Re-envisioning a new Black agenda for Boston

David Corbie MPA 2023 is sparking a new conversation about how to shift the paradigm in Boston and strengthen opportunities for the city’s Black community

Stevenson standing outside an HKS building, looking toward camera, dressed in sweater and jeans

Every morning, a fleet of school buses wend their way through the labyrinthine streets of Boston, shuttling thousands of largely Black and Brown children to public schools in the leafy suburbs ringing the city. For David Corbie MPA 2023, the hour-and-a-half spent on one of those buses nearly every school day driving between his home in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester and far off Concord, Massachusetts, was a formative time. “This was all in the aspiration of acquiring a better education than I could get in the Boston Public School system, which at the time was rife with inequities for Black students,” he recalls.

The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO), the voluntary school desegregation program that gave Corbie the option of attending a well-regarded suburban school in lieu of enrolling in the Boston public school system, is both a symbol of the decades-long efforts to integrate schools in the Boston area and an indictment of the city’s inability to provide universal high-quality education for its children. “In Boston, you can trace the prevalence of economic inequity in the city’s Black community to these large gaps in educational accessibility,” he adds.

For Corbie, who is preparing to walk across the commencement stage after spending the past two years working towards his Master in Public Administration degree, the question of how to address these pervasive inequities and build a strong community voice for Black Bostonians has been central to his time at the Kennedy School. “Black Bostonians are some of the city’s most vulnerable due to a lack of access to the social and civic power needed to control the destiny of their communities,” Corbie says.

With the support of the Ash Center and under the guidance of Assistant Professor of Public Policy Yanilda González, Corbie launched the Boston Black Agenda Project to help build a coalition of civic leaders in Boston’s Black community to help develop a roadmap for a stronger, more equitable paradigm. “We wanted to help serve as a platform for convening discussions about issues and events impacting Black communities across Boston as well as build bridges between Harvard and community leaders,” Corbie says.

Corbie’s timing was fortuitous, as then-Mayor Marty Walsh announced his plans to leave city hall for a cabinet appointment in the Biden Administration, sparking a heated campaign for mayor and a renewed fervor across the city about just what the future of Boston could look like. “We wanted to use the mayoral race to move the conversation forward about what an agenda for Boston’s Black community could become,” Corbie says. “So we wanted to hear from people from across the city about the issues most impacting them. What did they want to see in a future Boston? Where did previous promises fall short?”

After Councilwoman Michelle Wu’s victory in the mayoral race in the fall of 2021, Corbie and González convened another community discussion centered around the incoming mayor’s agenda. “We asked ourselves what we needed to do as organizers, but also what we as a community envision,” Corbie recalls. “What can we hold our policymakers accountable for given the long history of disinvestment from the community.”

These conversations helped crystalize Corbie’s decision to move forward with a robust series of discussions over the past academic year to help inform his goal of crafting a unified vision or agenda for the Black community in Boston. Through a series of monthly meetings, Corbie engaged with scores of community organizations and activists, representing a wide swath of Black Boston. Discussions were structured around health, environment, education, and economics.

“These issues are all interconnected, and all impact the community. For example, housing justice is environmental justice,” Corbie says. “A major goal of the project was to address the silos that already exist within the work to uplift the community.”

Photo of David Corbie standing in a hallway

Both Corbie and González knew that coming into these conversations with the historical and political baggage of Harvard wasn’t easy. “Elite universities often have difficult histories with surrounding communities, and those experiences lead to tensions and distrust,” González notes. “David did an excellent job of envisioning these meetings, not as representatives of Harvard charging in to solve things with a certain institutional superiority, but as someone who recognizes the need for true partnerships with the community organizations doing incredible work on the ground.”

As advice for current and future policymakers, Corbie learned first-hand that building trust requires plenty of patience, understanding, and empathy. “With that empathy, it’s really important just to understand. Instead of sympathy, you have to empathize with the community and their plight—and put yourself in their shoes,” he says. “Trust isn’t straightforward and also takes time to help ensure that there is space for everyone, especially those who have historically been marginalized. They must have a seat at the table to allow for democracies to thrive.”

For the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Corbie’s commitment to community building serves as an embodiment of its mission to advance fair and inclusive multiracial and multiethnic democracies, an alignment underscored by the center’s decision to award Corbie the annual Martha H. Mauzy Award for the Advancement of Democratic Governance. “We’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work closely with David during his time at HKS,” says Tim Glynn-Burke, the Ash Center’s co-executive director. “We were thrilled to be able to honor him with the Mauzy Award and help bring recognition to the important work he has spearheaded as part of this project.”

As he graduates, Corbie’s work with the Black Agenda project is hardly slowing. This summer he’s planning to finalize the project’s preamble and then turn to the work of transforming the dozens of hours of community conversations into a living document that he hopes will convey a collective vision for a better and stronger future for Boston’s Black community: “Working with all members of the community, I’m hopeful we can build a Boston where Black people can thrive and grow.”

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