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Black activists call for equal share in city’s economic growth

City benefits, opportunities too often skip black communities

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Black activists call for equal share in city’s economic growth
Louis Elisa

As the city experiences an economic boom, a new initiative seeks to ensure communities of color share equally in the growth. Inspired by the Olympics 2024 bid planning, a group of activists held two invite-only community meetings to assess where and to what extent inequality of opportunity occurs and to create a unified plan. On November 4 the group will holds its first public session, titled “Freeze Frame Black Boston 2015: A Case for Inclusion.”

“We want to change the program of how black Americans are treated in this city in terms of access and contracting,” said Louis Elisa, one of the organizers. Elisa is the executive secretary and director of port development at Seaport Advisory Council.

“Freeze Frame Black Boston is about creating an equal and consistent playing field to grow black businesses and employ black residents in Boston and in urban communities throughout the Commonwealth,” said Glynn Lloyd, managing director at Boston Impact Initiative, an organization that provides loans and grants to support community organizations and businesses.

Taxes but no benefits

Black and Latinos together make up 40.5 percent of the city’s population, according to a Freeze Frame Black Boston report. Despite being such a large tax base, Elisa said, communities of color do not always see the benefit of what they pay.

One particular problem: Some nonprofit universities, such as Northeastern, receive tax-funded services such as police and street cleaners, but then do not return that investment to minority taxpayers by hiring black people, whether as professors, contractors or engineers, said Elisa.

“That’s my [tax] money. I want to see part of it come back to my community,” he said. “We’re subsidizing other people and getting no benefits.”

Elisa said that Boston institutions need to acknowledge the contribution made by communities of color to their economic growth.

Helping the area, not inhabitants

Similarly, Elisa questioned city projects, such as construction or business investment, that aim to develop the economies of Roxbury, Dorchester or Mattapan, but instead of investing project dollars in the residents, bring in outside members to do the work.

“It’s ridiculous to have a conference on unemployment where you’re putting $5 million worth of jobs into the community but not making sure companies coming into communities hire people in those communities,” Elisa said. The Bolling Building in Dudley Square, he said, was one example: None of the five new businesses sited there are majority African American.

“In the middle of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan we expect more than a token nod to our need to be a part of the process. We can’t be minorities in the middle of Roxbury.”

In FY 2014, just over six percent of the state Supplier Diversity Office’s spending went to minority-owned businesses, says a Freeze Frame Black Boston report. MBEs are more likely to hire minorities, said Lloyd, which spreads prosperity through the community.

“[Black businesses] more often than not hire our residents, thereby helping to put a dent in the grotesque unemployment numbers in our communities, which run twice the city and state averages,” he said.

A solution, Lloyd said, is to make minority hiring a stipulation in the government’s bidding processes. A successful example: When evaluating bids, Massport required — and received — 25 percent minority participation.

“A lot of it starts with a policy and the rules and regulation of who controls the money, frankly,” said Lloyd.

Similarly, Lloyd said the government needs to make conscious efforts to open bids to minorities. Many companies get their start by fulfilling government contracts and MBEs need to be able to share equally in this to facilitate their growth, he said.

He cited two common stumbling blocks. Often bids continue to be awarded to companies with which the government has past relationships, or the size of the bid makes it challenging for minority owned businesses to fulfill.

Because they traditionally have received fewer resources and opportunities, MBE tend to be smaller and so may have trouble filling large contracts. Breaking a large contract into multiple smaller ones could increase accessibility.

Data-driven change

Freeze Frame Black Boston meetings have emphasized rooting their strategy and demands in hard data.

The past two meetings drew hundreds of members from many sectors, including banking groups, lawyers, community organizations and developers, to provide precise data to make their case, said Elisa. The attendees offer up details on matters such as who are getting jobs and who are not, where money is being spent and what kinds of resources and opportunities exist in their fields. He added that while the groups have worked separately on the issues before now, Freeze Frame Black Boston represents a new cross-group collaboration.

Equipped with this data, the Freeze Frame Black Boston intends to open a conversation with elected governmental officials and institutions that receive taxpayer money but have not been equally benefitting taxpayers. Lloyd said they aim to bring together city and state government officials, the black business community and community as a whole to develop an economic agenda for the black community.

The organization has been working on unifying the community voice around these issues. The November meeting will be a place for getting community feedback toward developing the next steps the group will take, said Lloyd.

Chamber of Commerce

The previous meetings gave rise to a push to create a black chamber of commerce to support businesses and advocate.

Lloyd said the chamber will continue the collection and data analysis to track issues such as minority spending, employment and project ownership.

“You can look at projects and look at spending and look at growth of these enterprise and who gets employed, and that all will be measured through the chamber,” said Lloyd.

Its members will also hold government officials accountable for ensuring equity.

Elisa said the group currently is preparing paperwork for the chamber’s creation.

Olympics inspiration

Discussions around the 2024 Olympics bid revealed to insights: One, working together with business organizations, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce was able to raise millions of dollars; two, minority communities were largely excluded from the conversation, according to a Freeze Frame Black Boston report.

“There was very little to no African American involvement in the planning,” Elisa said. “They had these resources and we weren’t seeing any of it. [The bid] gave us a clear understanding of what kind of money is circulating in this society and we’re getting almost nothing.”

Realization of the level of resources available, but not shared, inspired these meetings.

“We hope to open a dialogue and bring people to understand African Americans contribute significant amounts of resources to this society,” said Elisa.