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Compact continues to push Mass. diversity benchmarks

Kenneth J. Cooper | 7/8/2009, 5:23 a.m.

In 1721, as an outbreak of smallpox caused panic in Boston, an African slave spoke up and helped solve the public health crisis.

Onesimus informed his master, Cotton Mather, the city’s most powerful man, that Africans of that era stopped the deadly disease from spreading by extracting fluid from the blisters and scratching it into the skin of healthy people, using a thorn.

Despite the enormous difference in their social status, Mather listened to his slave and enlisted Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to experiment with the African practice, which was rudimentary but medically sound. Smallpox inoculation was the first major innovation made in Massachusetts with a person of color as prime mover. It was not to be the last.

A 2006 study of 60 significant innovations in Massachusetts during the last 400 years found that more than a third involved people of color, women or immigrants. To give a few examples, African Americans participated in a big way in the first pamphlet calling for the total abolition of slavery (David Walker), the invention of the telephone (Lewis Latimer) and the first infant formula (Louise A. Giblin).

Launched a year ago, the Commonwealth Compact aims to make the state’s future resemble its innovative past by fostering more diversity in businesses, governments and nonprofits.

This spring, the initiative, based at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, published aggregate numbers on the level of diversity up and down the ranks of 111 institutions, which have committed to making their workforces and boards of directors more representative.

“We thought we’d get eight or 10 to sign up. We got 111,” says Stephen P. Crosby, dean of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at UMass-Boston. “This is an unusual initiative. We can’t find anything like this.”

Since May, the number of entities that have joined the Commonwealth Compact has grown to 140, including the governments of the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts. All have volunteered to provide, annually and on a confidential basis, information on their personnel broken down by race and ethnicity. Those data are totaled and also aggregated by industry, then published to provide benchmarks for institutions to measure themselves against competitors and other parts of the state’s economy.

“I commend the compact and its research, but time will tell if measurable progress will be made as a result of the compact’s efforts,” says Shirley J. Wilcher, a Mattapan resident who is executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action. “Improving Boston’s reputation as a ‘welcoming’ city for minorities would be admirable and desirable and, given the changing demographics, just good business.”

The first benchmarks, covering about 180,000 employees or 5.5 percent of the state’s labor, may make the workforce appear more diverse than it actually is.

Crosby, a co-founder of the compact along with former Suffolk County district attorney Ralph Martin II and Boston Globe Publisher P. Steven Ainsley, acknowledges that the initial participants tend to be predisposed to diversity.

Persons of color were reported to comprise 34 percent of all employees and 22 percent of managers and senior executives. In 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that Hispanics and members of a racial minority made up 20 percent of the state population.