Massachusetts Nonprofit Network Conference opens with a keynote on racial justice

People gather in Ramsay Park on Sept. 26, 2020 to protest police brutality. Photo by Anoushka Dalmia/BU News Service

By Nathan Lederman
BU News Service

The Massachusetts Nonprofit Network began its annual conference Tuesday morning, but the start to this year’s iteration of the event looked far different from years past. Influenced by the events of 2020, the two-week conference began with a keynote discussion on racial justice and will be held completely over Zoom.

Following an introduction from CEO John Klocke, this year’s “New Paths Forward” conference began with a panel discussion on pursuing racial justice within nonprofits throughout the commonwealth and was attended by just over 150 people virtually.

Curated by Michael Curry, a past president of Boston’s NAACP branch and the deputy CEO and general counsel at Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, the discussion began with a question for panelists on whether the vocal reaction this year to continued racial violence in the United States is a moment or a movement. 

“I’m concerned that it’s not a movement,” Curry said. “We want long lasting, systemic change.”

The Massachusetts Nonprofit Network’s virtual conference begins on Oct. 6, 2020. Photo by Nathan Lederman/BU News Service

Panelist Beth Chandler, the president and CEO of YW Boston, which focuses on eliminating racism and empowering women, responded that while she is unsure, she has begun to lean towards classifying the reaction as a moment. 

“Particularly amongst white people, there’s less interest in this topic of white supremacy, social justice, Black Lives Matter,” Chandler said. “There is a little more skepticism around it.”

Pointing towards studies done by NPR and other organizations, Chandler said that waning interest amongst white people indicates that the reaction is more of a moment than a movement.

“If we’re losing people already, then it suggests to me that this was a moment that may have lasted a little longer than previous moments, but a moment and not a movement,” Chandler said.

When asked about what nonprofits can do in the future, Charmane Higgins, the executive director of Trinity Boston Connects, which works towards building a more equitable Boston for the city’s youth, said white executives need to seek out people of color for leadership roles intentionally. 

“Nonprofits have to take a look at their boards of directors,” Higgins said. “If your leadership does not reflect your staff and then does not reflect the communities that you serve, that’s a problem.”

Emerson College President Lee Pelton also served as a panelist for Tuesday’s discussion. Pelton, who wrote a widely circulated letter about racial violence to his students back in June, was asked during the panel to remark on his letter and his experiences as a Black man in the United States.

“I wrote it from this perch of privilege, and from someone who regularly sits at the table of bounty,” Pelton said. “But I wanted folks to know that there is a lineage between George Floyd, and all the George Floyds in the world, and me. I am George Floyd.”

Following Pelton’s remarks, Curry said he would encourage people to hashtag “I am George Floyd” due to their conversation. 

Panelist Eric Masi, the president of Wayside Youth and Family Support Network, said that as a white executive, he and others could not only support the work of reaching racial equality but can help contribute to it.

“White staff are very comfortable coming to a white CEO about the direction and the pace of change. And the typical refrain that I’ve heard is, you know, ‘not everyone is there yet,’” Masi said. “At some point, the CEO has to say, ‘you know, this isn’t based on convincing the more resistant folks or even waiting for the hesitant.’ As we know, in organizational change, there has to be urgency.” 

Masi said that CEOs have to step up and demonstrate what they believe in by making a stand for change. 

The keynote panel kicked off two weeks of workshops and virtual networking opportunities set to take place from Oct. 6-15. The Massachusetts Nonprofit Network will host speakers such as Kevin Washington, president and CEO of YMCA of the USA, and feature remarks from Governor Charlie Baker. 

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