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A Safer, Healthier Boston

In seeking funding for non-carceral mental health crisis response, we're hoping to bring a small piece of our abolitionist horizon to our city.

Hero – Boston MH Action

In 2020, people across the country took to the streets in response to the police murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor. The concept of abolition moved to the mainstream thanks to the work of organizers who had been laying the groundwork long before 2020, but saw this moment as a unique window of opportunity to seize the public discourse. In Boston, people joined in these national mass actions, calling for defunding the Boston Police Department and reinvesting that money in communities. Led by the Defund BosCops Coalition and other local Black organizers, community members demanded funding for youth jobs, affordable housing, and participatory budgeting as part of an abolitionist vision and future for our city.

Part of that vision was for the creation and funding of a non-police, community-based mental health crisis response. According to sources collected by our partners at Interrupting Criminalization in a 2021 report, since 2015, more than 6,000 people have been killed by the police, and of those 6,000, almost one in four were people who were, or were perceived to be, experiencing a mental health crisis. They also report that a person with unmet mental health needs is sixteen times more likely to be killed by the police. In 2023, there were at least three police killings in the Boston area, at least two of which involved the person experiencing a mental health crisis.

On June 16, 2023, following years of organizing, Boston city leaders had an opportunity to bring a small piece of our abolitionist horizon to life here in our city, but Mayor Michelle Wu vetoed a city council’s budget proposal to invest in a pilot for a non-police, community-based mental health crisis response that was designed by community—which emerged from an initial request for proposals that came from the city itself.

To fully understand this moment in Boston history and the challenges we face, it’s critical to backtrack and share a bit more about the lead-up to this veto—and to share our plans for continued organizing to win a pilot for our non-carceral mental health crisis response for this city, as part of a larger vision for a safer, healthier, and more just Boston for all.

Deep organizing laid the groundwork for the upsurge in activism in 2020. This included the Defund BosCops Coalition, made up of local grassroots community-based organizing groups such as Youth Justice and Power Union, For the People Boston, Muslim Justice League, Asian American Resource Workshop, Families for Justice as Healing, Material Aid and Advocacy Program, and Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network. As a result, Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s administration earmarked $1.7 million for the development of a community proposal for what a non-police, mental health crisis response for Boston could look like in her 2021 budget.

In April 2021, Boston put out a request for proposals for organizations to facilitate a community-led design group process to develop this new model. Then in January 2022, in what came as a bit of a surprise to our organizations due to our unabashed abolitionist values, the City School and Boston Liberation Health were selected as the organizational leads to facilitate this community-led design process. The City School, where Husain works, is a youth racial and social justice leadership development organization that has been based in Boston for nearly three decades. The Boston Liberation Health Group, where Emy serves on the steering committee, has been around for two decades, organizing social workers, health-care workers, and service users toward health justice and liberation. Both organizations are dedicated to building toward an abolitionist future in Boston and beyond through organizing toward practices and institutions rooted in genuine care and healing.

Community-led design group during a design group session at the City School office in April, 2022. (Courtesy of Boston Liberation Health.)

City leaders selected fourteen members of the community-led design group, who had both lived and professional experience with mental health crises. Over the course of nine months, the facilitation team organized seven data-driven planning sessions, followed by an intensive retreat and six community listening sessions with over 200 community members. The whole process was rooted in core values of racial, economic, gender, queer, and disability justice, and included learning from local and national groups engaging in crisis response work, ranging from national groups such as STAR in Denver to local groups such as Cambridge HEART. The initial draft of the model was refined through the listening sessions, and the team developed a final report, which was submitted to Boston City Hall in November 2022.

As this history makes clear, the model’s development was rooted in the needs, desires, and hopes of those most impacted by the harms of the role of policing in our current mental health crisis response in Boston. Through the collective work of the community-led design group and its facilitators, and the wealth of knowledge they gathered as described above, what came together was what a response to mental health crisis can look like outside the bounds of our society’s current carceral conceptual limitations. It may be helpful then to take a look at some aspects of the model itself.

