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Globe Magazine

I’m inspired by nonprofits helping people, especially in communities of color

Their service to their communities is finally getting long-overdue recognition, writes the vice president for programs at the Boston Foundation.

Gladys Vega oversees a Chelsea Collaborative food drive.
Gladys Vega oversees a Chelsea Collaborative food drive.Erin Clark/Globe Staff
Orlando Watkins of the Boston Foundation.
Orlando Watkins of the Boston Foundation.handout/From Orlando Watkins

Greater Boston’s community nonprofits and their leaders all deserve thanks. At a time when our region has needed you more than ever, you have risen to meet an unprecedented challenge. Our largest nonprofits — hospitals and food banks, health centers and homeless shelters — have lived up to their mission and values statements while facing challenges in fund-raising, staffing, volunteer support, and other obstacles caused or worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic we are all fighting.

But when I look at the past three months, I am especially inspired by a new (to many) generation of nonprofits and leaders whose service is finally getting long-overdue recognition. You are a remarkable network of community leaders of color with the courage, drive, compassion, intelligence, and lived experience to make a difference in your communities. You aren’t just nonprofit executives. You are movement leaders. You stand in the gap for the communities you love and care for.

What’s different about you isn’t your passion. And it’s not just that many of you are shades of black and brown that reflect the communities you serve. It’s that you are the communities you serve. You live your work. You embrace your surroundings. You fight because you understand the fight, and the ways that change can happen — and must happen.

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When we established the Boston Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund in March, we put racial equity at the center of our efforts — made it a point to prioritize leaders of color like you, and organizations that sat closest to the communities in need. Of the more than 200 large and small organizations the fund chose to support, about 60 percent are organizations led by people of color, whose vital work has too often gone unseen outside of their communities.

To the broader community: If you don’t know Iván Espinoza-Madrigal of Lawyers for Civil Rights, or if you haven’t explored the powerful work of Monica Cannon-Grant at Violence in Boston, go learn about them. If maybe now you have heard of Gladys Vega and the Chelsea Collaborative, but don’t know about the decades of work that made this nonprofit the perfect organization to serve as a community hub in a time when having such a place could literally save lives, go learn more about them. And thank them. Thank Patricia Montes of Centro Presente. Thank Jhana Senxian of Sustainability Guild International. Thank Lily Huang from Massachusetts Jobs with Justice and Philip Chong of QARI (Quincy Asian Resources Inc.). Thank them, and hundreds of others like them, for leading organizations that are supporting and fighting for the rights of “essential workers,” feeding and caring for those either forgotten or cruelly shut out of our supposed safety net.

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None of them would likely show up on any list of Boston’s “major players.” Yet they should — and we should thank them.

Director Patricia Montes (right) and John Walkey of Centro Presente delivering food in East Boston.
Director Patricia Montes (right) and John Walkey of Centro Presente delivering food in East Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

I’m thankful for something else: a lesson that these leaders of color are still teaching all of us. Sometimes, philanthropy can be a most powerful tool for change—when we are smart enough to get the money where it needs to go, and then to get out of the way. This pandemic is teaching donors small and large that when we trust those who are most proximate to the work that needs to be done, and give them the support they need, we plant the seed for transformation to take place.

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That’s a hard-won change. For decades, when we’ve talked about helping, we’ve failed to include those we seek to help in the discussions of how to do it. We fail to invest in the very people and organizations that are most trusted, most passionate, and best situated to address the problems we say we want to solve.

The pandemic has laid before us a simple truth: Somewhere in time, we lost the connection between what we reward and what we purport to value — between our stated commitment to equality and our real inequality. It goes by many names: the wealth gap, the opportunity gap, the education gap, the homeownership gap, the maternal death rate gap, and the life expectancy gap.

It’s inequity. And I’m grateful to the leaders of color who, by their work, experience, wisdom, passion, and brilliance, are forcing us not just to own what for decades we have chosen as a society to overlook, but with their presence are demonstrating a better way forward.

I’ll be even more thankful if it’s a lesson we finally absorb.

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Orlando Watkins is the vice president for programs at the Boston Foundation.