Pelton brings equity lens to foundation work
Emerson College President Lee Pelton has been named the next president and chief executive officer of the Boston Foundation. Pelton is due to begin the position in June, taking the reins from longtime president Paul Grogan.
One of the largest community foundations in the nation, the Boston Foundation has $1.3 billion in net assets. In its 2020 fiscal year, the foundation received nearly $166 million in contributions and, along with its donors, paid $215 million in grants to nonprofit organizations.
Pelton grew up in Wichita, Kansas. He graduated in 1974 from Wichita State University and earned a doctorate in English and American Literature from Harvard University in 1984. He has served as dean at Colgate University and Dartmouth College and was president at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, before taking over at Emerson in 2011.
Pelton joined the Banner for a Zoom conversation in December. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
What unique things does the Boston Foundation bring to the city that compelled you to want to lead the foundation?
It’s a three-legged stool. The first leg is grantmaking, of course, and supporting new nonprofits throughout the region. The second is partnering with donors. We have $1.3 billion in assets. About $500 million of that of that is in our permanent fund, which is essentially the discretionary fund that the Boston foundation can use for civic purposes. And then finally, it has a civic leadership role in terms of the research that it does and its capacity to develop partnerships.
What are some of the challenges facing the nonprofits the Boston Foundation funds now?
We are in this moment, when it’s important for foundations — and all of us, really — to look at problems and issues through an equity lens. I’m often asked, ‘Is this a moment or a movement?’ I don’t know if it’s a movement yet, but it seems like a powerful moment and kind of awakening in the country to the systemic and structural racial inequities and racism that have prevented folks from fully participating in American democracy.
I think there’s a growing understanding of the difference between [individual] racism and bigotry and systemic and structural racism. One has to do with behavior. The other relates to certain structures and laws.
One of the things that we need to do at the Foundation is to address as best as we can all of the structural and systemic inequities that are part of the wealth gap. We know what those are — education, income, health care and access to health care. I think the Foundation has already done this in some respects by doing equitable funding. That has meant, over the last six months, to respond vigorously to immediate needs, to not require organizations that are attending to the needs of Black and Latinx folks to have to jump through so many hoops in order to get money.
We know many of these nonprofits, particularly Black, Indigenous and people of color-led nonprofits, are suffering mightily, and they need general operating funds. I think there’s an opportunity for Boston Foundation to do that and even more. One of the things that I’ve been contemplating is, rather than giving out a lot of small grants, it might be possible to give out larger grants to fewer organizations that we believe are responding to these structural and systemic inequities. Now, having said all that, as Obama once said, ‘You can only have one president at a time.’ I’m not president, and I’m very mindful of that there’ll be a transition period for me. But I don’t assume the new position until June 1.
How would you assess the Boston Foundation’s record of meeting the challenges facing nonprofits thus far?
That’s for someone else to do. I only know what I’m going to do and what I want to do. We need to boldly assert ourselves and the leadership in the city in the region, but in a collaborative, racial- and gender-focused way. To help pave the way for our city to recover, to rebuild and reimagine and reclaim our place as a truly diverse, inclusive and equitable city, I think we all know we’ll have to do this. The city is deeply divided on race. And what I plan to do is to be present in communities and neighborhoods, to listen actively, to learn deeply, and to develop meaningful partnerships with neighborhoods and communities.
A few months back you wrote about your own experiences being racially profiled by police. What prompted you to write that and what impact do you think that had on the conversation in Boston?
My purpose was to make the invisible visible. You know I watched the George Floyd video. My letter went out the same weekend I watched that video. I watched it dozens of times Friday night, in the middle of the night, trying to understand what had happened. How could this happen? He was unconscious, and [the officer] still kept this kept his knee on the man’s neck. He did that because he was invisible. He wasn’t human. As awful as George Floyd’s death was, it’s a symptom of a larger problem. It wasn’t new.
I wanted to make clear that there are a lot of George Floyds in this country who endure the invisibility and the dehumanization of systemic racism. Most of us survive, but we still are impacted by it. I wanted to tell my story and I wanted to make people understand that even Lee Pelton, a person with privilege and a certain amount of power in this city, is George Floyd. I am George Floyd. I wanted them to understand it in a visceral way. I wanted them to understand not only their heads, but in their hearts. And so I had to write it personally.
You’re not originally from Boston, but on more than one occasion you’ve opted to live here. What attracted you to Boston and what made you decide to stay?
I came here in 1974. I told my father, ‘Listen. I’m going off to Harvard to study American Literature.’ He said ‘What?? You’re going to Boston?’ Boston has had a reputation as being unfriendly to Black folks and a racially divided city, especially along neighborhoods.
And then I left in ’86. I went to Colgate as dean and then Dartmouth as dean, and then out west to Willamette University for 13 years as president, and now back here. But Boston has always been really a kind of center of the universe for me, because I went to school here, and I got very attached to the region. I’m very much aware of its shortcomings, but it’s a city that I want to be a part of. I made a deliberate decision to come back to Boston not only to be president of Emerson but determined to be to be as civically engaged as I possibly could be.
The Boston Foundation gives me the opportunity to do full time what I’ve been doing part time, which is really service to the larger society. I tell my students and my own kids: It’s not how much money you make, but it’s how you live your life with meaning and purpose. That’s what’s most important. And that’s what’s important to me. And so now I get to do it full time.