Scope, dispatch, operations and staffing: One of the fundamental questions we had to answer was what were the actual situations that the local community feels are the highest need for a non-police response. The resultant “scope of response” includes: A person having a mental health crisis; periodic sick visits and wellness checks; safety or health concerns related to substance overuse, or syringe disposal; safe non-police transportation to a hospital or a different safe location; and more.

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Once we determined the scope, we explored the process of actually contacting and sending out responders. We recommended that the response be accessible 24/7, across all neighborhoods in the city, and by multiple means—among them an independent 3-digit number, diverting calls from 911 and 988, and social media. It became evident that the response would be most effective with staff that reflected the community in which they were responding and with lived experience of mental health crises, including Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, disabled folks, and a multilingual team. One staffing need that emerged was the need to not include clinicians on the response team, which was explained as a key component of a non-carceral response and a decision rooted in their status as mandated reporters.

Situating the model and funding sources: One of the key questions about the model that was extensively discussed and debated, was where it should stand in relation to the state. Ultimately, we recommended the model be situated in a public agency. While perhaps surprising to some, reasons for this include a guarantee of unionized, well-paying positions for response team members, minimizing the likelihood of staff turnover, and a higher likelihood of sustainability as a public program. Given the inextricable relationship between the state and systems of policing, however, this would also require the creation of a community oversight and accountability board formed as a decision-making body that guides direction and implementation of the program. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, funding for this model must be reallocated from the police budget to another city agency, such as the public health department.

After the submission of our report to City Hall and Mayor Michelle Wu, we began our organizing efforts to demand full funding—$2.6 million—for a pilot of our Mental Health Crisis Response (MHCR) model, with those funds diverted directly from the Boston police budget. Our goals for the first year of organizing included engaging people in power such as the mayor and city councilors to support our campaign; passing an amendment including the full funding of a MHCR pilot in the Fiscal Year 2024 city budget; developing an intergenerational group of campaign leaders; and mobilizing youth and community members most impacted by policing to drive the campaign.

The design team initially struggled to engage the mayor. She did not join any of the design team sessions, and a number of scheduled meetings that were slated to take place in early 2023 to present the final report were canceled. Despite this lack of engagement from the mayor, on April 27, 2023, organizers and youth workers from across the city who were part of The City School’s Ella Baker Fellowship led and organized an action at a Boston City Hall budget hearing. The action mobilized nearly 100 community members to City Hall, with about 40 young people, social workers, and folks most impacted by policing testifying as to why the MHCR would benefit them and their communities.

Organizers and youth workers during an action at the Boston City Hall budget hearing on April 27, 2023. (Courtesy of The City School.)

To prepare for the hearing, youth leaders held workshops in the community on our MHCR model—to help people understand the city budget process and instruct them on best practices for public testimony. After the hearing, due to its overwhelming success, we worked with Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson and Councilor Kendra Lara, who agreed to submit a budget amendment with our demand for $2.6 million to fully fund a pilot of our model in the FY24 budget.

Due in large part to the power that we built during the youth- and young adult-led April budget hearing action, we were finally able to meet with Mayor Wu in May, where she made it clear that she would not be supporting our team’s demand for $2.6 million in the FY24 budget to fund a pilot of the MHCR model for the City of Boston. The reasoning that she shared with us was that she did not have enough time. Despite the mayor’s opposition, we continued to engage the Boston City Council, through advocating for a budget amendment—a strategy we could pursue because of the council’s expanded budgetary authority as a result of the passing of Ballot Question 1 in November 2021. As a result, on June 7, 2023, the council passed a budget that included an amendment with our demand for $2.6 million to fully fund a pilot of the MHCR. Just hours later, however, two councilors, Gabriela Coletta and Brian Worrell, changed their votes and the amendment was defeated, possibly in an attempt to realign themselves with the mayor’s vision for the budget.

