Boston’s long history of racism means Black Bostonians have more trouble accessing the economic, social, and health support they need, leaving them more vulnerable in times of stress.
Addressing these gaps is the driving force behind the Community Communications Center, a virtual “Black City Hall,” launched by a Boston nonprofit where Black Bostonians can ask for help with securing food assistance, scheduling a COVID-19 booster shot, or repairing their credit.
“My goal is supporting Black people to be able to . . . transition from survival mode to thriving,” said Atyia Martin, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit behind the initiative, Next Leadership Development Corporation, or NextLeads.
Martin, who previously served as the city’s first “chief resilience officer” and as the Boston Public Health Commission’s director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness, said her work in government showed her that for many residents, knowing where to get help or information is often the hardest step.
“People waste a lot of time trying to figure stuff out, and it’s not their fault that a lot of the things we have — whether it’s social services, government services — to navigate every day aren’t the easiest,” Martin said.
National and local policies and practices that have helped working-class people build wealth through education, jobs, and homeownership have historically left out Black residents, creating a wealth deficit that has widened over generations. A 2015 study found that African Americans in Greater Boston have an average net worth of $8, compared with $247,500 for their white counterparts.
“We’ve allowed these systemic structures and issues to fester for a very long time,” said Lee Pelton, CEO and president of The Boston Foundation, one of the nation’s largest and oldest community foundations. “Our communities have been invisible to those who sit at the table.”
Martin said the wealth gap has made it harder for Black residents not only to meet their basic needs but also to bounce back from disasters, such as the pandemic, and to weather ongoing stressors, such as racism. Building “economic resilience,” by buying homes, building credit, and amassing savings, means that Black Bostonians can recover more quickly from financial challenges.
Pelton said achieving this boils down to “giving the right tools, and moving out of their way.”
“Based on what I know, [the Black City Hall] will provide an opportunity for folks to have access to a set of tools that will allow them to develop solutions for themselves,” Pelton said.
Martin delved deep into the question of how to build economic resilience in Boston’s communities of color as the city’s first “chief resilience officer.” Appointed by former mayor Martin J. Walsh in 2017, she was the lead author of the administration’s 2017 “Resilient Boston: An Equitable and Connected City” report, which stressed creating partnerships between city agencies and community groups, improving infrastructure, and removing barriers to economic opportunity.
Martin, who stepped down from her post in 2018, said that she realized she had done everything she could as a city official, but, she said, “when working to move things forward, it became clear that I wasn’t going to have the support to do that.”
Martin said no single initiative can solve the complex problems Black Bostonians face but helping people access the resources they need is a step in the right direction.
Shauntea Gregory, NextLeads’ office and project manager, said the nonprofit laid the foundation for the call center’s work by conducting about 7,000 “resilience checks” during the pandemic to look for households in need of assistance, which helped build relationships with people in the community.
“They already know we’re going to call,” Gregory said. “They already trust us. We don’t make promises that we can’t keep.”
Leslie Hamilton, 37, of Dorchester, got a call from the organization last spring. A Boston Public Schools staffer, Hamilton said she had difficulty covering expenses for her two children the weeks between her biweekly paychecks.
“With kids, you can never have enough,” Hamilton said. “[NextLeads’ assistance] helped keep me afloat.”
The nonprofit sent her gift cards and a food basket. She said she still receives follow-ups and feels good about the new center.
“Now that they’re trying to expand it and have people call them — that’s great,” Hamilton said. “I just hope people don’t abuse it.”
The center’s staffers answer simple questions themselves; but if they can’t answer an inquiry or feel that another organization would be better equipped to do so, they connect callers to other, more specialized community and grass-roots organizations, including Project R.I.G.H.T. Inc., a Grove Hall neighborhood development group; Encuentro Diaspora Afro, an Afro-Latino empowerment group; and Union Capital Boston, Inc., which builds resilience through networking.
One of the center’s call representatives is Leah White, who also works as a division director of a nonprofit in Worcester that helps people with developmental disabilities. White said she’s happy that she’s been able to use her “people person” skills for an important cause.
“We get so caught up with our lives sometimes that we may not think of others and know what they have going on,” White said.
If successful, Martin said she hopes the service can help people get to a place where they can weather various difficulties on their own.
“We’re going to support them until they don’t need us anymore,” Martin said. “And that’s the goal. We want people to not need us.”
The city’s new mayor, Michelle Wu, has promised to reverse discriminatory policies that have burdened communities of color. Martin said she hopes Wu will work with community organizations like hers to address structural racism.
“At the end of the day, the city doesn’t have everything it needs, businesses don’t have everything they need, and community-based organizations don’t have everything they need to address these challenges,” she said.
Bostonians can contact the Community Communications Center from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday by calling 617-675-0005, sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or using the web chat feature on its website.
Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.