12 people who are breaking down barriers in Boston
When we asked Globe readers and staffers to tellus about people who deserve recognition for promoting diversity in Massachusetts, the nominations came flooding in for passionate, dedicated folks in almost every field. From the scores of worthy candidates, we singled out 12 who in very different ways — from encouraging women and people of color to run for office, to making corporate boardrooms more inclusive, to ensuring disadvantaged kids have equal access to college — are breaking down barriers and even challenging our very definition of diversity.
Jennifer Chayes | Inspiring through math and science
Jennifer Chayes has spent her career standing out. The daughter of Iranian immigrants and an accomplished academic in the male-dominated field of mathematical physics, she was the first woman to lead one of Microsoft Corp.'s research labs, where the Redmond, Wash., software giant spends millions annually to spur the next wave of innovation.
Now she's using her post to inspire more young women to pursue math and science in hopes that being a top female technologist will no longer be a rarity. "If all their role models are male, it's hard for them to imagine themselves in that situation," says Chayes, 56, who cofounded Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge in 2008 and helped launch Microsoft Research New York City this year.
She actively works with DigiGirlz, a Microsoft initiative to expose high school girls to technology. Chayes is also making sure that Microsoft Research is a welcoming home for talented women. Forty-four percent of the full-time researchers at Microsoft's lab in Cambridge are female. That is an anomaly in technology. Overall, women occupy just 25 percent of computing jobs, according to the Department of Labor.
Chayes wasn't always a champion. Early in her career, she was too busy developing advanced mathematical algorithms to focus on gender equality. But the issue became clear after she began teaching math at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1980s. When Chayes encouraged promising female students to pursue advanced studies, she was often met with disinterest.
Again and again she saw "that young women who were really good thought they weren't really good," she says. "It began to occur to me that there was a crisis of confidence."
Few role models is part of the problem, says Elizabeth Ames, a spokeswoman for the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, a Palo Alto, Calif., group that promotes women in tech fields. It honored Chayes in May with its annual Women of Vision Leadership Award.
"Leading technical women like Jennifer Chayes are rarely covered in the media, so the myth that only men make great computer scientists is perpetuated," says Ames. "Why would we think it is reasonable to leave half of our smartest people on the sidelines in an area that is vital to propelling our economy?"
— Michael B. Farrell
Frederica Williams | Improving access to health care
As the president and chief executive of the Whittier Street Health Center for a decade, Frederica Williams, 54, has seen the number of patients treated each year increase from 5,000 to almost 20,000. Her goal is 100,000 patient-visits annually by 2015.
With its move to a new, larger, state-of-the-art facility in the heart of Roxbury earlier this year, the full-service clinic is on its way. It has increased staff and the physical size of its urgent care clinic, allowing more people who were going to emergency rooms for non- emergency ailments to get treated for a lower cost at Whittier Street.
"This project was so important because for a long time Whittier Street Health Center has been viewed as a haven for people who had nowhere else to turn," Williams says.
"People often tell us they never bothered to go to a doctor, because they were concerned that their needs would be greater than a typical small clinic could address. They know now and more are learning that there's not much we can't treat at our new facility. We even have a state-of-the-art cancer clinic — as part of our partnership with Dana Farber."
Whittier Street treats people originating from 20 different countries and also features a staff that speaks a wide range of languages, including Swahili, Arabic, Bosnian, Portuguese, Yoruba, Russian, Farsi, Somali, and Spanish. Williams herself was born in Sierra Leone, a country that saw 50,000 people killed during a lengthy civil war that ended in 2002.
But in spite of its multicultural patient base and worldly staff, Williams says the strength of the clinic's diversity is in recognizing that regardless of their appearance or cultural background, many of Whittier Street's beneficiaries don't have the means to treat themselves better.
"I can't emphasize enough the importance of education to living healthy," she says, adding that Whittier "educates to prevent."
Toward that end, Williams has created a prenatal care program for pregnant black women, who have the highest infant mortality rate in Boston. She has also launched an aggressive exercise program that works with city high schools, to help get black and Latino teenagers moving, since they're twice as likely to be obese than their white counterparts. And she's opened a diabetes clinic to treat and educate blacks and Latinos who have fallen victim to diabetes without knowing it.
