Imari Paris Jeffries, Executive Director of King Boston, discusses his career, his vision for King Boston, racial equity in the nonprofit sector and how Boston is "so close to greatness."read more
Tell us about your background and how you came to be in Boston doing what you’re doing now.
I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. My mother was an educator for over 30 years in the Atlanta Public Schools. My father has been a pastor for 30 years. They were very active in the community and were deeply committed to raising their three sons of whom I’m the oldest. I was a very active child: family, church, sports, and music were my life.
In Atlanta, I was blessed to grow up in a space that was very admiring of Black leadership. We’ve always had a Black mayor, since Maynard Jackson in 1974. John Lewis was my congressman; we actually lived right down the street from him. I was surrounded by the story of civil rights and of Dr. King who, ironically, worked at the same church I’m working at now. I saw people who looked like me in every capacity, including the Black professional class: lawyers, educators, ministers, doctors, dentists, business leaders, etc... There were so many people who laid out a framework that gave me the hope and affirmation that I could be anyone I wanted to be… Anything was possible. I think that affirmation removed some of the barriers that I have seen some of my black colleagues struggle to get past, especially those who did not have the privilege of that affirmation.
I played baseball, football, and saxophone during my childhood in Atlanta. I was very fortunate to take my athletic abilities to the next level and play Division 1 (FCS) Football at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Georgetown was a great, and yet challenging experience that matured me intellectually, spiritually, and socio-emotionally. I was a student at Georgetown when our first Black president, Barack Obama, was elected. I remember running to the White House feeling more affirmation that I could become anything I put my mind to. I joined the greatest fraternity in the world, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. – a Black fraternity. I graduated in 2010, but I left with a lot of intriguing and sobering questions about the world; about how I fit within the framework of the world and how I could have a meaningful impact.
At that time I was sort of avoiding my call to ministry. I thought I was going to be an educator like my mother, so I pursued a career in education. I worked in a charter school called the SEED School of Washington, D.C. that was featured in the documentary Waiting for Superman. It was a quasi-boarding school, but it was public school with a charter model. It gave me a back door into understanding the nuances, complexities, and politics of education. But my calling to the ministry continued to pull at me.
So, I applied to two divinity schools and I ended up getting accepted by Harvard Divinity School (Cambridge), which brought me to Boston, MA. I knew no one here. I had only been to Massachusetts to play football games against Holy Cross. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined living here in Boston, but there was something about the city that made me feel it was my calling, a place where I wanted to be. I’m one of those people who just had faith that God doesn’t bring me to a place for no reason. So, I went to Harvard Divinity School in 2011 and it was at HDS that I really began to find my grounding. I was blessed to study under Dr. Charles Gilchrist Adams, who was my homiletics professor. He really opened my eyes to next level work in ministry. He was able to build his church in Detroit into a huge economic development and outreach engine, which was inspiring to me.
I was also very blessed to become very close to Professor Charles Ogletree. I was cross-registered at Harvard Law School, and took his class, Revitalizing America’s Urban Cities. His class just really opened my eyes to the intersections of faith and politics. That class gave me an introduction to so many leaders across the country: mayors, civic leaders, and leading practitioners from various sectors. They all came to the class and talked about the issues they were grappling with. Professor Ogletree was one of the reasons why I went to law school. I just graduated this past May from Northeastern University School of Law.
It was also during my time at HDS that I became connected to the Historic Twelfth Baptist Church. I preached my sermon ‘final’ of the homiletics class and I just so happened to leave my hat in the classroom. I had to run back and, was destined to meet and talk Reverend Arthur T. Gerald who was auditing the class. He’s a former Dean of Salem State University. He was previously Assistant Pastor for 35 years, and has been Senior Pastor for the last 10 years. He invited me to come and preach at Twelfth Baptist Church in 2012. Ever since that day, I’ve been intimately tied to the Twelfth Baptist Church family. I did my field study there – he brought me in and nurtured me. At Twelfth, I was able to grow and develop as a minister and a practitioner… to really deeply delve into the community. I’m so thankful to him. He’s been a force in my life and I give him so much credit for taking me in and nurturing me in that way.
I’ve also gotten involved in politics. I’d say God led me to this field as well. My first campaign was the Charlotte Golar Richie campaign for mayor of Boston. It was so exciting to see such a great Black woman who I thought had everything needed to lead this city. I would drop off literature at different churches and talking with pastors and reaching out to different faith communities… We lost, but it was a good introduction to Boston and Massachusetts politics. After that, I went on to work for Martha Coakley as a Deputy Financial Director as she ran for governor of Massachusetts. That was another unsuccessful bid, but it was good experience. During this campaign, I also worked closely with former Governor Deval Patrick and I’m very grateful for his mentorship and leadership. All of these experiences gave me the opportunity to gain the necessary experience to understand the political dynamics in Massachusetts.
