Segun Idowu has a saying that he learned from his grandfather, the Rev. Earl Lawson, a local civil rights activist and longtime confidant of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Do not confuse motion with progress.”
It’s a phrase that Idowu has been telling the CEOs, political leaders, advocates, and philanthropists who have been inviting him to speak on their Zoom calls over the past several weeks. There’s a difference, he says, between forming committees and actually doing the work.
At just 31, Idowu already has a career as an organizer behind him, from street protests to the campaign to bring body cameras to Boston police. He has worked in City Hall and at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, and he ran for state representative in Hyde Park. Now, just 20 months into his role as the executive director of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, or BECMA, Idowu has emerged as a singular voice of the moment.
Soft-spoken and dapper, perpetually dressed in a suit, Idowu is distinguished from other young activists by a particular focus on economic empowerment as the solution to the longtime racial injustices that both COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police have laid bare.
“I’ve always said I want to see the next Black Wall Street in Boston,” Idowu said, sitting still for a rare moment in an all-but-empty WeWork office in the heart of the financial district, just steps from Beacon Hill and City Hall. “It’s possible to do it, there’s enough of us here, and there’s enough capital.”
If he and BECMA are suddenly in high demand, it’s not by accident. The advocacy group was established five years ago by Boston’s Black business heavyweights, whose founders saw in Idowu an opportunity to thrust BECMA to the fore in the city’s discussions about racial equality.
“We all knew the wind was at our back with regards to the issue of addressing inequality,” said Darryl Settles, a longtime Boston restaurateur and BECMA cofounder. “But if we want long-term success, we had to get younger people engaged.”
BECMA’s advocacy for Black-owned businesses arose from the startling finding from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in 2015 that the median net worth of Black households in the city was just $8. Now, in response to the soul-searching that is happening in perches of power throughout the state, Idowu is setting ambitious expectations: He helped convene a coalition of local advocacy groups asking Massachusetts leaders to commit to a set of economic empowerment objectives that includes a $1 billion fund to support minority and Indigenous communities over the next decade.
Lee Pelton, the president of Emerson College and a new member of BECMA’s board, believes Idowu’s prominence is quickly rising within the city’s halls of power.
“He’s a superstar. He’s bright, he’s strategic and energetic, and he has the best qualities and capacities of a leader,” Pelton said. “He is doggedly committed to closing the racial disparity gap with respect to Black businesses and the Commonwealth.”
Andy Tarsy, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League in New England, says Idowu may come off as soft-spoken and gentle, but is intensely focused and fearless.
“I adore him and have learned from him and have seen my own ability to be effective because of his influence,” said Tarsy, 51. “His vision since the first time I met him was about self-determination and that means business ownership and net worth.”
Idowu grew up in Boston surrounded by the city’s civil rights legends: the Rev. Dr. Michael E. Haynes was his pastor; the Rev. Dr. Albert Sampson, who studied under King, was an “honorary godfather,” as his mother put it; and the city’s first Black deputy mayor, Clarence J. Jones, was “Uncle Jeep.”
His grandfather, Earl Lawson, grew up in such a segregated part of New Orleans that he told his daughter Rachel — Idowu’s mother — that he didn’t see a white person until he left for university. Lawson attended Morehouse College, where he befriended King, then became the pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Malden, where he was a powerful catalyst for change during Boston’s busing crisis. His ministry extended into the community, where he ran job programs for Black workers and addiction programs in Roxbury.
Rachel Idowu says that Lawson’s work in the civil rights movement left a lasting impression on her son.
“It’s in his DNA. ... From the time he was born, we knew that he was destined to do something great,” she said. Idowu attended Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, and began honing his oratorical capabilities by memorizing King’s speeches at age 8, a passion that would later result in his nickname, “Reverend Doctor.”
In high school, Idowu attended Boston Latin Academy but didn’t have the grades for his school of choice: Morehouse. His mother still remembers the phone call she got a half hour after she dropped him off at UMass Dartmouth. In the 30-minute span, five kids had approached Idowu, asking if he wanted to buy marijuana from them.
The incident propelled him forward, onto the dean’s list, allowing him to eventually transfer to Morehouse. It was in Atlanta that Idowu began his organizing work, first in 2011 to protest the execution of Troy Davis, who was convicted of killing a police officer despite a number of witnesses recanting their testimony against him. A few months later, he brought a group from Morehouse to join demonstrations in Florida over the death of Trayvon Martin.