"We're trying to educate people on how to take care of themselves. But a major hurdle has been their ability to follow through," she says. "We can teach you about healthy diet and what it means for staving off heart disease or cancer. But if you can't afford that proper diet, then that adds another layer to your potential health concerns. Our goal is to be a whole health option to people, to help them learn and to help them implement what we're teaching them. That is the only way we will close the health gap — not just the health care gap, but the health gap — in this country."
— James H. Burnett III
Carl Sciortino | Putting LGBT rights on equal footing
After eight years in the State House, Representative Carl Sciortino has earned a reputation as an advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights.
But that title often irks him.
"I don't see LGBT rights as a separate category," says Sciortino, 34. "I want to tell the story of [their] rights within the context of social and economic justice."
A Tufts University graduate, Sciortino represents Medford and Somerville and is one of just a handful of openly gay state representatives in Massachusetts. Sciortino was elected in 2004 in a campaign centered on supporting gay marriage in the Bay State; his more recent successes include his push to pass the transgender antidiscrimination bill he cosponsored, making it a crime to deny someone access to housing or employment based on their gender presentation.
"It seemed pretty straightforward to me," Sciortino says. "Trans people didn't have a level of legal protection that the rest of us take for granted. It was a no-brainer."
Sciortino says much of his political success comes from his refusal to distinguish between the needs of LGBT people and the rest of his constituents. "Gay or straight, we're looking for all the same things: safe communities, good jobs, public transportation, clean drinking water, and everything in between," he says.
In the lead-up to the vote on the bill, Sciortino worked to ensure that transgender constituents and their families could directly address legislators with first-hand stories.
"I have the honor of not only representing people, but also elevating people to be their own advocate," Sciortino says. "It's important for trans people to have their own voices and represent themselves — within the LGBT community, but also distinct from it."
Gunner Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, says Sciortino worked hard to educate himself on the issues that affect transgender people and their families.
"The first step in being a really great ally," Scott says, "is acknowledging that you don't know it all."
— Martine Powers
Priti Rao | Bridging the gender gap in politics
Now that the dust is settling after the general election, Priti Rao, executive director of the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus, is feeling inspired and excited.
With Elizabeth Warren's victory and women voters coming out in record numbers, as well as other gains for female candidates in congressional and state legislature races, Rao says there has been a fundamental shift in the political conversation.
"Our country is changing as our government becomes more reflective of the citizens in our population," says Rao, 26, the first woman of color to head up this nonpartisan organization committed to maximizing the number of women in government leadership positions.
After the blur of election activity — coordinating the caucus's efforts in fund-raising, canvassing, phone banking, volunteer recruiting, media training, and more — Rao is regrouping to expand the organization's network into diverse communities outside Boston. "Promoting women and increasing their participation is not a political issue but an equality issue," says Rao, who last year joined forces with another coalition, Women's Pipeline for Change, to push for policies and resources that level the playing field for female candidates, people of color, and low-income neighborhoods.
She also points with pride to the organization's municipal endorsement program, which she credits with helping Ayanna Pressley become the first woman of color reelected to the Boston City Council and Fitchburg's Lisa Wong win a third term as the state's first Asian-American female mayor.
Rao grew up in Rochester, N.Y., the daughter of immigrant scientists who emphasized the importance of staying up-to-date with current events.
Today, she mentors and encourages other young women to be politically active.
"We need to adopt new strategies that increase the electoral participation of women, especially women of color, by making visible the pathways for leaders to emerge and offer public service," Rao says.
During the presidential debates, Mitt Romney's comment about the "binders full of women" that the caucus provided to him when he was Massachusetts governor put women in the spotlight for a brief shining moment, says Rao.
But expanding women's political horizons, she says, is a long-term and ongoing process. "We want to have women at the table to help make the decisions that affect us every day," Rao says.
— Cindy Atoji Keene
Hugh Coleman and Ed Walker | Giving back to the community
Almost two decades ago, Hugh Coleman and Ed Walker met on the basketball court at Charlestown High School. Coleman was a point guard and Walker was a power forward, but they bonded immediately because of their mutually aggressive playing style, and, later, the realization that they were both struggling to overcome troubled family histories.
