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Sowing hope against racism

NO ONE at the Foley Hoag Foundation could have predicted what would become of their quarter-century of funding community groups with the unique and explicit hope of defusing racism in Boston. The foundation's beneficiaries range from the Hyde Square Task Force to Harvard University desegregation research, from the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights to the Lesson One conflict resolution program in East Boston and Dorchester, from voting rights efforts to diversity outreach in the Girl Scouts, from Children's Museum diversity exhibits to Discover Roxbury tours.

Nor did longtime members of the foundation foresee how the city would metamorphose from one marked by the stark black-white struggles over education to one where Linda Dorcena Forry, a Haitian-American married to an Irish-American, won the State House seat held for 26 years by former Speaker Thomas Finneran. Foley Hoag had a quiet hand in that, too. It supplied significant legal resources to black and Latino plaintiffs to defeat a redistricting plan that would have made Finneran's district whiter and more impenetrable to challengers such as Dorcena Forry.

There is now more to the story than Dorcena Forry's victory. Because the plaintiffs won the redistricting case, their lawyers are entitled to their legal fees. Foley Hoag is donating a fresh $250,000 of its share to the foundation to keep its work alive.

''The city, with all that is going on, is a tremendously nicer place," said Liz Harris, 56, a venture capitalist and a member of the foundation board since 1984. When she was a student at Harvard and Harvard Business School, one of her most stinging memories was seeing white youths overhead on bridges throwing down objects on black people. ''There's been a turnaround," she said. ''Compared to back then, it's been almost miraculous. But there is so much more to do to raise the dialogue on race. It's still too easy to let race drop off the radar screen."

The foundation began when Boston's racism was on the world's radar screen. It was started in 1980 with $250,000 of the fees Foley Hoag was awarded from its work on the school desegregation case. Its original trustee, Michael Keating, a Foley Hoag partner, is still serving, along with Harris and Hubie Jones, a top education advocate, who joined the foundation in 1981.

Since then it has given out $1,150,263 in grants, mostly in amounts of $1,000 to $5,000 to grassroots organizations. In the last five years, about 90 groups have received grants. Some of the recipients are familiar faces in Boston, such as the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, the Ten Point Coalition, the Massachusetts Voter Education Network, Boston Vote, the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, the Children's Museum, Fenway High School, and the Boston YWCA's Youth Voice Collaborative.

Other recipients since 2000 are less known, but are just as vital in reducing racial isolation in the new Boston. They include the Food Project, which promotes dialogue between urban and suburban youth as they grow produce for charity, and Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries, which is trying to establish dialogue on social issues between urban and suburban churches. They include several community economic development organizations: the Asian American Resource Workshop, Caribbean U-Turn, the Irish Immigration Center, the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, and the La Pinata Latin American Cultural Family Network.

The recipients also represent music, arts, and media, including the Cantata Singers, the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center, the Faith Quilts Project of the Public Conversations Project, Artists for Humanity, the Dorchester Community Center for the Visual Arts, and Urban Youth Update from Project Think Different. The foundation funds conferences on racism, from those run by youth to energize the ''hip-hop generation" to Harvard's Civil Rights Project, which provides the nation's leading research on the resegregating of many of America's public schools.

''Even though a lot of people do not talk about it, race is still a force in what drives employment, education, everything," said a Foley Hoag managing partner, Michele Whitham, who is also an advocate for the homeless. She said the foundation's work has become more important as several of Boston's flagship companies with longtime community connections are being bought up by giant corporations. Harris added: ''This work is important because, for instance, it is not a tsunami moment on race in Boston and housing, employment, and education are not at the top of the nation's agenda. It means we have to work that much harder."

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is

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