The names of the dead kept coming. He was back in Boston in 2014 when Michael Brown died at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Idowu’s high school friend Shekia Scott texted him, telling him they needed to be there.
“He said Ferguson doesn’t need us; we need to do something here,” Scott recalled. So together they cofounded the Boston Police Body Camera Action Team, which, after significant pushback, successfully got the Boston department to outfit officers with body cameras last year.
Tarsy first encountered Idowu on Twitter and eventually recruited him to come work with him as he opened the Edward M. Kennedy Institute. Idowu’s work on body cameras prompted Tarsy to invite him to speak at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. shabbat of justice event at Temple Israel in 2016. The speaker the year before him was Mayor Martin J. Walsh. Idowu was just 27 years old.
“Racial injustice was not created with, institutionalized for, or perpetuated by the minority groups of this nation,” Idowu told the congregation that evening. “And so, therefore, it is a problem that must be defeated by the offspring of its authors.”
“He had a very simple message: Be good followers, stop trying to lead ... and think about economic impact, not just legislative and policy,” Tarsy said. Inspired by the speech, Tarsy said, the temple has begun investing in and contracting with businesses run by people of color. “It helped our community to move into new areas of social action that we had not considered before.”
Idowu traces his advocacy directly to the economic justice work of his forebears.
“My grandfather was talking about the same issues in the South that are the same ones here. If you look at any of the materials from when King was here in ’65, they’re all talking about housing, investing in businesses, poor education,” Idowu said. “All the things that we’re talking about today, which is crazy to me.”
Since assuming leadership of BECMA, Idowu has doubled the size of its board, expanded beyond Boston, and launched the first Mass Black Expo trade show, in addition to furthering the group’s mission to push for more contracts for Black-owned businesses.
But since the protests erupted over George Floyd’s death, Idowu has become a vocal advocate for the safety and security of Black-owned businesses, launching an effort, with other local advocacy groups, to help secure federal stimulus funds for minority-owned businesses and raise $1 million to back BECMA’s growth.
“Black people are always the canary in the coal mine. Whatever is happening in our community, you can tell what’s going to happen to the nation. We always bear the brunt of it,” he said.
A survey of 300 BECMA members in March, before the shutdown even started, found that only 60 percent had enough cash to survive just three months. And data from the National Bureau of Economic Research has found that 41 percent of Black-owned businesses in the United States have closed during the pandemic, the highest percentage of any demographic in the country.
“Those business owners are creating jobs and tied to the communities; they’re really important,” said the author of the NBER study, Robert Fairlie, an economist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “It’s not just about the economy, they’re about something broader, they’re about the community and the culture. If they disappear long term that will be kind of devastating.”
These facts, coupled with the high infection rate of COVID-19 among communities of color, led BECMA to be among the few business groups advocating for a slower timeline to the state’s reopening plan. Now, in the wake of the Floyd killing, the Black Mass empowerment objectives are an ambitious attempt to ensure that economic recovery will also mean economic progress.
“He put [the objectives] forth at the right moment to drive conversations and to drive change,” said Bob Rivers, chief executive of Eastern Bank, who works closely with BECMA. “This is a moment for the white guys to listen and learn; it is not the time for us to step up and save the day and share what we think should be done.”
Idowu will be the first to admit that the BECMA-led coalition’s $1 billion request rankled some in the city. But he also had a sharp response to the effort by Mayor Walsh and some of the business community’s major-domos to start the Boston Racial Equity Fund just as a separate group of local Black executives was launching its own campaign, the New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund.
“The mayor can do what he wants,” Idowu said, “but if he really wants to be a leader, he would retract his statement, and he would say, ‘You know what, after speaking with people in the community, it makes more sense for us to work together.‘ ”
Pelton, whom Walsh tapped to chair the city equity fund, believes Idowu will be a “significant force in Boston. ... He has the capacity to make a real and enduring impact in the city.”
And true to form, Idowu doesn’t blink at the size of the opportunity before him.
“They say we’re standing on the shoulders of giants,” Idowu said. “But sometimes we have to climb down and become giants ourselves.”