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Faithful to the Martin Luther King Jr. mission in our time

the Honorable Charles R. Stith | 1/29/2014, 10:19 a.m.

Speech given at the 44th Annual Martin Luther King Breakfast, sponsored by Union United Methodist Church and St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church.

Five months ago we commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s historic “I Have a Dream Speech.” Last week we celebrated what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 85th birthday. If we really want to honor the memory of the man and movement we need to meet the challenge of making a more inclusive America in our time.

Several areas in which diversity is lacking are high tech, health care and higher education. These are the lynchpins of the economy of the future. Boston is leading the way. According to a Brookings Institution Report: “since 2002, the city of Boston has been ranked number one (1) in the world in science and technology and number four (4) in patent applications. In 2011, Boston was ranked the most innovative city in the world.” Boston is at the epicenter of the new economy. If we don’t get diversity in this sector in Boston right, then we can’t expect the country to get it right.

In a recent Boston Globe op-ed by Edward Glaser, a Harvard economist and director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, he noted “individuals who worked in finance, insurance, and high skilled services in Suffolk County earned an average of $138,000 … while the median household income in the zip code around Dudley Station is $27,000. This contrast is not only defined in dollars and cents. Think about it this way. The innovation economy is a global economy, which by definition means it is a mobile economy. The next time you’re at the airport, Logan or any airport, look around and see who’s traveling and who’s not. Then you’ll know who’s playing and who’s not in the global economy.”

Over the years, and during the most recent mayoral campaign, there was a lot of talk about the importance of integrating trade unions. And, that is important. At the state and national level there is a push to raise the minimum wage. That is also important. But if we fail to be intentional about making diversity work in high tech, health care and higher education we will have closed off the opportunity to minority families to become a part of America’s mainstream.

Eight out of 10 of the top employers in Boston are hospitals or institutions of higher education. Mass General has 15,000 employees, Beth Israel Deaconess 8,500, Brigham and Women about the same. Harvard business and medical schools employ approximately 4,600 people, and my institution, Boston University about 8,300. These are areas of growth in the 21st century global economy. Unless we get diversity right in these areas we will relegate African Americans and other people of color to the economic margins for another millennium.

Beyond the economic impact there is the societal impact of these institutions on our common life, particularly in higher education. There are over 200,000 students enrolled in Boston area colleges and universities. How are we going to prepare them to contribute to making a better world when the institutions they attend don’t look like the world? There is something to the old adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Boston has a history of incubating leadership such as W.E.B. DuBois, Solomon Carter Fuller, Edward Brooke, Angela Davis, Desiree Rogers, Ronald McNair, Deval Patrick, Shirley Jackson, Barack Obama, Ken Chenault, and the man whose birthday we celebrate today Martin Luther King Jr. Today, what interest or intent do institutions in this area have to attract and cultivate the next generation of such leaders? What’s the plan? In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Boston University Medical School, through a program that was led at one time by recently departed Dr. Kenneth Edelin, graduated more African American physicians in America than only two schools — Howard Medical School and Meharry Medical School (both of which were founded specifically to train African American physicians.) What’s the plan? What’s the plan to attract the next generation of professors and mentors like Howard Thurman, Shirley McBay, Evelyn Higginbotham, Ken Edelin, Derrick Bell, Peter Gomes, Alvin Poussaint and Carl Adams. These institutions (and the country) were made better by the contributions of the likes them. What’s the plan?

Of the changes I’ve seen in Boston over the last 40 years, change came because there were conscious decisions to change. There were agents and advocates for change — from downtown to in-town, among those who sat in boardrooms to those that pushed brooms. If we’re going to be faithful in the moment it starts with a consensus and commitment and then comes the concrete plan. To paraphrase an old adage, and say it differently, “where there’s a will,” you can find a way. There are a lot of smart people in Boston and Massachusetts (particularly in these sectors). We can figure this out. We can bridge the divide. We can get this done. It is what we must do if we are going to be faithful in the moment.