James Morton: Modeling Servant Leadership

By Evan J. Cutts 

James Morton continually aspires to uphold and improve upon the YMCA’s 167-year-old legacy of community support and service.  The YMCA of Greater Boston is America’s first YMCA, dating back to 1851.

“It’s my pleasure and responsibility to build a leadership team to manage the YMCA’s resources, programs, and services to have a positive impact upon the communities we serve,” he said.

As President and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston, James Morton oversees an annual budget of $80 million to support communities across 13 branches, 24 summer day camps, and 3 program centers.

Additionally, the YMCA of Greater Boston fosters financial inclusion by fundraising $7 million a year for families lacking financial resources to afford their programs.

“To be a servant leader, one must put self-interest second to the needs of those we serve,” he said. “They must listen and inspire hope. Lastly, a good leader creates systems that sustain an organization beyond the individual.”

Morton describes his passion for breaking down institutional barriers to education throughout Greater Boston as “constructive revenge on poverty and racism,” — a concept he learned of 15 years ago while attending a workshop by Robert Rosenberg, the founder of the Rosenberg Fund for Children.

Before Rosenberg’s workshop, however, Morton had the fortune of meeting three life-changing mentors whose faith and support set him on the path to success and servant leadership.

“Tragic circumstances in my life could have turned me into a bitter, angry, and self-destructive person, but three individuals helped me make the right choices,” he explained.

“First was my 7th grade school teacher Mrs. Mary Lee. Six or seven moves before the 5th grade hampered my education, and resulted in my being placed in Mrs. Lee’s remedial class for slow learners and juvenile delinquents. She saw my potential and told me: ‘Jimmy, if you work hard, I’ll get you out of this class,’” he said.

“Second was Mr. Robert Fox. He owned a janitorial company and provided me steady work cleaning buildings and plowing snow during my teenage years. He taught me the importance of hard work and determination. And, lastly was Coach Curry. In high school, I decided to become a lawyer and ran track to earn a college scholarship. Coach Curry said, ‘Jimmy, if you work as hard in the classroom as you do on the track, I’ll get you to college.’

Curry coached Morton to college, but not as an athlete; he attended college on the strength of his grades, attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, before traveling to Northeastern University School of Law for a Law Degree.

For Morton, being a person of color means “recognizing the shoulders upon which I stand.” In other words, respecting the sacrifices others made in order for him to succeed requires that he is “exceptional, not mediocre” in pursuit to serve.

“In the roles we have today, many [people of color] have a seat at the table. Even so, we must use our voices in service to those who are not at the table,” he said.

By the numbers, the YMCA of Greater Boston Board of Directors is approximately 45 percent women and minority, 29 percent of which are people of color. Morton shared that the Y’s leadership team, its top 30 leaders, are roughly 60 percent women and minorities.

“Diversity and inclusion is an organizational imperative. We continue to invite and recruit members who reflect the dimensions of our diversity,” he said.

The YMCA of Greater Boston also hosts four monthly Employee Resource Groups, for African-American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, LGBTQ and women employees.

“Each year, there is a regional multicultural leadership experience. Employees join for a full day of workshops, motivational speakers, to ensure everyone sees their place in the YMCA organization and movement,” he commented.

“We, at the YMCA of Greater Boston, represent many of the beautiful and complex dimensions of diversity in Boston,” said Morton. “We are not finished. We have to stay the path of building a society that is inclusive and equitable. We owe it to our community for another 167 years.”