After that, I worked for the Boston 2024 Olympics bid. Let me give you some context. I remember the Olympics as a child in Atlanta; it was a huge deal. It really put Atlanta on the map as a global city. I remember going to the games as a kid. And, being an athlete, the Olympics are a huge deal. So I thought it would be exciting for the kids and the community of Boston, while reconciling the complexities of the project. I transitioned from the bid because I got a call from a bright star in the world of politics: Maura Healey. She said, “Willie, I want you to come and be a part of our office as we try to develop this thing called the Community Engagement Division. We want you to come and work and help us build out this new division.” No other attorney general’s office in the country had done anything like this.
So, I was the first Outreach Coordinator and I worked as Deputy to the Chief of the Community Engagement Division in the AG’s office. It was a beautiful opportunity for someone who was 26 years old at the time to work very closely with Attorney General Maura Healy. My work engaged community organizations, schools, police departments and district attorneys… you name it! I found great joy in ensuring that my community had access and a voice at the Attorney General’s Office. I also had the responsibility to engage communities in our regional offices as well, which allowed me to become intimate with Massachusetts. That was a huge thing for me. I count Maura Healey as one of my mentors. She’s one of the reasons I chose Northeastern School of Law. Her office was a place that nurtured me and had a vision of social justice in the legal space.
Aside from my career in Boston, I’ve been blessed to start a family here. I met my wife, Dr. Devin Cromartie Bodrick, when I was Harvard Divinity School… she was at Harvard Medical School. Right after the first time meeting each other, I had the feeling she was going to be the one I would be with for the rest of my life. She’s currently a psychiatrist at BMC [Boston Medical Center]. She’s finishing her residency. We also have a one-year-old son, Willie Bodrick, III. Over time, both of my brothers, Winston and Weldon, have also joined me in Boston. So, we’re here for Massachusetts. We’re here for Boston. We’re very committed to the city. And I’m happy to be here. I feel like I was called to this city.
As we pull back from the personal part of our conversation and step back and you see Boston going forward, what do you think about, especially during this time of multiple crises in health and the economy and social justice?
I think we’re in a very historic moment. The pandemic has literally frozen us as a society and as a world. It has allowed us to take time to reassess our values and look at what really matters. It’s forced us as a community, at the intersection of race, to really grapple with the ugly side of our country that we have yet to seriously discuss and talk about. We’ve seen the ways in which this pandemic has exposed the preexisting racial disparities that we already knew existed in Black and Brown communities. We’ve seen the disparate impact of COVID-19 on Black families. This has exposed the fact that we have issues in health care, issues in policing, and issues in education. We have issues when it comes to opportunities for good jobs. We have issues related to our climate. This is a moment that I believe has spurred advocacy and protests in ways that we haven’t seen in a very long time.
See, the only thing that makes the George Floyd moment different is that it was all captured on film. This violence has a deep, steeped history in the American narrative. Violence against Black bodies, particularly by state actors, is not new to the Black community. But what is new is that we have instruments and tools to capture what would have been a rumor—with various instruments of technology and social media to be able to both fact check and hold institutions and people to account in ways that we’ve never been able to. And so, we’re calling for a radical reevaluation of our values and our beliefs. We need to see actions that are consistent with those values. I think we’re in a moment where we can do something to really address systemic racism in our city and in our country—and deal with many of those deep-seated inequities we’ve known to exist—and hold our politicians, our foundations, our institutions to account. What we’re doing right now isn’t working. What we need to do is work to change it.
I think wealth gap is a huge issue. I think we have to think critically about affordability of housing. We can’t talk about closing the wealth gap if we can’t talk about affordability of housing. And we can’t talk about affordability if we can’t talk about wages and the access that we have to meaningful jobs for the people in our city (we’re seeing it in our churches): Boston is the third most gentrified city in the country. What we’re seeing is this continual pushing out and displacement of families because they can’t afford to live in the neighborhoods in which they’ve lived historically. And what we know is that the wages have not shifted to match the housing prices in our community.
I live in Roxbury and we’re already seeing housing prices surging to $600,000 and $700,000. That’s in a community where the average income is $33,000. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that somebody is going to get pushed out and displaced. We need to do something actively and radically to make sure that the families who work in the city can live in the city.
