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On Race and Inclusion in Boston: One Huge Thing We Can Do Right Away

December 11, 2017


Hey Boston. Want to move the needle on wealth, wages and welcoming? There are moves we can make right now. Together. And they require putting the power of business together with the power of public policy. Anyone interested? 


The Boston Globe has begun a 7-part Spotlight series on race and racism here in this thriving global progenitor of innovation and ideas. The second installment details how the building of the zillion dollar Seaport made the city even whiter and created no wealth or expanded opportunity in the region's Black community. Neither did the $24 Billion publicly funded Big Dig. And so we return to a familiar and painful topic.


Fortunately, as those who have been paying attention to this topic know, we have a tremendous and readily actionable opportunity to do better.


Immediately, the City of Boston and all surrounding municipalities and public or quasi-public building authorities and tax exempt non-profits should adopt the approach to diversity and inclusion recently adopted by the Massachusetts Port Authority, known as Massport. Make diversity and inclusion a core element of every public or quasi-public development project in the region by making it part of how all bids are evaluated. No robust, actionable diversity plan? You probably won't win the work.


Gone forever would be the toothless, disingenuous and unenforceable ask that a developer promise to make “best efforts” to include diverse contractors on a project.


In its place would be a sea-change very much unlike the Seaport. We would see entirely new patterns in the distribution of resources, while investors, engineers, designers, builders and suppliers and their employees would begin to reflect the human diversity of the region and the nation. Together we would unleash opportunity and growth for people of color who own businesses in the sector and would also unleash access to capital, joint venture


opportunities and advisory services so that entrepreneurs of color could take advantage of the new demand for their services. And even better would be the relationships that get built and new networks that form to bring a city and region together around business.


Some context might help illustrate how actionable this idea actually is and what the result could be.


As the Globe mentioned, after allowing almost the entire Seaport to be built, Massport implemented a new policy: Twenty-five percent of the final score attached to a developer’s bid for the right to develop a parcel of land is now based on that developer’s plan for diversity and inclusion.


What has been the result so far?


Massport catalyzed a surge in creativity, resourcefulness and collaboration. The construction of a new $550M Omni Hotel has been green-lighted with a diverse team of investors, contractors, architects, suppliers and much, much more. The firms that put the Omni deal together created a partnership called New Boston Hospitality LLC that is led by the Davis Companies (for which Emblem Strategic has done some work recently) and the Taylor Smith Group, among others.


What else is part of the package that earned this team the right to build on public land?

  • A commitment by Omni to build a job training center in Roxbury set up to feed skilled talent to the hotel and the hospitality industry at large;

  • Profit sharing for some highly relevant local non-profits;

  • Investment by the nation's largest Black owned architecture firm which opened an office in Boston and is partnering with local firms in order to participate in the project;

  • New relationships between major developers and contractors that have already begun to spawn voluntary collaboration on private construction projects.


That the Seaport was largely completed with no real attention to the impact on racial and economic division reflects very poorly on our civic and business leadership. We could be well on our way by now to scaling up expertise, capacity, job growth and ultimately intergenerational wealth in communities of color. That is exactly what happened over the last thirty years in many different white communities that the overwhelming majority of real estate developers and contractors hail from in Boston. 


Boston Mayor Marty Walsh should implement the Massport approach to diversity and inclusion at the city’s planning and development agency right away. Surely an impressively diverse and ambitious City Council would be eager to support him.


Not all of the focus should be on the City of Boston. An identical approach at the state’s School Building Authority and the UMass Building Authority would also move the needle on diversity and inclusion. Perhaps Speaker DeLeo could be enrolled to explore amending the laws that govern the region's non-profits to encourage or require this approach on construction projects they commission. In the interim, the biggest non-profits that do significant building in the region are led by generous and thoughtful civic leaders like Drew Gilpin Faust at Harvard University, Robert Millard at MIT, and Edward P. Lawrence at Partners Healthcare, each of whom is in position to set an agenda that reflects the values of his or her institution. 


Even privately funded projects should be encouraged to follow suit, perhaps by the civic leaders who lead organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, and others. They ought to be inspiring their members about what business is capable of doing to grow the entire economy in the region.


Sure there will be obstacles like the need to significantly strengthen the pipeline of qualified firms in some categories and sizes, for one; but imagine what our higher education, business and innovation centers could do to support this kind of public-private push. Imagine us applying the same focus we have put on getting the Olympics or attracting an Amazon headquarters. This is Boston aligning its values with its value proposition. How we build greater Boston from here on out will determine many things about the kind of Boston we build. Let's get started today. 




Emblem Strategic is a public affairs and strategy consulting firm. We work with exceptional leaders to turn values and vision into impact...and advantage.




Tags: Strategy, Public Affairs, Social Resposibility

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