The YMCA of Greater Boston has a mission to ensure that every child the nonprofit serves has a caring adult in their lives. Chief executive James O’Shanna Morton, 61, knows what a difference this can make; he credits a teacher, an employer, and a coach with helping him become the man he is today. After running YMCAs in Springfield and Hartford, Morton took over in Boston a year ago, overseeing an $80 million budget that covers 13 facilities providing fitness and child care, 50 after-school sites, three summer camps, and centers for job training, English classes, and college prep. Morton, a former lawyer and high school teacher, spoke about how his impoverished childhood has guided his life’s work.
1. Morton grew up poor in Madison, Wis., the oldest of five children of an English-Irish mother and African-American father. When he was 10, his father, a boxer, went to prison after he got involved in a racially charged altercation with a police officer. Without his father, his family grew more destitute, moving frequently and relying on government surplus food.
“He would go off to prison and we would go from working poor to welfare poor. And there’s a big difference between the two. The kids [in the lunchroom] would always know who the welfare kids were because we would be the kids eating the spam sandwiches — which I refuse to eat to this day.”
2. Three people played a crucial role in Morton’s life: Mrs. Lee, his seventh-grade teacher, who saw the belligerent teen’s academic potential and got him out of a class for slow learners and troubled youth; Mr. Fox, a business owner and black male role model who gave him a job doing janitorial work and showed him the value of hard work; and Mr. Currie, his high school track coach, who helped him get into a program for students of color at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Morton’s brothers did not have similar role models — two of them were addicted to crack and died in their 50s, and another has spent much of his life in prison for petty crimes.
“I would either be dead or in prison if it weren’t for the three people who intervened in my life and shared with me that they thought that I had a future.”
3. After going to law school at Northeastern University and practicing general law for 18 years, Morton became a teacher at the High School of Commerce in Springfield. It was here that he got a chance to see, from the other side, how challenging young people and giving them a chance to succeed can help them blossom.
“I was what my wife calls a loving demander. I would tell them that I loved them in 1,000 different ways while I’m raising the bar.”
4. Morton’s goals for the YMCA have been shaped by his life experiences. The nonprofit incorporates children’s social and emotional development into its programs, with an emphasis on age-appropriate educational activities that will allow them to experience success.
“Part of what I do today is what I consider in my work taking constructive revenge on racism and poverty. Obviously I wouldn’t be honest if I said I wasn’t angry about what has happened to my family. I’m very angry about it. But if I allow that anger to eat me up, then that would be a shame.”
5. Until a few years ago, Morton ran track, competing in 400- and 800-meter races against people his age. He has been sidelined by pulled muscles recently, but hopes his running days aren’t over.
“I’m feeling that I’m resting on my laurels here a little bit. I’m trying to get back into it, but my body’s not necessarily cooperating.”