We need to invest millions of dollars in housing affordability that ensures that we have a housing stock that is available for mixed incomes. We need to create pipeline programs for families who need help to secure housing. This goes to why we see the inequities in assets that the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston exposed, where the average wealth of a Black family is $8, but for a White family, it’s over $247,500. We know in this reality that housing security is one thing. Housing affordability is another thing. And wealth acquisition is another. We don’t always make the connection, but the conversation is about investing in communities, businesses, and entrepreneurs of color.
We can’t talk about wealth generation without talking about entrepreneurship. One of the misnomers about jobs is that we think that big companies like GE and Amazon offer the most jobs. They don’t. The biggest employers are small business owners. And we have not done an effective job in this city is to invest in small businesses—Black and Brown businesses in the city. The majority of businesses downtown are white businesses. But even more so, the investment of this city into producing more Black and Brown entrepreneurs has been lackluster at best. We also can look at what’s happening with the contracting in the city. It was disappointing to see that the City only offered contracts to a very small percentage of companies owned by people of color. So, what we’re seeing is that, to actually change the narrative of wealth; there needs to be intentionality.
So, as organizations, as foundations, as leaders we have to hold those who have the power to change the narrative to account. And that ties into education and making sure that our young people can prepare for high-wage jobs, so that we can secure the intellectual capital.
Those are some of the things that I think would push this conversation forward. Advocates across the city have been pushing on these issues.
As we think critically about this, we have to think about what reparations look like. We’re in a moment where we should put everything on the table and have a serious conversation about how to deal with the fact that H.R. 40 has been introduced in Congress for the last 30 years by John Conyers. It was put forward again by Sheila Jackson Lee in the House and Cory Booker in the Senate. We need to have a serious conversation about this issue and not just kick the can down the road, as we always have done. When you think about his, there have been great studies and many scholars who have thought about this. We should be moving proactively.
The good thing about Boston is that we have the intellectual capital. What does it look like to have the political will to not only make something happen here, but to lead the country and show it that this is how we want to be a better nation, a better America?
We’re saying many of the same things that Dr. Martin Luther King said in the 1960s. To me, as far as we’ve come and as great as we are, we also have not moved on a lot of different issues. We’re having many of the same conversations that my grandmothers and great grandmothers were having. That is what this moment is telling us: We have work to do. We’re not going to take this lightly. We’re going to fight like our forefathers and foremothers fought. We’re going to put pressure where pressure needs to be applied.
Many of the things we’re talking about were first addressed by Dr. King.
Yes, King has been romanticized as docile because of many of his nonviolent strategies and approaches. People don’t recognize how much of a threat he was to so many people and to institutions. King was fighting for the poor and he was very honest about that. He was pushing back on capitalism and people were afraid he was going to run for president. That was the fear. Because he was calling for a more equitable society. He was addressing some of the most heinous issues that we continue to fight against. We as a community can actually do something about it. And I hold King in such regard, but I’m frustrated by the ways in which his legacy has been abused. Many of the people who speak his name do things that he was totally against. We need to be making sure people have food. And making sure our community has resources. And making sure we’re thinking about how to innovate in our communities so that we don’t have to see the same things Dr. King talked about. Police brutality is not a new topic. We have to be willing sometimes to take unpopular stances.
The Center for Economic Justice being launched by King Boston is necessary. We must have dialogue about economic justice. But we also have to put our capital where our mouths are. One of the most important things is not just to be sophisticated in our rhetoric, but to really change things. I would love to see us actually raise capital, actually do the work that we talk about. And I hope that we can utilize that as a framework to hold cities accountable to match what we do and to say that we’ve stood up and held hands and created the beloved community that King so eloquently talked about.
One of the biggest issues I’m fighting for is education. There is a continuing gap between our Black and Brown children and their White counterparts. We have a lot of work to do. This has been persistent over the years. And one of the things we need to do is ensure that we are closing those opportunity and achievement gaps and bringing equity to our education system. These are going to be our leaders. One day they will supplant us in leadership. We need to equip them with all that they need and we need to re-instill faith in our public school system, so that people don’t feel they need to go to some alternative venue to get an education. We can do it. We can change the narrative. Our schools are leading in the state and in the nation, but we need a commitment to equity.
There is no other movement. There is no other moment than now. If we can’t respond to this moment and really think critically about how to respond, then when will we do it? I’m not frightened, because I’m a person of faith. I am confident in the fact that we can do it, but careful, because despite the reality that we have good ideas, we know what is at stake and we’ve made mistakes before. We have to be intentional to bring about what is necessary so that we might create the society that we need.
I’m a senior advisor to U.S. Senator Ed Markey and we know the amount of money that needs to be invested in America so that we can have good jobs and green energy. We need to reinvest in making sure that economic and social justice become realities. If we’re able to do that, then we can really do something about the gross inequalities that we see in our society each and every day.