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Boston Rising: Anti-poverty effort fell short of lofty vision

Boston Rising: Anti-poverty effort fell short of lofty vision
Funding from the Boston Rising initiative is now being channeled to the Boston office of the Family Independence Initiative, headed by Jesus Gerena. (Photo: (Banner photo))

To media acclaim, a new charity optimistically named Boston Rising launched in 2010 with a focused mission to reduce poverty in Grove Hall.

Boston Rising was the initiative of Ken Nickerson, who made a fortune in hedge funds and felt compelled to address inner city poverty. His family’s EOS Foundation contributed $10 million to the startup and hoped other local donors would match the gift.

Nickerson cited as his inspiration the Robin Hood Foundation that Paul Tudor Jones, a hedge fund investor, established. Since 1988, Robin Hood has raised $1.25 billion at glitzy, star-studded fundraisers to combat poverty in New York City.

Two years of research on anti-poverty programs was conducted before Boston Rising made a foray into Grove Hall, with a relatively large staff working from an office downtown.

After three years of making grants totaling $4 million, Boston Rising shut down in June of last year. The EOS Foundation recaptured the $6 million balance of its gift to make future grants to benefit the neighborhood straddling Dorchester and Roxbury.

“We weren’t attracting donors at the kind of scale that would make it sustainable,” Nickerson said recently. “To function as a public charity, we needed to be drawing really significant external funds. We really didn’t succeed in that. I’m very sad about that.”

In a reflective interview, Nickerson faulted himself more than the Great Recession for the fundraising shortfall, saying “there are always external challenges.”

“I think I was very naïve about the challenges of raising funds and bringing people on board. I’m somewhat introverted, to be honest,” Nickerson said.

“I’m not the person who has this big Rolodex, who is a highly social-networked person. I’ve always been the engineer, the guy who tried to figure things out,” he explained. “I think at some level Boston Rising, in that regard, reflected my weaknesses.”

For decades, Grove Hall has been the target of serial efforts to uplift a community beset with high rates of poverty and crime.

The Roxbury Multi-Service Center opened shop there in 1964. The Guscott brothers built housing in the neighborhood when they started as real estate developers in the 1970s.

The Nation of Islam moved its mosque to the business district in the 1980s, and Minister Don Muhammad has been a tireless advocate for Grove Hall. Project RIGHT has been doing community organizing in the area since the 1990s.

All those efforts have made some headway, leaving Grove Hall better off than it might have been otherwise.

So what impact did Boston Rising have, before its mission was scaled down and folded into the EOS Foundation?

In recent interviews, Nickerson and others who were affiliated with Boston Rising cited benefits through its grants that continue to have a positive impact on families, schools and community projects in Grove Hall.

The defunct charity specifically targeted the tough problem of intergenerational poverty, through education, jobs and social connections, both among members of the community and between them and nonresidents, Nickerson said.

Boston Rising’s biggest grantee was the Boston office of the Family Independence Initiative, which received $2 million. It opened in 2010, the same year Boston Rising did, as a site of Oakland, Calif.-based FII, as it is called.

“The EOS grant and the Boston Rising grants were instrumental in us setting up the office here in Boston,” said Jesús Gerena, director of FII Boston, which has offices in Jamaica Plain and East Boston.

After starting by working with 35 families, FII Boston has expanded this year to almost 600, about 400 of them from Roxbury or Dorchester. About 30 percent of the families are from Grove Hall, Gerena said. It has become the largest of five FII sites in the country.

“The only reason that we’ve been able to do that is the support of the foundations that have made that commitment to us here, specifically, Boston Rising,” Gerena said.

FII Boston pays each family an annual stipend of $2,000 to participate in monthly meetings in a small, self-directed group with other families, where each family discusses what it needs to improve its circumstances. FII observes the meetings and collects “data” on the expressed needs and desired approaches to address them.

FII then provides access to capital to accomplish goals in education, housing or business through Individual Savings Accounts. FII matches, two to one, the savings accounts up to $1,000 a year. Interest-free microloans of up to $5,000 are also made available.

