In our conversation with Sheena, she talks about launching the Collier Connection and Boston While Black, why she's committed to Boston, the need to maximize the city's human capital and more.read more
Please begin by telling us more about yourself. Where are you from and who inspired you to do the work you’re engaged in now?
I grew up in Boston. In terms of inspiration, my grandfather, Rev. Earl W. Lawson, had the largest influence on my life. He was a pastor in Malden at Emmanuel Baptist Church. He was very active in the Civil Rights Movement here in Boston. It wasn’t just because he was a Black man in Massachusetts that got him involved in that revolution, but also the fact that he attended Morehouse College. That’s significant because it was there that he met a fellow classmate, Martin Luther King, Jr. As a result of that friendship and that of another civil rights legend, Virgil Wood, a lieutenant of King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Massachusetts, my grandfather became a key figure in the movement here.
My grandfather was deeply involved in pulling together the march in Boston in 1965. I grew up listening to stories from that time. In the 70’s, my grandfather led different programs through his church focused on helping folks recover from alcoholism and drug addiction and led other initiatives during his tenure in Malden and another church he founded in Hartford.
So, I ended up learning a lot from him and the people he was connected to.
The Civil Rights Movement is more than a chapter in my history book. For me, it was a lived experience. I had the opportunity to meet a lot of people and be in conversation with a lot of the folks we read about in history books. John Lewis and C.T. Vivian [a minister and lieutenant of King], both of whom we mourned recently, were friends of my grandfather and so, just by nature of being in the family, they were folks I got to meet and talk with. So that has had a real influence on my life and inspires the work that I’m doing now.
I went to the same college my grandfather attended, Morehouse. There, I was surrounded by role models from my own generation and found my best friends who push me to do and be better.
What did you do after college and before you took on the leadership of BECMA?
After graduating from Morehouse, I came back to Boston and interned in the office of then City Councilor Charles Yancey. That turned into a full-time job where I wrote policy, engaged constituents, attended meetings on the Councilor’s behalf: I really became a kind of “everyman.” That prepared me for everything I’m doing now.
After that, I went to work at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate on Columbia Point. I worked in operations there and worked with my colleagues to make it an inviting place for everyone, particularly communities that don’t normally have access to the rich experience the Institute provided. The Institute was and is focused on civic engagement and this allowed me to work with my longtime friend, Shekia Scott, to respond to what was going on at that time. We had just watched Eric Garner and Michael Brown be murdered by police officers, and so we formed the Boston Police Camera Action Team (BPCAT), a community group that advocated for equipping police with body cameras and adopting a model policy we wrote with community input.
We won our effort and today, the city is working to equip every officer with a body camera guided by a policy that is about 60 percent of what we wanted. We continue to push for the other 40 percent, but Boston is still the first city in the nation where community members led the effort to adopt body cameras and influence policy.
I left the Institute in 2018 to work on Newton Mayor Setti Warren’s gubernatorial campaign as the Deputy Finance Director. I wanted to understand the financial aspect of campaigns. Part of the issue on political campaigns is that Black and Brown folks wind up only getting jobs as community organizers or volunteers and so there are very, very few who are in the senior campaign roles. There are already very few of us in the world of finance and even fewer of us in the campaign finance world. So, it was important for me to learn about that aspect of the campaign to be able to share with others and help grow talent.
It was through working with Mayor Warren that I was inspired to run for office myself. I ran for State Representative of Hyde Park, Roslindale, and West Roxbury in 2018, challenging a 40-year incumbent. It was a great experience and an opportunity for my neighbors and me to create a new vision for our neighborhoods.
After the election, the Board of BECMA approached me to become the executive director of BECMA and I accepted the invitation.
Tell us about BECMA (Black Economic Council of Massachusetts) and the work you’re doing there.
I joined BECMA in November 2018. The organization had been launched in 2015 as a result of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s report, The Color of Wealth in Boston, which addressed the huge racial wealth gap in Greater Boston. The founders of the organization were Black business leaders in the city and their belief was that one way to eliminate the racial wealth gap is through entrepreneurship and business ownership. The belief is that businesses owned by us not only generate wealth for the business owner and their families, but also for their employees. These businesses also invest in Black communities and organizations.
