On Indigenous Leadership

What does it take to create a community that meets all the needs of its residents—a place rich in local resources that enhance health and safety, a place that provides people with a strong sense of connection to one another, and a place that celebrates life and hope through civic engagement, arts, and culture?

A Barr Fellow takes up these question and talks about how this kind of community is already being created in a Boston neighborhood once described as the “cocaine capital of New England.” In the process, he also challenges nonprofits and foundations from Boston to Haiti to think and act differently if they want to see this kind of thing happen more widely.

In March 2012, Barr Fellow Claudio Martinez received the Nicholas P. Bollman Award from the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities at its national conference. In his acceptance speech, Claudio spoke of the youth in his Hyde Square Task Force and the ways they are finding both their voice and their power to lead real, lasting, positive change in their community. He juxtaposes this with reflections from his travels with a group of Barr Fellows to Haiti in January. It all adds up to a provocative challenge to nonprofits and foundations to do a better job of investing in indigenous leadership. For those committed to place and willing to take the long view of change, Claudio argues that this is the only way to help people “control their own destinies and put together the pieces that create a vibrant, safe, and joyful urban community.”

The speech got a standing ovation from its audience of funders in Seattle, says Ben Starrett, executive director of the Funders’ Network, in a recent guest post on the Council of Foundation’s Re: Philanthropy blog—“Recognizing Visionary Leaders”. Ben also talks about Nicholas Bollman, in whose name the award is given, and the kind of leaders the award aims to recognize.

Here is Claudio's speech in full:


Good morning and thank you so much for inviting me here to receive this recognition today. I never knew Mr. Bollman, but I understand that many of you have powerful memories of a man who is described as “a beacon of hope.” It is truly an honor and a privilege for me to travel from Boston to receive an award that carries the name and spirit of a leader like Nicholas Bollman.

I am a long-time resident of Hyde Square, a neighborhood in Boston that many low-income immigrants, Latinos, and African Americans call their home. At Hyde Square Task Force, we don’t often use words like “smart growth” and “livable community” to describe our work. But they are perfect words to describe the end result we are hoping for—a community that has built an environment that meets many of the working and living needs of our residents, that has local resources to enhance health and safety, that has a strong sense of connection to one another, and that celebrates life and hope through civic engagement, arts, and culture.

But why is this little neighborhood in Boston so well known? I believe it is because our teenagers have been and are at the center of demanding and creating changes to improve their community, health centers, housing, train and bus stations, parks, and schools.

And these teens don’t just complain and demand from others to do it. They lead by example, working every day to improve the centers of civil society in our neighborhood and our city. This is where and how they learn to think critically about the inequities and discrimination they face every day.

For example, they tutor younger kids and teach peers in our schools and health centers. And this is how they learned what really goes on in these institutions. They work there, and as Dr. Manuel Pastor was suggesting yesterday, they sometimes even work alongside “the enemy” in putting together the jigsaw puzzle. But sometimes they also play a little chess when they have to and they sure know how to punch back if necessary. They don’t just get together with people that think like them and cry oppression expecting power to give a damn about it. They do the hard personal work and the hard community work that it takes to bring liberation. And during this journey of thinking and sweating, they organically become leaders in their community.

Over the past decade, the list of their community organizing accomplishments is truly impressive. Youth, supported by adults, have had major success in reclaiming a once drug- and violence-infested neighborhood (called by the DEA the “cocaine capital of New England”), in bringing comprehensive sexual education and civics education to the public schools, in pushing the government to renovate our parks and improve basic city services, increasing teen jobs, voter registration, and celebrating Afro-Latin culture.

Most of our teens’ parents are immigrants, many undocumented, and English is their second language. Most of the youth are underperforming students and uninvolved in creative and fun activities. In many ways they are invisible in their schools and invisible to many Boston and Massachusetts residents as well; many of them are not heading toward college but they are not in a gang either, as many would like us to believe. We see their potential and invite them in. In spite of their challenges, they use their energy and capacity to create a healthy, vibrant, safe, and joyful community.

For many of these teens living in Hyde Square, especially those for whom English is a second language, these experiences are the first time anyone has listened to them or taken them seriously. We don’t want them to be silent anymore. We work with them to find their voices and use them for good. Once they start working and speaking out they begin to understand their power and the complication of using power for the benefit of others. But that’s when they become engaged and bring that engagement back into their schools, improving their grades, graduating from high school, and doing post-secondary work as well as attending and completing college.

Boston is a majority-minority city that is searching, in theory, for a next generation of leaders that includes people of color from disadvantaged communities historically excluded from civil society. Through their work in their neighborhood and schools, our Latino and African-American teens and young adults are being trained to take on those leadership positions ensuring that everyone will be represented in the halls of power and all communities will have equitable access to resources and opportunities.

But as you know, some of you better than others, this journey to become visible is still too hard to travel for most of these teens and for most adults in our communities, including many of us here today. Indigenous leadership—people who live and work in distressed communities to bring positive change and are reflective of the demographics of those communities—is not yet a very popular concept even in the most “progressive” or “revolutionary” circles.

