Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley launched into a discussion about economic mobility for black and brown people Saturday afternoon with a list of sobering statistics about economic inequality in her district and addressed the paradox that has vexed Boston during its current era of prosperity.
“Despite these inequities, recent reports have shown that the city of Boston is booming. It’s simply a question of for whom,” said Pressley.
The audience seated on the second-floor of the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Nubian Square responded in near unison.
The scene occurred during the Congressional Black Caucus’s first ever trip to Massachusetts. The visit led by Pressley, who became the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress when she was elected in 2018, began Friday at Northeastern University, where members discussed institutional racism at a news conference.
On Saturday, the group met with prisoners who belong to the African American Coalition Committee at MCI-Norfolk and then held two public events in Roxbury.
The caucus was founded in 1971 and currently has 54 members from the US House and Senate. Six members, all women, joined Pressley on the Massachusetts trip which is part of the group’s “State of Black America” tour. The caucus has recently visited Brooklyn, N.Y., Los Angeles, and Minneapolis as part of the same effort.
At the early afternoon economic mobility event, caucus members and local business leaders addressed the challenges that black and brown people face in securing loans, leasing space, and landing jobs in the technology and cannabis industries, which are growing in Massachusetts.
Tito Jackson, chief executive of the cannabis company Verdant Medical Inc., said only three people of color in Massachusetts have been granted approvals for marijuana businesses, despite the state’s first-in-the-nation requirement that the industry include groups hardest hit by the war on drugs.
“Black folk have an ordained place in this space,” said Jackson, a former city councilor from Roxbury. “Cotton was the cash crop of our enslavement, and I believe that cannabis and hemp will be the crash crop of our emancipation.”
Caucus members took turns answering a question about their plans for paving a path for African-Americans to reach prominent positions in government, school systems, and nonprofits.
US Representative Gwen Moore, the first black person to represent Wisconsin in Congress, discussed Stan Chia, the technology executive credited with transforming the food-delivery company Grubhub into a $1.6 billion business. Chia, who was born in Singapore and grew up in New York, is now chief executive at Vivid Seats, a ticket marketplace.
“Just having the same old formula of white men is not going to get you from zero to $1.6 billion,” she said.
The audience broke into applause and some rose to their feet when US Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota raised the microphone to share her perspective.
Pressley and Omar represent one half of the Squad, four Democratic women of color who have shaken up their party’s political establishment since they were sworn into Congress last January. The other members are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
Omar urged the audience to rethink hard experiences like facing student loan debt or needing welfare as assets rather than as shortcomings.
“We have to change the narrative about who we are and what we are capable of,” said Omar.
In the late afternoon session, caucus members discussed education before a diverse, standing-room-only crowd at Hibernian Hall, also in Nubian Square.
The conversation focused on discipline and suspension policies that caucus members said disproportionately affect students of color, especially girls, and can penalize children for poverty, hunger, and trauma at home, often driving them out of schools.
Pressley denounced “the discrimination, the criminalization, the policing of our black and brown girls.”
“So often we are told that our hair is distracting, that our bodies are inappropriate or that we have bad attitudes,” she said. “We are adultified and seen as women beginning as early as preschool. In fact, across the country we are most likely to be criminalized at literally every stage of life.”
Last month, Pressley introduced a bill called the Ending PUSHOUT Act, with the acronym standing for “Punitive, Unfair, School-based Harm that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma.”
Under the proposal, the federal government would award $2.5 billion in new grants to states and school districts that ban corporal punishment and most suspensions and expulsions, and that eliminate disciplinary practices unfair to students of color.
The grants would forbid recipients from using the funds to support school-based police or to cooperate with federal immigration authorities in efforts to deport students.
Mattapan resident Beliza Veras-Moriarty, 49, said after the discussion that she’s hopeful Pressley’s bill will pass.
“I think about my own daughter, and the things we experience as women,” said Veras-Moriarty, mother of a 7-year-old. “I’m already thinking of the things she’s gone through, and if they’ve been fair because of who she is.”