By Aixa Beauchamp
The recent Boston Globe Spotlight series on the city’s racist image and reality drives home some of the challenges facing the city’s minority communities to gain a foothold in the city’s power structures.
The Latino community in Boston faces many of the same issues around race and inequality as the Black community. For Latinos, one of the biggest challenges has been to find ways to unite and raise a collective voice that reflects the size and breadth of the city’s Latino population. Latinos are more than 20% of the Boston population – and 12% of the population of Massachusetts. In fact, without growth in the Latino population, Boston’s population would still be near 1980 levels. Additionally, the Latino community has a massive effect on the local economy, adding up to some $9 billion of economic activity in Suffolk County. Despite these numbers, an August editorial in the Globe correctly pointed out that our influence across sectors does not match our size.
So how do we change the dynamic?
First, we need to embrace our common interests. The Latino and Black communities are not monolithic. While a great deal of Greater Boston’s Latino population is Puerto Rican, the vast majority of the growth in the Latino population is foreign-born and identifies that way. We identify as Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Dominican or Mexican. Our race runs the spectrum from African ancestry to European White. This proud diversity has challenged efforts to raise a collective voice.
Today, though, a few initiatives are underway to confront these challenges, including one sparked by tragedy. The Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico Fund, housed at the Boston Foundation, has brought together a vast spectrum of Latino and non-Latino supporters in a collective effort that has continued even as Puerto Rico falls off the front pages. As of now, the Fund has received more than $3 million in gifts and pledges, including 2,000 individual credit card donations, and checks from fundraisers held across the state by small businesses, community organizations, and churches. More than $1 million has already been sent to support relief efforts in Puerto Rico and help the nonprofits spearheading efforts to relocate thousands of Puerto Ricans here in Massachusetts – and it’s just the start.
That uniting element is critical. A report commissioned this summer by the Latino Legacy Fund and the Boston Foundation – “Powering Greater Boston’s Economy: Why the Latino Community Is Critical to Our Shared Future,” highlights crucial issues that are at the heart of the lack of economic mobility facing Latinos.
First, there is a lack of English proficiency holding back too many. About 40 percent of Latinos in Greater Boston are foreign-born, and often arrive speaking only Spanish or Portuguese. In a knowledge-based economy, where communication is paramount, English Language programs are critical – but too many lack funding and resources, which holds people back.
For those who learn English, higher education is the next hurdle. Our economy richly rewards those with the education to succeed – and punishes those without it. For too many Latinos, without the financial resources or access pipelines of other groups, getting that education proves impossible. That’s bad for Latinos and bad for the city. If Boston is not able to further expand the STEM talent pipeline, Boston companies will face difficulty filling these jobs. We need to advocate for policies that afford kids, no matter what their zip codes, to obtain a good education, and provide long-term, sustainable support for career building and technology training programs that help to get young people in the door.
And we must stand for Latino entrepreneurs, making it possible for them to grow. In high-opportunity industries like health care and social assistance, Latino-owned firms make up 23% of the market – but they only employ 4% of the workers. It’s encouraging to see programs like Eastern Bank’s Business Equity Initiative provide critically needed capital for businesses to expand – but we need more investment to increase representation of Latino-owned firms in high-value industries and promote their growth as critical suppliers to large corporate purchasers.
The Boston Globe series highlighted what we already sense – that too many groups are being left out of the era of prosperity for our region. Latinos are a sizable group, and it’s time we engage more fully in the broader conversation about the common issues Blacks and Latinos face, and how we can work together to solve them and open opportunity and equity for all. The Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico Fund shows the energy and impact generated when the larger community unites toward a common goal. Let’s use similar energy to address and tackle systemic race issues and provide a more inclusive solution.
Aixa Beauchamp is the co-founder of the Latino Legacy Fund and co-chair of the Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico Fund. She has worked in the field of philanthropy for more than 25 years in the United States, Europe, and Latin America, helping institutions to strengthen their programs and broaden their impact.