As of the end of last year, Gerena said among 132 families who had participated for two years, there were seven new homeowners and 31 new businesses providing 70 jobs. In addition, average household income increased by 18 percent, savings more than tripled, and 72 percent of schoolchildren improved their grades.

“People, if you give them direct access to resources, invest in their community and put choice back in their hands, they drive the change inside of—not only their households—but in their community,” Gerena said, summarizing FII’s philosophy.

Wendell Knox, a retired president and CEO of Abt Associates in Cambridge, said he became a founding board member of Boston Rising because of his interest in improving education. He was the board’s treasurer and chaired the education task force.

Knox said Boston Rising made a continuing contribution to education in Grove Hall by helping the Trotter Elementary School turn around academically from a lowest Level 4 school to a top Level 1 school.

“We actually helped the Trotter fund a much-needed position to support the new principal, in terms of coordinating various administrative and other activities, so she had the time to focus on the academic turnaround aspects. We funded a half-time position for a couple years there,” Knox said.

A principal functioning as an academic leader is one of the established characteristics of effective schools, based on research done decades ago.

“And we also hired a consultant who was working with our task force to actually help the Trotter put their turnaround plan together,” Knox added.

Boston Rising also assisted Jeremiah Burke High School, a Level 4 school that has not made as much progress as the Trotter but made some headway in 2013.

“We worked with them on their turnaround planning, attended a lot of meetings with the principal and with various other partners that the Burke had mobilized, and provided them with some modest funding,” Knox said.

Boston Rising created the Grove Hall Trust, seeded it with $250,000 and then spun it off as an independent organization. It still makes small grants for community projects.

“Community trusts can really be an opportunity to invest in many of the smaller pieces of work that need to be done in a community, in a way that external funders really can’t play, won’t tend to understand and find very difficult to do,” Nickerson explained.

It was the trust that funded Halloween trick-or-treating on one Grove Hall block in 2012, a project that captured considerable media attention, while Boston Rising’s own support for the Trotter, Burke and the Family Independence Initiative was largely overlooked.

Bob Thompson, one of the Grove Hall trustees, said the trust fund has expended about $30,000 of the $250,000 and raised an additional $15,000.

“Unfortunately, just as we were getting our organization on our own two feet, Boston Rising quickly withdrew,” Thompson said. “It took us a bit of time to absorb the lack of the support that they had been providing. We’ve overcome that particular hurdle. We’re moving forward. Because all of us are volunteering, it’s taking a bit more time.”

Thompson, a retiree who directed resident services for the Quincy-Geneva Housing Corporation, said the trust provides grants between $500 and $2,500 to “a project that is going to take place and/or use residents in the Grove Hall area” and “will make a difference in the community.”

The latest rounds of grants, 11, were made in mid-July. Grantees included a support group for former prisoners and substance abusers, and No Books, No Balls.

In the No Books, No Balls basketball program for school-age boys and girls, each team’s coach works with the player, parents and school to help the player maintain passing grades. Players whose grades dip below that level remain on the team but cannot participate in practices or weekly games.

Thompson cited as a success a $500 grant to a woman to hold a Christmas party and give out small gifts to children who live in low-income housing and whose parents could not afford to buy gifts. The next year the woman got together with neighbors to raise the money for another Christmas party.

“It’s that kind of activity we’re trying to grow, whereby people gain some skills as a result of the funding that we give them, and with that information they’re able to grow on their own,” Thompson said.

Boston Rising made other grants to established organizations long involved in improving conditions in Grove Hall, including Freedom House, Project RIGHT, Neighborhood Development Corporation of Grove Hall and ABCD-Elm Hill Family Service Center.

“I think FII, which we helped introduce to Boston, is still having an impact,” Knox said. “We’re very proud of what we helped accomplish at the Trotter and the Burke. We had a lot of hope for Grove Hall itself. We admittedly we were just getting off the ground, and we had to scale back.”

“As an organization, we didn’t succeed,” Nickerson said. “That’s not to say we didn’t do some good work, but at the end of the day, as so many people in the community will undoubtedly say, real difference is only going to come over an extended period of time.”

Howard Manly contributed to this article.

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