In 2009, Access Strategies Fund awarded a $25,000 grant to the Union of Minority Neighborhoods. The UMN was founded in 2000 with one staff member and a promise; to ensure that skilled, committed, grassroots activists of color are recruited and developed into leaders who can effectively organize on issues of concern in their communities. In a relatively short time the organization has grown to a full-time staff of eight, six interns and it has a reputation for its strong core of volunteers and the ability to turn out thousands at events and rallies in support of community issues.

You may have heard about, or participated in, UMN’s successful efforts that:

  • Led to Governor Deval Patrick’s executive order changing the way CORI records are kept, accessed and used. The order included stiff penalties for employers who abuse CORI laws and ends discrimination against individuals with criminal records in state hiring and social service agencies in the Commonwealth
  • Formed and coordinated the campaign that forced Governor Mitt Romney to restore Affirmative Action as an employment policy
  • Established the Many Voices One Message Coalition of 60 organizations of color that fought and restored critical funding to the state budget
  • Led the effort to organize faculty, parents and students to save the 110 year old Ben Franklin technical college whose student body is 80 percent minority

We asked UMN’s Executive Director, Horace Small, for his thoughts on why his organization has been so effective in the pass and his plans for the future.

AS (Access Strategies Fund): What has made UMN such a successful force in the Boston Community?

HS (Horace Small): We like to think of ourselves as a hybrid organization. What that means is we believe the most important thing that an organization can do is to develop new leaders. It is this belief that led to creating our Institute of Neighborhood Leadership which has trained more than a thousand people in the last eight years; new organizations have emerged, run by UMN Alumni with the skills and desire to take on big issues in the community. Issues like CORI reform, public education, and protecting social and human service programs from draconian state budget cuts.

The other thing that makes us different is how we hire. We hire our people from the ground. Think of us as talent scouts for activists. Our people come from the campaigns that they work on; our entire CORI staff comes from the CORI Reform movement here in Boston. Our public education campaign staff is made up of young people who got fired up in high school and their interest carried on into college. The other hook for attracting staff is our track record. They will be involved, work hard and long hours, but at the end of the day they will have worked on successful campaigns, they will have learned a great deal about organizing and how to address problems.

When one of our staff is ready to move on, we tell them, and we find our people a place to go where they can take on more responsibility and make a contribution in leadership positions at other organizations. We want our staff and the people we train through the Institute of Neighborhood Leadership to have careers in public service. That’s where the training and hard work pays off. They move on to run effective organizations of their own and we are always here to help, to mentor and to support their campaigns and efforts.

We have become the go-to source for all the city council members looking for staff with knowledge and commitment to the communities they serve, the same with members of the legislature. State elected officials, black and white, have hired former UMN staff and Institute graduates because our alumni are ready for the hard work, and have the insight into the issues that effect Boston’s neighborhoods and districts. In the end it’s the communities that are the ultimate benefactor of these kids’ success.

AS: What are some of the examples where your staff and Institute of Neighborhoods Leadership graduates have been successful?

HS: Once we have trained people in the ways of leadership and grass-roots organizing we challenge them to identify the issues and help develop the solutions. For example when the Ben Franklin Institute was slated to be closed, because some powerful folks wanted the valuable property for their own purposes, people we trained and mentored successfully organized the parents, students and community to keep it open. Now not only is it a thriving institution, the Franklin Institute is developing a four year degree program.

When Governor Romney tried to kill Affirmative Action, we made him put it back. When he cut the budget to the point where he was putting poor people out to die, we were the organization that led the movement bringing thousands of black and brown people to the statehouse that led to a billion dollars being put back into social and human services programs. We developed the model that got CORI Reform legislation passed in the City of Boston, the ordinance that is a model for 73 other cities across the country. It is how we got the executive order from the Governor Patrick banning CORI discrimination for state employment.

These issues are real; they are pertinent and affect the quality of peoples’ lives.

AS: You have worked with Access Strategies in the past, how has our staff provided support to your organization?

HS: Access Strategies is a foundation that clearly understands the importance of civic engagement being community power. They understand that how you make fundamental change, how you really make democracy happen is that you engage people on the issues that affect their lives in the communities where they live. That you work to give them voice on those issues, that you give them the skills and instruct them and teach the skills that help them figure out how to resolve the issues that affect their lives. That essentially is what community building is, that’s what real civic engagement is, that’s what real community organizing is; and Access Strategies is the only foundation in the city of Boston that understands and supports all of that.

It is an important distinction to note that Access Strategies bankrolls an idea which in itself is unique, but they also help you get your ideas and organization moving in the right direction. The staff at Access is very supportive and hands-on; they don’t just write a check and sit back. They are real “boots on the ground” community activists with a lot of experience with people and organizations. The Access Strategies Fund staff helps their grantees think through ideas, they provide training, whatever is needed in the way of moral and technical support.

AS: What project will UMN focus on during the next year?

HS: We are currently in the process of making people of color players in the discussion of public education. Eighty percent of public school system enrollment is our kids. Less than two percent of African-American males that graduate from the public school system complete college within eight years of graduation. If we are going to make democracy real, if we are going to make civic engagement real, then it is critical to have people involved in the education decision making process. The schools, quite frankly, are ground zero for solving many of the problems facing our communities.

So we are creating Black People for Better Public Schools. We are injecting ourselves in every aspect of public life… Dr. King went to the pool halls to inform and organize. Saturdays we have the barbershop brigade, we have the hairdresser brigade. We are going to the barbershops, we’re going to the bars, churches, and we’re even going to the prisons to talk about and inform people about the situation with our kid’s education and discuss how to change it.

We are doing community dinners starting in October, in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, attended by all the non-profits. We will focus the discussion on why the schools are important, why and how we need to support public education. Then we will go to the churches to pitch to ministers. Get them together with the secular community establishing partnerships and common goals.

Now the other big piece of this is including the Latino and other communities of color because we face many of the same problems, especially when it comes to educational outcomes. While we may differ on some issues we still need to work together if we are going to make progress towards improving educational outcomes for children of color in Boston.

AS: So you are using your people, your network, your organization to inform people and then what?

HS: What we are building towards is Black History Month, and what’s going on is this thing called Future Search that we will be bringing to UMass. Future Search is a planning process which brings all the various players to the table. To articulate what is the common agenda for all of us, what do we want and how can we get there and develop a plan to get there. Future Search is similar to the process that got the Northern Ireland Good Friday Accords, its how the issue of the Lost Boys of the Sudan rose to public attention and resulted in many of these children coming to America, the concept works.

So we are going to lean heavy on the business community, educators, funders, the parents, everybody with a stake in the future of public education. The Future Search project will begin with eighteen hours, six hours a day for three days, that’s what we are moving towards.

With a lot of hard work, discussion and respect for the views of all involved we will have, come February the group of the right people, with the right questions in mind to set down and work out a plan for fixing the education problems in Boston.