The first thing to know about Karilyn Crockett — Boston’s newly appointed equity chief — is that she is not remotely afraid of the firestorm she is walking into.
“You don’t take a role like this thinking it’s going to be all nice and people are going to like you,” Crockett said Tuesday. “In fact, it’s the opposite. And I welcome that — I welcome that challenge, that critique. Because in the end, I know that’s how we get something better.”
Indeed, she views tumultuous times such as these as the perfect soil for transformation.
“When people are in the street, that’s when you get the best opportunity to make new policy, to make change,” Crockett said. “It has to be in conversation with these folks who are in these government buildings or in the private sector. The desire of people to make change, to articulate what they need, is being expressed right there. So that’s the time to be in conversation and to move.”
Crockett, an Urban Studies professor at MIT, was appointed by Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Monday to head the newly created Office of Equity, a Cabinet-level post that brings together five departments devoted in various ways to the advancement of women and people of color.
Crockett was a natural choice for the job, a Dorchester native and big thinker. She has already spent time in the trenches in City Hall, where she served as director of economic policy and research and director of small business development before leaving in 2018 for academia.
She’s the author of one of the great books about Boston politics, “People Before Highways,” which tells the story of the grass-roots movement that successfully killed a 1960s-era highway project that would have sliced through the heart of the city’s Black and brown communities. To write the book, which began as her Yale dissertation, she spent years marinated in the personal histories of the activists who took to the streets demanding to be heard by their government.
“In the book, stopping the highway wasn’t the will of the governor, or the mayor, or the president,” Crockett noted. “Those people were aligned the other way. So how did the people on the street turn that tide? They turned that tide by pressuring the instruments of power, articulating a new direction, forcing a change.”
Her journey to the halls of power was unlikely. Though she was identified as a promising student early on and funneled into Advanced Work classes, she barely knew what she was getting into when she successfully tested into both Boston Latin School and Boston Latin Academy before seventh grade and had to decide which one to enter.
Knowing nothing about either school, Crockett and her grandmother, who raised her, decided “Latin Academy” sounded fancier than “Latin School” so she entered the exam school in seventh grade.
But she didn’t stay there. A teacher from sixth grade recommended her to the Winsor School, the all-girls prep school in the Longwood Medical Area. So foreign was the whole notion of prep school that it took her a while to realize she was being recruited. But her experience there was life-changing. She became class president.
“I was able to really flourish there,” Crockett said. “It was such an incredible education for young women. You learned to take your questions and your seeking seriously. It just sets you up for college, for leadership, for life.”
That led to a string of degrees from Yale and the London School of Economics. And a career as an activist — she once ran a Roxbury nonprofit — a city official, and a teaching career, where, incidentally, she was teaching MIT students about equity and how to achieve it in city government.
Their work included consulting the staffs of progressive mayors seeking to institute change.
Crockett will have her hands full creating change in the Walsh administration. Just a week ago, progressive activists demanded the defeat of a city budget that, in their view, did not do enough to address systemic racial inequities. Though the budget passed, it’s clear that equity — and Walsh’s commitment to it — is officially the central issue of the 2021 mayor’s race.
His previous efforts on this front have been — how can I put this? — halting. The city’s record of doing more business with minority-owned businesses is a well-documented failure. A dialogue on race Walsh announced a few years ago met a quick, quiet demise. The city’s schools, where a majority of the students are of color, are uneven at best. There has been a lot of talk about “resiliency” but not much progress at addressing wide and growing inequality.
The work has been well-intentioned, but not sustained or systemic. I believe Walsh’s heart is in the right place. But addressing inequality takes more than the absence of ill will, or the presence of a tender heart. It takes a real plan, and a commitment to staying in the fight. It takes a willingness to be uncomfortable that this administration has never shown.
Crockett believes her history and relationships within city government will serve her well. Whether she’s right about that will be pivotal, because such a position can only succeed with strong internal support.
“There are new people there but I begin with a sense of how to get things done,” she said. “My job is to figure out how we can get out of our own way sometimes, and how we can do a better job of listening.”
But the public is demanding tangible progress on equity, and demanding it now. Crockett insists that’s a good thing.
“The external pressure that gets exerted on the building is essential,” she said. “It’s essential for good governance, it’s essential for good policy. I take this role knowing that it’s a pressure point, and it should be.”
Crockett’s appointment was greeted with joy from a broad cross-section of constituencies. Just another appointee she is not.
But Crockett will be measured, as few city officials are, by her ability to deliver. She says she wouldn’t want it any other way.
“This is not just about having a smiley Black woman at the front of something,” she said. “This is about understanding in a comprehensive way all the things we should be doing.”
“Time is of the essence here. This is not a five-year plan. This is not a three-year plan. This is a right now thing.”