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 where you are from and how you find yourself in Boston.
I was born in Albany, New York and went to Spelman for college, which was my first time leaving home. [Spelman College is a private women’s college in Atlanta and America’s oldest historically Black liberal arts college for women.] Then I came up here in 2004, right after I graduated, to attend Harvard Graduate School of Education. It was a class shift, first of all, to go to Spelman, because there are students from very wealthy Black families who go there. Coming to Harvard involved both the race and class piece. I used to say to people that I was gaining access to spaces professionally and education-wise that I wasn’t ready for socially. But I’m very happy that I had the experience of going to a historically Black college and then to Harvard. I went to college at 17 (I had skipped a grade), so Spelman was a better fit for me than Harvard would have been when I was that young. That would have been hard.
How did you find Boston when you first came here?
It’s not obvious when you first come here that there is so much richness around the diversity here. It’s hidden, which drives a lot of the work I do now.
What was your goal when you went to Harvard; to become a teacher?
Not so much a classroom teacher, but to work in the world of education, which I did for about 10 years. Harvard had a program back then called “Risk and Prevention,” which was very broad. It focused on the things outside of school and around school that students need to be successful. That includes things like community engagement, counseling, etc. I was somewhat interested in being a guidance counselor and I have played roles like that throughout my career, but I focused on the partnerships between schools, communities and families.
I’ve worked for the Home for Little Wanderers, I’ve worked with the Boston Public Schools, Big Sister and Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. My role was always supporting young people, supporting families, encouraging families to be invested in their child’s educational journey and bringing to bear the resources in a community that can wrap around the children to make sure they are successful.
How did you come to this kind of work?
My parents. Growing up in Albany, I lived in a lower-middle-class neighborhood. As the capitol, a lot of people worked for the State. So, my parents worked for the state—from their early 20s to retirement—and so we were a pretty stable family. But there was a huge variation around achievements. For instance, I went on to get my master’s at Harvard, whereas one of my best friends in high school dropped out in 11th grade.
What I saw as one of the biggest factors was the involvement of my parents and the expectations they set for me, how involved they were in making it clear how important education was.
I have a best friend now who later told me that she thought my father was the principal or had some administrative role at the school because he was there so much. He was involved in everything and just popped up sometimes.
Did your parents go to college?
My father, who was from Knoxville, Tennessee, went to college, but didn’t graduate. He passed away a few years ago, but I didn’t know until then that he didn’t graduate. College was a conversation with me from the beginning. He deeply believed in public education and public schools, so he was on the school board and the PTA. So, he was college educated, but he hadn’t graduated. My mother, who also grew up in the South, graduated from college when I was in middle school. She got her Associate’s degree when she was pregnant with me and then for 11 years, she took one class at a time until she graduated.
I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was a little girl, but when I got to Harvard, I realized that I might not want to be a classroom teacher, but I still wanted to work in education. At Harvard Grad School, you don’t do a thesis, but you do a master’s project. My project was around parent engagement in education, because that had been my own experience. I actually created a community school; that was my final project.
So, let’s talk about The Collier Connection.
As a company, I launched it almost four years ago, but it was a way for me to formalize the things I was already doing.
I actually hated it here for a long time. I thought of Boston as a place to come and get my education and leave. But my first job offer was here [The Home for Little Wanderers], so I decided to stay for a little while and then go to New York or Atlanta. But in the meantime, I started to get involved in a number of different things, like serving as President of the Spelman Boston Alumnae Chapter as a volunteer.
I hosted a dinner club. I would host book clubs. I did many things that created community for people and to meet other Black transplants. I did that for a long time. And in every job I had, I made event planning a part of my role even if it wasn’t in the job description. And so, I decided to create a company out of it. I asked myself, “How can I get paid for doing the work I’ve been doing and do it on a larger scale?” The Collier Connection was actually different at first; it was more of an event planning company. So, organizations would hire me to plan an event, but the additional value that I was bringing was that I was working with organizations that wanted to use events to engage communities of color. So, I helped them to have the right content, the right speakers, the right venues… I could plan the event, but I also knew the communities.
As you did get to know Boston, have you come to a point where you’re committed to it as a city?
I did work in D.C. for a few years at a communications firm that focused on education organizations, like the Mott Foundation. I loved it there. I used to say that D.C. is like Boston, except that it’s run by Black people. But I couldn’t find other community-related work there because I didn’t have a network there. So, I decided to come back to work for Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. They had just gotten a $6 million grant, so I came back to run it. It was also during the mayoral race, when Mayor Walsh won, so there was a lot of energy in Boston. A number of folks of color were running for mayor.
So, I won’t say that I love Boston, but I am committed to it because it’s a city that has so much to offer to people. It’s just that so many people can’t access that.
So, my commitment is to open up Boston, particularly to Black people—and creating a city where people feel like they’re valued, they’re engaged and they know they belong.
In the near future, we’ll be spending a lot of time recovering from the health and economic crisis, but when you step back and look at Boston over the next 10 years, what issues rise to the surface when you think about where you would like to put your energies and where you would like to see some real change take place?
There are many different directions I could go in, but I think I’ll stick to what I do. The challenge for Boston moving forward is to truly maximize all of the human capital that’s here. And I don’t think Boston does that. I saw a quote that I’ll summarize: “No city realizes its full potential unless it makes full use of its human capital and is a place where everyone feels they are a contributor.” Essentially, everyone’s talent should be part of the city’s identity. And that doesn’t happen in Boston now. Boston has a pretty singular identity, even as the reality changes.
