Urban League Conference Marks Shift in Hub Image

Boston Business Journal - by Mary Moore
Friday, July 23, 2010

Beckoning hope that Boston is evolving from its decades-old reputation as a place that does not welcome minorities and racial diversity, the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts will host the organization’s national conference at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center next summer.

It has been 35 years since Boston has hosted this event — the last time having been in 1976, during some of the city’s greatest turbulence related to forced busing. Those violent images seared into the minds of people around the country, shaping the notion that Boston is a racist city.

With 10,000 attendees expected at the Urban League conference, event organizers and others involved in diversity issues in Boston consider this an important step away from the city’s tarnished reputation.

“We can’t erase the history of Boston, but we don’t deserve the reputation,” said Darnell L. Williams, president and CEO of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, which provides programs and services to African-Americans and other minority groups. Convincing the Urban League’s national leadership that Boston would be a good place for the convention was no easy task, he added. “The notion is that Boston doesn’t have a significant presence of people of color. But Boston is 51 percent minority now.”

Real or not, the perceptions about Boston still exist, according to the Commonwealth Compact, a statewide diversity initiative based at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The organization is now sorting through responses from a series of questions it included on a national survey about Boston and race, said Robert Turner, co-director.

The results of that study will be made public soon, Turner said, but the results so far show that "Boston is perceived nationally as less welcoming to people of color than several peer cities."

While much of the upcoming Urban League conference, which as significant sponsorship from Bank of America and State Street, is still in the planning stages, Williams is confident the candidates for the 2012 presidential election will attend. And the organization plans to release a study during the convention highlighting the differences for Boston's black and white residents in terms of housing, education, jobs and economic development.

Attracting African-American groups to Boston has been a challenge for the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.

"Some didn't want to talk to us. The NAACP wouldn't even give us their RFP," said James Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. "In the minority meeting planner world, Boston wasn't a top-of-mind city."

But 2011 is turning out to be something of a banner year in that regard.

In addition to the Urban League conference, which is expected to generate between $8 million and $10 million in economic benefit, the convention center also will host the group Black in Government -- a 10,000-person conference next August estimated to bring a solid $10 million in economic benefit to Boston.

Rooney tried five times before he could secure the Black in Government event.

"They were very open in confronting the issue of the racial climate in Boston and their fears of bringing 10,000 African Americans to Boston," Rooney said. "I was admittedly caught off guard. We often think the past is the past. But that exercise made me realize that we still live with things from the past."

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