Coleman's mother was a drug addict; Walker's past is equally messy, but both men went through the Boston public school system and went on to top-ranked colleges — Coleman to Bowdoin and Walker to Bates. They then each decided to return to their urban roots and help other disadvantaged youth.
"Ed is my brother," says Coleman, 34, now an acclaimed basketball coach, who led the previously lackluster Brighton High Bengals to their first state championship game this spring. Walker, 33, in turn, credits Coleman for being a positive role model as they walked each other through many life lessons. "Neither of us had a real father figure, so we gave each other a lot of different perspectives and support," Walker says.
After serving in admissions and college counseling roles, Walker four years ago founded Independent Consultants of Education, driven by the goal of closing the achievement gap and providing disadvantaged students with equitable access to college and knowledge. Walker also serves on the boards of the Lincoln METCO Parent Group and the Alray Scholars Program, an all-volunteer nonprofit founded by a Boston Globe reporter that helps Boston public school graduates return to college.
"There were times in my life when I needed a helping hand, especially revolving around school and education. I vowed that one day I would return that helping hand," says Walker, who visits local high schools as a motivational speaker, inspiring students to "define their own success and dictate their own futures."
Coleman, meanwhile, who also teaches English and business at Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester, encourages young people "to be sensitive to others and learn how to view and understand, rather than judge."
Coach Coleman brought the Bengals to within one step of the school's first-ever state title, but more importantly, he says, "My passion is to help young men understand how basketball can help them in their everyday lives, whether by providing discipline or learning to cope with victory and defeat."
He and Walker sometimes still play ball together, including last year on a men's league at a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial tournament, and both say they're passing on what they learned as disciples of their former legendary Charlestown coach Jack O'Brien.
"As we tell our students, there's a difference between a teammate and a team player," says Walker. "When you join the team, you become a teammate by default, but to become a team player is to put the team before the individual. I've got Hugh's back, and he's got mine."
Their advice to students who face the same struggles they did many years ago: "Do your very best, and whenever possible, give back to your community."
— Cindy Atoji Keene
Kelly Bates | Advocating for communities of color
"People will say, 'Wow, I'm just seeing so many people of color running for office these days,'" says Kelly Bates, 43. "Well, that didn't just happen overnight!"
For the past five years, as executive director of the nonpartisan Access Strategies Fund, Bates has had a hand in diversifying the pool of potential candidates. The organization's mission is to improve civic representation among minority groups and women and equip them with the skills necessary to seek political office or get involved in government.
A graduate of Boston University School of Law, Bates began her career in the 1990s with Women's Statewide Legislative Network, where she helped to pass laws outlawing gender-based workplace discrimination and guaranteeing women longer postnatal hospital stays. She has also worked as a diversity consultant for Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and nonprofits.
But Bates cut her teeth as one of the only female or minority lobbyists at the State House, where she served as an advocate for people of color and low-income families. "I don't even like the word 'lobbyist,' '' says Bates, who lives with her 7-year-old son in Roslindale. "I was probably the lowest-paid lobbyist on Beacon Hill!"
It was where she learned an important lesson: To bring about changes for outsiders, she had to learn to work the system as a political insider. As a woman and a minority, she says, she always had to ensure she was the most organized, best-dressed, most articulate lobbyist on Beacon Hill. And she picked up effective tricks used by veteran lobbyists — little-known tactics for cornering politicians and calling them out of legislative session — using them to ensure that the issues that mattered to communities of color were addressed.
In the 20 years that Bates has worked in Massachusetts, she has seen minority representation in state politics improve, she says. But, she adds, there's still a long way to go. The next 25 years, she predicts, will bring Boston's first mayor of color.
"I want to see communities at an equal level of representation," says Bates, "and I just won't rest until I see that happen."
— Martine Powers
Rev. Eric Markman | Building a multicultural congregation
A mash-up of traditional hymns, '70s folk songs, and African drumbeats, Sunday mornings at Hartford Street Presbyterian Church in Natick are not your typical church service.
The Rev. Eric Markman is not your typical pastor.
Markman, 56, took the reins at Hartford Street Presbyterian two years ago, and since then the small church of 125 members has developed a big reputation for diversity.
Church members are white, African-American, Cameroonian, Indian, Brazilian, Taiwanese, Costa Rican, and Canadian.
