th-century Methodists held “camp meetings” for sermons and prayers, while congregants pitched tents that eventually became more permanent. Specifically, Mitchell hopes for a future in which tight-knit communities of smaller units share amenities in a central structure that houses a kitchen and laundry.

Home is Where the Cart is

The idea of tiny houses or small living spaces has been around since early human settlements camped out in Turkish yurts and gypsy caravans. The modern interpretation—like Macy Miller’s tiny house in Idaho—has seen a significant increase in popularity in the wake of the housing market collapse of 2008. So-called “tiny houses,” which are typically between 200 and 400 square feet, are part of a social movement of people looking to downsize their living situation. Owners typically value an alternative lifestyle that minimizes their financial expenses, decreases their carbon footprint, and adds flexibility to their lives.

In Massachusetts, tiny houses on wheels are lumped into the same category as mobile homes, and under the state’s building code it is prohibited to live in these types of structures for more than 30 days. If they are built on a foundation—and few of them are—common features of tiny houses, such as ladders to sleeping lofts and a single egress (rather than two, in case of fire), are not allowed by building codes. Adding to the restrictions are building permits that are required to move a tiny house structure to its desired location, as well as health code regulations and other zoning rules for different towns and cities.

With the state’s complex legal infrastructure, local tiny house enthusiasts are forced to get creative. “As we go forward with tiny houses, everyone’s collectively trying to figure out where they fit,” says Amy Henion, a recent Northeastern grad and tiny house blogger who is originally from Boston. Some live in their tiny dwellings under the radar, in friends’ or relatives’ backyards. Others relocate to rural areas or out of state in the hopes of finding a more private environment.

Read the rest here. 

2016 – Mayor leads city forum on racism

Published in the Bay State Banner, November 22, 2016

Photo provided by Mayor’s Office

The Cutler Majestic Theatre was at full capacity on Saturday morning with students, educators, elected officials, community organizers and other Boston residents who were ready to have a difficult but necessary talk.

Mayor Martin Walsh, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and Emerson College, hosted a public discussion on the state of racism in Boston and the steps the city can take to become more “socially cohesive and resilient.”

“This is the right conversation in the right time to have it, in the right city,” said the mayor, who described seeing sadness and frustration among the people of Boston the day after the presidential election results.

The event’s keynote speakers included James Rooney, president of the Boston Chamber of Commerce; Otis Rolley, 100 Resilient Cities regional director for Africa and North America; Debby Irving, author of “Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race”; Ceasar McDowell, MIT professor of community development; and two teen empowerment organizers, Kendra Gerald and Dante Omorogbe.

Before an audience of 600 people, each speaker spoke to what had been for many years in Boston the elephant in the room.

“As a city, we’re hanging on to a whole lot of messed up crap,” said Rooney, referring to Boston’s history of redlining, segregation, hostility and school desegregation. He announced that the Chamber of Commerce will be engaged in action-oriented reflection over the next year, in partnership with the mayor’s office, on issues of small business, diversity, workforce development and economic mobility.

“Racism may seem to some an issue that exists in relative isolation from the rest of the city’s problems,” said Rolley. “It does not.”

Irving, who spent years working on racial equity work, shared her own previous misconceptions, which undermined her best intentions. As a white woman, “I had a limited understanding of racism,” she said. “I thought it was just about people not liking each other and I was so wrong.” She spoke to the audience about the importance of acknowledging the normalization of whiteness, the whitewashing of history and the myth of meritocracy.

Read the rest here.

2016 – Chef-entrepreneurs open eatery on Roxbury/South End border

Published in the Bay State Banner, December 21, 2016

Photo by Jose Luis Martinez

For Douglass Williams, Italian cuisine is the most relatable food in the world. Perhaps it’s the comforting flavors of olive oil and Parmesan, or the versatility of pasta, but Williams believes it can bring people together.

MIDA, which is Italian for “he gives me,” is a new restaurant venture by Williams and Brian Lesser. The restaurant is located at 782 Tremont Street in the South End, on the edge of Roxbury — a distinction of neighborhoods that was not lost on anyone, Williams said. Despite economic and racial divisions, “What can bring two sides together?” he asked. “I thought about what I like to do the most, what I like to serve the best, what I like to teach people the most, and I said, ‘Pasta.’”

Williams’ theory about Italian food being widely loved is an educated one, drawing on 13 years of chef experience, including five whirlwind years traveling the world. Originally from Atlantic City, his culinary roots are in Boston where he first worked at Radius and then at Coppa, where he “just fell in love” with the process of making pasta, he said.

He left Coppa to go to Thailand. “I wanted to learn more about other cuisines and see how that relates,” he said. He taught Thai locals how to make pasta, and learned how to make rice-based noodles. Then came a stint in New York City, where he worked at Paul Liebrandt’s Corton. Liebrandt, in 2000, was the youngest chef ever to earn a three-star review from The New York Times, at age 25.

Teamwork

Williams then spent some time in Paris, further refining his skills. “What I learned the most was that everybody there owned restaurants at 26 or 28 years old. And I said, ‘What am I doing here?’” He returned to Boston with one goal in mind.

Opening MIDA with Lesser was something he could not have done by himself, said Williams.

“Having a good partner really, really helps. And getting people to be honest with you, hiring the right people from the start,” he said. “You need to let people help you.”

