For close observers of Boston politics, Mayor Marty Walsh’s recent announcement that he was forming an “equity and inclusion cabinet” raised an obvious question: Haven’t we been here before?
The cabinet, Walsh said in June, will be comprised of existing departments but led by a new “chief of equity” and will put racial equity at the center of city policymaking.
“The equity [and] inclusion cabinet will drive the work to dismantle systemic racism," Walsh said. "And it will apply an equity lens to every single department and service, ensuring accountability ... in all of our city policies and practices.”
Now compare that to Walsh’s remarks in a video released in 2017, in which the mayor described a conceptual shift that sounds almost identical.
“To me, an equitable Boston is a city where everyone can get what they need to thrive — but we don’t all start from the same place,” Walsh said at the time. “We have a history with racism in our country and our city. Its impacts are deeply rooted … That’s why we put racial equity at the heart of our resiliency plan, and that’s why we focus on equity in everything we do."
That idea — making racial equity job number one — was at the core of Resilient Boston: An Equitable and Connected City, a wide-ranging, 150-page report the city released with much fanfare three years ago.
Atyia Martin was the report’s lead author. She had been hired as Boston’s first chief resilience officer in 2015, after the city joined the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities project. In that role, she made racial equity her big focus — the just allocation, across racial lines, of everything from jobs to education to environmental health.
To figure out what Boston should do differently, Martin recalls, her team spoke with as many people as they could.
“We engaged over 12,000 people in Boston,” said Martin, the CEO and founder of All Aces, Inc. and a member of the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition.
“We weren’t just saying, you know, ‘We’re presenting this thing to you, don’t you love it?’ It was, ‘No, we want to hear from you.’”
In return, Martin says, she and her colleagues offered a different way of thinking about racism — showing how it can seep into every facet of life, and also how that can be reversed.
“Part of the value of the resilience strategy … was that it reframed the problem in a way that made it accessible to people, while still being respectful of the complexity of the issues,” Martin said.
When Resilient Boston was released, Martin says, “There were people sitting in coffee shops who were taking pictures of themselves reading [it]. … That was just amazing to me.”
But while Martin is proud of the work she and her colleagues did, she’s frustrated by what happened after Resilient Boston was released.
“It ... created an energy and an opportunity to build on top of,” she said. “And that didn’t happen.”
For example, Resilient Boston called for a new training program across City Hall, to “ensure that all facets of decision making … consistently move us closer to racial equity.” That program still doesn’t exist — though a Walsh spokesperson says a contract to create it will be awarded soon.
Resilient Boston also suggested refining CityScore, Boston’s online tool for assessing how well different services are being delivered, to provide ratings by neighborhood. That hasn’t happened, either.
In addition, the report urged Walsh to revive the Mayor’s Diversity Taskforce, an external advisory group that stopped meeting in 2016. That, too, hasn’t occurred.
“The resilience strategy, Resilient Boston itself, was not treated as a resource,” Martin contends.
Martin left her post in Jan. 2018, and was replaced by Lori Nelson, who is still in the role.
In a lengthy set of responses for this story, a Walsh spokesperson offered a very different take on Resilient Boston’s legacy — citing programs aimed at achieving parity in the city’s schools, fostering public discussions about race and race relations, and increasing economic opportunity for residents of color.
For example, the spokesperson said, Walsh launched Boston’s Economic Development Center in 2019. It conducts free workshops throughout Boston’s neighborhoods, works to connect residents with jobs inside and outside City Hall and offers guidance on business development and bidding for city contracts.
The spokesperson also noted that, according to the city’s Employee Demographics dashboard, the demographics of Boston’s municipal workforce have shifted since Resilient Boston was released.
In the three-year period before the report was issued, new full-time hires (not including the Boston Public Schools) were 62 percent white, 21 percent Black, and 13 percent Hispanic. Within that group, 9 percent of new hires who earn more than $100,000 annually were Black.
In the three years since Resilient Boston was published, new full-time hires (not including the Boston Public Schools) have been 51 percent white, 26 percent Black, and 15 percent Hispanic. Within that group, 19 percent of new hires who earn more than $100,000 annually have been Black.
In addition, the spokesperson said, Walsh has taken specific steps to make Boston’s public safety agencies look more like the city they serve — reinstating the city’s police cadet program, hiring full-time diversity officers for the Boston Police and Fire departments and filing a home-rule petition at the State House to create a fire cadet program, which would also expand opportunities for applicants of color.
For anyone weighing Resilient Boston’s legacy, there’s one more point worth pondering: In our current moment, the appetite for big, structural change may be greater than it was when Resilient Boston was released in 2017.
“The coronavirus pandemic, and this recognition that, absolutely, racism is a public health crisis, as the mayor has laid out, puts us in a different level of alertness, of consciousness,” Karilyn Crockett, Boston’s new chief of equity, said.
“There are so many institutions that are saying they want to do more,” she added. “The mayor has been very clear and articulate in his concerns and his commitments, but I’m also getting a lot of calls from people in the private sector — people in education, in tech, saying that they are wanting to … think about racial reconciliation, trying to think through the aftermath of George Floyd and [Black Lives Matter] 2020 and what that means for their institution.”
That’s good news for Crockett — and possibly cause for envy on the part of Martin.
“I realized that ... what I did was not a priority,” Martin said.
“The work that I am an expert in — there were other people in the administration, who were not experts, who were trying to do work that didn’t involve me,” she added. “And so once that was clear to me, and it was clear that no one was going to do anything about it, I stepped away.”
Now, the city is recommitting itself to Martin’s vision — and in the process, offering a tacit acknowledgment that it still hasn’t been fully realized.