Kneading social capital with B.R.E.A.D. group
When people speak about the future of Boston, they often refer to its rise as an innovation and technology hub facilitated in large part by an influx of outsiders. One new group is seeking to place the reins for the city’s future squarely in the hands of its younger residents and transform the future by addressing key social issues that still divide the city.
Boston’s Racial Economic Activated Dialogue — riffing off the metaphor of “breaking B.R.E.A.D. together” — is a new grassroots group formed last November by local activists Leora Rifkin, Justin Springer, Roxanne Longoria and Erin Anderson. They want to foster rich conversations on social issues and help forge stronger human connections across digital and city-wide divides.
“[B.R.E.A.D.] is a collaborative creating platforms that target urban millenials and youth to drive more conversations of value,” says Justin Springer. “We’re not talking about ‘Did you see Beyonce’s dress last night?’ We’re talking about ‘Did you notice the rent is going up in Boston’ or ‘Did you notice that all these schools are being closed?’”
Leora Rifkin, who originally convened the four founders, says the emphasis is on furthering the work that other groups before them have started.
“We are trying to work collaboratively and enhance what’s already happening here [in Boston],” she says. “This is how we want to see the city functioning. We’re asking, ‘How are we creating spaces at tables for people to participate?’”
Thus far, the group functions as a host for community discussion events, the first of which was held last week in Roxbury. They say their target audience is particularly people under 40 years old who are the city’s emerging leaders.
“They’re entrepreneurs, activists, [and] artists who want to be inspired and want a space to genuinely connect with people,” says Springer.
Story of an idea
The group first came together last fall when Rifkin reached out to Springer, Longoria and Anderson, whom she knew from previous work in Boston’s activist scene. In 2013, she organized a talk in Boston on racial issues that was hosted by Baratunde Thurston, author of the satirical memoir, How to Be Black. That event had gone well, and she wanted to try and replicate some of that momentum.
“People loved the conversation,” Rifkin said of the 2013 event. “[B.R.E.A.D.] started off with this idea of talking about race, and bringing these conversations into the community. These are conversations people were already having and so [we were asking], ‘How do we really create a community space around that?’”
This time, Rifkin envisioned a community event featuring Benoni Tagoe, a producer famous for his work on the popular webseries The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and his online financial literacy series, The Bizz Plan. She didn’t know him personally, but she reached out – and to her surprise, he responded positively.
So the four friends got to work putting together the pieces of the event. They each brought their respective skills and networks to the table.
Longoria, as a network coordinator for the Boston Youth Service Network and chair of the Boston NAACP’s young adult committee, emphasized the importance of involving young people in the process.
“Youth entrepreneurship is so important to economic mobility for our youth,” she said. “We’re really excited that young adults are getting together to show youth leadership and entrepreneurship and to be there as a support, because unfortunately in communities of color and low-income communities, we don’t have that support system. I think it’s important to create a ladder of success around youth.”
The BYSN youth designed the logo for what the four dubbed the “Make B.R.E.A.D.” discussion series and were involved in planning Tagoe’s visit. Many attended last week’s event.
At the Roxbury gathering, Tagoe spoke about his career path. Throughout the discussion, he traced both his highs — including remarkable financial success early in his career — and his lows — including a devastating financial dive and a struggle with depression — to show how one might navigate the difficulties that come with chasing a dream.
The evening ended with an invitation to audience members to declare their dreams for the future out loud in order to emphasize the importance of involving others in one’s own personal success.
The event was underwritten by a grant from the Boston Foundation. The food was donated by B. Good burgers, space was provided by the Design Studio for Social Intervention, and Future Boston Alliance hosted a blog series that served as advertising.
After the kickoff event, B.R.E.A.D. organizers took Tagoe on a whirlwind tour of Boston, which included speaking engagements at the Dearborn Middle School and Jeremiah E. Burke High School and social events hosted by Future Boston Alliance and the NAACP.
Tagoe said the trip, although short, made a big impact.
“This is the first time that, in just four days, I was just entrenched in the culture of ‘We are really trying to build up our community more so than just building up ourselves,’” he said, reflecting on his trip. “What they’re doing is really special, and a lot of cities across America don’t have communities like this. I think Boston has something really special.”
Tagoe plans to start a venture linking Boston to LA in the field of entertainment and the arts — something he said occurred to him while on the trip. His hope is to connect Bostonians talented in the arts and media production to professionals in LA who can help them expand their network.
“The idea is not to necessarily take people away from Boston, it’s to essentially to link Boston to LA, so that when they make these contacts and get these resources, they can come back to Boston and bring it back to their communities,” he said.
While the idea is still in the concept stage, Tagoe said he plans t omake progress on it by the end of the year.
Launchpad for unity
In its current form, B.R.E.A.D. is a community aimed at urban youth and millenials that seeks to foster discussion, networking and connection-building with an emphasis on not just professional development, but also social change.
Their mission statement speaks to the group’s core values: “B.R.E.A.D focuses on the belief that our community is more than sufficient and capable of becoming prosperous, serving and benefiting ourselves. We believe it is possible to name the strengths we do have and to share these strengths in a mutually beneficial way to help each of us grow and prosper, but only if we create space to collectively nurture our human connections.”
“Unity in this city has been missing for many years,” says Springer. “Boston has always been different, small circles, and we’re just trying to find a way to make it one big circle, where everyone’s working together and communicating.”
Although the group’s name emphasizes conversations centering on racial and economic themes, Springer adds that the need for greater human connection also arises from our increasingly digital world.
“We live in a social media world where you can go on the train, and most of the time people are just in their phones,” he said. “So when I go on the train, some times I try to have conversations with people I don’t even know.”
B.R.E.A.D. is still in its early stages and figuring out where to head next. While so far it has functioned with event-specific funds and doesn’t have an operating budget, they are looking to grow more. Tagoe, for one, has expressed interest in helping the group secure financing for future events.
Beyond event-hosting, they also plan to create media content to continue thought-provoking discussions beyond the walls of a given event space.
“It’s about creating content, consistently,” says Springer. “We want to align the B.R.E.A.D. brand with other brands….we want to spotlight businesses, entrepreneurs and nonprofits that are doing great work in Boston.”
They are clear that the main point is to take the connections fostered through the group and put them to greater use.
“There’s an action component to this,” says Rifkin. “It’s yet to be clearly defined, but one thing we need to be thinking about is, as we’re thinking about nurturing our potential as individuals, ‘How are we utilizing that privilege and power to come together collectively?’”
She adds that the conversations are just the starting point for achieving the group’s goals of addressing racial and economic inequality.
“We have to build up social capital of everyone,” she says. “A lot of time we are able to get better jobs by the people that we know… We all need a diversity of relationships to increase our social capital and our wealth and our knowledge.”