In a moment of national upheaval due to the coronavirus pandemic and a long overdue reckoning on systemic racial inequities, cities can drive change. All across the country, local governments are taking action to transform power structures and overhaul systems for safety, health, and economic opportunity. Yet in Boston, the biggest announcements from City Hall have been a series of mayor-controlled funds to offer one-time grants for individuals and organizations.
The focus on fund-raising and grant-making through the platform of municipal government comes at a steep price: forfeiting democratic accountability and obscuring the city’s role in delivering structural change.
The past few months have illuminated the depth of struggle in our prosperous but unequal city — families trapped in a broken public health and public safety system, and communities deprived of the opportunity to cultivate wealth and economic security over generations.
The very structures of Boston’s city government perpetuate these racial and economic inequities. We allocate billions of taxpayer dollars through the city budget to preserve the status quo, with four times more money going to policing than to our public health infrastructure. We forgo community-centered planning to maintain a development and zoning system based on variances and one-off approvals, keeping affordable housing out of reach and enabling devastating missed opportunities such as the Seaport District. Even in the most basic and actionable charge to ensure equity in city contracting, we are still discussing a disparity study launched three years ago and counting single-digit participation from entrepreneurs of color in a city with the richness of Boston’s diversity.
Anything short of urgently transforming these structures is an abdication of City Hall’s power and responsibility.
The recently announced City of Boston Racial Equity Fund is not an urgent transformation, but a squandering of municipal power that will compete with a community-led effort created by Black and brown business leaders. Instead of reshaping the scale of need, Mayor Martin Walsh and his appointees will work on how to choose which recipients receive how many of the too few dollars. This is a familiar playbook from City Hall, following six other mayor-controlled grant-making funds launched during the coronavirus public health emergency — the Boston Resiliency Fund, Small Business Relief Fund, Rental Relief Fund, Reopen Boston Fund, Artist Relief Fund, and Arts & Culture COVID-19 fund.
But the Racial Equity Fund is not being described as a relief fund that should wind down when the pandemic is over. The fund will continue soliciting millions of dollars in donations from private corporations and individuals, presumably until Boston achieves racial equity. And that threatens an even more basic principle of our democracy: maintaining trust in good government.
Government is accountable to the public in a way that private corporations and nonprofits are not. We owe our constituents the highest standard of transparency and accountability, which is out of reach when the mayor takes on a role as the city’s chief fund-raiser.
The very act of soliciting money from wealthy donors who may have interests before the city risks the perception, if not reality, of conflicts of interest. Unlike external grants received to support direct city services, which require City Council approval to accept and expend, there is no direct oversight mechanism for private dollars passed to nonprofit organizations through the Racial Equity Fund or the Boston Resiliency Fund, which has raised more than $32 million in private donations in response to COVID-19.
Not only does this create pressure on corporations and individuals with business before the city to donate, but it also exerts a troubling influence on the political process as funds are disbursed. Nonprofit organizations must compete for dollars that now flow through the city, taking care to maintain favor with the Walsh administration, facing pressure to speak up or stay silent on the right issues.
Centralizing private funding in the hands of the mayor and his personal appointees also means consolidating power in the status quo by continuing to rely on the judgment and control of a select few who have personally benefited from these systems over decades in Boston.
City government’s power is rooted in our connection to community. Our role is to serve not as a gatekeeper for grants but as a platform to organize for shared prosperity. In response to a groundswell of activism from constituents, our charge is not to defuse the pressure but to channel it into structural change.
Michelle Wu is a Boston City Councilor.