To Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the
NAACP, one of her favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotes comes from his first
book, when he observed that “the inseparable twin of racial injustice is
That goes to the heart of why so many people of color in
this country have been left behind. More than a half-century after King’s
stirring speeches, this country continues to wrestle with racial and income
inequality driven by the lack of economic opportunity.
One of the most thought-provoking findings from the Globe
Spotlight Team’s 2017 series on race was how a modern Boston managed to build a
new neighborhood, the Seaport District, with billions of dollars in public
funding, and yet still have the end product be a white, wealthy enclave — one
that looks nothing like the diverse city Boston has become. How did this
happen? In part, because blacks weren’t an integral part of the building boom.
As the nation celebrates what would have been King’s 90th
birthday, it’s fair to ask: Are we doing enough to take down the structural
barriers to wealth?
In particular, with so many cranes in the sky in Boston and
so much money to be made, it’s fair to ask: Are we doing enough to ensure that
development deals are inclusive?
The Spotlight series highlighted a Massachusetts Port
Authority policy that made the diversity of the development team one of the
deciding factors in leasing land it owned in the Seaport. The result was
something you rarely see in Boston: diverse teams of architects, investors, and
builders coming together to bid on a project.
While policies have been in place to address construction
workforce diversity, never before had Massport prioritized the racial and
gender make-up of development teams in evaluating proposals.
So far the policy has been applied to two Seaport parcels —
and the results are what Massport intended: Not only the creation of new local
diverse partnerships but also interest from national minority-owned firms that
now see Boston as a welcoming place to do business. Massport will roll out the
policy on a third property this spring.
But a single quasi-state agency alone can’t change the face
of economic opportunity and wealth in Boston. Which raises the question: Where
is the Commonwealth on introducing a similar diversity requirement?
Currently, the concept is among the recommendations from the
state’s black and Latino advisory commissions. Is this just another case of
good ideas gathering dust?
The Baker administration contends it has been working on a
pilot program that it plans to launch over the next few months. Like Massport,
the state owns land that it wants to lease out for private development, giving
officials an opportunity to insist on diverse bidders. Let’s hope the
administration goes through with the pilot and it doesn’t overthink a program
that one of its agencies has had in place since 2016.
Which brings us to the City of Boston. Last fall the city
began requiring that all developers bidding for city-owned real estate disclose
the diversity of their teams and said that would be a factor in determining the
So far, the new requirement has been applied to four parcels in Dudley Square, and while the city is still reviewing proposals from developers, officials are pleased with the results so far: an array of local black and Latino-owned businesses bidding alongside national minority-owned firms.
The city estimates the diversity requirement will be used on
more than 2 million-square feet of land the city plans to sell or lease over
the next several years, including its tow lot and other high-profile parcels in
Charlestown and the Seaport.
Of course, making development more inclusive on
government-owned land should be just the beginning. The next step is to tell
developers of private land who need government blessing that they should
discuss the diversity of their teams. Merely requiring disclosure could raise
the ante on diversity and inclusion in projects.
Inclusive development deals is just one tool — and shouldn’t
be the only tool — to spread the wealth. A year ago, the Greater Boston Chamber
of Commerce launched its Pacesetters Initiative so that members could diversify
their supplier network. The result: Eleven members, including Fidelity
Investments and Partners HealthCare, closed 13 deals that generated more than
$3 million in new revenue for minority-owned businesses.
Perhaps just as important is the creation of a pipeline of 68 minority suppliers that the chamber vetted as having the financial and operational capacity to service the buying needs of large Boston companies and institutions.
Massachusetts is breaking down some of the barriers to wealth for people of color — but it’s fair to ask: What more can we do?
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