Like they do nationwide, Black men in Boston face disparities among a range of social and wealth demographics, compared to their non-Black peers. Less than a quarter of Black men ages 25 and up have college degrees. Black male residents make up a large share of COVID-related deaths. And more than 60 percent of Black men working full-time jobs earn less than $50,000 a year.
That’s why one year ago, Mayor Michelle Wu formed the Office of Black Male Advancement, a pioneering effort to even the playing field for Boston’s Black men and boys.
Frank Farrow, the office’s executive director, said the journey so far has been a learning process for all, with no step-by-step guide or budget predictions, no precedent for the challenges the group faces. But in the spirit of the goals that were set out for the office, its staff members and supporters have leaned into their own experiences as Black men in Boston, and partnered with other city offices and grassroots organizations to address each disparity one-by-one.
“We’re not going to accomplish everything that we want to accomplish in a year, so we’re moving forward bit-by-bit to make a lasting impact in the city,” Farrow said. “We’re building the plane and flying.”
During its first year, Farrow said, the office has prioritized “laying the foundation” for its future operations. The office awarded $100,000 in grants to 25 local organizations focused on providing support and programming for the city’s Black men and boys.
Last September, the office published “The State of Black Males in Boston,” an online report that compiled data on categories like income, homeownership rates, and place of origin for Black men. The office recruited about 90 local youth for My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative launched a decade ago to address inequities young male Black, Indigenous, and people of color face, and aims at reaching 200 later this year. And the office launched Black Men Lead Boston and Young Black Leaders Boston, two interactive educational programs that give Black men and high school students tools to make change in their communities.
The office also houses and supports the 21-member Black Men and Boys Commission, which advises the city on issues related to Black men and boys on a local level.
Farrow said that the office will not just analyze the plight Black men and boys in Boston face, but also showcase the Black joy and excellence exhibited by them, too.
“I just want to make sure that our office is creating a space for not only hope, but for a reality where more Black men and boys are able to thrive, be successful, and be leaders,” Farrow said. “We want to highlight and show those outcomes.”
On a day-to-day basis, one can find the office assisting residents with constituent services, advising city departments on policy to promote equity, or spending time in the community to offer free resources.
On a recent Saturday morning, the office partnered with the agency Grace Legal Support Services for “Family Matters,” a series of four family law clinics held on the second floor of the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Roxbury. Toddlers shuffled around the room as mothers, shielded from the public by privacy screens and whirring white-noise machines, received pro-bono advice from four paralegals.
Wendy Raymond, the agency’s owner, said the office is a fitting partner because the men participants in the program are able to see what a broken family looks like, or why there may be a need for family legal advice, when a father is not involved.
“When we talk about family law or broken homes, most of the time the father is missing,” she said, adding that the purpose of the program is to address “the generational curses that exist within our families.”
Clinics like Family Matters are “a little, small piece of starting that process,” Raymond said.
Including Farrow, the office has three members: an executive director, a community engagement manager, and a program manager for My Brother’s Keeper Boston. Farrow hopes to add a policy and research manager, a resource development manager, and a Black Men’s Initiative program manager to the staff.
The city devoted $1.8 million towards the office for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, providing funding for staff salaries, at least $100,000 in grant initiatives, and programs like Black Men Lead.
Going forward, Farrow said he wants to ensure the office’s budget would allow it to have a deeper impact on Boston’s Black men and boys.
Judging success can be difficult, especially in a year’s time. There is no way to measure progress addressing deep, systemic inequities based on the early work of a three-man office. But Farrow points to the personal connections the office has made with Black men and boys in Boston — current and future leaders, he said — through the various initiatives and partnerships that have been created.
The partners include Young Man With A Plan, a local nonprofit that provides mentoring for about 200 Black and Latino teens at eight schools in Boston. The organization received a $5,000 grant from the office, which Desmond Kennard, the group’s director of program operations, said was used to fund a summer speaking series for students.
Now, the organization has plans to have Farrow speak to its students about his position, because in City Hall, “there’s not a lot of Black males doing the work that he’s doing,” Kennard said.