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Rep critiques Urban League's outreach to Boston's black community

Posted by Cara Bayles  August 5, 2011 08:12 AM

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The National Urban League convention drew thousands of participants from across the nation to the South Boston waterfront last week, as the civil rights group hosted a three-day conference focusing on jobs and education in the black community.

But state representative Carlos Henriquez—whose district includes parts of Dorchester and Roxbury, among the most diverse communities in the city—was left wondering about the conference’s effect. For all its talk about economic stimulus for urban entrepreneurs, Henriquez asked this week whether conference-goers actually chose to invest in the city’s black business community during their stay, and whether they ventured far from the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center where the conference took place.

“I was hoping to see a lot more trips into the community,” said Henriquez, who said he met with organizers before the conference but isn’t entirely sure they considered his concerns. “I don’t think they were able to stop into the neighborhoods and really see what the community has to offer, like Merengue on Blue Hill Ave or Cesaria’s Cape Verdean food. I’m wondering if this convention was able to capture all that."

Darnell L. Williams, presidents of the National Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, said he had “better things to do with my time” than worry about the criticism.

“Where would 8,000 people be housed in the community? I think people say things, they’re well intended, but they aren’t anchored in reality,” he said. “There is not a capacity for us to bring the conference into the heart of the community.”

He added that the conference hosted two events at Roxbury’s Hibernian Hall, each catered by local businesses. The musicians who played at the event were mostly people of color, referred by Wally’s Jazz Café in the South End. Olive Tree Books in Springfield provided copies for author signings, Jazzy Sportswear printed t-shirts for the conference’s 560 volunteers, and the conference boasted 40 minority vendors, according to Williams. Conference delegates also received a listing of black- and minority- owned restaurants and businesses in their registration bags.

Williams could not address Henriquez’s request for a dollar amount spent on black businesses, but he said the current estimate is that the conference pumped $6 million into Boston's economy last week.

Henriquez also wondered how much effort organizers put into local outreach. The conference included a career fair that was free and open to the public, but the representative said that many of his constituents did not know about it.

“Diversity comes with income levels as well. We’re looking at double-digit unemployment,” he said. “This is a population that needs to be at a job fair.”

Williams said that the Urban League paid 15 people to distribute 25,000 fliers in greater Boston, appeared on the Touch and Big City radio stations, and took out ads out with local media, including the Dorchester Reporter, the Bay State Banner, and Springfield’s Unity First.

“When people say there wasn’t enough outreach, I just flat out disagree with that assessment. If people didn’t show up, it wasn’t because we didn’t try to get it out there,” he said. “The bigger thing to remember is that you had thousand of people come to this city as skeptics and critics. They returned home as ambassadors.”

E-mail Cara Bayles at carabayles@gmail.com.

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