So they formed the organization essentially to serve as a Chamber of Commerce for Black businesses—advocating for substantive policies, connecting businesses to one another and to opportunities, and convening solutions-oriented conversations. Before me, the great Reggie Nunnally served as the Acting Executive Director, but I became the first full-time person in the role. My initial responsibility was to build the infrastructure of the organization and enhance its visibility. With the support of the board and our members, we’ve accomplished that.
Additional goals are to ensure that we’re strengthening the internal processes of the organization to manage the growth we are now embarking upon. We were at about 100+ members when I joined in 2018. Now, we have over 300 members and we’ve started to expand beyond Boston in order to make sure that we’re fulfilling the promise of our name.
The major things we were doing pre-COVID included being more consistent with the events we were holding, engaging more people in the community, and increasing our formal partnerships. We hosted numerous conversations last year focusing on things such as equity in the cannabis industry. Because we are solutions oriented, we’re intentional about who participates in these discussions. The audience was not just community members, but also potential investors who were interested in investing in Black and Brown companies, and the business owners themselves. That particular effort was successful as our event caused connections and investments to be made.
The same was true for opportunity zones. [Opportunity Zones are designated geographic areas, in which individuals can gain favorable tax treatment on their capital gains by investing those funds through privately-created Opportunity Funds.] Again, we focused on getting everyone in the room—investors, business owners, developers, community members, government officials—to talk about how we develop a plan that responded to local needs, directed capital to businesses that needed it, and gained the support of residents for developer projects. That conversation is ongoing.
I would say the biggest thing we did in 2019 was the Mass. Black Expo at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center that November. Over the course of that first weekend, we brought together over 1,000 people who interacted with over 60 Black-owned businesses and organizations from across the state. We also had about 25 concurrent workshops that ranged from folks that were interested in starting a business to matchmaking sessions. The Convention Center itself had a workshop about how to do business with them so prospective applicants could understand the process.
But then, COVID hit. We’ve been working overtime to help our people. We’ve expanded our advocacy beyond the local level to include both the state and federal levels. We’re proud of the work we did to influence the drafting of Congresswoman Pressley and Senator Harris’ “Saving Our Streets Act” (SOSA), a bill that would have provided $125 billion in grants for Black and Brown businesses.
We haven’t let the pandemic prevent us from convening important discussions. In late spring, we started a virtual event series called “On the Mark,” which connects our members to policymakers and policy-doers in order to give our members an idea of what's going on and to give the officials knowledge of the issues that matter most to our members.
Our most important work has been connecting our members to capital and to commerce to help them survive and thrive beyond the pandemic. With the leadership of Malia Lazu at Berkshire Bank, we established a program, the Futures Fund, that extends a line of credit of up to $50,000 for our members. That program has generated over $500,000 in lines of credit to our members. We also partnered with the Foundation for Business Equity COVID Relief Fund that came out of the Boston Foundation. A lot of our members were able to get access to the over $1 million that the partners raised.
Finally, we worked with the MA Equitable PPP Access Initiative to help Black and Brown businesses apply for and receive PPP loans. This was critical because we read reports detailing that 95% of Black businesses didn’t get access to PPP in the first round. This intentionality of combining the efforts of nonprofits, technical assistance providers, and lenders as well as prioritizing Black and Brown businesses led to our being able to connect over 400 businesses to $4 million of PPP loans.
Let’s step back a little and talk about Boston now and in the future. So many of the other young leaders featured in our Annual Report have come here from another place and adopted it as their own. You were ‘of’ Boston already. That means that you have a pretty good perspective on the city. Do you think there is something about this moment that we find ourselves in that opens some kind door of opportunity for certain things?
My answer a while ago would have been “yes” because of the uprisings that were happening around the country. I saw something way different in a positive way, compared to what we saw happen in 2014, which was a lot more visceral in terms of the response to Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York.
This time was the first time I saw folks across party lines, across class, across industry agree that what we saw in Minneapolis was a travesty. No one balked at the idea of calling it what it was: a lynching. And then the response of the business community, speaking from my job perspective, was also very different. But it’s a cycle, right? In the moment, everyone wants to do something; everyone is ready to give up the store to address the problem. But, I am starting to see a small group of leaders be lulled into complacency with either the status quo or the bare minimum they have been doing in their field to address systemic racism. It is my hope that we will all keep our eyes on the prize, which is dismantling systemic racism and building the new world, and not let the passage of time or the difficulty of the job push us off course.
