How to Build an Anti-Racist Government

Suffolk students help one of Boston’s most innovative offices address the challenge

Marquis lights that read BOSTON with a silhouetted person walking in front

Story by Andrea Grant
Photography by Michael J. Clarke

It’s time for an uncomfortable conversation.

Few people would be excited to hear that, especially in the workplace. But staff in the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) sought help from Suffolk faculty and students to do exactly that—have serious, sometimes painful, discussions about how to analyze their own biases and become an actively anti-racist organization.

At MONUM’s core is a commitment to making government work better. Functioning as a sort of citywide innovation lab, MONUM has piloted dozens of projects to address challenges such as affordable housing, street safety, the use of shared spaces, and education access.

MONUM’s work took on a new urgency following the murder of George Floyd, says Nigel Jacob, co-chair of MONUM.

Neighbors and partners

Jaclyn Youngblood, MONUM’s chief of staff, knew the office would need to review past projects and current policies with outside help to learn more and hold themselves accountable.

“If the future of the public sector is moving toward anti-racism, we want to know how to start that work,” Youngblood says. “Suffolk is right down the street. They are training the next generation of public servants. It made sense to do some of our exploration with those students.”

Suffolk professors Erika Gebo and Brenda Bond-Fortier have collaborated with government agencies and community groups on crime prevention and intervention projects for more than a decade. Their partnership blends perspectives from sociology and public administration to address pressing problems in society.

“The mission statement at the core of our department is about looking at how intersections—not just race, but also class, gender, geography, religion, and sexual orientation—affect people’s relationships with others, and we can use that knowledge to become a more open and inclusive society,” says Gebo, a professor in the Sociology & Criminal Justice Department.

For their collaboration with MONUM, Gebo and Bond-Fortier, a professor in the Sawyer Business School’s Institute for Public Service, recruited graduate students to conduct research and provide recommendations. Victoria Oliveira, a crime and justice studies graduate student, believes that true anti-racism goes beyond notions of diversity and inclusion—making it a harder objective to achieve.

“The main difference is the acknowledgement of institutional racism that can’t be fixed by surface-level fixes,” Oliveira says. “There are deep-rooted issues that need to be addressed.”

Oliveira and her project partner provided recommendations on how MONUM could solicit feedback to gauge the success of the office’s inclusion practices. They also created a literature review that Youngblood adapted into a reading list she used to help onboard the office’s summer fellows.

An insider’s outside view

In conducting their work, Suffolk students had a strong advantage: Many already are working in government or related fields.

Jennifer Barthelemy, CRT ’17, MPA ’21, is the diversity and equity manager at the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance. She has observed the impact of institutional racism firsthand in the communities her organization serves and through the employees in its bureaucratic structure.

“In many leadership spaces in state government, there is a lack of representation,” she says. “I am visible to the point of invisibility. That is, I am seen and dismissed at the same moment. When my white colleague asks the same questions or makes a similar or exact suggestion, it is both acknowledged and praised.”

Barthelemy developed a tool to help MONUM evaluate its progress using something called the Race and Community Engagement framework. The goal, she explains, is to “use a standard set of questions to foster an environment of open communication in discussions of racial and social equity, including it as a focal point of the department’s work, and operationalizing it within the organization.”

Lasting lessons

Gebo and Bond-Fortier say the project’s success is emblematic of the experiential learning made possible by collaborations among Suffolk faculty, students, and outside organizations.

Jacob agrees. “It was a great experience, and the relationship between MONUM and Suffolk is still developing,” he says. “The students were really good at absorbing all the background information and adapting it to the different topics we wanted them to cover.”

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