Community Voices: Civic engagement isn't an option, it's an imperative
Charlotte Golar Richie and Kelly Bates | 9/21/2011, 12:48 a.m.
We know that leadership and civic engagement can make a difference in our lives and the lives of others. When residents, voters, public officials, and nonprofit, religious and business leaders come together, we can achieve what others say is impossible.
And when we come together as a community, as many did last Saturday for the NAACP Boston Branch Centennial Celebration and in July, for the National Urban League, which also marked its 100th Anniversary, most of us benefit from the shared agenda and sense of solidarity, and are inspired to take action.
Civic engagement, aside from being deeply gratifying and absolutely necessary, is an activity that’s rooted in our history here in Boston and in Massachusetts. It’s our tradition of giving back and paying it forward — it’s what we expect from those to whom much has been given.
This summer, we were excited to be part of the Urban League’s “State of Black Boston” kick-off at the Hynes Auditorium, a one-day meeting featuring a session on civic engagement. Moderated by this article’s co-author, Access Strategies Fund Executive Director and radio political commentator Kelly Bates, the seven-person panel included leaders with a track record on the topic: The Partnership CEO Dr. Beverly Edgehill; business owner Carole Copeland Thomas; Citizens Bank Community Affairs Director Monalisa Smith; the Governor’s Civic Engagement Director Ron Bell; Newton Mayor Setti Warren and YouthBuild USA Senior Vice President for Advocacy, Public Policy and Government Relations Charlotte Golar Richie.
The consensus of the panel and audience soon became evident: Civic engagement isn’t an option, it’s an imperative. No one can afford to sit on the sidelines, particularly when the issues faced by the black community are so urgent and immediate; and as a community, we build clout when we speak up.
Yet, while any one of us could quickly tick off the list of challenges (jobs, education, crime and violence, imprisonment, foreclosures, voter apathy, etc.), we shared distinctly different views regarding the question of how the average person living in Roxbury, Dorchester or Mattapan — or elsewhere in Massachusetts for that matter — could be most useful in tackling problems and finding solutions.
An equally important challenge was expressed: How do we get past some of the barriers to entry (e.g. class, age, seniority, ethnicity, language, neighborhood divisions) that impact our ability as a community to connect and engage.
“We live in a society where people do not speak to one another,” said voting rights activist and Patrick administration official Bell.
Further, Bell noted that members of Boston’s black community could do more to support one another.
“African Americans who are in power positions [need to help each other succeed],” Bell said, urging the audience to do more to connect and communicate — in his view, tools that strengthen community.
Smith, who founded the Boston-based Mothers for Justice and Equality after her 18-year-old nephew was murdered earlier this year, turned the audience’s attention to our youth. Her organization, with more than 100 members — most of whom have lost someone to violence — and its message are borne out of the most tragic of circumstances. “We, as mothers, need to lead by example and encourage our young people to become engaged.”