As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of Boston in March, Mayor Martin J. Walsh rallied the city’s corporate community to raise millions of dollars within days to help needy families weather the coming storm.
Karilyn Crockett, Boston’s chief of equity, said it has taken time to develop a strategic approach to tackle an issue as complex and entrenched as racial inequity.
So far, Walsh has assembled a 16-member steering committee of civic leaders, led by Emerson College president Lee Pelton, to advise city officials on raising and allocating money. One focus of the group: the oft-quoted Federal Reserve Bank of Boston report that highlighted just how little in total wealth is owned by Black households in the Boston area.
This committee has held two virtual meetings so far. City officials say they expect to begin fund-raising in the coming weeks.
“We will be making investments in organizations and initiatives that line up with this bigger vision we have, [for] how you think about generational equity and wealth building,” Crockett said.
Walsh appointed Crockett to the Cabinet-level role June 29, days after disclosing his plans for the equity fund, and put her in charge. She wanted to refine the mission before knocking on doors for donations.
“One of the worst things you can do if you’re raising money,” she added, “is to ask people for money and not know what it’s for.”
Crockett already has at least one specific goal in mind: updating the Boston Fed’s “Color of Wealth” report from 2015. It showed that a sample of US-born Blacks in the region had a median net worth of $8, compared to $247,500 for a similar sample of whites. Crockett, a researcher by profession, wants to see how the comparisons have changed over the past five years, and address the root causes of that divide.
Crockett wants to raise an initial round of $10 million, with a longer-term goal of $50 million. By comparison, Walsh’s COVID-19 assistance fund, known as the Boston Resiliency Fund, has raised more than $30 million, most of which has already been distributed.
As with the Resiliency Fund, the money from the equity fund is likely to be doled out through nonprofits that can help the community directly.
Jen Faigel, executive director at CommonWealth Kitchen in Dorchester, said she would apply for the money when it becomes available. The money would help her team advise struggling restaurants, many owned by immigrants and people of color, as they try to survive. CommonWealth Kitchen has received some aid from the Resiliency Fund, but it went to emergency meals, not for COVID-related businesses assistance.
“It was hard to find funding for our work before the pandemic. Now, with so many businesses struggling, this fund will be crucial in helping us support our hard-hit community,” Faigel said.
Walsh launched the fund as Black Lives Matter protests over unequal treatment by police and economic inequities swept the country. A similar local initiative, called the New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund, established by executives of color at around the same time, has raised more than $20 million so far. Its goals are to assist philanthropies focused on criminal justice reform, public health, economic empowerment, and youth engagement. To coordinate efforts, the mayor appointed three members of that group to his steering committee: Mo Cowan of General Electric, Pamela Everhart of Fidelity Investments, and Linda Dorcena Forry of Suffolk Construction.
The New Commonwealth fund has already attracted hefty gifts from big corporate donors: Eastern Bank and State Street, for example, each pledged $5 million in July. The first round of disbursements is expected later this fall.
Segun Idowu, head of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, said it was smart for Walsh to bring members of the New Commonwealth group on board. Idowu was among the Black leaders in June who worried the mayor might not have had enough direction to ensure the city fund would properly assist communities of color. He has since been encouraged by the roles that Pelton and Crockett, both of whom are Black, are playing in the city fund, as well as the diversity among steering committee members.
“Good moves have been made in terms of who is going to be making the decisions,” Idowu said. “We hope the same level and intent will come from the fifth floor [of City Hall] to support this fund, and to make sure it’s meaningful.”
Monica Cannon-Grant, chief executive of Violence in Boston Inc. in Hyde Park, said she hopes to apply to the city’s equity fund, to aid her organization’s social justice work. She’s not worried that Walsh’s fund might face competition for donor dollars. “We have a lot of wealth in this city,” she said.
NAACP Boston President Tanisha Sullivan said it’s important that the donations not get swallowed up by larger, institutional nonprofits, but rather mostly go to smaller community groups, led by people of color.
“By design, they’re closer to the individuals and businesses that are experiencing the inequities, and therefore tend to be better equipped,” Sullivan said. “So few philanthropic dollars currently go to organizations led by people of color. That’s not just a Boston problem. That’s a national problem.”
Even the equity fund’s $50 million long-term target might not seem like much in the face of such a deep-rooted problem. Still, Fatima Ali-Salaam, chair of the Greater Mattapan Development Council and a member of Walsh’s steering committee, said she believes in the potential for these donations to be transformational — if deployed correctly.
Moreover, Ali-Salaam said it will take a collective effort to transform Boston.
“We’re at a point right now in our city where we all have to think about how we are going to be part of change, whether it be your own family circle, in the neighborhood, or in the city as a whole,” Ali-Salaam said. “We all have to decide where our part is.”
From Vanessa Calderon-Rosado’s perspective, the need is as urgent as ever. Calderon-Rosado, chief executive of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción and a steering committee member for Walsh’s equity fund, expects addressing the racial wealth gap will be a big focus.
“That’s where we are leaning,” she said. “We’re really thinking about what we can do to make an impact, given all the needs we know exist.”