A Conversation with Lee Pelton

President and CEO of the Boston Foundation

TBF News Summer 2021

Lee Pelton became President and CEO of the Boston Foundation on June 1. Previously, his professional career has been in academia, most recently as the visionary President of Emerson College. During his time in Boston, he has also been a major civic leader.  

A circular headshot of Lee Pelton. He's wearing a dark blue blazer and a white collared shirt, standing against a gray background.

Serving as President and CEO of the Boston Foundation is a major shift for someone who has worked in academia for your entire career. What propelled you to take on this challenging new position? 

When I returned to Boston after a 25-year absence, one of my priorities was, and continues to be, serving as a civic leader in a variety of areas. With respect to my new assignment at TBF, I often jokingly say that I now get to do full time what I’ve been doing part time for most of my adult life. Civic leadership is an essential aspect of my professional and personal identity. I feel very strongly that coming to the Boston Foundation is not a job. This is something I was called to do.  

Also, the opportunity came at a time when I had arrived at a turning point in my profes-sional evolution. In my 10 years at Emerson, I had achieved most of what I had set out to do. Stepping down from a job in which you have poured your heart and soul is not easy. But I felt that it was time for me to leave Emerson. The promise of TBF brings me much joy and satisfaction: I now wake up every morning with a single compelling question, “How can the Boston Foundation improve lives and strengthen communities today?” I cannot imagine a better job than that.  

The pandemic has awakened America’s and Greater Boston’s charitable impulses. How do you think we can build on that kind of engagement so that it’s not just a moment in time? 

It’s not one pandemic. It’s a triple pandemic of COVID-19, economic devastation and a very public exposure of the systemic racial disparities that have long plagued our country and Boston. It calls upon the Boston Foundation once again to seize the moment, as we have done in the past, and help to write a new chapter for the city of Boston and its current and future residents.  

I love Boston. But, despite its decades of spectacular growth and prosperity, Boston continues to be a tale of two cities—one that is prosperous and well off and the other struggling to make ends meet in what is now one of the nation’s most expensive and economically unequal cities. The triple pandemic has thrown these inequities into even sharper relief. And so, the Boston Foundation has a major role to play in the city and beyond, not only through its endowment, the Permanent Fund for Boston, and the generosity of its fabulous donors, but through its civic leadership—the role that it plays in bringing together nonprofit organizations, the business community and civic leaders to seek ways to address and confront the most pressing issues of our communities.  

The past 16 months have been extraordinarily challenging for all of us. And yet, it provides TBF with an astonishing opportunity to rethink and reimagine our role and how we might  
profitably shape Boston for years if not decades to come. The Boston Foundation needs to be—must be—in the forefront of that change. 

“I now wake up every morning with a single compelling question, ‘How can the Boston Foundation improve lives and strengthen communities today?’ I cannot imagine a better job than that.” - M. Lee Pelton

You’ve been encouraging people to read Heather McGhee’s remarkable book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. What is it about that book’s message that inspired you to want to share it with others? 

I’ve read it twice. There are three aspects of it that stand out to me. First, she makes it clear that when we talk about racial equity for Black folks, we also understand that these critical issues intersect with many other complementary issues—circumstances, both current and historical, that impact women, the LGBTQ+ community, Latinx and other Brown folks, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and Indigenous communities.  

Second, the major thrust of the book is that efforts to address these important issues do not constitute a zero-sum game. The notion that if you reward one group, it denies another group of those benefits is a false narrative.  

Finally, McGhee makes the compelling case that racism negatively impacts everyone, not just folks of color.  

What do you think about our city and our positioning now when it comes to race? Do we have an opportunity?  

I’m often asked, “Is this a moment or a move-ment?” And while it’s too early to call what we live in today a movement, it is crystal clear that George Floyd’s death was a catalyzing moment. The 9 minutes and 29 seconds video recording of his death made the “invisible” visible. Without a doubt, it deepened the nation’s collective awareness of the persistent racial, social and economic inequities in our nation of plenty. 

You have spent so much of your life steeped in literature and language. How does that background enter into your thinking about your new work at the Boston Foundation?  

My scholarly training is what one would call textualist. I studied texts in order to extract meaning out of them. Most of the time, those texts for me were prose and poetry. It required a kind of exegetical focus. I tend to think of myself as a social and cultural anthropologist. I look at the world as a text. I look at people as a text. I look at communities as text. What do those texts mean? How do I read them? I look at balance sheets as a text. I love budgets! I love financial statements, because they’re just a text and when you’re trying to extract meaning out of a text, you ask, “What’s the narrative?” A budget is a story. So, I bring that orientation as a textualist to my role at TBF.  

Language is a powerful instrument of change. When I write or speak, I do so with great care and deliberation because language can be deeply transformative. A poem, a short story, a lecture can move people to righteous action. I will add that storytelling is also an instrument of change and transformation. Stories can inspire us to lead lives of meaning and purpose and hope.  

We’re just beginning to write the next chapter in the story of the Boston Foundation and this city—and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be a part of that.