Nearly 50 years ago, I arrived in a Boston that looks starkly different from the city of 2021. Physically, the Central Artery loomed over an industrial waterfront on one of the most polluted harbors in the world. Economically, Boston was a second-tier American city, with pockets of success and robust medical and education sectors, but that was hemorrhaging population to the suburbs. And socially? From the violence around busing to the riots on Carson Beach, race relations, if they existed at all, were strained.
The most-envied American city wasn’t Boston. It was Detroit, which ranked among the top cities in median income as late as 1980.
Fast forward to today, and Boston’s physical change is almost incomprehensible. The Central Artery is gone, replaced by the gleaming skyscrapers of the Seaport District, overlooking a harbor that has gone from worst to first in pollution control and access. Our city’s population has risen sharply, bolstered by a Latinx influx that has transformed Boston into a “majority-minority” city with a Black woman as acting mayor, a City Council comprising a majority of women of color, and a city guaranteed to elect its first nonwhite mayor this fall.
But the data, the stories, and the ravages of COVID-19 remind us that Boston still has a tremendous amount of work to do. Boston has transformed itself into a world-class city, but that progress is not reflected in the daily lives of far too many residents who struggle to access affordable housing, quality education and jobs, equitable health care, transportation, public safety, and so much more. Too much of the fruit of our regional successes go to those at the very top of the ladder, rather than to so many others whose equally critical contributions are underrecognized and under-rewarded.
We are a world-class city, but we are not yet a just and equitable one. Our continued evolution, part of a global revolution in cities, requires civic, business, and political leaders to address Boston’s longstanding issues of inequity. And it calls on those who are benefitting from today’s knowledge economy, which has brought unprecedented wealth and vibrance to this region, to invest in philanthropy at a rate far more commensurate with the benefits they have accrued. That’s not to say all have shirked their responsibilities. Boston Foundation donors shattered their annual giving records in 2020, and other leaders and companies have committed millions of dollars to justice and equity work. But the dozens of community leaders and nonprofit partners whose hands-on local work enabled us to weather this pandemic have gone unnoticed for far too long. Philanthropists must step up their support of these difference makers.
We especially need to make these investments in our communities now, when the overall data paint a picture of success that camouflages many of our challenges. We cannot wait until the next crisis. World-class cities know that the time to invest and improve is when it is strategic, not just when it is necessary. If we do not take advantage of our recovery and the pre-pandemic strength of the Boston economy, it will be a catastrophic missed opportunity. Our unique strengths — robust nonprofit hospitals and educational institutions, the tech and biotech sectors, a clean harbor, diversity, and so much more — offer opportunities to change the narrative of Boston as an inequitable, inhospitable place for people of color.
And it is building on our strengths as a city at a time when I, for one, am still bullish on cities. While others suggest that the pandemic, which showed the luckiest of us that we can work from anywhere, reduces the unique appeal of cities, I disagree. To paraphrase my friend Michael Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School, if you can do anything from anywhere, distinctiveness of place matters more than ever.
Our commitment to philanthropy and our robust nonprofit sector are part of Boston’s distinctiveness. On the wall at the Boston Foundation is an ever-growing list of nonprofit organizations — well over 100 — for which the foundation was “there at the beginning.” They are organizations the foundation provided with critical early funding — and they include some that are now household names, such as WGBH and the New England Aquarium — and newer ones, including Commonwealth Kitchen, Year Up, Health Care for All, and many more.
As I look at that wall today, it’s not just a testament to the Boston Foundation’s work — although to me it is a point of pride. It’s a testament to the fact that Greater Boston’s spirit of creative innovation is not confined to the lab or tech sector. It is intricately woven into the very fabric of who we are as a city. It shows that while we are rightly proud of our innovation hubs in the Seaport District and Kendall Square, some of Greater Boston’s innovators and most passionate creative minds are working in other communities across the region. They live each day in proximity to both the problems they seek to address and the possibilities that come with solutions. The brilliance of their work comes not (just) from an MBA or PhD — it also comes from their lived experience and first-hand understanding of the complex issues at play.
We should all take inspiration from their work, and we should all strive to make their work more visible and support it more strongly. Boston has become a world-class city by reclaiming our natural assets and by embracing innovation in education, health, and technology. But we can remain one only by bringing that same can-do spirit to issues like housing, transportation, and racial and economic inequality. The next great ideas are out there — if we choose to see them. As I step down from the Boston Foundation, I plan to continue my work to highlight how philanthropy — and in particular community foundations like the Boston Foundation — can connect people with resources to investigate, challenge, and change systems that contribute to our region’s inequities. Cities have inherent energy and power. How effectively we harness that collective energy for the greater good will determine whether we as a city reach our best possible future.
Paul Grogan is president and CEO of the Boston Foundation.