Destiny Perkins: My Summer with the Boston Equity & Inclusion Cabinet

Destiny Perkins (Pardee’25) was our summer 2023 Boston Equity & Inclusion Cabinet Intern. 

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I spent this past summer in the City of Boston’s Office for Equity and Inclusion as a Racial Justice Fellow with Lori Nelson’s Racial Justice Office. Over the course of this BU Initiative on Cities (IOC) and Howard Thurman Center (HTC) for Common Ground summer internship, I have had the opportunity to work on a variety of different projects on behalf of Chief Nelson and her team, the biggest of which being the NAACP Convention, Culture Nights, and the Reparations taskforce. Above all, I was afforded the unique opportunity to reflect on what Racial Justice means in a city like Boston and, in turn, what the concept means to the city of Boston.

Destiny (right) with Boston Equity & Inclusion Cabinet’s Susan McCollin (left) at a NAACP convention launch event.

My IOC/HTC internship came at an unprecedented time for the racial justice office. Two landmark projects, the City of Boston’s Reparations Taskforce and the return of the NAACP Annual Convention to Boston, piled on top of the grandiose summer celebration, the Racial Justice Office’s Culture Nights, would consume much of my time at city hall. Unlike my other forays into local government, much of my fellowship consisted of a tremendous amount of research and piecing together the generations of work that have surmounted in our current place and time. With the help of Lori Nelson and her team, I have learned much more about the history of race and racial justice in the City of Boston and how that history has shaped the story of the Black diasporic experience nationally. For a city as large and historic as Boston, every initiative is entrenched in a deep historical and political context. Projects like the Reparations Taskforce and the NAACP Convention are weighted not only in the pressure of success but also in the knowledge that is a stage in which national precedence is set.

My favorite part of the summer was undoubtedly the celebrations of Black art and music we hosted called Culture Nights. Organized by the diligent work and passion of Susan McCollins and Artist in Revolution’s Danny Rivera, I had the unique opportunity to observe the local Black community in Boston coming together for joy and spirit. I was struck by the rich lineup of local artists and how their sound was so unique to Boston but their cadence still shared a heritage that reminded me so much of home. I was reminded of home again in the second installment of Culture Nights that was hosted in Mattapan. Unlike Roxbury and Dorchester or even Jamaica Plain, who have historically Black roots but have managed to attract the interests of hopeful Black entrepreneurs, a select few institutions, and young white folks, there is a clear disconnect from Mattapan and greater Boston. Mattapan is much more like the West End of Pittsburgh where I grew up–a seemingly forgotten part of the city and a virtual food and resource desert. At my station at check-in, people went out of their way to enthusiastically state how excited they were that something like this was finally happening in their neighborhood.

A Culture Nights session held throughout Boston during the summer

“They usually have this kind of stuff in Roxbury or Dorchester. We need more stuff like this,” one man remarked. I was met with tons of praise for this event and even more enthusiasm to keep the momentum going. ‘When is the next one?’ ‘Do y’all do this every year?’ These were some of the most frequent questions of the night. But when I shared that our next and last event of the summer would be in the Seaport to commemorate the return of the NAACP convention to Boston, they seemed unimpressed.

The capstone of Culture Nights coincided with the highly anticipated NAACP convention. For one weekend, some of the most influential people in the Black community and the world would be gathered in Boston for a convention determining the NAACP’s policy issues for the following year. With scheduled panels and remarks from an all-star line-up including actor Jabari Banks, scholar and activist Kimberle Crenshaw, congresswoman Ayanna Presley, and former First Lady Hillary Clinton, it was clear that the NAACP Convention would be of interest to many heavy hitters around the world. The NAACP is an iconic ‘pillar’ Black institution famous for its prolific organizational work during the civil rights eras, including that of pioneer Hazel E. Dukes, who returned to Boston for the conference. Now, I must be fully transparent–I have nothing to report on the convention itself because I was not invited to attend. Despite having the unique opportunity of working with Lori Nelson, whose mother, Charlotte M. Nelson, was a former president of the New England Branch of the NAACP and being involved with much of the events leading up to the convention, the meat of the convention this year was decidedly pay-to-play with little to no exceptions. I have no qualms in admitting that, as a college student, the price of $250 for a baseline Observer’s Ticket was inaccessible to me, and I have no doubt that many local Boston residents would say the same. There were, of course, a few free events that were open to the public, but those events struck me as a tad superficial, especially for the gravitas of subject matter pitched in the press conferences for the convention. With the theme of ‘thriving together,’ this convention was intended to be a pivotal moment for Black politics–one in which the NAACP would step up to bat against pressing issues like women’s rights in the wake of Roe vs. Wade, climate justice, education, health care, and more. This would be a moment in which the NAACP would rise as the institution to bring the Black community together again and pool our collective energy towards the issues that matter. But the conversations about policy, politics, and civil rights are hidden behind the paywall, and the convention organizers were hesitant to extend any exceptions to those who may have not only benefited from those spaces the most but have carried on the gospel of the NAACP as an ally and resource for the current generation.

While I was not able to access the main convention, I was still fundamentally changed by my experience with the NAACP conference. As mentioned, Lori Nelson and her mother are living legends and historians of a lineage of civil rights champions that have shaped our current pathways. They are the rare embodiments of mythic institutional knowledge that one can only dream of collecting in the trajectory of one’s career. Much of what they have been able to accomplish and the types of lasting change that many of my fellow Gen-Zers have been yearning for are a result of their distinct rearing in such an extensive network of Black excellence and leadership. Lori Nelson and her project manager, Susan McCollins’, insights and action items drew not just upon their own personal experience but a deep heritage of community engagement, action, and leadership. When I reflect on this summer, I am not surprised when I say that my encounter with the NAACP convention was the most impactful to me. Though the work on the Reparations Taskforce, for example, has been eventful, the challenges of this project were to be expected when you imagine a city with such a legacy of racism as Boston taking on the task of reparations. Witnessing how such a prestigious and beloved Black institution has seemingly unaligned itself from the majority of the people it once sought to serve has transformed how I view contemporary organizations. I witnessed how Black businesses and organizers in Boston arranged themselves to try to support this major moment. For the entire week leading up to the convention, multiple independent gatherings of Black businesses and community institutions in Boston hoped to invite convention attendees to explore the promise that Boston had to offer. I was impressed with how ready Black Boston was to receive the NAACP despite the powers that be, unfortunately, deciding that Black Boston would need to prove that it deserved to be included in its exclusive space. One community figure remarked after the convention’s press conference that the organization seemed to be catering to the ‘talented tenth.’ Tragically, I have to agree.

Destiny with Mr. Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney, after a fabulous fireside conversation.

When I think about my future in politics, I often think about the anxieties of my generation. Police brutality. Gun violence. Economic insecurity. Education inaccessibility. Climate change. And a host of other issues that seem to be emerging daily. Today, I still think about these things. Still, now I question what is truly necessary for institutional and systemic change and what is necessary for us to keep the momentum long enough to make it to the fabled finish line. Witnessing the work that Lori and Susan have put into projects that speak to the full mind, body, and soul of the community they serve. Still, I was also granted the opportunity to meet some remarkable people outside of city government who are just as integral to the cumulative mission of racial justice. Business owners, scholars, activists, bureaucratic workers, and many others are all crucial stakeholders, especially in minority communities. In this fellowship, I learned that true governance is a story of partnership and that in establishing true systematic change, all of our community members are stakeholders in this process and deserve to be honored.

Update: Destiny was offered and accepted a part-time position with the Equity & Inclusion cabinet at the conclusion of her internship.

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