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Hilary Allen Discusses Her Work with the Boston Center For Community and Justice

Excerpts from NPi's May 2009 Community Dialogue


On May 7th, 2009 Hilary Allen, Community Engagement Manager at Boston Center for Community and Justice, participated in NPi’s community dialogue at the Boston Public Library. NPi community dialogues bring together local leaders to discuss lessons learned, current projects, and potential collaborations. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

About Boston Center for Community and Justice

BCCJ is a leadership development organization. We run two programs: one is called “LeadBoston” for adult professionals, and the youth program that we run for high schoolers is called “InIt” or the “Leadership Initiative.” So you might be thinking what’s leadership development? For BCCJ, we are trying to advance a community of socially responsible leaders who are addressing social justice in greater Boston. The LeadBoston program is for, as I said, adults, and the InIt program for youth are 10-month long programs. They basically expose people to social justice issues, get them thinking about how the city works, what’s happening around them, what’s happening in their communities. And then as they go through the program, they start thinking about ways they can take action either in their workplace, their home life, or their community to advance social justice and take action on the things that they’ve learned about.

We really think that BCCJ is in a prime position at this time because if we look around us it’s pretty clear that a lot of the reasons we’re in the positions we’re in and living in the particular climate that we’re living in is about leadership. And if we had more socially responsible leaders, more people acting from their values and their commitments, we might not be in the situation we’re in. If we had political leaders making economic policy decisions that were socially responsible, we might not be where we are today.

On what she’s learned from the community

My answer is going to be on leadership. And I think this is something that was particularly instructive for me personally and coincided with me being at BCCJ. But also I think started a little bit before that. And that is that leadership isn’t something that looks like the way we usually talk about it. I’m an introvert. I also think of myself as a leader. Growing up I thought that those things had to be juxtaposed and could not be found within the same person. I think we talk about leadership and leaders as people who want to be connected to power, and I think that depends on how we’re defining power. I think I have personal power but I don’t want to have power over people. Yet we talk about leaders as people who are at the front of the room who want attention, who want power, and I think that’s not true. To me, leadership means you see something going on and you think you can do something about it, then you do.

Advice she would pass on to others

I actually believe in the tried and true method of telling everyone, or talking to everyone, about what you’re interested in. Something that concerns me at the moment about social change work, social action work, activism, is replicating existing programs and organizations and approaches… It seems like to say nonprofit, you have to use the words “start a” before it. You have to say “start a nonprofit.” You can’t just say I want to connect to an existing nonprofit or I want to resurrect an older nonprofit. It’s always “start a nonprofit.” We have too many nonprofits. So talk to the people in your community. It’s highly likely there’s already somebody out there who’s thinking about the things that you’re thinking about and maybe already has an approach that they are using that’s working and maybe you can join in with them. So it sounds like pessimistic advice, but I think it’s practical.

Audience Question: How does each organization evaluate its impact, its progress toward its vision? How do you capture your impact?

I’m glad you asked the question because it’s definitely something—having also worked my entire career in nonprofits—that this sector as a whole really struggles with. At BCCJ we use a fairly new model that so far is working out well. When folks complete our program, they fill out an evaluation, qualitative and quantitative information. And then it’s measured against what we call the BCCJ scorecard, which would bore you if we went into the details. But it measures the number of competencies that we think a socially responsible leader has. So they complete that evaluation when they finish the program and then we check in with them at nine months and 18 months… We started the evaluations with our 2008 graduating class which graduated last June. So again, it’s a new model, but so far is working really well. BCCJ is a very small organization, so we’re able to be a lot more adaptive than other organizations. We’re able to take information that we get from evaluations and filter it directly into the programming and change whatever was working or didn’t work. I think that’s true of evaluation metrics, too. Being smaller, you can just put something in place and tweak it. [We can] get what we want out of it and also make sure that it’s working for our alumni.

Audience Question: Is racism the root of the problem in a lot of the systems and a lot of the battles that you guys are trying to fight?

No, but it’s part of it. I think part of social change work to me involves a lot despair because there’s a lot of complexity. That’s why I say no to you because it’s not just one thing; it’s many things that intersect. You can take your pick of what you think it is. For me, it’s capitalism, militarism, white supremacy, class warfare, but I can’t separate them. As Kaia [Stern] was saying earlier, you lift one up and there’s all these other threads dangling from it. It’s all connected. It’s not an easy answer, but yes, white racial identity, whiteness, white supremacy, white privilege are definitely parts of it and keep it going, but there’s other wheels on that bus for sure.

Audience Question: [Media] has always been a way for nonprofits in social change to get their message out… Where do you see media going?

I’m sure David [Crowley] can talk even more about this. I’m actually really excited. Not excited to see The Boston Globe not be around anymore, but part of what I do at BCCJ is communications work, so this is something that is very top of mind for me. I think that there’s untold potential to see how we can actually get back our communication channels. I think we think of media as the one to disseminate information, but I think that’s false. I think they choose information that they want to disseminate, but I use the example of—if a friend of mine posts an article on Facebook that’s a link to an article, I’m more inclined to go read that article. I probably wouldn’t have found it any other way, but because a friend has recommended it, I’m going to go and look at it. And I think you can just [extrapolate] that out. You think about blogs and videoblogging and podcasts and basically what we’ve done is put tools for media-making back in the hands of the public. And obviously [as we’ve discussed earlier] there’s constraints around that in terms of what kinds of access people have to those tools, but I’m pumped to see what’s going to happen.

Audience Question: You all are facing such difficult circumstances. I don’t just mean financially, but just doing what you do. You’re looking really difficult situations in the eye and trying to heal them. So, a two part question: how do you stay present when so much of what has led to these situations is historic and some of your hopes are future-oriented? And how do you not own all of the problems that you see? How do you prevent yourself from taking them on, carrying this weight of the world on your shoulders?

I liked particularly that you asked the question talking about the past and the future and how to stay present because that’s actually how I think about it. I don’t have actually any control or agency about what has happened in the past and I also got to a point where I thought I could kill myself every day of my life working for social justice and by the time that I die, hoping that that would be in old age, I’m not sure how much will look different about the world that I’m living in. So then I had to come to peace about that and realize that really the measure of my life could be about my existence day to day. So staying present is actually—and again I love that you put it that way because it’s something I try and focus on the most… It’s a day-to-day thing. And part of that is also connected to thinking about working for justice and thinking about liberation. And I think freedom is an experience, a day-to-day experience, and I think justice is—for me it wasn’t something I could necessarily access very easily. So think about what a just world would look like takes a lot for me. But I can think about what it would be like to live in a world where I was more free and the people that I was in a relationship with were more free.

How to get more involved:

BCCJ’s LeadBoston and InIt programs are now recruiting. Learn more at www.BostonCCJ.org.

Image by Masia Goodman

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