Williams reached out to the Boston-based Restaurant Investment Group, a collective of restaurant and financial consultants spearheaded by real estate lawyer Dan Dain that provides access to capital and financial expertise to young chefs.

“We had conversations, tastings, and lessons on what needed to be done, as far as financial commitment, contracts, personal commitments, everything,” said Williams. MIDA is RIG’s first investment so far, with other restaurant openings in the works.

Read the rest here.

Elizabeth Warren Rallies with Thousands of Union Workers

Published in the Bay State Banner, September 15, 2016

Photo by Karen Morales (at-large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley pictured)

“As I look out to all of you, I am reminded of what my parents fought for. They fought for dignity and family,” said Roxana Rivera, vice president of SEIU 32BJ, last Saturday to a crowd of 2,000 service workers and their supporters. Rain poured down on the scene but the music and chanting continued on.

The janitors and security officers of the 32BJ chapter of the Service Employees International Union had gathered around the Boston Common Parkman Bandstand to support a new contract proposal that would expand opportunities for full-time employment and ensure raises that keep up with cost of living in Boston.

The contract in question covers 13,000 workers who clean, maintain and protect over 2,000 buildings in the city, including the John Hancock Tower and the Prudential Tower. The current contract expires on September 30.

Senator Elizabeth Warren and city councilors Ayanna Pressley and Tito Jackson joined the rally to show their solidarity.

Members of SEIU 32BJ from all over New England also came out to support the cause.

“This sticking together thing is important to make sure that we have a country we can thrive in and raise families with dignity and respect,” said SEIU Executive Vice President Valarie Long.

Long observed that the movement was for more than just a contract. “It’s about immigrant rights, it’s about racial justice, it’s about environmental justice, it’s about economic justice,” she said. “Those things together — that’s what we’re fighting for.”

As the rain gave way to sunshine, an array of speakers, from union members to politicians, addressed the crowd.

“This city needs you,” said Senator Warren. “These gleaming towers around us — they wouldn’t be so gleaming if it weren’t for the people who work hard, who vacuumed, who emptied the trash, who kept it all going for the rest of us.”

Senator Warren said that her father was a janitor and she witnessed firsthand the backbreaking work of a service worker. “In this fight for fair wages, I’m with you,” she said.

“This is not a fight for charity,” said Pressley. “It’s about what you and your families have earned.”

The union’s proposals also include expanding employer-paid health care to family members of full-time workers. Janitors and security officers have experienced employers who deliberately limit workers to part-time shifts, so as to shirk responsibility for providing healthcare to employees.

SEIU 32BJ also emphasized the post-recession era and Boston’s strong commercial real estate industry, with its low vacancy rents and high rents.

“The promise of America is for everyone, including the thousands of men and women who clean and maintain office buildings and college campuses in Massachusetts,” said Rivera.

After the remarks, thousands of SEIU 32BJ members and supporters proceeded from Boston Common down Newbury Street to Copley Square.

32BJ is the largest property service workers union in the country, with 155,000 members in eleven states and Washington D.C.

Early Voting Sites Open in Boston This Week

Published in the Bay State Banner, October 26, 2016

Photo by Karen Morales

On Boston’s first day of early voting ever, 4,289 ballots were cast across four different voting locations in the city, according to numbers released by the Boston Elections Department.

Massachusetts passed a 2014 law that requires cities and towns to hold an early voting every two years before the November general election. Thirty other states have also passed laws allowing residents to vote before Election Day.

From October 24 to November 4, voters can cast their ballots at locations across the city with the option to send their ballot through the mail. Twenty-eight locations will be used throughout the voting period with various hours of operation.

“We just want to make it as easy as possible for everyone to vote, there’s no excuse you can’t vote,” said Mayor Marty Walsh at a press conference held on Monday at City Hall. The municipal building kicked off early voting at 9 a.m., and after 1 p.m., more than 700 ballots had been cast, including the Mayor’s.

“I think folks are very interested in particular in this election,” said Dion Irish, Commissioner of the Boston Elections Department. “Having more options for people to cast their vote to be counted on November 8th is better for democracy.”

After the last ballots had been cast on Monday at 8 p.m., 1,818 votes were counted at City Hall, including 16 provisional ballots. At Orient Heights Yacht Club, The Metropolitan condominiums in Chinatown, and the Harriet Tubman House in the South End where polls opened at 2 p.m., a total of 417, 729, and 1,325 votes were cast, respectively. The Metropolitan’s vote tally included 18 provisional votes while Harriet Tubman House had 16 provisional votes in their totals. Provisional ballots are those in which voters’ registrations have yet to be verified.

On Saturday October 29, residents will have the opportunity to vote at 9 different polling locations, one in each city council district, from noon to 6 p.m.

According to Irish, every early voting site is accessible for persons with disabilities.

“They are all equipped with AutoMark machines to assist voters, and chairs are available to assist folks who can’t wait in line longer than expected,” he said. Automark machines assist voters with sensory and physical limitations in marking their ballots, as well as provides language translation.

“I happened to be out today, and though I might as well come down here and vote,” said Herb Webb, a resident of Back Bay. “I’m excited to be here for early voting, this is a brand new.”

According to Mayor Walsh, $670,000 for early voting was allocated in last year’s city budget.

City Hall will remain open for voting Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. through 8 p.m. until November 4.