The Change We Need
Imari Paris Jeffries
Tell us about yourself. I know you’ve gone to UMass Boston and have worked for a number of nonprofits in Boston, but we’re not sure where you’re from or what events have shaped your life and your work.
I was born in North Carolina, but, being that my father was in the service, we traveled all over the country. We eventually settled in Tennessee, which is where I went to high school.
I moved up here to Massachusetts in 1991, five days after graduation from high school. I joined the military and was posted to Fort Devens. I was actually one of the last folks to close that base down. I’m from a family that has a history of folks being in the military. And I didn’t have a way to affordably go to college, it seemed like the most likely option for me in order to afford it. I signed up as a senior in high school and this was right before we got into Desert Shield. As soon as that happened, I wasn’t sure how smart it was for me to join the military. Nonetheless, I ended up being in the military for five years from 1991 to 1996. Then I was honorably discharged and I decided I liked it up here in Massachusetts.
When people grow up in the military, the experience of living in so many different places and meeting so many people is a very rich and diverse background to have, which serves you in so many ways.
Especially when you live in base housing. You’re segregated by rank and not by race or ethnicity, so you’re more likely to be living next door to a Filipino or Black family or a White family or an Asian family.
So, I was stationed at Devens and was going to college while I was in the service. I was a dental technician in the service. We were winning the war against tooth decay, so they didn’t need me in the Middle East. Preventing cavities was one front where we really were successful. We didn’t need George Bush to land on an aircraft carrier and declare victory. I started off at Fitchburg State and ended up being a graduate of UMass Boston. So, when I got out, it made sense to stay here, which I had established at least a semblance of community.
As you were growing up, did you have any particular figure who inspired you? Did you have mentors or even a famous person who inspired you?
Because we moved around a lot, I didn’t have any real mentors, but I think I was always fascinated by the other men and women who lived in the neighborhoods where I grew up. I saw these folks in the service as heroes. So, there were a lot of neighbors and folks we lived near who I looked up to. I did have a number of Black teachers, so by virtue of being in schools where there were Black teachers, they were always influential for me. I can recall having four to five Black teachers throughout my K-12 schooling.
What are important qualities that a leader has or aspires to?
This has been my evolving aspiration: courage. Not saving a child who has jumped into crocodile-infested waters, but courage to be yourself at all times. That’s one of the things that I’m constantly working on. Seeing mentors and role models maintain that, for me has been something I’ve seen in one of my mentors: Robert Lewis Jr. Everywhere that Robert goes, he’s Robert. Even if you see him at home, he is still that same way. So he has this incredible spirit to maintain this enthusiasm; he never turns it off, it’s always on. As I’ve grown in my journey, I think I have more courage to say things that need to be said. I don’t mean I want to hurt people’s feelings, but sometimes there are opportunities for honest dialogue that, in the past, I might have avoided, because I was worried about something else. I think that’s been the biggest lesson for me, as a leader, is to maintain that courage of voice and to provide cover for emerging leaders with my own voice—so that they can say the things that need to be said. I continue to say the things that need to be said, as I continue to say the things that need to be said.
Boston’s such an unforgiving town in some ways. Especially if you weren’t born here and aren’t really ingrained here, the credibility to do the work comes hard fought. In some places, if you got a job as the Superintendent of Schools, by virtue of that position, it would automatically give you deferential respect in many circles. But not here in Boston. No, you still need to earn it and you still need to know who’s who and where to go and what to say and who your allies are… And when to pull back and move forward. That’s what makes Boston Boston. We’re such a big, big city, but I think we’re also very protective of this city. Some people see it as parochial; others see it as protective. In my leadership journey, I’m learning that it’s important to understand the difference between those two things.
It’s very easy as folks get older in their leadership to become—inadvertently or purposefully—gate keepers. Gatekeeping is something I’ve been very careful about. I try to take that to heart and model it in the best way I can. I want to be collaborative and sharing.
I’ve had that opportunity given to me. Being a mentee isn’t a spectator sport. If you’re a mentee and people’s hard-learned wisdom doesn’t fall off trees and you’re not entitled to it. That’s another lesson I’ve learned as a leader: You’ve got to earn the right to be someone’s mentee and have the benefit of their wisdom and experience and eventual sponsorship.
I’ve been fortunate that folks like Hubie Jones and Robert Lewis Jr. and Peter Kiang, from UMass Boston, have been there for me. Those three have been instrumental in different ways. Here I am in this PhD program and a lot has to do with Peter’s guidance and support of me along the way, since I was an undergraduate. They each had a special role in my life.
When you step back, as much as one can these days, what do you think are the biggest challenges this funny, unforgiving town we call Boston?
The reason we love it so much is that we’re so damned close to greatness. I think most of us can touch it and taste it. So many great things, like our higher ed ecosystem, our geographic positioning, industry, the diversity of people and cultures, sports teams… We’re so close to greatness. But then there are so many things that keep us from being the city that we fully imagine in our hearts and minds. And so, I think one of the things that is holding us back is our inability to have conversations in order to move the dial or move forward on equity.
This moment in time is going to allow us to move forward powerfully around what has held us back from being the best version of ourselves. That’s why I’m optimistic. Because we’re talking about issues systemically. Six months ago, if you talked about systemic racism, in some circles, you just wouldn’t do it. You wouldn’t do it with a donor who you’re trying to ask for money, especially a corporate donor. They’d look at you like you’re crazy. You wouldn’t get the grant or the resources.