And while Markman revels in the multicultural atmosphere, he maintains that it was never the end goal — just a byproduct of the church's mission to embrace all with open arms.
"There is no formula that I know of," says Markman, who lives with his wife in Haverhill. "It happens, I really think, out of living out God's love for the world and welcoming all who come to this church."
It didn't use to be that way. Dave Pitts of Marlborough, a member since 1988, remembers when it used be practically "all old white guys."
In the past decade, young immigrant families began to appear on Sunday mornings. Member Agnes Tabo, from Cameroon, says she doubts she would find such a welcoming atmosphere anywhere else.
Under Markman's guidance, the immigrant spirit has become part of the fabric of Sunday morning service.
For him, taking on the Natick church was a natural fit after years of working to build connections in communities where most people did not look like him. A Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1980s, Markman went on to spend eight years leading a church with a diverse congregation on New York's upper West Side.
"Diversity is an enriching factor . . . It's something that causes a richness in experience, and an ability to see the world in a new way," Markman says. "And I think that's a lot of what this church is all about."
The melting pot tradition at Hartford Street Presbyterian has given Markman a new perspective on the faith he holds dear.
As he learned to conduct traditional infant presentation ceremonies, common in India and Cameroon, he thought it an unusual custom — until he realized it was modern twist on Jesus' entrance into the world.
"I'll say, 'Gee, this is part of the Bible, isn't it?' " Markman says, chuckling. "And they'll say, 'And? What's your point?' "
— Martine Powers
Sarah Honigfeld | Uniting students of all abilities
Sarah Honigfeld has been speaking out for people with disabilities since she was a Girl Scout urging Connecticut legislators to support a bill to put closed captioning in movie theaters.
Honigfeld, who was born deaf and is now a 22-year-old student majoring in human services at Northeastern University, is still working to make the world a more inclusive place. She transformed Northeastern's deaf club into a sign language club that includes people who can hear. She talks to Brookline elementary school students about what it's like to be deaf, telling them, "I'm just like you guys. . . . I like football. I like purple. I like cats." And she recently went to India for three weeks to help deaf college students learn how to get along in a hearing world.
But Honigfeld doesn't limit her efforts to the deaf community. After seeing children with Down syndrome and autism struggle to make friends while she was a cooperative education student at the South Boston Boys and Girls Club, she helped develop several social skills groups pairing disabled students with their nondisabled peers.
What she found at the club, where she now works part time, was that the children with learning disabilities and social anxieties started contributing to group activities for the first time. And the nondisabled kids, including a group of "troublemakers" who had a reputation for being disrespectful, became much more helpful and friendly.
"It was like a place for them to practice being friends," she says.
Honigfeld, who also works with families of children with disabilities through an internship at Boston Children's Hospital, hopes to pursue a career in early intervention — and continue to find ways to establish common ground for people of all ability levels.
Jessie Kandel, who oversees Honigfeld at the Boys and Girls Club, says that bringing people together comes naturally to Honigfeld. "Inclusion is something that she's completely passionate about."
— Katie Johnston
Robert F. Rivers | Bringing new voices to the boardroom
A few years ago, Eastern Bank president Robert F. Rivers took a hard look at the Boston bank's governing group and became concerned: As at many banks, it was almost entirely made up of older white men.
"I have nothing against older white men," says Rivers, 48. "I aspire to be one myself some day, but we had some really glaring gaps."
Rivers, a career banker who grew up in Stoughton, says the lack of diversity wasn't intentional. But the bank typically found new corporators and trustees, the people who elect directors at mutual banks, by asking current members for nominations. And since they were mostly white males, they tended to know mostly other white males. "Unless you can break the cycle, it just continues."
To break the cycle at Eastern, Rivers made a conscious effort to frequent minority events and recruit professionals of color, such as Colette Phillips, a black Boston public relations executive known for multicultural marketing. Rivers says he cold-called Phillips after reading about her and later persuaded her to join the bank's trustees. He says the number of minorities and women on the governance committees tripled to 30 percent over the past few years, though he hopes to increase it further as existing members retire.
