Mental health, wealth gap rises among top issues impacting Black men at inaugural community listening session
A few dozen people gathered in a conference room of the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Roxbury on Wednesday for a historic meeting as the city’s Black Men and Boys Commission held its first public listening session, and first formal public appearance, in the organization’s history.
Wednesday marked the first time the panel opened itself to the public since its 21 members were appointed by Mayor Michelle Wu in May.
Unlike other government meetings, where officials tend to do a lot of the talking, Wednesday’s meeting was centered around listening to what people had to say. Besides a few comments to keep the discussion on track, the members of the committee stayed mostly quiet as they heard from residents.
“We structured this for the community to have the first voice, the most important voice,” Commission chair Tito Jackson said. “And in the beginning, there was some uncomfortability with that. But when it comes down to it, we realize the 21 individuals… we realize that we’re nothing without our community.”
At $1.8 million, the Office of Black Male Advancement has one of the largest new line items within the city’s operating budget.
With that money came expectations from community members who were looking for positive change. Among the many issues brought up, including a need to offer programs and initiatives to prevent violence, preparation for climate change, education and housing, was a consistent theme of the need to support measures to improve mental health and wellness.
“The basis of much of that was hit on when people spoke about the economic wealth gap and the real need for people to be elevated, not only with jobs but through entrepreneurship,” Jackson said. “And when we look at the massive city budget, the manner in which those contracts are partitioned and whether or not people of color, and in particular Black men, have an opportunity to be at the table for those contracts. Which then means they’re going to hire folks from these communities, right?”
Frank Farrow, executive director of the Office of Black Male Advancement, echoed Jackson in saying that the meeting revealed that the community knows the problems it faces, and also knows the solutions.
“And it just reaffirms the need to listen to community first and bring them along the process, that they’re driving what the work is going to look like,” he said. “Because it’s a heavy load and we’re going to need everybody at the table.”
The commission represents a nearly ten-year, multi-administration effort to train a municipal lens on Black men and boys in the City of Boston.
The panel was proposed and unanimously passed by the city council, but was vetoed in 2014 by then-Mayor Marty Walsh. It was ultimately authorized last September by acting Mayor Kim Janey.
Then in February, Mayor Michelle Wu announced the commission’s open application period along with the formation of the new Office of Black Male Advancement.
It is unclear how many times the panel met prior to Wednesday’s community session, though several members acknowledged previously convening in introductory sessions. The meetings were not publicly noticed by the city, according to a GBH News review of Boston’s digitally archived public notices.
Wu administration officials familiar with the panel’s work said at least one prior meeting last month was intended as an introductory conversation to help members become familiar with one another. Jackson pointed out that the budget cycle for the Office of Black Male Advancement, which directs and supports the commission, started on July 1.
Another community listening session is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 3. For Jackson, the work is as important now as it was when he started to push for such a commission years ago.
“And as Governor [Deval] Patrick used to say, this is about turning to each other and not on each other in difficult times,” he said. “And this warms my heart ’cause this has been a passion of mine.”