Grantee Stories

The Foundation’s new strategic vision emphasizes the importance of community organizing, civic engagement, leadership development, and policy change that will deeply impact the lives of marginalized communities in Boston and Chelsea. 

Under the Foundation’s “Community Identified” issue area, our grantees work hard to develop grassroots leaders who come together to address issues affecting local low-income communities. This broad range of issues span many areas of interest identified by community members themselves and include, among others, neighborhood revitalization projects, voter engagement efforts, workers’ rights education, and programs to empower and support immigrants. 

The “Important Racial Justice” issue area provides a platform for our grantees to address systemic issues through advocacy, leadership development, and targeted policy changes in the areas of the school-to-prison pipeline, expanding fair wages and benefits, and preserving and providing affordable housing. 

Below are six stories from grantees that highlight the work they do, the communities they serve, and the impact they’re having to further transform the racial justice landscape in Massachusetts. 

Community Identified Issue: Providing Pathways to Change: The City School


Members of The City School

Twenty-one years ago, a civics teacher at the prestigious Milton Academy in an affluent suburb of Boston invited a group of his students to visit Boston’s inner-city to learn about racial and economic disparities. The group visited a soup kitchen in Dorchester, and, having been deeply impressed by their experience, the students asked to learn more about social justice.

This innovative method of bringing young people together to learn about social justice eventually evolved into a powerful nonprofit organization, The City School (TCS). Based in Dorchester’s Uphams Corner, TCS brings together inner-city and suburban youth and develops them into effective social justice leaders.

TCS’ flagship service to youth is its summer leadership program, a six-and-a-half-week opportunity for young people ages 13 to 19 to learn about the principles of social justice and advocacy. The youth work together on community action projects to put into practice the skills they learn, which include facilitation, organizing, meeting preparation, mediation, and having conversations about systems of oppression such as racism, classism, sexism and heterosexism.

“Students get to go back to their communities and their classrooms with a new set of tools,” said Myriam Ortiz, executive director for TCS.

And TCS provides room to grow. Teens applying for a second year have an opportunity to becoming “emerging leaders” supporting and mentoring first-year students. Third-year teens may apply to become staff members, who provide teaching assistance and support to guest speakers and teachers. Fourth-year teens may apply to become seminar teachers or pathway coordinators, who provide mentoring and support to second-year students.

Pathways to Change

TCS’ impact isn’t limited to the summer. During the school year, between October and May, TCS provides Pathways to Change, a program that allows teens to expand upon the skills they learned during the summer program. Students choose to follow one of three tracks: education/facilitation, organizing/advocacy, and organizational development. Caring adults meet with students regularly for mentoring sessions.

TCS also partners with other organizations and groups to provide enriching activities for youth, from the Prison Empowerment Program, where young people meet with prisoners in local jails to discuss crime, mass incarceration, and prison conditions, to attending conferences and workshops on political education.

The funding provided by the Hyams Foundation supports TCS in engaging youth activists and leaders in the development of vital skills and bringing about meaningful change.

 

Community Identified Issue: Raising Public Awareness About and Combatting Racial Profiling: Muslim Justice League


A Muslim Justice League member protests
federal surveillance policies

In April 2014, a year after the Boston Marathon Bombings, federal law enforcement agencies announced that Boston would serve as a pilot program for a surveillance practice known as “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE).

In response to the announcement that year, the Muslim Justice League (MJL) was created by four Muslim women seeking to provide legal services and education to local community members who are not fully aware of their constitutional rights when interacting with local and federal authorities. MJL’s goal also seeks to empower local Muslim communities to advocate for their human rights.

In the last two years, MJL has worked in coalition with several other organizations and local Muslim communities to advocate for an end to the CVE campaign, which MJL says is a form of “soft surveillance” that recruits nonprofit, social service, education, and healthcare professionals to report vague "concerning behavior," attitudes, or beliefs of patients, clients and students to federal authorities. The CVE program also solicits religious leaders in mosques to perform soft surveillance activities on community members.

“CVE is a form of ideological policing that institutionalizes the profiling of Muslims,” said Shannon Erwin, executive director for the MJL.

Early in the development of Boston's CVE pilot program, the nonprofit authored a letter to President Obama's Homeland Security Advisor raising concerns about CVE on the basis that the program relies on religious profiling and intrusive surveillance activities that are violations of constitutional rights. MJL has also mobilized communities to raise their concerns with government agencies involved in CVE — including, for example, thorough a collaboratively-sponsored petition of more than 1,000 Massachusetts residents urging Massachusetts's Executive Office of Health and Human Services to end its CVE collaboration with federal prosecutors.

MJL has also established a health justice team and is in the process of establishing an education justice team, groups of volunteers who educate members of their own professional communities in Boston about the CVE program and its harm to professional ethics, dignified health, care and safe learning environments. The organization also provides "Know Your Rights" trainings at mosques and community centers; speaks at public events, forums, and symposia about CVE; and is building coalitions to address the issue of targeted profiling of racial and religious minorities.

