New Boston Fed initiative aims to uncover unheard voices, mobilize new leaders New Boston Fed initiative aims to uncover unheard voices, mobilize new leaders

Leaders for Equitable Local Economies initiative focuses on closing racial disparities Leaders for Equitable Local Economies initiative focuses on closing racial disparities

September 23, 2021

The pandemic was in full swing, and research indicated it was hitting communities of color disproportionately hard.

To Colleen Dawicki and Ines Palmarin, leaders in the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Working Places program, COVID-19 was putting a spotlight on issues of racial inequity that long predated the pandemic. It was a tough time, but it seemed like the right time to take advantage of the added awareness and try something new to take on the disparities. But what?

As it turned out, a concept the Palmarin and Dawicki had put on pause during the pandemic surfaced as a possible solution. It focused on what both saw as a plentiful but untapped resource in these communities: rising leaders working on racial equity and ready to do more. Maybe this was exactly the time to find a way to channel the energy of these advocates.

“They're already doing it, right?” Palmarin said. “They're the experts. So how do we support them in it?”

The answer to that question was the beginning of Leaders for Equitable Local Economies, or LELE (pronounced “lay-lay”).

This new initiative of the Boston Fed works to empower emerging leaders to develop and test local strategies to advance racial equity in their cities. LELE aims to offer the time, space, and resources to allow good ideas from often unheard voices to become effective policy.

“Under this model, people aren’t saying, ‘Come and fix us.’ They’re saying, ‘We can fix ourselves,’” Palmarin said. “And LELE recognizes the power in that and tries to enable that.”

Initiative advisors: LELE puts focus on often-ignored voices

The LELE concept is simple: Select 10-15 leaders from four or five smaller Massachusetts cities to collaborate in groups of two or three over an 18-month period. The leaders will each receive coaching, a $20,000 stipend, and access to grant money to develop and test their ideas.

The group will be working in separate cities, as well as in separate pairs or trios. But Dawicki said they would be united as a “community of practice,” sharing ideas, methods, and real-world results, so they can hone strategies and continuously learn from each other.

Pierre Joseph is a national philanthropic and social sector consultant and member of an advisory group that helped the Boston Fed form LELE. He said he was particularly drawn to the focus on those most impacted, and on building communities of practice.

“That means this is beyond research and fact-finding,” he said. “It’s about supporting the work being done at the community level, cultivating the next wave of inclusive leadership, and elevating new voices in the conversation around inclusive economic development. I thought that was extremely compelling for this initiative.”

Advisory group member Marty Jones, former head of MassDevelopment, the state’s economic development agency, said LELE deliberately looks past well-known local networks and policy wonks. It targets lesser-known people at the grassroots who are deeply affected by challenges created by racial inequities and ready to act.

“This is not just another mentoring training program, we've been through a million of those, right?” she said. “While those programs can be useful, LELE is intentionally designed to be different.”

Dawicki said if LELE works as intended, the communities LELE leaders come from will benefit from new energy and insights in eye-opening ways.

“Nobody's been listening to a lot of leaders in these communities,” Dawicki said. “Many have been ignored or seen as disruptors instead of collaborators. We feel they will be major contributors.”

Lessons from Working Cities Challenge are huge for LELE

LELE is built around lessons learned from the Fed’s longtime community development initiative, the Working Cities Challenge. Specifically, it’s rooted in a mindset of continuous learning, giving power to the local community, and embracing a long-term vision that includes changing systems that perpetuate problems.

Palmarin said that’s why LELE participants must come from one of the 16 Massachusetts cities that have hosted Working Cities teams or participated in MassDevelopment’s Transformative Development initiative, which also emphasizes community engagement and collaboration.

Would-be LELE leaders have applied in the groups of two or three, and all have had a conversation with Boston Fed representatives about their vision and tactics for increasing racial equity in their cities. The teams that wish to move forward submitted applications earlier this month, and LELE participants will be chosen by late October.

Palmarin said a cool thing about the new program is the excitement it’s stirred up in existing Working Cities. She noted that the Springfield Working Cities team, for instance, has embraced the program and the concept.

“We had senior leaders who were excited and really understood what we were doing right away,” Palmarin said. “They said, ‘We know this isn’t for us, but we need to be champions of this initiative and give access to the next generation of leaders.’”

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