PROMOTE, PRESERVE AND PROSPER


Elijaih Perry (left) and Shaughnessy Cole (center) greet city council candidate Tito Jackson (right) before Jackson and other at-large candidates answered questions from students during a forum at English High in October. Jackson and other city and state officials are on a mission to keep young people in Boston — even after college. (Yawu Miller photo)

Growing up in Flint, Mich., Stephanie Anderson didn’t know much about Boston’s racial diversity. In fact, the only blacks from Boston that she knew were the R&B group New Edition and Phillis Wheatley, the 18th-century poet and former slave.

It’s no surprise, then, that Boston was not in her future plans as she was finishing up her M.B.A. at the University of Washington in St. Louis. But when Osram Sylvania, a subsidiary of the international conglomerate Siemens AG, offered her a lucrative job in its communications department in Boston, Anderson, an African American woman, said she had to rethink her views on the city.

Anderson said she came to Boston with only two telephone numbers in her pocket. One connected to a human resource manager at Sylvania. The other belonged to a woman she had never actually met — an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sister then studying at Harvard Law School.

Given those humble beginnings, it’s a little ironic that Anderson spoke over the summer at an event sponsored by Gov. Deval Patrick that was designed to excite young professionals — particularly young black professionals — about living in a city that has long been plagued by the ugly images of its racially turbulent past. It doesn’t help Boston’s case that it is one of the nation’s most expensive cities.

But there she was — in front of a packed auditorium at Suffolk University Law School — extolling the virtues of a city that she has come to deeply respect. Anderson was beaming when she told the crowd that she had seen the Boston light.

“I came here on a one-year plan,” she explained. “That was eight years ago.”

That sort of transformation is music to the ears of state and city officials, who have embarked on an aggressive effort to sell the city to young urban professionals. It’s such a priority these days that Paul Connolly, first vice president and chief operating officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and Paul Guzzi, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, also convened a meeting this summer to laud Boston’s virtues.

“Our goal,” they wrote in an opinion piece published in the July 29, 2009, edition of the Boston Globe, “was to make a case for the city as a great place to live and work — to sell these students on a life in Boston, and let them know we value them.”

With strong competition from American cities in warmer climates, both Guzzi and Connolly realize they have a tough job ahead.

“Of course, convincing talented students to come to school or take an internship in Boston is the easy part,” they wrote. “Keeping them here is the challenge.”

The problem is not as acute now as it was in the early 1990s, when nearly 50,000 college graduates left the city during a three-year period. The exodus was reduced to about 4,000 graduates over a three-year period during the late 1990s. The difference was a strong rebound in the “knowledge economy” of the high-tech, biotech, consulting, health care and finance industries.

For African American professionals, the problem is even more challenging — and analysis of census data yields an unclear picture.

Though Boston became a majority-minority city in the 1990s, a review of population statistics reveal that the city lost about 6,000 black residents between 2000 and 2006. That loss, however, followed a spike of nearly 15 percent from 1990 to 2000, an increase fueled in part by an influx of immigrants from Haiti, Jamaica and several different African countries.

All of this growth comes on the heels of an explosion in the population of Latinos and Asians across the state. Blacks now account for nearly 6 percent of Massachusetts’ population.

In Boston, though, blacks remain the largest minority group. Almost one of four Bostonians is black.

As director of the state Office of Community Affairs, Ron Bell didn’t need much prep work to talk about Boston’s black and ethnically diverse neighborhoods. He was born and raised in one of them — Mission Hill.

“One of the best-kept secrets of Massachusetts is our enormous diversity,” Bell told the gathering at Suffolk Law School. “It makes us work better and it makes us feel better.”

From legendary newspaper publisher William Monroe Trotter and internationally renowned scholar W.E.B. Du Bois to civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the list of African Americans that either grew up in Boston or came through here is long and distinguished.

“It makes me feel good just to think about being in the same place as all those great minds,” Bell said, before shifting his focus to the here and now.

“We have so many ‘smart’ companies — venture capital firms, financial institutions, tech and biotech industries — and a governor who has supported their development,” he said.

Bell was just one of the featured speakers at the Suffolk meeting, appropriately titled “Keeping Young People in Massachusetts.” Moderated by Elizabeth Clay, director of the state’s Grassroots Governance and Commonwealth Corps, the panelists included state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry, Boston City Council President Michael Ross and Greg Bialecki, the state’s secretary of housing and economic development.

Bialecki didn’t mince any words, calling the retention of college graduates “a serious economic problem for the Commonwealth.”

“… I’m here tonight because attracting, retaining and recruiting young people to be here is very important,” he said. “We are asking you to stay here!”

Forry, too, cut right to the chase.

“If we want to keep young adults here in Boston, we have to keep the conversation open and change the face of what this city used to be,” she said.

Some of the complaints about Boston that were raised at the meeting — high costs of living, the lack of nightlife options, spotty public transportation service — are well-known. But those in attendance also objected to the intricate maze of state and city bureaucracies that entrepreneurs must navigate to start a small business, as well as the difficulty in establishing a network of professional colleagues.

Guzzi and Connolly are convinced they are moving in the right direction — at least on the business front.

“Already we have convened a summit of employers and colleges and universities to strengthen connections among them, and help to ensure that employer needs are properly aligned with student talent,” they wrote. “We are working to enhance science, technology, engineering and math education, in order to ensure that students’ skills are adequate for a changing local and global economy. And plans are in the works to create an online clearinghouse to connect skilled interns and young graduates with job opportunities.”

On the professional networking front, Stephanie Anderson had a two-word answer that worked for her and explains why she has lived in Boston for the last eight years — community involvement.

She moved to the South End and lived in the Piano Factory, a well-known residence for artists and community activists with a strong tenants’ association. She later joined the nearby Union United Methodist Church. It wasn’t too long before she got involved politically, working on the national campaign of Barack Obama and then on the campaign of At-Large City Council aspirant Tito Jackson.

“It was a great way to get connected,” she said. “It was a way to form a family away from my family.”