Power List Q&A: NAACP Boston President Tanisha Sullivan

Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston NAACP chapter, on the city's public school closures and the 2020 NAACP convention.

Photo illustration by Joe McKendry

As Boston’s leaders strive to address the city’s long-standing racial issues, Sullivan has emerged as a community voice demanding substance over symbolism. She will get an even bigger platform when the NAACP comes to Boston this summer for its annual convention—unless, that is, the coronavirus pandemic derails the plans.

What’s been keeping you up at night since COVID-19 arrived in Boston?

It was not lost on us that the mayor’s announcement that schools would be closing came within hours of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education releasing its very scathing civil rights report on the district. Our kids cannot afford months out of school with no learning. A lot of people were talking about lack of technology, and about the food insecurity of children relying on Boston Public Schools to feed them two meals a day. But there were other issues that we identified. There are safety and child welfare concerns when we’re sending kids home.

What about economic concerns?

So many of our black and brown neighbors are reliant upon the service industries that are being closed for a period of time. And for those businesses that are designated as essential, are employers making sure their workers are not being exposed to the virus? There are some estimates that we could have an unemployment rate of 20 percent. That would be incredibly devastating. We will be working with both the city and the state to make sure that supports are there for people when we emerge from this crisis.

The NAACP 2020 convention coming to Boston seems like a great opportunity, but are you fearful it will also open old wounds that are slowly healing?

Look, we can’t change our past. The data is the data. Everyone acknowledges upfront, outright that we have issues with racial inequality and systemic racism, and the inequities can’t change within the next few months. So that shouldn’t be the expectation. When we get to July, and we’re talking about the story of Boston as it relates to racial equity, access, and opportunity, our best hand is to say, “Yep, we have this problem, we know it’s systemic, here are the things that we’ve done to address it, and this is what we’re going to do going forward.”

In a sense, is this convention giving you leverage to prod leaders in the city toward action?

Yes, and a key point is that we’re seeing it outside of government. Often in this civil rights and social justice work, we look to government to be the answer. Thanks to this convention coming, we’re now seeing business leaders and organizations that don’t necessarily appear to be our natural allies wanting to learn more about some of the things we’ve been tackling for generations.

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