We know that leadership and civic engagement can make a difference in our lives and the lives of others. When residents, voters, public officials, and nonprofit, religious and business leaders come together, we can achieve what others say is impossible.
And when we come together as a community, as many did last Saturday for the NAACP Boston Branch Centennial Celebration and in July, for the National Urban League, which also marked its 100th Anniversary, most of us benefit from the shared agenda and sense of solidarity, and are inspired to take action.
Civic engagement, aside from being deeply gratifying and absolutely necessary, is an activity that’s rooted in our history here in Boston and in Massachusetts. It’s our tradition of giving back and paying it forward — it’s what we expect from those to whom much has been given.
This summer, we were excited to be part of the Urban League’s “State of Black Boston” kick-off at the Hynes Auditorium, a one-day meeting featuring a session on civic engagement. Moderated by this article’s co-author, Access Strategies Fund Executive Director and radio political commentator Kelly Bates, the seven-person panel included leaders with a track record on the topic: The Partnership CEO Dr. Beverly Edgehill; business owner Carole Copeland Thomas; Citizens Bank Community Affairs Director Monalisa Smith; the Governor’s Civic Engagement Director Ron Bell; Newton Mayor Setti Warren and YouthBuild USA Senior Vice President for Advocacy, Public Policy & Government Relations Charlotte Golar Richie.
The consensus of the panel and audience soon became evident: Civic engagement isn’t an option, it’s an imperative. No one can afford to sit on the sidelines, particularly when the issues faced by the black community are so urgent and immediate; and as a community, we build clout when we speak up.
Yet, while any one of us could quickly tick off the list of challenges (jobs, education, crime and violence, imprisonment, foreclosures, voter apathy, etc.), we shared distinctly different views regarding the question of how the average person living in Roxbury, Dorchester or Mattapan — or elsewhere in Massachusetts for that matter — could be most useful in tackling problems and finding solutions.
An equally important challenge was expressed: How do we get past some of the barriers to entry (e.g. class, age, seniority, ethnicity, language, neighborhood divisions) that impact our ability as a community to connect and engage.
“We live in a society where people do not speak to one another,” said voting rights activist and Patrick administration official Bell.
Further, Bell noted that members of Boston’s black community could do more to support one another.
“African Americans who are in power positions [need to help each other succeed],” Bell said, urging the audience to do more to connect and communicate — in his view, tools that strengthen community.
Smith, who founded the Boston-based Mothers for Justice and Equality after her 18-year-old nephew was murdered earlier this year, turned the audience’s attention to our youth. Her organization, with more than 100 members — most of whom have lost someone to violence — and its message are borne out of the most tragic of circumstances. “We, as mothers, need to lead by example and encourage our young people to become engaged.”
According to “The State of Black Boston” report, 31 percent of Black Bostonians are 17 years of age and under. For Smith, there’s no question that our community’s civic engagement activities must include developing our youth as strong, contributing members of society. Copeland Thomas, who chairs the Multicultural Committee of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau and has been in business for over two decades, said that the path to civic engagement is “through job creation and an expanded role in business development.”
Entrepreneur and business owner, Darryl Settles, who was seated in the audience, agreed with Copeland Thomas when she said, “The only way the black community will advance is by addressing the opportunities in small business development, personal wealth creation, civic engagement and cultivating strategic business collaborations. That combination should be our primary focus for the next 10 to 15 years.”
As a community, if we want to fight crime and violence, give our youth who’ve gotten off track a second chance, elect politicians who’ll work hard and produce, establish and grow successful businesses, then we all have no other choice but to get involved — and it may, in fact, be the right approach to focus first on connectivity and collaboration. There’s certainly ample opportunity to connect with people of color in the city of Boston.
Dr. Edgehill’s organization, The Partnership, Inc., supports the advancement of people of color in the workplace, and connects professionals with community opportunities to lead and mentor.
“Over 2,000 professionals of color in the region have completed The Partnership’s leadership development programs and are poised to leverage their leadership capabilities in support of community and civic related initiatives,” explained Edgehill. “These individuals understand the importance and significance of being a mentor and role model to young people. They understand the power of serving on nonprofit boards. They know how they can influence policy and practices that break down the barriers to a quality of life that all people deserve.”
From The Partnership to the monthly “Get Konnected” events and MA Black Business Association meetings, to Boston’s Higher Ground —- from our churches and fraternities to civic associations and CBOs —- there are plenty of organizations seeking to connect residents with one another and with resources, services and networking opportunities that will improve their lives.
“Our panel on civic engagement was a great opportunity to talk about the type of vision and leadership we need to take our communities higher, through more than what we do at the voting booth every few years. We need to check back in through time-tested practices like joining our local neighborhood association, participating in our children’s PTA at school, and calling our elected officials,” said Mayor Warren.
Speaking of the “voting booth,” Bay State Banner Executive Editor Howard Manly, who authored the civic engagement chapter in “The State of Black Boston” report, offered a set of recommendations, which included encouraging black Bostonians to get to know their neighbors and — no surprise — registering to vote. Perhaps these are the two simplest and most important take-aways from this summer’s conference.
On Tuesday, Sept. 27 and again on Nov. 8, let’s do our part to improve the state of black Boston by knocking on the door of a neighbor and heading over together to the local polling station to vote!
Charlotte Golar Richie is senior vice president for Advocacy, Policy & Government Relations, YouthBuild USA and Kelly Bates is executive director, Access Strategies Fund.