If we are going to achieve the dreams that Manuel, Denis Hayes of the Bullitt Foundation, and “Funk Master Fong” (a.k.a. Richard Woo of The Russell Family Foundation) described in their great presentations yesterday, we are going to need to figure out how to better support these types of long-term, community-governed efforts. This—development of indigenous leadership—is what creates and strengthens civil society and the fabric of all our communities, the relationships that sustain people in need for the long term. Not the new program of the month from the next venture philanthropist of the week.

I spent the first 10 days of this year in Haiti, a country with the second-highest nonprofits-per-capita ratio in the world and very little to show for it. Very few of these nonprofits are governed, managed, or staffed by Haitians. Somehow we think we can do it for them without them. In Boston, the NGOs and their funders, as well as the government and the private sectors, the unions, and many so-called social justice organizations, unfortunately, are not that different from the NGOs in Haiti when it comes to promoting or excluding intelligent and outspoken indigenous leaders at the higher levels of their organizations.

It has become clear to me that unless we equip, support, and walk with the people we want to “help,” our efforts will never yield the results we are looking for. It is not enough that we build green affordable housing if people in the community are not part of the process in an honest way. That means they have a role at the higher levels of decision making, not just a cameo appearance during a charette process.

At many foundations, we give millions of dollars to “high impact,” “business-oriented” nonprofits that employ “evidence-based measurement tools” and are often led by—don’t get me wrong, they are well meaning and well pedigreed, but they are also more often than not—outsiders. So please spare me the business case about rigor, and outcomes-focus, and high impact until your board, staff, contractors, services providers, and investment management companies include women and people of color as well as indigenous leaders. “High-impact” leaders and boards that parachute into our neighborhood but will never raise their kids here are an empty promise.

How come we so seldom invest equally in locally-governed organizations, run by local leaders, with real dollars, long term? Apparently they are not good enough. The local capacity just isn’t there is what they kept telling us in Haiti, and what we often tell ourselves when we make our funding decisions in our own communities. But somehow we expect these organizations, people, and communities to thrive and progress? Let’s walk with them and let’s not confuse pity for empathy. Boston, I’m sad to report, is not that different from Port-au-Prince when it comes to this issue of exclusion of indigenous leaders.

And when I say “we” I include myself in the family of foundations, nonprofits, and government bodies. As a board member of The Boston Foundation, the Nellie Mae Foundation, and as a Fellow and advisor to the Barr Foundation, I know firsthand how we help, and how we don’t help, to promote and increase “indigenous leadership” and participation in our city. As a high school drop-out, ironically today, I am the only immigrant and the only Latino member of Boston’s appointed School Committee that oversees a system where more than 60% of students are Latino or immigrant. Still less than 10% of teachers are Latino or immigrant.

As for education, Dr. Pastor mentioned Germany yesterday. In my opinion, the reason Germany is doing so well is they have embraced rigorous technical and vocational education. We need educational systems that lead to employment in the jobs of the future. The U.S. has a troubled racial history with regards to vocational education and must fix it ASAP. I welcome all of you to check the Nellie Mae Foundation proposals for changing our educational systems. As a father of a recent college graduate from one of the most expensive universities in the U.S., I wish my son knew how to fix an electrical fuse (or at least know what an electrical fuse is) instead of calling me every time an electrical appliance stops working.

Too much education—too little knowledge.

The lack of people living in distressed communities at the higher levels of decision-making in Boston’s government, nonprofit, civil society, and private sectors only leads to more civic disengagement in our communities and no outside “high-impact” organization or initiative is going to change that.

As the speakers suggested yesterday, to strengthen our civil society, we need to identify and invest in leaders and networks of unlikely partners. That means grassroots organizers, nonprofit, business, and government leaders. And it means investing in the development of indigenous leaders and organizations that give the tools and opportunities to the most vulnerable youth and families in our neighborhoods. I believe that is the only way we can ever help them to control their own destinies and put together the pieces that create a vibrant, safe, and joyful urban community.

Will Boston and the U.S. create the systems, networks, pathways, and opportunities for our hard-working youth to be invited and welcomed to solve the jigsaw puzzle that will ensure our survival on earth? I sure hope so. Or will these youth find it too difficult a journey, not worth the sacrifice, and exit like so many of our youth and our friends in the past?

I am here today because of the hard work of thousands of young people in my neighborhood who still so patiently believe it is possible to lead a meaningful and dignified life in the U.S.A. So on behalf of them and hundreds of youth activists and organizers in Boston and beyond, I accept the 2012 Nicholas Bollman Award.

Thank you so much to all you members of Funders’ Network and for this honor and for your support!


This speech, along with details on the Nicholas P. Bollman Award and previous winners, is available on the Funders’ Network’s website at http://www.fundersnetwork.org/events/nicholas-p-bollman-award/bollman-award-winners.

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