My family is from the South and they ask me why I’m in Boston. “Isn’t that the most racist city”? So, I think that one of the major things that we need to figure out here is how we fully realize the potential of everyone here. How do we make sure that the contributions of everyone shape the city’s identity? I don’t know what to say in response to the question if Boston is the most racist city in America, but I do think Boston’s major issue is the erasure of people of color, both within the city, but particularly outside the city and state. We don’t have high visibility. The contributions of people of color are not recognized. The more I learn about the history here, I’m blown away. I’ve been here 16 years and I didn’t know there is such a deep history of the Civil Rights Movement. Even beyond King’s time here, there are a lot of firsts that have happened in Boston that are related to Black people that don’t get recognized. It kind of gets swept under the rug and we’re not really going to be a world-class city or a hub until people of color, Black people in particular, feel their contributions are valued and they are engaged.
For Boston, even as other communities of color grow here, the tension is between Black and White communities and I think it’s never been resolved. It just continues to fester and grow.
Do you think a lot of that goes right back to the desegregation of the public schools in the ‘70s?
Yes. I’m in my mid-30s, but I have friends my age who clearly weren’t around at that time, but they still have emotional scars from it because their parents had gone through it. I’m sure there were high racial tensions before that, but I think it was the physical representation of the tensions. Before then, people were just staying in their own neighborhoods. So, it brought tensions to a boiling point. It uncovered things and created some new trauma.
The mind shift that needs to happen here is actually very positive—the vibrancy of Boston, the many languages that are spoken here, people who are here from so many different countries. We need to celebrate that.
I’ve been reading the Boston Foundation’s report on demographic changes and increased diversity in Boston. I see that as a selling point for Boston.
So, The Collier Connection was my first company, but what I launched this year is called “Boston While Black.” It’s a membership community, obviously online right now, and I opened it up to 100 founding members and within a day, that list was full, and the waiting list was up to 950. It shows the sense of community that people are yearning for. And already, people are giving recommendations for jobs or neighborhoods to move to. It’s important. People haven’t felt that living here.
If you could sum up everything that’s going on right now, such as the call for accountability from companies, it says Black people want to be seen. And we want our humanity to be seen. We often find that the best way to do that is to find community with each other. So, that’s what I’m building now. There is a professor from Columbia who was making the case for Black-only spaces, and said they are just as much about economic growth as they are social. A lot of times, being in community with each other, can lead to wealth-building activity and ideas that come out of that.
I actually genuinely believe that Boston is on a cusp. In conversations I’ve had with Imari [Imari Paris Jeffries, Executive Director of King Boston], and Segun [Segun Idowu, Executive Director of BECMA] who I’m very close with and with whom I have a standing meeting every week just to talk about stuff like this, we discuss, "Where are we trying to push the city to? How do we utilize the resources that are here?" I think we’re getting to a place where there are enough people pushing in the same direction that we are bound to reach a tipping point.
This raises another question I’ve been asking. There is a certain amount of talk about this time period, right now, when we’re so hyper-aware of everything and we’re in the midst of three crises. Does that give us a space in which we can incubate some of these ideas?
Yes, I think it could be a catalyst, but I worry that even support of Black Lives Matter is waning already. That almost lays an unfair burden on me and other Black people. So, while I’m also grieving everything that’s happening in the country, I have to rush to make change because no one’s going to be paying attention in a couple of months?
I’ve already been bold by building “Boston While Black,” and I’ve been clear about what I’m doing, but this time that we’re in pushed me to work a little harder. This is a window, so I can’t be shy about what I’m saying. At least now, people who may not have been listening before are saying, “Okay, I get it, but I don’t know how to do it.” I say, “I know how to do it. Give me the resources or give me the platform.”
I think that any time there is some type of crisis, there are people who are having the worst times of their lives and then people who are in a place to build structures that take us into the future.
When you think about leadership and what qualities leaders need to be effective, especially today.
I’ve hired six people to work on Boston While Black with me—contractors and part-time folks. So, I’m building a team with people I’ve never met before. A couple of the things that have been successful… I am lovingly firm. I have a very clear vision around where I want to take my work. And I understand that Sheena can’t just do this work alone. I do have a vision and ideas about how they should be executed, but I also have to let go of the idea that I have to be at the center of it. There are other people who have expertise. I have things I’m good at and I should focus on that. So, a big part of it is not only having a vision, but being able to articulate it to others to help you move it forward. A chunk of my time has shifted away from doing my own work to leading my team and making sure I’m being clear and setting boundaries, giving feedback to make it easier to do their jobs.
People sometimes think of leaders being centered around themselves. But I think more about how to build a team of people—whether it’s staff or a coalition—to move the vision forward. With me setting the expectation and vision, but saying, “I know the what, but I don’t always know the how.” I’m very transparent with my team. I’m very honest about things I don’t know. I’m very vulnerable with them about my own learning curve and fears I have around being so out front and voicing my fears.
I think when people can see your humanity, they’re willing to follow. They’re willing to be part of a team with you. I’m not perfect and I don’t expect perfection, but I do expect people to be honest.
That’s leadership on a granular level, but for all of us who are leading movements and trying to bring ideas to life, we have to let people see our humanity—why it’s important to us. I think most people just want to be seen by other people, so I let people know that I see them, and I recognize their contribution. I see my role as being the evangelist for the vision—going out and saying, “This is the Boston I want to see happen.”
Nothing seems possible until it happens. Even in the time of COVID, things we’ve been told couldn’t be done have been done. You have to leave yourself open to the possibilities. Can we just imagine a different future? If you can imagine it, it could happen.
My great-grandmother was on a plantation. Did she think her great-granddaughter would be doing the things I’m doing?