MJL is an example of an emerging organization working with the Foundation to further develop its community organizing, educational work, and collective impact.

Community Identified Issue: Developing Leaders in Our Communities: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Boston Branch)


NAACP youth at a conference 

The Boston Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the oldest charted branch of the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization and has been making significant strides in developing leaders in communities of color. The organization has taken a leading role in gauging the interests and needs of communities of color and working collaboratively to address those concerns. In the process, the organization has developed strong leaders and successfully empowered communities of color in Boston to have a more substantial political voice.

Recently, the Boston Branch hired an executive director, Nia Evans, to continue leading the group’s civil rights work and advance its commitment to developing the next generation of leaders of color. Having served as the vice-chair of the NAACP’s Education Committee in 2014 and the chair of the Labor and Industry/Economic Development Committee in 2015, Nia’s leadership will guide the chapter in realizing several more social justice victories in the coming years.

This summer, the Branch expanded its youth empowerment efforts through a program that trains teenagers to become activists. The camp took 30 youth and provided workshops on race, mass incarceration, policing practices, anti-violence work, and other pertinent topics. Youth went out into the community and put their skills to work, registering new voters and administering surveys around trauma and mental health services needed in low-income neighborhoods. A clear example of the extraordinary power of youth advocacy was seen earlier this year when Boston Latin School (BLS) became embroiled in controversy after several students came forward with accusations of racism at the school. The media was quick to cover the students’ concerns and a social media campaign soon went viral. The NAACP mobilized in support of the students and publicly supported dialogues around race and class in Boston Public Schools as well as strategies to promote diversity and inclusion in each school district.

With a major presidential election generating public attention and the opportunity to increase voter engagement, the NAACP, in conjunction with MassVOTE, has begun a nonpartisan voter registration effort known as “Boston 500” (B500). The goal of the initiative is to register 500 “super voters,” community members who will pledge to vote in every election, both local and national, and keep themselves informed on candidate platforms, issue areas, and ballot initiatives. Each super voter will also commit to encouraging 20 other people to vote in elections. This work is especially important given the historically low voter turnout patterns observed in communities of color.

The most high-profile issue that the Boston NAACP has committed itself to in recent months is ensuring equitable policing practices across the Boston Police Department. The chapter is encouraging the BPD to adopt tools that will make policing more transparent and unbiased, such as the use of body-worn cameras, hiring more police officers of color, eliminating disparities in how police officers are disciplined, and scrutinizing field interrogations of people of color. The NAACP is also working with the state police and local transit police to field racial discrimination complaints. The goal is to ease racial tensions between the police and communities of color in Boston in the wake of controversial shootings of people of color across the country.

The Hyams Foundation sees the branch’s leadership development and organizing efforts as pivotal to building collective power and advancing racial justice in Boston and beyond. 

Important Racial Justice Issue: Empowering Youth Through Organizing and Advocacy: UTEC Inc./Teens Leading the Way


UTEC and TLTW youth hold a sign in support of their statewide juvenile records expungement campaign 

For the past two years, the Teens Leading the Way (TLTW) coalition has taken the lead in advocating for comprehensive young-adult and juvenile records expungement legislation that, if enacted in Massachusetts, would provide clear policies that allow youth to clear some criminal records after completing their sentences. The bill would allow misdemeanors committed by young adults up to age 21 to be automatically expunged from their records upon completion of a court sentence and for felonies to be considered for expungement after completion of a court sentence, through the petitioning of a judge.

TLTW is a statewide, youth-led coalition which seeks to empower young people to create lasting change through policy-making. Currently TLTW has members in Boston, Everett, Haverhill, Lowell, Lawrence, and Worcester, and Lowell-based UTEC is its coordinating agency.

Having seen and experienced the destabilizing socioeconomic effects of a criminal record, TLTW youth are passionate about changing state law to allow a clean slate for young people with system involvement. Many young adults find it difficult to secure employment, housing, and higher education with a criminal record, which contributes to a cycle of poverty, crime, and increased likelihood of recidivism. Passage of the expungement legislation would promote positive life outcomes for many system-involved youth and help them better transition into adulthood.

“[Young people] identified this problem. They truly learned the ins and outs of policymaking and were able to get it to this stage,” said Gregg Croteau, MSW, executive director of UTEC. “It’s a great thing to create lasting change and a great learning opportunity for young people themselves.”

The nonprofit does a significant amount of outreach to youth living in urban areas to provide them opportunities for growth through social enterprises that provide paid job training, GED/HiSET education programs, and workshops that help them build their skills. According to Croteau, more than 500 young people (ages 17-24) are reached by outreach, and more than 150 were enrolled in UTEC’s intensive program last year.

Geoff Foster, director of organizing and policymaking for UTEC, stressed that the skills learned through advocacy and organizing are life-changing for young people at all of TLTW’s partner agencies: “If they’re given the resources, support and opportunities, they are able to make changes at all levels,” he said.

