Combating Systemic Racism From City Hall: An Interview with Boston’s First-Ever Chief of Equity, Karilyn M. Crockett

September 30, 2020

By Mary Jo Meisner

Over the last several years, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has made diversity, equity and inclusion a stated hallmark of his Administration, but questions about whether systemic change was occurring fast enough continued to persist. After the murder of George Floyd in May, Walsh decided that one way to really move the needle on “combating systemic racism and inequities in every single way that city government touches people’s lives” was to create a cabinet-level position and put a self-described Boston “neighborhood kid” with MIT credentials in the job.

Three months into the job, Karilyn Crockett took some time to talk with Mary Jo Meisner, Senior Editor at the Harvard ALI Social Impact Review, about Karilyn’s new role; what she believes can be accomplished using the platform, power and influence of city government and the mayoral bully pulpit; and why she thinks now is a defining moment for racial justice both locally and nationally.

Dr. Karilyn Crockett is Chief of Equity for the City of Boston, a cabinet-level position established to embed equity and racial justice into all city planning, operations and work. Dr. Crockett has an extensive background in urban studies and planning, with a particular lens on addressing inequities. Most recently, she taught Public Policy & Urban Planning at MIT. Prior to that, she served as both Director of Economic Policy & Research and Director of Small Business Development for the City of Boston. She was co-founder of MYTOWN, a Boston nonprofit that was recognized by the National Endowment for the Humanities as one of the 10 best youth humanities programs in America. Dr. Crockett holds a PhD from the American Studies Program at Yale University; a Master of Science in Geography from the London School of Economics; and a Master of Arts and Religion from Yale Divinity School.

Mary Jo Meisner: Would you talk a bit about your personal story and what you've been doing just prior to coming back to work for the City of Boston?

Karilyn Crockett: For me, I can't help but talk about myself without starting with the fact that I'm a neighborhood kid, born and raised in Dorchester, Massachusetts. And my experience of growing up in the city is just core to who I am, because I know the city. I definitely know my neighborhood. I come with all that Dorchester pride. Dorchester, as the biggest neighborhood, the most diverse neighborhood, the best neighborhood in Boston. But I also come with a real deep understanding of the city's challenges, its racial and economic challenges, and how some folks feel so fragmented. So having lived the experience of loving my neighborhood, my block, my family, my kind of microcosm world, but also being kind of confused sometimes. Dazzled by this other Boston that people talk about, that people come from all over the world to go to school and to work here. I definitely have lived that disconnect, which is not unfamiliar to most neighborhood kids. And so the question for me has always been, “How do you bridge that divide? How can you grow up in the city and love it and know your neighborhood and your family and also take advantage of all the city's riches -- culturally, educationally, economically?” That question and that kind of gap has really driven my entire career and my values. So coming out of the neighborhood I was able to go to some great public schools, some great private schools in Boston and then went to college and came back and started a nonprofit that was really focused on that very thing -- helping young people connect to their stories and connect to the bigger city and tell a history that's unfamiliar to most people. So I started MYTOWN (Multicultural Youth Tour of What’s Now). I created this organization to essentially help young people like me -- high school students in the neighborhoods -- who lived here, but maybe didn’t know much of this city's contemporary history. We're so fascinated in Boston with our Colonial story, so we tell all those stories, and then after that, it kind of falls off. You might have some questions about what happened after Paul Revere and William Dawes had their ride! It was really fantastic to be able to hire high school students from the neighborhoods to research their family and neighborhood history, and then turn those stories into walking tours.

Meisner: And what about your family background?

Crockett: My family is from West Virginia; we come from coal mining country. My great grandfather worked in the coal mines and was a union organizer. And so once the mines became mechanized, folks like my family and many others came to the North to try to find new opportunities for themselves and their families. My family came to Boston in the late 50s and early 60s, and struggled here. But this is home.

Meisner: And how about your journey to City Hall and back?

Crockett: When I finished grad school, I had a visiting fellowship at MIT and it was just as the first Walsh administration was putting itself together in 2013 and I got a call asking me to think about joining the new team at City Hall, to become the director of economic policy and research for the city. So I did that for four years and then I was recruited back to MIT as a lecturer of public policy in urban planning and had just been promoted to professor of urban history and public policy and planning when the Mayor called in June. I am trying not to be a ping pong ball between government and university, but it seems like there's a happy marriage that we're trying to work out between the two!

Meisner: Let's talk about the Mayor's creation of this new position of Chief of Equity in June. It's the first time in Boston history that such a cabinet level position has existed. What kind of span of control and influence do you have in this role and what is it that you and the Mayor are expecting to do?

