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Forum series examines racial wealth gap

Advocates, scholars seek effective ways to move the needle

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Forum series examines racial wealth gap
(l-r) Hakim Cunningham, Allentza Michel, Banu Ozkazanc-Pan and Bridgette Wallace discuss community wealth development strategies at a May 30 forum. Photo credit: Sandra Larson

The immense wealth gap between white households and households of color may seem like old news by now. A much-discussed 2015 Federal Reserve Bank of Boston report showed that the median net worth — assets minus debt — of the city’s white households was $247,500, while for black households it was just $8. But such disparities have been felt intuitively and lived painfully day-to-day in communities of color long before data quantified them so harshly.

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How to close the wealth gap, however, remains an open question.

That question is the focus of a series of workshops organized by Hakim Cunningham, a longtime local community organizer and master of public policy candidate at Tufts University’s Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning department.

Cunningham is probing what it’s going to take — in realistic and practical terms — to build community wealth, he told the Banner. He intends to look into what’s working and what’s not in efforts to build financial literacy, increase income and business ownership, craft and implement effective policies, and develop public-private partnerships.

“What I see is, there are public policies that are written, but they never really have the intended impact on the ground,” he said.

As an example, he cited economic development strategies in Boston that have diverted more money to the Seaport District than to struggling neighborhoods.

“Those who need it most, get the least,” he said. “So how do we address this in a systemic way? What do we need to do on the ground? Who needs to be at the table?”

Initiatives and policies

The workshop series kicked off on May 30 with a session titled “How Do We Close the Wealth Gap and Repair Our Communities?” at the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Dudley Square.

A panel featured Cunningham; Banu Ozkazanc-Pan, a professor and researcher at UMass Boston and Brown University who has studied inclusion and exclusion in entrepreneurship; Allentza Michel, coordinator of the Fairmount Indigo Network; and Bridgette Wallace, a planner and community advocate. Michel and Wallace both are alumnae of the Tufts public policy master’s program.

Michel described efforts underway to connect residents in the Fairmount Line corridor to well-paying jobs, including a multi-year campaign to increase local hiring by area tech and manufacturing companies.

“We’re trying to encourage companies to not only recruit [local residents and people of color], but also pay them while they’re training.”

Michel also noted that her own consulting organization, Powerful Pathways, has worked to support immigrant entrepreneurs and offer microfinance seed grants to community-serving businesses and nonprofits.

Wallace described her new project to renovate a large house at 43 Hutchings Street in Roxbury into a “co-living, co-learning house” where young women of color can live for two years while learning computer coding and completing internships.

Ozkazanc-Pan gave a slide presentation on Boston’s wealth gap and its status as one of the top U.S. cities for income inequality and discussed policies that attempt to combat these problems.

As an example of policy misalignment, she cited the Boston Resident Jobs Policy, crafted to increase the hiring of people of color, women and Boston residents by developers and contractors. It “looks good on paper,” she said, but she noted that it’s very difficult to increase construction employment for women and people of color when the data clearly show that white males own the vast minority of construction firms. (Audience members chimed in quickly to assert that tougher enforcement of the BRJP is needed as well.)

Audience discussion

A recurring topic was a strong need for pathways to entrepreneurship. Cunningham, who also holds a business degree from Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School, noted that people who want to start businesses or invest might lack necessary business know-how. Other common barriers mentioned were credit problems, lack of access to capital, and lack of networks and mentors.

T. Michael Thomas, whose nonprofit program The People’s Academy offers training in building trades, spoke up to say that he has witnessed the Jewish community’s habit of supporting and teaching one another, and expressed a wish that his African American community had more of that sort of mutual support.

“When you look around the black community, there are successful people — but they don’t take the time to share the knowledge, the information, the opportunities,” he said. “You gotta help your people.”

Andrew Duperval, a recent Salem State University graduate, is trying to do just that. As a young man of color with a business degree but familiar with the struggles and the lingo of city youth, he said, he approaches teens and young men wherever he sees them, imparting financial advice on basketball courts and street corners. More formally, he and a partner are launching a financial education and coaching business.

“We want to do workshops where people are,” he said. “We want to help them invest in tangible businesses that can help the community.”

While some insisted that entrepreneurship is the only path to wealth, others highlighted the value of paths such as well-paying jobs and investing.

Attendee Ann-Marie Clark-Borden of Roxbury said that her job as a carpenter provides her a good income and she is not seeking to become an entrepreneur. She said she came to the workshop in order to pass along information to her daughter and others.

“Oftentimes, we don’t know anyone who is actually doing what we want to do or can point us in the right direction.” she said. “We have to teach one another.”

Her story set the tone for a closing reminder from panelist Michel.

“This isn’t an ‘either/or’ situation — it’s a ‘both/and,’” she said. “There are a lot of options:  You can be employed and also have a side hustle, you can be employed and be investing. My hope is that folks will take this discussion and share it with friends and families, so other people can start building the tools. That’s really how we’re going to shift this paradigm and start regaining our local community wealth.”

Over the next year, Cunningham will hold additional events in Boston and other Massachusetts cities. Dates and locations are still being arranged. The events will play a role in developing a detailed “white paper,” a report designed to inform policymakers and funders on the nature of the problem and the best paths forward for wealth-building.