Keen observers of Boston politics might have felt something was amiss last week with high-profile launches of not just one but two racial equity funds within days of each other.
Are these groups working together or are they competing for donors?
The answer is yes.
If you’re confused, read on.
Last Thursday my colleague Jon Chesto wrote a front-page story about Boston Mayor Marty Walsh unveiling the Boston Racial Equity Fund, a city-led initiative to raise tens of millions of dollars to fight racism. As with the Boston Resiliency Fund, the mayor is once again tapping philanthropist and former advertising honcho Jack Connors, who helped raise $32 million for the city’s COVID-19 relief effort.
A few days later, I wrote a front-page column about how 19 Black and brown business leaders have come together to launch the New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund. The group has already secured about $20 million in financial commitments, primarily from the companies where these executives work, and set an ambitious goal of raising over $100 million.
Mere coincidence or maybe some one-upmanship?
Walsh downplayed any perceived rivalry between the two efforts.
“The New Commonwealth fund is incredible,” Walsh told me. “Nothing is competing here. ... How do we work collectively together?”
Emerson College president Lee Pelton is heading the city fund’s steering committee, and Karilyn Crockett, whom Walsh appointed Monday to a new Cabinet-level chief of equity position, will oversee the fund. Both are Black.
Yet to be named is the rest of the steering committee, which Walsh promises will consist primarily of people of color. His administration has asked that six members from the New Commonwealth group sit on the city committee.
In interviews, executives behind the New Commonwealth fund say they want to work with the mayor and the city and believe there is room for two funds.
Eastern Bank president Quincy Miller, who is part of the New Commonwealth group, said members are focused on attracting more money to righting racial wrongs.
“We have to figure out: How do we get more pies?” said Miller.
This is what I think is really going on: Walsh faces a tough reelection in this moment of racial awakening and his biggest political rivals are women of color. Yes, I am talking about the fierce foursome of the City Council: Andrea Campbell, Lydia Edwards, Kim Janey, and Michelle Wu. Campbell and Wu, in particular, both former City Council presidents, could have Walsh running scared.
So what does the white mayor do? He courts Black and brown voters with a city-led initiative that gives money to nonprofits and organizations working on racial justice.
What’s not to like about that?
By now, I hope you have figured out this is hardly a story about the challenges of fund-raising. Rather it’s about how power is shifting in this town, and it’s going to get uncomfortable around here. The establishment isn’t used to being asked to take a back seat on anything.
But to truly erase our legacy of racism in Boston, we need to have a paradigm shift in power. Yes, white folks need to be at the table. But for once, they don’t need to act like they own the damn table, too. This is a moment when the white people in charge should cede the stage when it comes to eliminating systemic racism. They’ve already had their shot to figure out, and yet, here we are, still.
Malia Lazu, a regional president for Berkshire Bank, is part of the New Commonwealth group. Speaking just for herself and not for the group, she said the antiracism movement needs allies such as Walsh and Connors, but “whenever an ally wants to enter a race dialogue, they have to lead from behind.”
Black and brown executives have been working on the New Commonwealth fund for three weeks, moved to action after George Floyd was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer who kept his knee pressed on the Black man’s neck until he stopped breathing. For many of these executives, despite their success, they too fear law enforcement and face discrimination because of the color of their skin.
The New Commonwealth fund has brought together executives from prominent Boston companies including Bain Capital, General Electric, Fidelity Investments, and Vertex. The members are not only seeking donations from their respective organizations but also plan to contribute their own dollars.
The fund represents a new way of philanthropic thinking — a fund led by Black and brown executives for Black and brown communities with a focus on giving to Black- and brown-led nonprofits, which are chronically underfunded compared to their white-led counterparts. The fund will help organizations across the state from Boston to Springfield and focus less on charity and more on programs that get at systemic change. Initially, it will give to organizations working on policing and criminal justice reform, health care equity, economic empowerment, and youth education and engagement.
The Boston Racial Equity fund will support similar issues, but as Connors explains it, the city fund will address the immediate needs of the Black community, such as food insecurity. Meanwhile, Connors, the cofounder of Boston advertising firm Hill Holliday, views the Black and brown leaders as creating “their own Boston Foundation.”
“We’re complementary, not competitive,” said Connors, who has assumed an informal role with the racial equity fund.
Still, Connors acknowledged that both funds could go after the same donors. He did not consider stepping aside to join the New Commonwealth effort because he believes he is in a unique position as a prolific fund-raiser. Connors said that since 2007, he has raised about $118 million, including $9 million this year, for Camp Harbor View, which operates a free summer camp for underserved Boston youth.
“I’ve earned the right to do things my way,” Connors said, adding “at least I’m doing something.”
And to my suggestion that this is all about people in charge trying to stay in charge, Connors explained that’s not what motivates him.
“Don’t confuse me with someone holding onto power,” he said.
No doubt breaking down four centuries of structural racism will require the entire community coming together — and certainly more than one fund.
For a long time, Boston didn’t have many people of color in prominent roles. That’s changing today, from the C-suite to the City Council, to Congress.
If Black and brown business executives want to take a leadership role to solve systemic racism in our community, we should give them the reins.
For sure, they will need the support of the white establishment — but in a supporting role.
This is the time for the Black community to lead. We should let them.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.