In a city that prides itself on its hardness, we crave a comfort that is soft and welcoming. In a city known for whiteness and racism, Black folk are one another’s communion and catharsis.
Sheena Collier understands what Audre Lorde knew: “Without community, there is no liberation.”
When she first moved to the area as a Harvard grad student in 2004, a sense of belonging felt beyond reach. Having grown up in Albany, N.Y., and attended Spelman College — the oldest historically Black college for women in America — she was used to a support system. When she didn’t find one here, she built one.
She did it with dinner parties, book clubs, and movie nights. She did it with the city, in her former role as director of economic growth for the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, where she curated the Fierce Urgency of Now, a City Awake festival celebrating young professionals of color in Boston. As founder of The Collier Connection, she specializes in the intersection of corporate culture and community living.
And a year ago, in the thick of the pandemic, she launched Boston While Black, a membership network for Boston-based Black professionals and students seeking community.
“Sheena genuinely sees the value in being in community with other Black folks,” said Imari Paris Jeffries, executive director of King Boston. “She has elevated the importance of having spaces that bring Black and brown people together and bring them here. The city is better for having her.”
Boston is 45 percent white. It is a city made up primarily of people of color — a quarter of Boston is Black. And yet, finding them sometimes feels like a treasure hunt. The living ain’t always easy. We are very much here yet rendered invisible for a parochial and patriarchal painting of a time and place the city has moved beyond; if only the equity, opportunity, and landscape were empowered to catch up.
With Boston While Black, Collier is making sure we have more. More of her, more of one another, more hope for making Boston home.
Ayanna Polk, a New Jersey transplant, was among one of the group’s earliest members. She moved to Boston in 2018 to work for the mayor’s office of women’s advancement. For her, Boston While Black was a chance for connectivity during the isolation of the pandemic. But it was more than that, too.
“Navigating a new city is very difficult especially when there’s a narrative about Black people in this city. For me, this was an opportunity to leave the stigma at the door and get involved with a group of people who are looking for the same thing. Boston While Black has helped me create the Boston I want to see. It’s been transformative to meet people I normally wouldn’t come across in my day-to-day, especially during the pandemic.”
When Boston While Black debuted last July, it had 100 founding members on day one. Now, there are over 300 members and a waitlist of 2,000. Today, one year from the launch date, the list opens. Membership ($39 a month or $399 a year) includes a digital platform that features virtual parties, panels, and co-working hours. Networking, civic, and educational opportunities are built-in. And with the reopening of the city, in-person events have commenced.
“I envision a day when someone moves here and within their first month they are part of Boston While Black,” Collier told me a year ago, ahead of her launch. “I want them to be able to attend a workshop, meet Black elected leaders, go to a welcome dinner, log in online and say, ‘Hey, can someone go to church with me or try a restaurant?’ and they do that their first month. I want people to live here and feel that sense of belonging.”
Immunologist Kizzmekia S. Corbett is one of those people.
When the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health sought to recruit the pioneer who helped develop the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, Corbett was concerned about finding a community in Boston. Collier organized a weekend in which Corbett was able to meet then-City Councilor Kim Janey, taste wine at The Urban Grape, and get to know the city. Last month, Collier officially welcomed the new assistant professor over dinner at The Pearl with other Boston While Black members.
So as I ride passenger side of my UHaul headed to Boston, I must shout out to Boston’s @MayorKimJaney and @boswhileblack Founder, Sheena Collier @PensiveInPink, for introducing me to my new community. See you soon! #belonging #connection #bostonwhileblack #blkbosreimagined pic.twitter.com/iZYeVZSFzr— KizzyPhD (@KizzyPhD) June 11, 2021
Collier’s vision has come to be. Black folks are feeling the love and community in Boston. Both Wayfair and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce have become corporate partners. And on Saturday, Boston While Black celebrated its first year anniversary with a family reunion open to the public. Over 4,000 people poured onto Lawn on D to celebrate the beauty of Blackness, the joy of congregation.
“It’s been a challenging time but I still wouldn’t trade it,” Collier said. “I love it and I know we are creating a cultural ecosystem that will reverberate and have impact nationally. This is a model for Black thriving and joy in cities across the country.”
US Representative Ayanna Pressley believes Boston While Black played a role in our healing while living in a pandemic and fighting for racial equity.
“I thank Boston While Black for standing in the gap because in the midst of unprecedented challenge we have come together as Black folk with unprecedented community,” she said during a recent BWB event. “The reality is we are more than our traumas, and it is so important that we are forging the bonds of community and doing the work of Black liberation not just defined by moments of trauma and hurt and harm but doing that out of pure black joy.”
Collier is a changemaker. She is a space holder. She walks with the spirit of Barbara Smith, Melnea Cass, Mel King, and all of Boston’s elders who understood the vital role of a Black congregation.
Kai Grant, another Boston pioneer and cofounder of Black Market Nubian, said Collier is essential to the movement for change in Boston.
“Sheena is one of our best, brightest, and most gifted. She respects the past, understands what’s happening currently, and takes on a leadership position within the Black community to take us into the future,” Grant said.
“Sometimes, transplants come into Boston with their eyes open and see that Boston has a rich culture that hasn’t been realized and have that energy for change. Sheena’s energy is necessary.”
What Collier is creating with Boston While Black is bigger than physical space.
She’s affirming the space we hold within each other. Seeing one another unlocks a power. And when a community knows itself, it rises.
Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.