Appraising the Profit and Loss of Black Leadership

Black leadership is an asset to every community.  It is particularly important in Boston, with its tortured history of race relations and recent national spotlight on our race problem, courtesy of Michael Che on “Saturday Night Live.”  A heated debate has followed the claim lodged that Boston is the most racist city in the country.  Locals were offended, and defended our fair city.  And then, as if on cue, we get the story of Dr. Keith Motley, who resigned as Chancellor from the University of Massachusetts Boston on Wednesday.

The questions swirling around Dr. Motley’s resignation are just another example of the fact that we do not take stock of the assets that Black leaders bring to our region.  Sadly, it’s part of our history and apparently part of our foreseeable future.  We recently have witnessed attacks on our Black leaders at an alarming rate.  While constructive criticism is welcomed for individuals in leadership positions, the past coverage of Dr. Beverly Scott and the coverage in recent weeks of Rev. Raymond Hammond and Dr. Motley feel more like unmerited character attacks – seemingly for sport. 

Leadership of color is hard won here.  And when Black leaders rise up, there is a sense that it will only be a matter of time until they are knocked down for one reason or another.  It’s an insidious paradox.  You can almost hear the power structure quietly saying: “How dare you purport to know your community so well, and worse yet, to empower them.  Must we remind you, you’re only a figurehead?”  

Take Dr. Motley. In all of the verbosity on the topic, there is little mention of the assets that he has built in our community over a 10-year legacy.  There is no mention of just how complex it is to keep a university, especially a public institution, relevant in an increasingly competitive environment – a challenge facing all university leaders in the global higher-education market.  Yet, he has successfully managed to do just that.  Under Chancellor Motley’s leadership and entrepreneurial guidance, enrollments grew by 25% and the budget grew by 60% to a $132 million increase in operating growth.

No one is talking about how during his tenure graduation rates increased, particularly among students of color.  Or, of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, which was created under his watch… Of the construction of University Hall, where numerous community events are held… Of the $1.1 billion in economic activity generated in FY 2015… Of the school’s first on-campus dorm …  Of the elevation of the stature of UMass Boston from a small commuter school to a respected research university.  

No. We’re not talking about any of that.  The only thing we can focus on is the current debt – the operative word being “current” – to differentiate from the surplus that Dr. Motley created a few short years ago.  While it stands to reason that management should focus on finances, we have yet to see a construction job that has not run over budget – from my kitchen make-over to the Big Dig.  Which is why it’s both astonishing and shortsighted to juxtapose a 10-year legacy of building long-term assets with short-term management of current liabilities as in the case of Dr. Motley.

Leaders are praised – in fact often defined – by getting things done in the absence of resources.  Yet, this definition doesn’t seem to apply to Black leadership in Boston.  Instead, we only see a failure to manage short-term capital constraints.

I hope that we’re not witnessing the end of UMass Boston’s revival.  As a community, we need to remain vigilant about the social and educational well-being of our citizens and about strengthening academic and cultural resources like UMass Boston, while being mindful of the tremendous assets our leaders have built thus far.

Dr. Motley’s resignation is another blemish on Boston’s record on race.  His leadership will be missed at UMass Boston and throughout the community.  I hope that as a community we can come together and act to strengthen and support each other, nurture our next generation of leaders, and work to create a region that values the assets they bring.  However, the question for now remains: Who’s next? 

As Submitted to Viewpoint: Boston Business Journal, April 7, 2017

Examining the Value of Black Americans

Last week, we witnessed the president of the United States as he offered his first Black History Month speech at his “little breakfast… little get together.”  His words echoed the familiar, sweet, nostalgic notes of the distant past with a chord of discontent.  His speech brought forth the often heard rhetoric that devalues current Black Americans while sitting on the pejorative perch of salvation.  

After exalting  “the tremendous history of African Americans throughout our country,” acknowledging our “unimaginable sacrifice, hard work and faith in America,” and stating his desire to “honor this heritage,” Mr. Trump gave us the rote assessment we have heard all too often.  “[W]e are going to need better schools…  We’re going to work very hard on the inner city… We are going to create safer communities with law enforcement because right now it’s terrible.” 