With all of that in mind, what do you think are the greatest challenges facing Boston right now, from your point of view?
The biggest problem is that we’re not able to deal with systemic racism. August 2nd was James Baldwin’s birthday and reading quotes of his and seeing videos about him reminded me a lot of the points he was making back in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s. So, reflecting on what he was saying back then made me realize that in Boston, our goal is not to defeat racism, but to not appear to be racist. That’s an important nuance.
I liken it to this: When I was a kid, my parents would have company and they would ask me to clean my room. And the way I’d clean my room is to shove everything underneath my bed or stick it in my closet and straighten my bed and to try to make it look pretty. But I didn’t actually clean my room.
That’s what Boston has been doing for a long time—just shoving everything underneath the bed or in the closet in order to appear as if we have nothing to hide. Which is why when people like Michael Che and others say that Boston is the most racist city in the country, we don’t actually deal with why people have that image of Boston. Whereas, Boston’s response will be to say that’s ridiculous and we don’t have a racist bone in our body here. Look at us: Our City Council is half people of color and women. Ayanna Pressley is our Congresswoman. How could it be that we are racist?
We may not have “Colored Only” signs all over the place and maybe someone won’t call me the N-Word when I’m walking down the street, but the fact that the Foundation for Business Equity needs to exist; the Color of Wealth report; the fact that the Pacesetters program at the Boston Chamber of Commerce has such low participation from its corporate members despite the best efforts of its leadership, and yet some of these same companies are putting out “Black Lives Matter” statements as if Black wealth doesn’t too; the fact that 80 percent of the people who live in Roxbury rent their apartments rather than own a home; all of these things matter and are part of systemic racism.
That is our biggest problem because the city is rapidly changing. We’re a majority people of color city and folks are taking over different important positions. We could even see a Black mayor. We could see a person of color in that position. But if we don’t deal with the inherent racism in our systems here, all of these will just be surface-level changes and we won’t actually make systemic change.
So, what can we do to change that? How do we turn this moment into something more than just a moment that passes?
I would say two things. These moments always come and go. There was a piece in the New York Times recently that was really good. It was called “Don’t Believe the Lie That Voting Is All You Can Do,” by Daniel Hunter. His point is that the constant refrain is, “Okay, everyone has marched; now we have to go and vote.” Actually, voting isn’t the only thing that regular people can do. It’s all about working between election days—and that work is happening. The point the author was making was that moments pass and the movement is still happening even if you don’t see it. Organizations are having their meetings, still putting their plans together, still writing legislation, so that when these moments happen again, they’re prepared to take advantage of it and spread their message and cause something to happen.
In terms of what we can do: BECMA convened the Black Mass Coalition, which is a bunch of different state-wide, Black-led organizations that came together to put in one document what Black people want. It’s called “Blueprint for the New World” and it’s on our website now.
What are the things that stand out for you in the Blueprint for the New World?
We came up with 35 things spread out over five different sectors: the private sector, nonprofits, philanthropy, and state and local government. The framework is “capital, culture, and who’s in charge?”
We need to invest in our businesses. We need to set goals for Black and Brown business participation. The biggest news is that we’re pushing for a billion dollar fund that would make investments and generate revenue so that we can continue to make more investments in home ownership and buying land and developing new economic models. The blueprint includes targets like making sure that you’re creating community for Black and Brown people, for the events of the last few years that there is no such thing as “safe spaces” for us.
It also deals with retention. It’s not difficult for our corporations to find Black or Brown talent, but the trouble Boston has had is keeping people here. That’s where businesses like Boston While Black play a key role. The final piece is leadership -- on the board level, in the C-suite, and all the other places that matter. We made sure to have concrete numbers in the document so as not to be vague or general. We also include explanations as to why we’re calling for these targets and are working with any and everyone to chart a path to actualizing these goals.
It will be key that these identified sectors follow through on the targets we outlined if we want to truly address systemic racism in the Commonwealth. As C.T. Vivian once told me, “Having great ideas is great. Thinking great ideas is wonderful. But doing great ideas is what counts.