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Black professionals reflect on progress, challenges in the Hub

Yawu Miller | 1/18/2012, 7:45 a.m.
Restaurateur Darryl Settles addresses a gathering at the Live the Dream event held at Darryl’s Corner Bar and Kitchen. Looking on are George “Chip” Greenidge, state Rep. Carlos Henriquez and City Councilor Ayanna Pressley. Yawu Miller

Smartly dressed after a day of church services and Martin Luther King Day celebrations, several dozen black professionals and activists crammed into Darryl’s Corner Bar and Kitchen for a gathering inspired by the memory of the civil rights leader slain before many of the attendees were born.

Addressing the gathering, restaurateur Darryl Settles recalled how in the early 1990s, black real estate developers would gather weekly at his eatery to discuss business opportunities.

“People would share about the opportunities they knew of in the city,” he said. “We don’t have that today.”

Back then, if you asked anyone in the room to name 20 successful black businesses, people could run off a list, Settles said. “Now if I asked you to name 10 black businesses that are sharing revenue — and there are at least ten — you can’t name them. And that’s a problem.”

The perceived lack of connection in the black community is a problem that Settles aimed to fix when he called activist George “Chip” Greenidge and asked him to host a gathering at his restaurant. State Rep. Carlos Henriquez, At-Large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley and veteran political activist Luis Elisa headlined the event, each offering their own take on the challenges and opportunities now facing the city’s black community.

The speakers at Monday’s event acknowledged the contradictory nature of progress Boston’s black community — the high levels of incarceration and high levels of educational achievement. A black governor and president and under-representation on the City Council and in the Statehouse. More blacks working in the corporate sector and fewer blacks owning businesses.

“We have a really talented pool of successful minority businesspeople,” Settles said. “It’s really disturbing that we don’t have a pool of successful minority businesses.”

Pressley, who came to Boston from Chicago in 1992, has witnessed and been a part of a tremendous surge in political participation and political power in Boston. She cut her teeth working as an aide to then U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy and volunteering on political campaigns. Last year, she topped the ballot in the city’s At-Large race for the Council.

As Greenidge pointed out, Pressley is part of a new generation of politicians in the city’s black community that includes fellow councilors Tito Jackson and Felix G. Arroyo as well as Henriquez and Linda Dorcena Forry at the Statehouse.

“I feel the shift here,” she said. “But we didn’t just parachute in. We inherited this. It’s because of Mel King and Doris Bunte, Thomas Atkins and the Bollings, just to name a few.”

But few in the room would deny there’s room for improvement.

“Black people still are under-represented on the City Council, the Statehouse and in constitutional offices,” said Kevin Peterson, executive director of the New Democracy Coalition. “It’s incumbent on black leadership to set a clear agenda on how we move forward. That’s our challenge.”

Greenidge, who organizes occasional black community civic forums called Greatest Minds, says networking is a key step for catalyzing collective action. Monday’s event was a step in that direction.

“I’m really trying to make this event about looking forward,” he said. “We can we work together and share resources. Dr. King and others have laid the groundwork. Now it’s up to us.”