Race, Equity and Boston

A Conversation with Orlando Watkins, Part I

TBF News Summer 2018

Orlando Watkins returned to the Boston Foundation in June of 2016 as Vice President for Programs, after a stint with MATCH Education as Executive Vice President. Here, he talks about how his early years shaped him and his work. returned to the Boston Foundation in June of 2016 as Vice President for Programs, after a stint with MATCH Education as Executive Vice President. Here, he talks about how his early years shaped him and his work.

Talk about your early years and the impact they had on you.

My Dad grew up mostly in West Virginia in a small town called Madison, which is in the mountains up from Charleston. Pretty humble beginnings. My Mom grew up in the Mississippi Delta. As a young girl, she literally was picking cotton. She had eight siblings.  Those experiences with the Deep South had a profound impact on me.

Orlando Watkins

In what ways?

The sense of community was really strong, viewed from an asset perspective. People took care of one another. But obviously, I saw pretty severe poverty too, so my sense of service and dealing with issues of equity were shaped by those experiences.

I was also a military brat. My Dad was career military in the Air Force. I lived in a lot of places. So, although I have this deeply rooted southern, black childhood experience, I also had a global experience. My parents provided my sister and me with a lot of rich experiences. It gave us the ability to navigate different spaces, people and cultures and have a tolerance for differences.

How have you experienced being African American in the places you’ve lived?

The fact that you’re black and part of a black family is always present and you’re reminded of it, sometimes in aggressive ways and other times in subtle ways. I’ve had every aggressive experience you can imagine in the South—pulled over and harassed by the police and being called the n-word. But now that I’m older and I can reflect on the past, I think the experiences that have the most corrosive effect on your psyche are the multiple sets of micro-aggressions that you experience. It’s a collection of subtle experiences that come with being the only black in multiple settings and people misspeaking or making assumptions about you.

What happens over time is that you begin to doubt your own self-worth and sense of belonging. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think people of color and women are always having to ask themselves, “Do I really belong here? Am I an imposter in this role or in this situation?” Of course, we develop calluses around those things and learn how to process them. But it’s amazing when you get into settings with other people of color: You hear about the same kinds of experiences with the same people and institutions.

How old are your sons now? How do you talk with them about race?

They’re three and six. We haven’t had “the talk,” as it’s described, with our six-year-old yet, but we’re on the path to it. My wife and I are very intentional about helping him understand his power and beauty as a young black boy. Eventually we’re going to have the talk and when we do, we want him to come from a place of strength. Every time a young black man is killed in this country or two black men are kicked out of a Starbucks, my wife and I reflect on those incidents and ask ourselves if we’re giving them the tools to be safe and successful.

My Mom was a young girl in Mississippi when Emmett Till was murdered for looking at a white woman. Her experience with that kind of Bull Connor racism made her very protective of me as a black boy and black man; the fear of death for her was real. So she protected me and coached me to understand when I should and shouldn’t speak up. But that’s problematic, because it leads you to ask, “Well, when can I speak up?”

I can’t say enough about my Mom. She’s an incredible woman; she couldn’t do enough for her children. But as a young girl she was traumatized by what she heard was happening to young black men in Mississippi. That directly impacted how she wanted to protect me. It’s the kind of decision that families of color are always having to make. We can’t just hug and love our children and tell them to be open and trusting, but we also don’t want to crush their aspirations and their voices.  It’s a challenging tightrope to walk as parents.

Boston has a mixed reputation when it comes to race. Where do you think we are now?

I am hopeful about Boston. There are huge blind spots in the city, particularly around the economic boom. The city is doing so well financially, but that economic success is not being afforded to everyone. And actually it’s creating more stress and pressure and burdens on low-income communities of color. But there are a lot of strengths and assets in this community. For example, there are a number of incredible, powerful, inspiring leaders of color in the city right now who are fighting for the whole city.

I’m having fascinating conversations around the city with all sorts of leaders of all colors and they are talking about race and diversity and inclusion in very courageous ways. So I feel there is momentum. Racism still exists, but I believe that the movement toward equity is strong and
I want to hold onto that optimism and really build my work here around supporting that energy and effort.

I’m also encouraged by all of these pockets of individuals that I’m meeting who are trying to work together to build social capital.  We have to find a way to support them, lift them up and help those efforts get strong. Robert Putnam writes about bonds and bridges. I think if we can strengthen the bonds in our respective communities, we will have a better chance of building bridges across communities. We have to be intentional and create space for diverse communities to find each other and find their common agendas around issues of equity.