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diversity boston

Black leaders matter

When a glut of minority leaders depart, as is the case in Massachusetts, replacing them is imperative.

Massachusetts has had a string of high-profile departures of minority leaders, the most prominent of which is former governor Deval Patrick.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Massachusetts has had a string of high-profile departures of minority leaders, the most prominent of which is former governor Deval Patrick.

Black lives matter has become a powerful movement across the country, but that alone won’t be enough to change attitudes and policies. We also need to start chanting “black leaders matter,” especially here in Massachusetts after a string of high-profile departures.

Jonathan Wiggs/ globe staff/ file 2011
Former MBTA general manager Beverly Scott.

The most prominent, of course, is Deval Patrick, but the list goes well beyond the former governor to include MBTA general manager Beverly Scott, public safety secretary Andrea Cabral, Massachusetts Life Sciences Center president Susan Windham-Bannister, state transportation board chairman John Jenkins, Massachusetts Convention Center Authority chair Michelle Shell, Carney Hospital president Andy Davis, Neighborhood Health Plan chief executive Deborah Enos, and Wheaton College president Ronald Crutcher.

When you consider all those names together, the exodus is startling. Much of the turnover has to do with the change in administration on Beacon Hill. Patrick, as the state’s first black governor, spent eight years building a diverse team. It’s a legacy we couldn’t quite appreciate until everyone was gone.

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His successor, Charlie Baker, has hired blacks into prominent posts including labor Secretary Ronald Walker, Department of Children and Families Commissioner Linda Spears, and housing chief Chrystal Kornegay.

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Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has also made inclusion a priority, hiring John Barros as the city’s economic development chief and Shaun Blugh as the first chief diversity officer. But more can be done as the governor and mayor fill vacancies.

Former public safety secretary Andrea Cabral.
Bill Brett for the boston globe/ file 2012
Former public safety secretary Andrea Cabral.

So now what?

We can sink back into our usual crouch of how Boston is unfriendly to people of color. Or we can look at the list, acknowledge there is such as thing as black power in Massachusetts, and ask ourselves how we nurture and sustain it.

In other words, let’s not wait for another black governor to come along to make progress.

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That, by the way, is how Patrick feels about it.

“Of course, the leaders haven’t left town. Their phones still work. Their talent is still at hand. They are still available for appointment to boards, public and private, and other leadership roles,” Patrick told me via e-mail. “What we do now is go get them and bring them into where decisions are made.”

Still, there is skepticism in the black community that they can regain seats at the table, given that the establishment in this town has long been overwhelmingly white. The recognition that diversity at the top rungs of government and business is important might not come naturally and might not be a priority to those in power. So we must agitate for it.

“We often tout Boston as a majority-minority city when celebrating our diversity. But what does that amount to at the end of the day if we don’t have people of color in these leadership positions?” said Shell, who served for five years as the chair of the state convention center authority. She left in April after Baker remade the board.

“It’s not just a black leadership issue,” added Shell. “There’s a broader issue of representation.”

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Paul Grogan, head of the Boston Foundation, an organization with a mandate to improve the city for everyone, shares Shell’s concerns. “It’s sort of too soon to see where we’re going to go from here,” Grogan said. “Efforts are going to have to be redoubled in a lot of places to ensure we continue to be a place for opportunity.”

What’s different in post-Patrick Massachusetts is the pool of rising black leaders, and Grogan thinks they have what it takes to break through in this town. He sees it in his own organization in Travis McCready, who plays a critical role overseeing the foundation’s grantmaking, and board member Greg Shell, a money manager (and the husband of Michelle Shell).

Before McCready, there was Robert Lewis Jr., who left the foundation to start a youth program called The Base. During last year’s gubernatorial race, Lewis became a fixture in the Baker campaign helping the Republican navigate minority communities to win votes. The activist remains an informal adviser to the governor.

Mo Cowan, Patrick’s former chief of staff and former US senator, now chief operating officer of Mintz Levin’s ML Strategies.
Pete Marovich for The Boston Globe/ file
Mo Cowan, Patrick’s former chief of staff and former US senator, now chief operating officer of Mintz Levin’s ML Strategies.

Talk of the next generation of black movers and shakers would not be complete without mentioning names like Mo Cowan, Patrick’s former chief of staff and former US senator, now chief operating officer of Mintz Levin’s ML Strategies; Steven Wright, executive partner-Boston at law firm Holland & Knight; Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley; Rachael Rollins, chief legal counsel for Massport; Corey Thomas, chief executive of tech company Rapid7; and Michael Mathis, the MGM Springfield president.

Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley.

“We’re at a pivotal point when it comes to diversity,” said Carol Fulp, who runs The Partnership, a group that works to advance professionals of color.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe
Carol Fulp runs The Partnership, a group that works to advance professionals of color.

Fulp sees the end of the Patrick administration as the beginning of something else. It’s the chance for proteges to become big names on their own, the same way so many of Boston Mayor Kevin H. White’s acolytes went on to become pillars in the city. The Patrick alums now have a chance to use their connections to build the next generation of black leaders.

“We have the same opportunities here,” said Fulp. “Our job is to galvanize them.”

But the progress we’ve made so far hasn’t exactly happened organically. Those in power have to get it and be deliberate in their choices of who will be the next board director or head of an organization.

We’ve taken a big step forward on diversity. Let’s not move backward.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.