It was one of the more notable hires in the early days of Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration: Shaun Blugh as the city’s first diversity chief.
For a city where one in four residents are foreign-born and more than half are nonwhite, Boston still struggles with a reputation as unfriendly toward blacks and other minorities. History is hard to forget.
Blugh, a 30-year old New York native, hopes to change that by making the city government’s workforce more representative of the population it represents, a shift he hopes will cross over into the private sector and ultimately help keep more minorities from fleeing to other cities.
A report from Blugh’s office in April issued some revealing numbers: The city government’s workforce is 58 percent white; Hispanics make up 18 percent of the city’s population, but only 11 percent of the city’s workforce; and Asians represent 9 percent of Boston’s population, yet just 4 percent of city employees. One bright spot was that blacks are 23 percent of the city’s population and actually 26 percent of the city government’s workforce.
The worst numbers come in leadership roles. Three in four department heads are white and only 5 percent are Hispanic (18 percent are black).
In a wide-ranging conversation at Sorelle, a bakery just off the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, a park that’s supposed to represent the city’s blended future, Blugh talked about his role, his mission, and the obstacles ahead of him.
Is it unfortunate that we still need a job like this, encouraging diversity? Shouldn’t that progress just happen today?
I think in an ideal world, we wouldn’t need this job. But with things being as they are, I think it’s important to move toward that path where we won’t need this role down the road.
Were you surprised when the mayor approached you?
I was working in the private sector, trying to get more women-owned, minority-owned, veteran-owned businesses into cities. I thought it would be a great way to advance that by working on the other side, in the public sector, for those types of businesses.
So how is Boston doing these days?
Boston is taking huge steps to rectifying these issues. And being transparent about it.
In your mind, can you give an example of those huge steps?
The creation of this role. The transparency [police] Commissioner William Evans has shown with the shooting on Humboldt [Avenue]. So that everyone understood what went down. Even the releasing of the Workforce Composition report shows a level of transparency.
There was a story recently about Bain Capital hiring Deval Patrick, and it mentioned that Patrick was the first black managing director at Bain. Did that surprise you?
I think it raises awareness to the corporate sector. A lot of corporate boards are still looking at how they diversify. It’s not just a government issue, it’s a business issue.
Your role will be to improve minority hiring and diversity within the government. How do you do that? Will your job have actual teeth, or will people be able to ignore your recommendations?
It’s being visible, approaching department heads and leaders across the organization, working to recruit professionals, and making sure we bring the best talent to these positions.
Is there one particular minority community that needs special attention that’s been ignored?
Based on the report, I know that in city government blacks are about as represented as the city population, but the Latino population is underrepresented. That’s something we can do more of.
What will be your biggest obstacle? Power lists in this town tend to look very familiar?
It’s a really good question. I think the way to achieve it is through collaboration, through working with the private sector and the public sector. Letting people know there is talent there. The mayor did a great job with his Cabinet pulling people from across the nation and the city into leadership roles and that should set an example to the corporate world as well.
Are there any programs you’re hoping to start right away?
‘I think it’s important to move toward that path where we won’t need this role down the road.’
So in June I’m setting up the first Diversity Task Force meeting and we’ll really discuss ways we can all work together, help the community, and get feedback from key stakeholders in the community to share what they’re doing.
Talk about how the word “diversity” has changed over the years. It used to mean just ethnic or racial diversity. What does it mean today?
I think it’s an awareness about individuality. It speaks to more than gender or race. It speaks to sexual orientation. It speaks to age differences, culture differences. But mostly it’s about creating a welcoming environment for all people no mater what their background.
Now they talk about diversity and inclusion.
Right, it’s about creating an environment where you bring in talent from all different backgrounds, and while they are here they are allowed to excel and see opportunity for advancement within the organization.
What struck you about the riots in Baltimore and how it’s been handled there by police?
I think there are lessons to be learned. The most important is there are a lot more issues than just police and community issues. We can play a part in the growth and change in cities.
Can you give an example?
The widening socioeconomic gap for one.
Let’s talk about that. How vital is it for cities to help close that wealth gap?
You look across the nation and the world, and affordable housing in urban areas is something like 70 percent of the wealthy living in cities. It’s an issue we have to tackle not just in Boston but across the country and the world.
Any thoughts on a baby step Boston could do to close that gap?
It’s an awareness. Understanding where we see affordable housing, how do we want to make sure we respect the needs of the communities with affordability.
The Olympics. A lot of people feel like the Olympics will benefit one group of people. And it’s not the low income or middle class. Is this a moment for Boston to do some outreach, or could this blow up in the city’s face if not handled carefully?
I think it’s something the mayor and the Olympics committee are well aware of the potential issues that could have come about with Boston receiving the Olympic bid. But I think it’s a tremendous opportunity as well.
Opportunity for what?
For the city to look at how we can make infrastructure improvements and help the community, from all walks of life, do things better.
Is that realistic? Will their voices be heard?
I think their voices are being heard already. I think it’s something that will constantly be top of mind to leaders.
Finally, let’s talk about brain drain. Is it still a problem in Boston, minorities going to school here and then leaving for New York or D.C.?
It’s a legitimate concern. But I think we have an opportunity to celebrate the tremendous biotech space, and startup space here in Boston, to really shed a light for the millennial population that this is a great time for you to come in and do great things here in Boston, especially given the prosperity in the city.This interview was edited and condensed. Doug Most can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Globedougmost.