Despite this setback, our team mobilized organizers to attend several of the mayor’s “Coffee Hours,” which is billed as a space where residents have the “unique opportunity to speak directly with the Mayor and staff from City departments about open space and their neighborhoods.” We attended the Coffee Hours held in Mattapan and Mission Hill, majority-Black and working-class neighborhoods, in order to keep up the pressure on the city. Our team had the opportunity to directly engage the mayor and other councilors in attendance on their positions on the amendment and on our demand.

After reconvening on June 14, 2023, our demand passed the City Council again through an amendment, thanks to yes votes from councilors Ricardo Arroyo, Liz Breadon, Tania Fernandes Anderson, Kendra Lara, Ruthzee Louijeune, Julia Mejia, and Brian Worrell. (We received no votes from councilors Frank Baker, Gabriela Coletta, Michael Flaherty, Ed Flynn, and Erin Murphy.) Unfortunately, two days later, Mayor Wu vetoed our demand and amendment.  The mayor’s final operating budget in FY24 included a $9 million increase for the Boston Police Department and she is now proposing a $50 million increase in the FY25 budget.

As we reflected on the first year of organizing, it became evident that we were going to need more people power to win our abolitionist demand in the face of an increasingly conservative city government. We collectively decided to pivot to a base-building model of organizing to engage more people more deeply in our campaign. Base-building involves intentional recruitment and development of community members most affected by an issue to become members and leaders of a campaign and direct organizing strategy and decision making. We are building toward a year-long, member-driven campaign, focused not only on advocacy during the budget season, but on proactively organizing throughout the rest of the year as well.

To ensure our campaign is being led by those with the most stake in a non-police crisis response, our campaign base members are all residents of Boston who are part of communities directly impacted by policing, among them Black, brown, queer, trans, disabled, youth, working-class, and immigrant, and either have lived or professional experiences with mental health crises. Members are now meeting regularly to build community, develop campaign strategy, recruit other members and leaders, facilitate signature drives for our petition, and plan and lead actions to win a fully funded pilot of our MHCR in the city budget. With a high membership turnover in the city council this year, we are curious where the new councilors will fall in relation to supporting our model, defunding the police, and feeling empowered to amend and push back on the mayor’s proposed budget. Regardless, with our pivot to a base-building model for organizing, our main goal is to build community power and campaign sustainability, beyond who is currently in office, to be able to push back more broadly against the funding of carceral institutions while fighting for funding the needs of our community.

Organizers, including the authors (second and third on the front row) attend Mayor Wu’s Mattapan Coffee Hour on June 8, 2023. (Courtesy of The City School.)

As we continue to build grassroots power amongst MHCR campaign members to support our collective vision for winning a non-police, non-carceral, community-based mental health crisis response, a question that often surfaces is what abolition looks and feels like in the interim. Our campaign is not only focused on the fight for funding for a crisis response model on a city level, but to engage in the broader creative work of the everyday practices of abolition that oppressed communities have always been and continue to practice.

Here’s what we believe: Creating community safety and accountability practices around sexual violence is abolition. Participating in mutual aid so communities can provide freely for each other under capitalism is abolition. Navigating queerness and transness through chosen family instead of toxic heteronormative family structures is abolition. The relationships people nurture with their peers, neighbors, loved ones, and friends are healing and normalizing of their identities and experiences with crises. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us, abolition is just as much about the presence of all of these things, as it is about the absence of institutions like police, prisons, and professionalized carceral mental healthcare institutions that isolate us from these “life-affirming” connections and practices that have helped us all survive under racial capitalism. 

In our MHCR campaign, members are already building and fostering radical relationships to rely on each other instead of punitive, carceral state systems of “care.” Through the coming weeks, months, and years of this campaign, we hope not only to build a base for abolitionist care and healing in the city of Boston, but also inspire the confidence in each other that abolition is possible in our lifetimes. Indeed, it is something all of us are already practicing and breathing life into today.

Header image: Organizers gather at an action at the Boston City Hall budget hearing on April 27, 2023. (Courtesy of The City School. Image treatment by Inquest.)