Diversity Boston

A different city

Boston struggles to overcome its image as an unwelcoming place

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By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / December 5, 2010

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Oswald Mondejar experiences it when he recruits candidates for health care jobs in Cambridge and on the Cape. Martha Fields heard it from leaders who were coming to Harvard University for a conference. And Michele Carroll saw it in the faces of her friends in Washington, D.C., when she told them she was moving to Boston.

“Nobody came out and said to me ‘It’s racist up there,’ ’’ said Carroll, who is African-American. Instead, she heard: “ ‘It’s going to be harder for you to make friends. It’s going to be harder for you to get ahead professionally.’ ’’

Boston has long been plagued by the perception that it is an unwelcoming place for people of color, crystallized in the nation’s memory by a photo of a white teen attacking a black man with an American flag in Government Center during the busing crisis of the 1970s. Back then, minorities made up less than 20 percent of the population, angry crowds threw rocks at buses carrying black students into white neighborhoods, and people of color were warned to stay out of South Boston.

Today, the city looks much different. More than half the population is made up of minorities. There is a black governor in the State House, and there are black and Hispanic Boston city councilors in City Hall. Still, the image of Boston as an unfriendly city for people of color remains in the minds of many.

“The reputation is worse than the reality,’’ said Robert Turner, codirector of the Commonwealth Compact, a University of Massachusetts Boston project formed in 2007 to promote diversity. “But the reality still has a long way to go.’’

To be sure, the Boston area has not solved its issues of racial inequality. And every local race-related incident reinforces the image of the city as an unwelcoming place, local leaders of color say — from Charles Stuart murdering his wife and blaming it on a black man to Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. being handcuffed by a white police officer after trying to get into his own home. The fact that the area’s prominent business leaders are mostly white, and that minorities in Boston have higher rates of unemployment and lower median incomes than whites do, also adds to the negative perception. Segregation is still a reality, too.

“The black people and the Latinos, they kind of stay in the neighborhood that they live in, and the white people stay where they live,’’ said Carroll, 30, who moved from Washington eight years ago and now lives in Roxbury.

Carroll, an account executive at Procter & Gamble, has met other professionals of color through some social networking functions, but said that doesn’t happen often. “You go every other month for two hours,’’ she said, “and then you go back home and you’re back in your little bubble.’’

Milton Little Jr. is familiar with the bubble. The former head of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley said he and his wife were often the only black people in the room when they went out to eat at upscale steakhouse Smith & Wollensky. When Little, now the president of the United Way in Atlanta, was walking downtown, he said, he could count the number of black people he saw on one hand. “Two hands if it was a good day,’’ said Little, 56, who feels better about raising his 11-year-old son in Atlanta, where he believes he’ll be exposed to more people of different backgrounds than in their former neighborhood in Milton.

This sense of isolation also irks Gisele Michel, the executive director of the Boston Center for Community and Justice. Michel, 46, came to Boston from Haiti as a child in the late ’70s and left to finish college in Washington. Michel, who attended Catholic school in Dorchester — said she felt either invisible or like an “other’’ who didn’t belong.

Michel returned to Boston seven years ago to help deal with her mother’s estate and has been encouraged by the increased diversity she’s seen. Still, the Quincy resident says she’s concerned by the lack of mingling between races.

“Now that you have all of us in one place, how do we reach out and socialize?’’ she said.

Those who try to bring minorities to the city are often faced with questions like that. “Polishing the image, making sure people know how the city has changed, is a job in and of itself,’’ said Carole Copeland Thomas, chair of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau multicultural committee.

James Rooney was confronted with Boston’s reputation when he was trying to persuade Blacks in Government to hold its 2008 national conference here.

“The fellow on the event team basically hit me right between the eyes with, ‘Why would I bring 10,000 black people to Boston?’ ’’ said Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority.

Rooney tried and failed to land the conference for the next four years, but after marketers for the convention center started bringing in minority meeting planners for “weekends of discovery’’ that included multicultural tours of the city, Boston not only snagged the 2011 Blacks in Government conference, but also the 2011 National Urban League convention — the first time the group has held its annual gathering in the city in 35 years.

“It’s a game changer,’’ Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, said of the opportunity the conference presents. “I want to take the naysayers of Boston’s negative reputation and turn them into ambassadors.’’

Fields, who lives in Watertown and runs a management consulting firm in Harvard Square, certainly knows the power of ambassadors.

When she started hearing worries about the city’s unfriendliness while she was planning the World Diversity Leadership Summit held at Harvard Medical School in September, she recruited local leaders to spread goodwill, as well as give conference-goers suggestions about restaurants and attractions.

“There were a lot of people who had trepidation about coming here,’’ said Fields, who believes the aloof demeanor of New Englanders is sometimes misinterpreted as racism.

Mondejar, vice president of human resources at Partners Continuing Care, encourages new minority employees to create their own networks by joining leadership organizations and training programs for minorities. “I think the retention aspect is tougher’’ than the recruiting, said Mondejar, 52, who grew up in Allston and whose parents are from Cuba.

When minority candidates ask her how they’ll fit in here, Maureen Alphonse-Charles, managing director at the Boston office of the executive search firm Horton International, said she doesn’t sugarcoat it. “When you look at Boston, I’m not going to kid you,’’ said Alphonse-Charles, who is from Jamaica and lives in Milton. “You will have to work at it.’’