Crockett: It has quite a mandate -- to root out systemic racism in the city's operations and policies. And to think about what that means for the entire city, working in partnership with the private sector, with the education sector, with the health care sector. What is it that we can understand about inequities by race, by health, by economics? The work is to really stand up our understanding of what this intersectional approach to equity looks like. Right now, equity is a word that is on the tip of many people’s tongues. It's a word that whizzes around all over the place, but, unfortunately, there's often a lack of understanding of what equity is or how to do the work to define it. That is an important part of my charge as well. And so what I'll begin by doing is, just as I have done in the last week or so, invite cabinet heads and chiefs into a conversation around all of that. What is it that we understand what equity is and having them share with me their top two policies or initiatives by cabinet and department that they feel aligns with that. What are the pain points that they're experiencing in terms of reaching their priority? Equity is about achieving equitable outcomes. That's the difference between equity and equality. This idea isn't about just giving everyone the same thing; you're recognizing that there have been biases, there have been different histories, different circumstances, often willful circumstances, that have made it so. Different populations have a different starting point. So if people have a different starting point yet we want to get them to the same endpoint, what is it that we need to do to get there? And once I do this work across City Hall in terms of defining equity and policies, I can walk out the door and start having conversations with our private sector partners to say, “Here is what City Hall is doing. What can we be doing together to deliver equity for Boston residents?”

Meisner: As a researcher and lecturer at MIT on cities, is the position of chief of equity unusual?

Crockett: There's an emerging move by mayors around the country to have an equity office or chief of equity. Over the last two years that I have created and taught the equity and inclusion course in the graduate seminar at MIT, I have been working in partnership with just over half a dozen mayors’ offices around the country and what they are doing in their senior leadership. Mayor Lightfoot in Chicago has a chief of equity. In Atlanta, Mayor Bottoms has really done some significant equity work. In Oakland and in many other places. What we want to do is not only lift up equity work, but we want to operationalize and institutionalize transformation. You have in these jobs a person who can help centralize the vision and incorporate and coordinate some things, but it really is about operational change and about governing in a different way. So Mayor Walsh is absolutely in concert with progressive mayors who are thinking very differently about how their cabinet structure can actually reflect their highest and deepest values.

Meisner: The readers of the Harvard ALI Social Impact Review are particularly interested in social impact and how to achieve it, and how to measure progress. The city has focused on racial equity before. Mayor Walsh had named a Chief Resilience Officer when the city was chosen to be part of the Rockefeller Foundation's Resilient Cities project. I know that work yielded a wide-ranging report, but could you talk about outcomes and measurable, definable things that we can point to as a result of that report? Talk about how you want to take that first piece of work and elevate it in your new cabinet role.

Crockett: An incredible foundation was set for us by Dr. Atiyah Martin, and despite the fact that the Rockefeller Foundation has stopped that project, we have taken that work on as part of the city's operations. We know what can happen when work pivots or a foundation decides, “Okay, we're done with this” and then that's a real fork-in-the-road moment for cities to articulate what their commitment really is. The City of Boston has been clear that it is committed to the work of resilience of racial equity and understanding. With our city’s painful and difficult history around race and failed racial reconciliation, it is essential to hold up a mirror there and understand what that means for our future.

Meisner: And so what would be some of the things that we could point to or eventually point to as, “Okay, we've made some real progress here?” What would be some of the things that you'd want to see happening?

Crockett: I can definitely point to some particular operational things and policies that are coming up, but I would also want to just highlight the high level of need for culture change in terms of our understanding of the importance of race and racism. This is at a very fundamental level in terms of what we value. And so the Mayor's most recent Executive Order declared racism as a public health crisis. It's notable in the sense that it is another moment of calling out this issue and saying that it's not just about policies and regulations -- though we need those for sure -- but about a need to understand how society is organized at its core. That has to be understood and deconstructed. That work around our values system is an incredible body of work that we need to continue to crack. Implicit bias training for City of Boston employees, which is work that we are about to roll out, for instance. It can't just be about a program or a policy or initiatives or, frankly, even just investments. We need to think of what the underlying value systems are that are driving these kinds of decisions and that's where we are now.

Meisner: Your appointment coincided with the arrival of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi as director of the new Center for Antiracist Research Education at Boston University, who is one of the country’s leading anti-racist voices and is widely known for his book, “How to Be an Anti-Racist.” There are many other thought leaders in the Boston community, including many at Harvard where our Review is located. So are you thinking about ways that you tap into these experts?

