The new black

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  December 15, 2010

New networks
"When you first move here, it's not easy," says Lolita Walker-Bishop, 33-year-old President of the northeast Pan-Hellenic Counsel of traditionally black sororities and fraternities. "Boston is not welcoming."

Walker-Bishop, who moved here from Maryland, says Boston gives everyone, of any color, the cold shoulder at first. Plenty of others agree.

"Boston's a tough community for young adults in general, because there's so much talent, so much competition — that's true for black and white," says Marie St. Fleur, chief of advocacy and strategic initiatives for Mayor Menino.

In fact, several area black professionals caution against looking to cities such as Chicago or Atlanta as models. "There's a standard of excellence" in Boston, says Stephanie Anderson, chief corporate spokesperson for Osram Sylvania and manager of Tito Jackson's 2009 campaign for Boston City Council. "We have to embrace that — that's what we have to showcase. We have to do what Boston does best, and Boston does best by educated, professional people."

Still, those best and brightest need networks. And unlike Atlanta or Chicago, where black networks have grown over time in business and politics, in Boston they have existed primarily in the non-profit sector, including social-service providers and churches.

So, Boston's young black professionals have increasingly been starting their own networks. One of the first was the Partnership, which now has more than 2000 "alumni"; its annual New Day Gala, held last week, drew 700 people.

The Urban League's local Young Professionals Network, which had been dormant in recent years, has grown from 23 to 130 members just since May, says its president, Nancy Rousseau. A similar flood of young members joined the Boston NAACP this year.

Black sororities and fraternities have also taken on a larger role in recent years — more than 200 attended the Pan-Hellenic Council's Carson Beach BBQ this summer. There's also the Greatest Minds Civic Engagement Initiative, started by Greenidge two years ago, which now includes 800 active participants; the Initiative for a New Economy, formed in 2006; the Young Black Women's Society; the Nexxus Alliance for black men, and other formal and informal networks springing up in the city.

These groups have largely formed and operate independent of the churches and non-profits, most of which remain under control of old-guard leaders.

Many in that old guard are accustomed to drawing confrontational lines with Boston's white leaders — often with good reason, at least in the past. They have also been, for many years, focused largely on dire working-class black issues such as drugs and gun violence. (Those happen to be issues for which public and private funding has been available, which has tended to elevate groups working on those issues, and to pit them against one another in competition for the precious dollars.)

The "new guard" is more likely to have come up through political structures. Pressley worked for Congressman Joe Kennedy and Senator John Kerry. Newly elected state representative Carlos Henriquez worked for City Councilor Michael Flaherty. The race to succeed Turner looks like it could feature Deval Patrick staffer Tito Jackson against Michael Capuano staffer Candace Sealey.

These new players are, arguably, better able to work for change within the system — and to partner with other city leaders, who seem more open than ever to such co-operation.

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