UTEC’s innovative blend of social enterprise, advocacy, organizing, and mentorship of youth has made it a strong organization with a lasting impact on the young adults it serves. The Foundation is proud to partner with UTEC through TLTW to realize policy wins that contribute to positive outcomes for young adults across the Commonwealth.


 

Important Racial Justice Issue: Winning the War Against Wage Theft: Community Labor United


CLU members at the Massachusetts State House advocating for wage theft legislation

Massachusetts loses more than $300 million annually in taxes, workers’ compensation, and unemployment insurance due to employment practices that purposefully misclassify low-wage workers, according to Community Labor United (CLU), a coalition of community organizing and labor groups.

CLU also reports that one in seven Massachusetts employers misclassifies employees so as to pay lower wages and avoid paying certain taxes and benefits. Subcontracted and outsourced workers in Massachusetts typically make less-than-poverty-level wages, have a difficult time making ends meet, and are often left without vital benefits like health insurance or workers’ compensation. In total, CLU estimates that these workers lose more than $700 million in wages annually.

The coalition has advocated heavily for legislation that will ensure employer accountability. Labor practices that misclassify workers as seasonal, temporary, or part-time coupled with employers who avoid paying minimum wage and overtime contribute to a dangerous cycle of poverty for low-income workers and their families.

 
“This bill is about a social contract: an  honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work,” said CLU Executive Director Darlene Lombros. “Unfortunately, employers and businesses have found ways to game the system, and we’re simply trying to level the playing field for those businesses who do play by the rules.” 

 

This year, the state legislation passed the Senate, but didn’t make progress in the House. CLU’s goal is to refile the legislation next session and to continue its efforts to end abusive wage theft practices across the state.

While pushing for statewide legislation mandating the fair compensation of low-income workers, CLU also worked successfully with local organizing groups in advocating for municipal ordinances in cities like Cambridge, Boston, and Chelsea that compel local employers to end misclassification practices and pay employees equitably. Cities and towns such as Brockton, New Bedford, Worcester, Lawrence, Lynn, Northampton, Springfield, and Quincy are also interested in passing local ordinances with similar policies.

The Foundation sees the public policy advocacy of coalitions like CLU as pivotal to ensuring the economic stability and mobility of low-wage workers in Massachusetts and a necessary component of sustaining local communities. 

Important Racial Justice Issue: Advocating for the Right to Remain: Right to the City Boston


Right to the City Boston members show support for the campaign

Right to the City Boston (RTC-Boston) is a coalition of community organizing groups from across the city that have come together to advance equitable municipal policies that affect their local communities. Through shared communications, advocacy, and direct action, RTC-Boston amplifies and further builds the power of low-income people and people of color in Boston by connecting the grassroots leadership development and community organizing work of its six members: Alternatives for Community and Environment, Boston Workers Alliance, Chinese Progressive Association, City Life/Vida Urbana, Neighbors United for a Better East Boston, and New England United for Justice (all also Hyams Foundation grantees).

Among the major issues of concern to RTC-Boston groups’ members are housing displacement and the ability of low- and moderate-income people and families to continue living in Boston, one of the most rapidly gentrifying cities in the country. Boston faces both an acute shortage of permanent affordable housing and escalating housing costs. RTC-Boston’s housing advocacy builds on the organizing work of its members focused on increasing tenant rights and preventing displacement.

RTC-Boston is also a leading member of the “Right to Remain” campaign. This campaign brings together a broader coalition of groups concerned with housing displacement across the city to secure municipal policy changes that increase tenant protections and prevent evictions of low- and moderate- income residents.

RTC-Boston groups have been central to the Right to Remain campaign for just cause eviction protections and for elevating this important issue of housing displacement and how it impacts low-income people and people of color in Boston. These groups and their members have been visible at City Council hearings, garnered a substantial amount of media coverage, and developed several tenant leaders who organize other tenants and galvanize public awareness and support for equitable housing policies. 

Darnell Johnson, RTC-Boston’s coordinator, says that the coalition has been working to raise awareness and engage people in the real housing challenges facing Boston’s neighborhoods. A significant amount of outreach and education about no-fault evictions and displacement in the last year has been done— so much so that the number of supporters of the campaign has risen from roughly 1,000 to between 3,000 and 3,500. Member groups also have in-depth conversations on the intersection of race and class, tenants’ rights, and community control of land with community members. Member leaders regularly engage the media and other stakeholders on the issues, and become involved in other housing justice efforts, including the campaign to pass the Community Preservation Act ballot initiative this fall that would result in new affordable housing revenues for Boston.

“RTC-Boston is proud to be made up of organizations led by people of color, working in communities of color. We are united around a platform of building unity across geography and ethnicity and building the power of communities that have for decades been left out of decision making at the city level,” reflects  Noemi Ramos of New England United for Justice on the coalition’s work . “Racial and ethnic diversity are a cornerstone of our work.”