Crockett: Absolutely - And this is another reason why my relationships and my relationship at MIT are crucial. I know how important universities can be in terms of helping to set big tables and convene and help us to come up with creative solutions, and so I am very, very excited that Dr. Kendi is here. He and I have spoken and I did ask him to help us find his books to buy for our staff because everything is sold out! We are so fortunate as a city to have this level of scholarship, dialogue and openness to partnership. I think we all recognize the stakes are so high and that we have a generational opportunity. It feels like we have to really deliver some big bold change. People on the streets are demanding this in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder and that is really putting us all in a place that is not just about grieving, but it's also about how can we bring about some healing that has to do with structural change. So Dr. Kendi and I agree and know that there have to be multiple partners in the conversation, and we know that data and research have a critical role here. I know that his mandate and his vision is laser focused on bringing people into conversation, allowing data and research to drive and inform the conversation that will lead us to new policy. We could not be more fortunate to be in a city that understands that and is willing and able to move aside some of the silos, some of the territorial nature of what it means to be an expert, because we all have a very, very big problem to try to address. And again, if we really want to have a conversation about movement, about change, about changing people's life outcomes and life trajectories, it is also thinking about wealth in all of its senses -- cultural wealth, economic wealth. This is a very, very big menu of things. There’s no one institution and there's no one person that can solve it. And so that's another reason why we're so fortunate to be in a city that has such a wealth of resources and now we need to make sure that we have the will and the focus to deliver.

Meisner: To that point, we have seen the business community in Boston stand up in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and talk about and start doing various things in that regard, including a new fund that has been created by Black corporate leaders in the community -- the New Commonwealth Fund. But I think everyone at this point is wondering whether the statements from the business community across the country that are being made now are really going to turn into the kind of action that all of us want to see. How do you see your job and how does the Mayor see it in terms of partnering with the private sector and helping make this moment in time have a real action orientation? Please talk as well about the city’s own new Racial Equity Fund.

Crockett: Well, it's very much about a long-term vision here. And so when the Mayor stood up the Racial Equity Fund there again was a focus on structural change and taking this approach that was very deliberately about racial inequity, health inequity, economic inequity. These things are interlinked. We cannot try to talk about one without the other. And, certainly, gender is a cross-cutting concern there as well. And so again that intersectional approach demands a different kind of understanding of what's possible, but with different tools. The Racial Equity Fund is meant to be a tool that supports the work that I'm rolling out for the city and we have thought along with many of our funders and constituents and partners about this question of “What can it mean to envision and transform a city in 50 years’ time? What does that look like if we were able to actually imagine and achieve the equitable outcomes that we know the people of Boston deserve. And, then, how do you create a fund to support and further that vision?” So we've been very happy to be in conversation with the folks at the New Commonwealth Fund and will also ask them the questions. One of the first things I wanted to do was just to make sure we could open the lines of communication and say, “You know what, we are in an incredible moment and we want to seize that and we can do that together and show we have now moved into partnership” so that members of the New Commonwealth Fund sit on the steering committee of the Racial Equity Fund to make sure that there's collaboration and coordination, because we have big issues and we have a big moment.

We also are very, very inspired by their work on a statewide agenda. And we are very excited that the Racial Equity Fund is keeping the focus on the City of Boston. But the Mayor has expressed his direct commitment to both funds and his willingness to fundraise on behalf of both, which is exactly right and fantastic because the work is big and the need is huge. We're talking about centuries of resistance and lack of progress. And this is a moment to try to imagine again beyond any one institution, beyond politics, to say, “What could it mean to really lift up a discussion and a set of actions that can move us to a place that's almost unfamiliar, because it is so beyond what it is now?” and that's what is needed.

Meisner: And so, Karilyn, do you see this as a defining moment?

Crockett: I certainly hope so. We're trying to make it that and it will depend on us, on publications like this one, on institutions like city government, like Harvard, to really lean in to not only say we need change, but to do the hard work of designing it, sharing power, sharing ideas about how to bring that into reality so we don't need to say, “Well, how could we do that?”

I'm a big student and lover of history and there are so many examples from our past, even our recent past, of people having big bold ideas and delivering change. Even now, as we are on the other side of honoring the memory of John Lewis and even our own Mimi Jones right here locally. These are folks who dreamt something so big. Now it seems almost unimaginable, but the fact that you can vote, the fact that you can have lunch at a lunch counter, or that you can get into a swimming pool were things that for African Americans and many others were unimaginable not just 60 or 50 years ago. So now for folks to know that we are in another moment, and for folks to seize it and to say that we are on the other side of generations dreaming big things and now we have an invitation and an obligation to know that that is exactly where we are right now and we need to try to imagine it, to dream it and to execute an almost unimaginable future, because that's what it will require.

Meisner: Well, Karilyn, you have an open invitation to work with us at the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative with our fellows who are eager to have social impact and make social change. We want to congratulate you on this new job and thank you for taking the time this morning to talk to us.

Crockett: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the time.


About the Author:


Mary Jo Meisner is a senior business executive specializing in communications, media, government relations, and public policy.  Over the course of a 30-year career, Mary Jo has been a journalist, a newspaper and business executive, and was the architect of a groundbreaking civic leadership arm of the Boston Foundation.  After spending a year as a 2017 Advanced Leadership Initiative fellow at Harvard University, Mary Jo formed MJM Advisory Services, a bespoke consulting firm that advises senior leaders in the private sector on their social impact initiatives.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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