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Boston must make civic engagement more equitable

Local officials and community organizations need to do more to provide opportunities for social capital to ensure every Bostonian can take part in civic engagement.

Mayor Michelle Wu participated in the ribbon cutting during the grand opening of the Edgewood Food Forest in Mattapan, May 13. A new community space dedicated to healthy living and learning, the Edgewood Food Forest is maintained collectively by volunteer stewards as a part of the Boston Food Forest Coalition community land trust.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

A 2023 report from AmeriCorps on volunteering and civic life in America found that Boston is the most helpful major city in America based on how much our neighbors support each other outside of an organizational context. But before we jump to celebration, we must acknowledge that the ranking doesn’t tell the full story.

Behind our leadership in informal helping is a gap in civic engagement that cuts across racial lines. Nationally and regionally, people of color experience lower rates of volunteering, voting, and other methods of serving than white people — and not for lack of wanting to do so. Local officials and community organizations in Boston need to do more to provide opportunities for social capital — resource exchange and collaboration — to ensure every Bostonian can take part in civic engagement.


Numerous studies over the years illustrate these gaps. The National Urban League’s 2022 Equity Index showed that Black people still trail behind white people in civic engagement, especially in civic and political volunteerism. A 2008 paper from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University found that Black, Asian, and Hispanic people have lower rates of civic engagement than white people nationally even after controlling for income and education differences. A 2021 MassVOTE report found that 7 of the 10 Massachusetts municipalities with the lowest voter turnout in the November 2020 elections, including Boston, had non-white populations that exceeded 50 percent of their total population.

Many people of color in the Boston area face major barriers to civic engagement tied to structural issues that can lead to lower community involvement, including financial difficulties like unemployment, inaccessible civic programs and resources, and a lack of time to serve locally. Research shows that lack of time, work schedules, family demands, and availability of transportation can curtail people’s ability to be more civically engaged. Running errands for neighbors in need, registering to vote, attending community meetings, and other civic activities are challenging in the face of these factors.


For political activities specifically, education plays a key role. Boston organizer and Union Capital Boston Network Coordinator Cynthia Jones has engaged Boston voters of color for several election cycles and said she has found that people’s biggest obstacle to voting is the belief that their vote doesn’t matter. She has addressed this issue by showing residents examples of races that were decided by a handful of votes.

By incentivizing social capital like Jones’s work, officials and nonprofits can break down barriers that hold people of color back from civic engagement and its benefits. They can consider rewarding and recognizing people for their time spent organizing rallies and engaging in other activities for individual opportunity and community advancement. We’ve seen this model work at Union Capital Boston, where our points and rewards system encourages people to serve and build relationships. This model of spurring civic engagement has helped yield consistent, annual positive outcomes for members in employment, voter turnout, credit score, and other indicators, including self-worth and mental health.

Other Boston leaders have started to advocate for and implement some approaches to leveraging social capital to foster civic participation. In 2019, now Mayor Michelle Wu advocated for block parties as a means to foster communities that are resilient and civically active. Our partners at Roxbury-based Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation and East Boston Neighborhood Health Center have leveraged social capital to facilitate community engagement by providing healthy cooking classes, facilitating field trips, hosting resident meetings, and creating an entirely new Community Resource and Wellness Center for residents to connect, respectively. The result has been self-sufficiency for residents and neighborhood revitalization, a result we’d see citywide with further investment and action.


We encourage leaders and organizers across sectors to consider how they can leverage social capital to stimulate community engagement. There isn’t one right way. By championing any of the myriad ways the practice can be beneficial, organizations and officials will help close the racial gaps in community involvement that stifle our city’s growth.

Boston can’t be the most neighborly city without participation from all people. Let’s pool our resources together to ensure our city is truly number one.

Eric Leslie is founder and lead organizer of Union Capital Boston.