Hakim Harris looked out at the crowd of Black professionals and entrepreneurs who gathered for a workshop Friday at the Westin Copley Hotel, and let go a wide smile. Never before, the city native said, had he seen such an assembly in Boston’s Back Bay.
“This is dope, it really is,” said Harris, a project manager at John Hancock Financial. “I’m glad we’re able to put our imprint on a city that historically has not been here for us.”
That sentiment was echoed time and again during the How to Boston While Black Summit, a first-of-its-kind gathering of Black professionals, students, and entrepreneurs, Boston natives and newcomers, in a networking conference intended to strengthen Boston’s Black communities. The three-day event, ending Saturday, is a meditation on how to recognize the city’s past, steeped in racism, while also envisioning Boston’s future and the role that Black residents can and should play.
Harris moderated a workshop on how Black Bostonians can buy their first home, a pathway to building wealth amid gaping economic disparities between Black and white households. Other panels focused on how the city can welcome newcomers; how Black residents can help build the future of Boston’s neighborhoods; what role elected officials of color should be playing in amplifying community voices; a guide to dating in Boston; and how to elevate Boston’s Black social spaces. Thursday’s events focused on how to grow the role of Black residents and businesses in Boston’s booming tech industry, and on Friday they centered on how best to navigate the city’s social, business, and political circles.
The underlying goal of all the panels, organizer Sheena Collier said, was to connect participants “to information, to job opportunities, to opportunities to just really be a part of Boston.”
“Boston is an amazing place that has lots of resources, lots of opportunity … but we’re not included in some of what happens in the city. It’s a city changing, in a lot of good ways, and we want to make sure Black people feel like they’re a part of it,” said Collier, who two years ago founded Boston While Black, a membership-based networking group that served as the seedling for the summit.
Collier moved to Boston to attend graduate school two decades ago, and said she found the city difficult to navigate. She saw the need for such a networking group. “I didn’t immediately see the Black community and culture that exists here,” she said.
On Thursday and Friday, more than 500 people attended the summit, which included 90 speakers and more than 40 volunteers. Collier said the summit also had strong support from Boston’s business community, which she called recognition by the city’s corporations that, “you should be invested in what people think of Boston, you should be invested in the experience that Black people are having.” The event was partially sponsored by The Boston Globe’s Black News Hour.
Isaiah Vertus, 25, a technical support analyst with Embark Veterinary, attended workshops on how to follow the path to home ownership, and the role Black Bostonians will play in shaping the city’s neighborhoods. He grew up in Hyde Park and attended schools here, but said he is only beginning to explore what it means to be a young professional in Boston.
“I’m trying to get to know the lay of the land,” he said. “It’s inspiring, really: I’ve never really had another opportunity to go to an event that had like-minded folks who look like me.”
DeVon Douglass moved to Boston from Tulsa, Okla., in November, for the position of director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Greater Boston Legal Services. She found Boston While Black as a gateway to her new community, and said the summit was an opportunity for Black residents to connect on their common histories, but also opportunities.
“We have to consider how racism affects us. Whether it’s the fun things we’re doing, or in our professional capacity, racism affects Black folks no matter where we are,” she said, “and it’s important that we respond to that, and Boston While Black is helping us respond to that.”
Bernadine Kirkland, a Dorchester native and the owner of the Chicago-based WaKanna for Life cannabis dispensary, first attended a Boston While Black “family reunion” last summer and saw the organization as a way to grow her “tribe.”
“It’s all about making connections, everyone’s looking for the same things,” Kirkland said. “Just looking around and seeing so many happy and healthy Black folks has been amazing.”
At the panel on home ownership, Harris told attendees that Boston’s Black communities have been neglected and discriminated against for generations, leaving Black residents behind as the city has seen economic successes. He called homeownership a key strategy to build wealth, pointing to findings that Black households have a median wealth of a mere $8 — “less than a small cheese pizza.”
“While that can’t entirely be explained in real estate, real estate is a big piece of that,” he said. “When you start talking about building generational wealth and passing things down to your children, these things are incredibly important. And historically we have been left out, and we have been left out on purpose.”
Chrystal Kornegay, executive director of Mass Housing, the state’s affordable housing lending agency, told attendees that “We’re on a mission to make every single one of you a homeowner in the next three years.”
At a panel entitled, “My Second Home: Growing New Roots for Black Boston Transplants,” two newcomers to the city told attendees that the way to plant roots in Boston is to become part of the community, join social circles, and recognize one’s worth.
“The word ‘transplant’ means that something is missing — being a transplant is an honor because I bring something that Boston needs,” said Kristen Pope, founder of Pope Productions Inc.
Jeraul Mackey, a New Orleans native and a doctoral student in Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, said Boston has a reputation as a racist city, but he emphasized that Boston is indeed a Black city; that story’s just not one its past leaders and the media tend to show.
“How do we create a different narrative and just tell the truth?” Mackey said. “There are a lot of Black people doing great things.”
At a panel that focused on the history of Boston’s neighborhoods and their future, Karilyn Crockett, an MIT professor in urban studies and the city’s former chief of equity, said it is impossible to tell Boston’s history without acknowledging the contributions of its Black communities.
“Boston is a city that likes to talk about the past, but the problem with that is we don’t tell the whole story — we don’t tell the whole story about the people who really helped build this city,” she said. “To understand that history, you have to understand the role of Black folks, black fighters, who lead us here to where we are today.”
And yet Kai Grant, also a panelist and the founder of Black Market in Roxbury, a pop-up market featuring Black-owned and locally owned businesses, said she was hopeful for the future of Boston’s Black communities.
There is work to do, she said, specifically to build up wealth among Black Bostonians. But she has high hopes, she said, pointing to the success of a first-of-its-kind summit that allowed Black residents to be themselves in Boston.
“This is going to catapult the city forward,” she said.
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617. Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @tianarochon.