 So there you have it.  This discussion makes the incorrect assumption that all Black Americans live in poverty and in the inner city, that all Black inner-city neighborhoods are crime-infested, and that our only deliverance comes from increased police presence.        

We have heard this sort of speech many times before with the same stereotypes and same promise of a brighter future without transparency into the true landscape and without truly examining how or why we address our problems.  I listened closely for how he would fix the inner city and lift it out of poverty.  He left out the usual language that is typically reserved for White audiences like economic development, the importance of small businesses, the cost of student loans, prosperity, household income and philanthropy.  But a Black audience?  No, we are relegated to a sermon about poverty and how the media is unfair to the president.  

Reflections for this month must move beyond our sheroes and heroes of the past to a future of making America great for the first time by pulling together all of our assets, regardless of color, to ensure a fair just, and holistic society.  A constant undervaluing of people, communities and resources, including our philanthropic assets, allows us to fall prey to fear of other ethnicities and underestimate our true power, which comes from a society of diversity and equity.  

To this end, Revaluing Black America allows us to look beyond the thinly veiled racist conversation about the racial wealth gap to examine whether White homes are really worth more, and whether bank loans, FICO scores, and credit line applications are really colorblind.  Does the promise of a more secure future lie in addressing these actual causes of the racial wealth gap, or is it more properly just a matter of more policing, as suggested by our president yesterday morning?  

We, the people -- the real government – must collectively move forward to examine and better understand the root of how we are valued.  During this time of cholera, the waters of ambiguity and divisiveness have infected our American souls and threaten to tear out our hearts.  Let us remember when Dr. Martin Luther King said that “we must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”   We must use our courage to value each other fully and use all of our power, including economic and especially philanthropic, to bring forth equity in a nation that is all too comfortable with devaluing its Black citizens.  

Buses Are What's Next in Transportation

This article was originally published in the Opinion section of Commonwealth Magazine on January 23, 2017.

But only if streets are reprogrammed for bus rapid transit.

You wait 20 minutes for a bus, only to watch three show up all at once. Soon after boarding, the glut of vehicles carrying hundreds of commuters comes to a grinding halt as one driver up ahead waits an eternity to make a left turn.

If you have ever taken a bus in Greater Boston, you know this scenario all too well. It is why many days it would be faster to just drive, bike, or—no joke—walk than take the bus.

In short, our streets are not designed to meet the needs of a modern city. Populations in Greater Boston and other cities are growing at breakneck speed, and people and employers are fleeing the suburbs for the urban core. Younger people, especially, want to more easily connect to the places they work, study, and play. They’re also far less eager to get behind the wheel. But our streets have simply not kept up. They’re still designed with a 1950s-era prioritization of single-occupancy vehicles above all else. As a result, we’re all stuck in traffic.

This disconnect presents both a challenge and an opportunity—cities are in a unique position to reshape our streets with people, not cars, as the focal point. And bold local leadership, working hand in hand with community groups, foundations, and state officials, can step up to make this kind of modern transportation system very real.

City and community leaders have a much bigger role to play in this transformation than you might expect. While state and regional entities operate most public transit systems, cities design and maintain the street networks on which above-ground transit runs. Leading cities around the world, and a growing number of municipalities here in Massachusetts, are realizing that better street design can make a big impact. Once streets are redesigned to move as many people as smoothly as possible, it opens the path for discovering new potential in an old workhorse—the city bus.

Currently, riding the bus can be slow, unpredictable, and downright unpleasant when buses are late, caught in traffic, and bunched together. But if streets are reprogrammed to reflect 21st Century priorities, buses can instead offer a reliable, efficient, and cost-effective transportation option to people in any neighborhood. The problem is that most people in US cities don’t realize how great buses could be if we thought differently about how to put them to good use.