Rivers also pushed the bank to battle for gay rights after it bought Wainwright Bank (which already had strong ties to the gay community) two years ago. He helped persuade the bank to testify in favor of a transgender equal rights bill on Beacon Hill, join a challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and offer a stipend to gay married employees to offset the extra taxes they have to pay for their partners' health care benefits — despite some colleagues' concerns that the moves could potentially offend customers. Rivers also recruited gay leaders to the bank's governance boards. Named after Robert F. Kennedy, Rivers says he was inspired by RFK's own push for social justice issues.
"Bob's commitment to diversity and inclusion is not just an effort to check the box," says Kara Suffredini, executive director of Mass-Equality, a Boston gay rights group, who became an Eastern corporator in March. "He genuinely believes it the morally and right thing to do."
— Todd Wallack
J. Keith Motley | Forging a new model for campus inclusivity
At 56, J. Keith Motley, the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston since July 2007, modestly brushes off accolades from fellow college and university administrators that he has pioneered unique and widely followed philosophies on building diverse campuses.
He is UMass Boston's first African-American chancellor, a fact that by itself makes him a pioneer.
"Keith has the ability to compel people and groups to think about the world differently than how they're accustomed to doing," says David G. Carter, recently retired chancellor of the University of Connecticut system.
"I can tell you that universities and university presidents watch him closely because he has so expertly moved the conversation
forward – especially in recent years – on how we define and seek to increase diversity," Carter adds.
By the numbers, 41 percent of UMass Boston's nearly 16,000 students are ethnic minorities or students of color, and they hail from more than 80 countries, making it the most diverse university in Massachusetts and one of the most diverse public universities in the United States.
Under Motley's leadership, the share of people of color in executive administration roles has grown, as has the percentage of minority graduate students, with students of color now making up 53 percent of UMass Boston's STEM majors.
While he's proud of the numbers, Motley encourages a more expansive view of diversity, and has charged his new Office of Diversity and Inclusion with sussing out student, faculty, and staff perceptions of the campus environment that will help guide a strategic plan for diversity.
"I think this office was crucial to fostering a learning atmosphere, as the very definition of diversity continues to grow beyond the things we've known for centuries, like skin color," Motley says. "I believe diversity has as much or more to do with experiences, habits, likes and dislikes, philosophies and personal belief systems, lifestyle, and so much more."
His forward-thinking philosophy has simple roots that go back to Pittsburgh, where Motley was born and raised.
"I lived in a working-class neighborhood, where there was a common denominator among the residents," he says. "That common denominator was not our race or skin color. We had black and white, African-American, Asian, Latino, German immigrants, Russian immigrants, lots of Italian-Americans. The
commonality was that we were all working-class families. And sharing common needs and goals for success bonded us."
— James H. Burnett III
Michael Hyter | Developing an innovative diversity philosophy
As the president and managing partner of Global Novations, a Waltham corporate training and management development firm, Michael Hyter, 55, has been heralded in the human resources industry as a leader in workplace diversity. Hyter began integrating his innovative philosophy — that diversity pertains to ways of thinking, beliefs, and even behavior, as much as it does race or gender — into the company's training materials and classes when he became its chief executive in 2001.
"Looking at someone and seeing how they're different from us is easy," Hyter says. "The real hurdle is learning to accept people's differing thought processes and personal belief systems and seeing the value in those things."
Global Novations offers major corporations and small mom and pop shops across the United States and in Europe (clients include Microsoft Corp. and Procter & Gamble Co.) diversity, inclusion, and leadership development training.
Employers who can learn to integrate employees' personal philosophies into their corporate philosophy have better track records in attracting new customers — and they tend to have more meaningful relationships with their employees, says Hyter. What's more, "People who work better together are more productive overall."
"It's clear to me that Mike and his team are incredible talents who truly understand global cultures and the way the world has changed," says Gwen Houston, chief diversity officer at Microsoft.
Houston recently hired Hyter to create employee diversity training for a "faster, younger, global audience" that interacts through technology rather than face to face. Global Novations, Houston says, has set the bar in their industry by "changing the conversation about diversity and making it much more about cultural dexterity and not just the same old standards of race and gender and so on."
In recent years, Hyter, who sold the company in September to Korn Ferry but continues to run it, says he has seen a sea change in corporate mindsets about the importance of diversity and inclusion.
"At one time, the attitude was that diversity was a separate 'problem
— James H. Burnett III