The events of the last week have shaken our nation and our faith in one another. But long before people were taking to the streets in protest of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer — and long before COVID-19 unmasked deep inequities along racial lines — it was clear that we faced another pandemic: discrimination deeply embedded in our criminal justice system, schools, hospitals and — perhaps most important — in the way we do business.
As business leaders and entrepreneurs who have long called Boston our home, we believe this birthplace to countless American revolutionaries is uniquely positioned to harness its financial, intellectual, and philanthropic might to begin to heal the deep divisions in our society.
Where to start? Certainly, many of us throw up our hands at the idea of tackling institutional racism — and Massachusetts’ own institutions are hardly immune to this other pandemic. From unequal access to the billions of state and local government contracts to lifespans that average a dozen or more years shorter than residents of predominantly white neighborhoods, to quality of education more likely to be determined by zip code than grit and smarts, communities of color entered quarantine with a fraction of the security and wealth most families have.
Making matters worse, minority businesses often lack the strong banking relationships and other connections necessary to survive a crisis of this magnitude. Indeed, losing even a handful of larger minority businesses — many of which have been family-owned for generations and often hire other minorities — would have ripple effects in the Black and Latino communities that could extend through the next generation.
As such, we believe the moment is right to push for a more inclusive economy — and suggest focusing on a handful of practical areas:
Government and Business. While Governor Baker’s pledge for new contracting opportunities for minority businesses in February was welcome, we need the Legislature to vote this into law immediately. Large public projects should look to the MassPort Minority Inclusion model, created by business leaders like Tom Glynn, Duane Jackson, and Kenn Turner to increase access. By amplifying and extending this model to city and state government, we can provide immediate support for joint ventures and partnerships that would direct public contracts to established minority businesses with great track records and capital.
Boston’s business community has an important role to play in moving the needle on supplier diversity. By adopting the MassPort model for their own large contracts and by supporting the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce’s Pacesetters Program — which has still not been adequately embraced — we can send a powerful message: that growing business in markets of color is a priority for our companies . . . and an opportunity for our clients.
Universities. With the “Athens of Education” in our backyard — many supported by public dollars — and with 80 percent of minority small businesses run by sole proprietors, the time is right to offer the kind of expertise these businesses need to persist through this crisis and beyond. Whether it is assistance applying for and securing an emergency loan during the coronavirus pandemic, ongoing pro bono bookkeeping services, or management classes, our business schools have an important role to play in building minority entrepreneurship. At the same time, given the overwhelming challenges revealed by the Globe’s Valedictorian Project that many black students face in college, our universities must embrace the teachings of groups like Bottom Line, Posse, and SCS Noonan Scholars to create a robust and supportive network for underserved students that not only brings them to campus but also helps them thrive once there.
Foundations. Let’s also encourage Boston’s remarkably capable philanthropic community to step up. Less than 2 cents out of every philanthropic dollar supports nonprofits serving under-resourced communities. By supporting effective organizations like the Business Equity Initiative, the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, and Amplify Latinx — and by providing the flexibility some of our smaller nonprofits need to apply jointly for grants and consolidate their efforts — our foundations can make limited resources go further, faster.
Public Education. Nowhere in this crisis is there more opportunity for better long-term outcomes than in education. While many minority children have struggled to learn at home— absent appropriate technology and with parents playing the role of teacher — online learning may be just what we need to finally break us out of our de facto segregated schools. To give every student the chance to have a great teacher and appropriate learning plan, let’s accelerate and expand promising efforts like Build Boston’s Campus Without Walls pilot with the Boston Public Schools and the state. Targeting vocational education support to industries affected by job losses and automation can make enormous and immediate strides toward ensuring that every member of our communities has a pathway to acquiring the necessary skills to succeed regardless of zip code or school district.
Hospitals. Lastly, let’s finally attack the issue of health disparities with the intellectual rigor and resources befitting the world’s health care capital. As the Globe’s 2017 Spotlight Team story “Color lines persist, in sickness as in health” revealed, “If you are Black in Boston, you are less likely to get care at several of the city’s elite hospitals than if you are white.” Advocates led by Macey Russell, one of the first Black partners at the Choate law firm, have recently proposed creating a center for health care disparities to honor Gus White — a Harvard Medical School professor and a pioneer orthopedic surgeon and department chair at Beth Israel Hospital. What better time for our crown jewel hospital systems to fund this center than right now? And what better way to demonstrate their commitment than to apply its early learnings to the community hospitals and health centers in and around the city?
In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, Congress finally passed the Fair Housing Act to create inclusive housing. We may never end racism in America, but we can no longer afford to ignore it. We must use the pain of this moment to throw open the doors of opportunity. In Boston, we have the knowledge and innovation — and institutions with deep pockets — to cure this inequality pandemic. What’s missing is leadership with the fierce urgency of now. As it has so many times in our history, our city can — and must — lead the way.
Darryl Settles is president of Catalyst Ventures Development, Colette Phillips is president of Colette Phillips Communications, and Quincy Miller is president of Eastern Bank.