That’s beginning to change, however, as more cities are turning to Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, to reimagine their streets. BRT combines the capacity and speed of a light-rail system with the flexibility, affordability, and simplicity of a bus system. BRT, as defined by an international BRT Standard, is made up of five main features:

  • Dedicated right-of-way gives the bus its own travel lane, ensuring it is never delayed due to traffic congestion
  • Busway alignment in the center of the roadway keeps buses away from the busy curbside where cars are parking, standing, and turning
  • Off-board fare collection eliminates the delay caused by passengers waiting to pay
  • Intersection treatments prohibit cars from turning across the bus lane, which forces the bus to stop
  • Platform-level boarding makes buses fully accessible for wheelchairs, disabled passengers, strollers, and carts with minimal delays
     

    BRT is only beginning to catch on in the United States, and the term is often inaccurately used to describe conventional bus service with minor improvements. But adopting all five features can transform street-level transportation, significantly reduce travel times, and drive economic development around rail-like BRT corridors. Additional features, such as covered stations for waiting passengers, and Wi-Fi to keep passengers connected during their ride, would further persuade people to put down their car keys in favor of a transit pass.

    Advancing such mobility solutions is also critical to meeting cities’ climate goals. Transportation recently surpassed electricity generation as the top greenhouse gas source in the country, and it’s the climate implications of transit that led to the Barr Foundation’s interest in BRT. To help Massachusetts meet its emissions reduction goals, Barr is supporting mobility initiatives across the spectrum of bikes, rail, and everything in between, including BRT. In the past few years, the foundation has been working closely with community and civic leaders in the Greater Boston region to research the possibilities for BRT here.

    We’ve learned that buses hold vast untapped potential to improve urban life, and that local leaders are well suited to create the kind of streets where BRT can be fully utilized. There’s clearly tremendous public will, judging from a record number of local transit initiatives on ballots in 2016, more than 70 percent of which passed. And while certain infrastructure changes will always require cooperation at multiple levels of government, city leaders can drive improvements with bold experiments in street design. We’re already seeing some such moves take shape here.

    In Everett, Massachusetts, the city and state partnered to pilot a dedicated bus lane, separate from traffic—one of the five elements of BRT. The city of Boston is testing the waters of BRT, eyeing a possible pilot project of BRT elements on the Silver Line, and in other high-traffic corridors identified as having potential in the city’s Go Boston 2030 transportation plan.

    In 2017 and beyond, the Barr Foundation and a coalition of partners will be encouraging local leadership in Greater Boston and other parts of the state to put these ideas to the test. We’re urging Boston and other municipalities across the state to follow through on exciting pilots, and when doing so, to pursue a high standard of BRT that will reap its full benefits. Furthermore, we are launching a campaign to partner with multiple municipalities and community organizations interested in exploring BRT as part of their transit planning. For more information about this effort or to get involved, reach out to BostonBRT here.

    We’re optimistic that by taking such steps, municipalities can lead the way when it comes to reimagining our city streets. Improving mobility in the Commonwealth will require bold work happening at multiple levels, and local leaders can take steps now to design our streets so they work for the 21st Century.

    This article was originally published in Commonwealth magazine on January 23, 2017. It is part of the “Modernizing Mobility” series, a joint project of CommonWealth magazine and Meeting of the Minds, a San Francisco-based organization that seeks to build alliances around urban sustainability.

NEBIP Set to Launch Black Donor Development Initiative (2015 Article)

A Catalytic Change Supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Boston — New England Blacks in Philanthropy (NEBIP), a group aimed at uniting black philanthropists, trustees and grant making personnel, will launch the first phase of its multiyear initiative to build a black donor base in New England today. This effort, supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, will help NEBIP in its goal to inform, reform, and transform giving among black donors and support black-related causes.

“With grant support from the Kellogg Foundation, we were able hire Dr. Ange-Marie Hancock to conduct an initial study of black donors in Boston. The result of Dr. Hancock’s study is Giving Black: Boston, a forthcoming report that reveals incredible insight into a diverse pool of black Bostonians and their perceptions about giving. It also makes several recommendations about how NEBIP and our partners can fully engage black Bostonians in giving black.”

NEBIP will launch its new website at nebip.org today. The website will serve as host for Giving Black: Boston and as a launch pad for Phase II, which will include a yearlong series of NEBIP-sponsored events and activities, such as forums, publications, membership drives, and more.

About New England Blacks in Philanthropy

NEBIP is an affinity membership group that unites Black philanthropists, trustees and staff of grant making institutions to enhance philanthropy’s ability to address the needs of Black communities. In addition, we seek to increase the influence and presence of Blacks in philanthropy. We want to help provide the tools for Black communities to become healthy, vibrant and self-sufficient.