But I think we have just fast-forwarded by leaps and bounds to be able to have conversations that can become the beginning to the type of change we need. I hope and I think we can move forward to understand how our sector can contribute to the future by acknowledging that things are systemic. [King Boston is in the nonprofit sector.] You’re not going to operate on someone with dirty instruments that aren’t sanitized. Just like you can’t use oppression and systemic racism to solve social problems. It doesn’t work. And I think we’re at a point in our sector where we’re having those conversations.
I was having this conversation with my partner, who’s in the CDC world. It’s not enough for nonprofits to talk about providing affordable housing for low-income people. Because, if we’re talking about economic justice, housing isn’t just housing. In America, it’s how we accumulate our intergenerational wealth. If you’re aren’t providing housing, you are stunting people’s ability to acquire equity. And it’s that equity that people draw out of their houses to pay for college, to invest in small businesses, and to pass down intergenerational wealth.
As a sector, we’ve got to move beyond the basics and really talk about how we break things down systemically. Giving people affordable housing without the equity in that housing is forwarding systemic racism. And we’re at a point where we can have those conversations. Otherwise, what are we doing? That’s why the conversation that Andre Perry has started with his book [Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Prosperity in America’s Black Cities].
As a sector, we have to think about our solutions. The data show that Black and Latinx students have to take on more student debt, and so they have higher dropout rates when they get to college. So many of them drop out and then still have the student loan debt. That’s the worst outcome. So, saying we just have to get them to college and not understanding the data…you’re participating in systemic racism, because not only did you not finish the job; you created a whole class of people who have huge debt that they won’t be able to pay down. So, we’re at a moment in time when we have to think through what the helping means. It’s almost like physicians giving folks opioids for knee injuries and getting them hooked and dependent. So you have to think things through beyond the immediate healing and not create catastrophes as a result of our helping. I think that’s our sector’s reckoning; the helping sector has to think through that.
While no place is perfect, I just feel that, at least in Massachusetts, we are living in a state where these ideas can exist, not that everybody has bought into these ideas, but it makes me hopeful.
King Boston is launching a new Center for Economic Justice. Tell me more about where you are with that.
We’ve put some more pulp on the fruit as far as thinking about what economic justice means in Massachusetts. And I think we’ve derived those things from the 1965 Freedom March, where they were marching for education, housing, poverty and racial equity. Those are still the pathways to economic justice 55 years later in Boston. We are attempting to address them systemically. And I think we have a better understanding of how these themes so that we can approach them and attack them in a systemic way. So, that’s been pretty exciting to think about.
In this moment in time, I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that we’d be talking about the NAACP convention and thinking about the convention if it hadn’t had to cancel because of COVID. The founding of that institution was about racial inequities. I hope that, in this moment of time, with the Black Lives Matter movement, a number of long-term, legacy institutions can emerge that can continue. I don’t think we’ll change overnight, but I hope that King Boston is in the vanguard. It’s one of the NAACP-like organizations of our generation that I think can exist to confront and combat and support and uplift people to fight racism in that way. I think BECMA [Black Economic Council of Massachusetts] is one of those organizations. I think the Collier Collection is going to do something socially. I think about the work that Willie’s doing at Twelfth Baptist… But as far as new institutions, I hope that King Boston, along with BECMA and others, can be this generation’s version of the NAACP to continue the work and change policy and behavior.
Tell me more about the emerging leaders you’ve identified for us and why you think they are special and have so much potential.
I met them at different times and in different places. I’ve known Willie the longest. I met him when he arrived in Boston to go to Divinity School. And so he was a staffer at Boston Rising, when I was there. I brought him on to be a member of our team, our community and philanthropic team. We’ve been able to keep a long-term relationship and I’m glad to have gotten to know him and to see him evolve and reimagine the ways that a faith-based organization can be at the vanguard of the movement.
I’m glad that the film by Roberto Mighty about the Kings and their time in Boston was shown on WGBH. It’s so amazing to think about the fact that he was in his 30s. When he was assassinated, he was only 39 years old.
Sheena seems to be a powerhouse.
Yes, and there’s a missing piece when we talk about a city and what makes a thriving city. There are 375,000 students who arrive in Boston every year; we’re the ninth largest city, but the fourth largest college town. Five percent of them are Black, six percent of them are Latinx and as a city is constantly looking to fill jobs in the high tech sector, there is no other city, particularly of our size, that has such an influx of residents.
What about a city’s quality and character makes people stay?
You and I were talking earlier about what a big little town Boston is. If you’re not from here, you don’t know, and if you’re on a college campus, you would never know how rich and diverse our city is. So, it’s important for people to have a way to familiarize themselves with Boston. So, we need a concierge service, if you will. And because of our history of redlining and difficulty in starting businesses… There are very few Black owned establishments where people can go and see people of color, particularly if you’re from out of town and you’ve got a new job at Liberty Mutual. Where do you go? I’m really excited about the work she’s doing through “Boston While Black.” [Boston While Black was launched by Sheena Collier to provide access to Black people who are new to Boston to introduce them to social experiences, access to mentors, workshops, and an online community.]