In 1721, as an outbreak of smallpox caused panic in Boston, an African slave spoke up and helped solve the public health crisis.
Onesimus informed his master, Cotton Mather, the city’s most powerful man, that Africans of that era stopped the deadly disease from spreading by extracting fluid from the blisters and scratching it into the skin of healthy people, using a thorn.
Despite the enormous difference in their social status, Mather listened to his slave and enlisted Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to experiment with the African practice, which was rudimentary but medically sound. Smallpox inoculation was the first major innovation made in Massachusetts with a person of color as prime mover. It was not to be the last.
A 2006 study of 60 significant innovations in Massachusetts during the last 400 years found that more than a third involved people of color, women or immigrants. To give a few examples, African Americans participated in a big way in the first pamphlet calling for the total abolition of slavery (David Walker), the invention of the telephone (Lewis Latimer) and the first infant formula (Louise A. Giblin).
Launched a year ago, the Commonwealth Compact aims to make the state’s future resemble its innovative past by fostering more diversity in businesses, governments and nonprofits.
This spring, the initiative, based at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, published aggregate numbers on the level of diversity up and down the ranks of 111 institutions, which have committed to making their workforces and boards of directors more representative.
“We thought we’d get eight or 10 to sign up. We got 111,” says Stephen P. Crosby, dean of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at UMass-Boston. “This is an unusual initiative. We can’t find anything like this.”
Since May, the number of entities that have joined the Commonwealth Compact has grown to 140, including the governments of the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts. All have volunteered to provide, annually and on a confidential basis, information on their personnel broken down by race and ethnicity. Those data are totaled and also aggregated by industry, then published to provide benchmarks for institutions to measure themselves against competitors and other parts of the state’s economy.
“I commend the compact and its research, but time will tell if measurable progress will be made as a result of the compact’s efforts,” says Shirley J. Wilcher, a Mattapan resident who is executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action. “Improving Boston’s reputation as a ‘welcoming’ city for minorities would be admirable and desirable and, given the changing demographics, just good business.”
The first benchmarks, covering about 180,000 employees or 5.5 percent of the state’s labor, may make the workforce appear more diverse than it actually is.
Crosby, a co-founder of the compact along with former Suffolk County district attorney Ralph Martin II and Boston Globe Publisher P. Steven Ainsley, acknowledges that the initial participants tend to be predisposed to diversity.
Persons of color were reported to comprise 34 percent of all employees and 22 percent of managers and senior executives. In 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that Hispanics and members of a racial minority made up 20 percent of the state population.
“Our goal is to reach at least 1,000 companies so we get representative data,” says Georgianna Meléndez, one of the compact’s three co-directors. The former assistant commissioner of the state Department of Transitional Assistance emphasizes the benchmarks are not intended to be “a shame or blame thing” for participating institutions.
A traditional pattern of minorities being concentrated in the lowest-level jobs is reflected in the current, aggregated data. That concentration was greatest in the health care field, a fast-growing part of the state economy. In the lowest-paying health jobs, 55 percent of employees were minorities. At the top end of the employment ladder, minorities accounted for just 12 percent of managers or officers at for-profit companies.
“I would be looking for sincere efforts to recruit and a demonstrable commitment from the very top of the member organizations, not only to diversify the entry levels, but the executive suites as well,” says Wilcher, who directed the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs during the Clinton administration.
To promote diversity, the 111 institutions were most likely to advertise in racial-ethnic media (85 percent of them) and offer mentoring programs (77 percent). About half or fewer routinely took the stronger measures of requiring minorities to be included in hiring pools or taking diversity into account when promoting or compensating managers.
“There’s hardly anybody who doesn’t accept diversity as a goal,” says Crosby, who conceived of the initiative after participating in the 2006 study on innovation. “But where they put it in their hierarchy of priorities — that’s another question.”
Besides publishing the benchmarks, the Commonwealth Compact intends to help participants accomplish greater diversity by creating a “job connector” and a clearinghouse for finding minority candidates and contractors.
Robert L. Turner, a co-director with Meléndez, says the job connector will provide information not only on job seekers, but also on potential candidates for boards of directors. The goal is to have that resource operating by this fall, says Turner, a former deputy editor of the Globe’s editorial page.
The clearinghouse, he says, will provide companies with information about minority contractors and about providers of such workplace services as mentoring and training. Another thrust will be to link minority recruits to resources to facilitate their smooth resettlement in the state.
Both the job connector and clearinghouse, Turner says, are designed to help participating entities “do what they want to do anyway, but do it better.”
Just collecting the data can help the institutions recognize, upon reflection, organizational shortcomings, Crosby says. WGBH, for instance, noticed right away that it was not doing enough to line up business with minority contractors.
There is also the possibility that peer pressure, or competition with similar entities, may inject more vigor into efforts to diversify. “I hope that is a motivator too,” Turner says.
The statewide initiative is still getting off the ground, as evidenced by a review of the list of the 140 organizations that have joined.
Higher education and health care are well represented by major colleges and medical providers in the Boston area, including Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Partners HealthCare and Tufts Medical Center.
Other sectors are spotty. The Massachusetts Biotechnology Council has signed up, but not Genentech or Genzyme. In financial services, Putnam Investments and John Hancock are participating; so far, Fidelity and Bank of America are not.
Prominent local brands, Staples and The TJX Companies, have joined, while others have yet to do so — Raytheon, Dunkin’ Donuts and Stop & Shop.
Among broadcasters, WGBH and WCVB are on the list, while WBZ or WHDH aren’t. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Boston Children’s Museum have joined; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra haven’t.
Turner says some institutions have been contacted and are seeking assurances about the confidentiality of the data. Currently, the state government, with 64,000 employees, is the largest entity to join. Because the smallest have as few as five workers, a large number of institutions could potentially participate.
“Hardly anybody has said no,” Turner reports. “A good number of prominent organizations are not on there because they haven’t been asked. We’re small. We’re starting up.”
The recruitment, retention and promotion of employees of color has been a recurring issue in the state, going back at least as far as the battles over school desegregation four decades ago. The Commonwealth Compact represents a coordinated, collective effort to demonstrate that the state has moved beyond its racially-tarnished past and to assemble a diverse workforce that is representative up and down the corporate ranks.
“It will happen eventually, but we don’t want to wait 30 years when we’re just overwhelmed” by changing workforce demographics, Meléndez says. “We don’t want Massachusetts to lose out on 30 years of innovation.”