Boston Ujima Project

Scale of policy change (local, state, national): Local

WHO – Boston Ujima Project and the working class communities of color in Boston proper.

WHAT – A community-run, democratic, participatory loan fund and community planning project.

WHERE – Boston, MA

WHEN – Boston Ujima Project was officially founded in 2017, launched in 2018, and made its first loan (to CERO coop) in December 2019.

WHY – To create a model for community planning and shared decision-making in communities of color and for said communities to impact and initiate development through collective investment in their neighborhoods.

Interviewed: Nia Evans, Director of the Boston Ujima Project

How did you get connected with this project?

“The beginning of this project for me is not about the fund. It’s an expectation that I would start with the fund. The structure of the fund is not compelling to me alone because you can have that and it can be interesting, but if it’s not in true partnership with communities, then it doesn’t matter so much. 

Before becoming the Director of Ujima, I was with the Boston NAACP. In 2015, I had just become the chair of the economic development committee. Shortly after that, Boston announced that it was bidding to host the 2024 Olympics. That became a huge conversation in Boston. We learned about it by reading it in the newspaper, and hadn’t heard about it before. We saw that of course, there was no community engagement, no involvement of communities of color. None of us, nor our partners, had been part of the decision-making process. We decided not to take any specific stance, we weren’t gonna endorse it or protest it. If we did, then we would be participating in the same system. This is a pattern. The Olympics was just an example of the ways this had been happening all along. 

We needed to recognize that this was about planning and development. We were trying to talk about how what can happen in 2015 affects our communities in 2024, but it was hard to see that long-term. We wanted to open up a conversation about how planning and development happens in Boston in general. We wanted to create a new template for the role of communities of color, to assert how we think it should happen. 

Our members started to intervene in those planning conversations to demand a space for themselves, but after a while, they did not want to participate any longer. They said, ‘look, we’re doing all this work to make ourselves known, but they already know what they want to do, they’re just going through the motions. We’re not going to participate like that. And we’re not going to do that only in this conversation but in all conversations.’ So we decided we would no longer encourage people to participate in a fashion that is disempowering. They were tired of participating in conversations that were problem-oriented, that didn’t take them anywhere after the conversation. They were just re-counting the things they already struggled with. 

So, I did a landscape survey of the arena of economic development and economic justice, knowing that the NAACP had much to learn from others in that area. I saw that other organizations doing that work were under-resourced, but was interested specifically in work that had a participatory aspect, across issue areas. I got connected with the Center for Economic Democracy. We were thinking about participatory budgeting. We insisted on a way for community members to impact what was happening to them. And the rest is the now! We are building it.”

What’s the model or the policy + why?

The Boston Ujima Project focuses on creating a model for deep democracy through community planning and non-extractive finance. The planning aspect of the Ujima loan fund is perhaps more important than the fund itself. The word Ujima is a Swahili word, meaning collective work and responsibility. The main purpose is to create a space for working class people of color in Boston to make decisions together about the things that impact their lives. It is an opportunity for people to envision what is possible when they work together, and then share responsibility for making it happen. Ujima works to influence the development that is happening in their communities and to initiate development on their own based on what they need and what their priorities are, rather than simply reacting to what is happening in their neighborhoods.

“Across the board, with any policy that lives at Ujima that we’re working on, the theme is going to be in some way – there should be a participatory decision making process. And we are, first and foremost, building those processes and the models for them within Ujima. We are designing models for resident-led processes to determine pots of money with hospitals, for example. We are building models that then, if embraced, would be applied to larger and larger pots of money. And we’re getting practice. We’re practicing how to make these decisions that we haven’t been able to make together like this. We are giving ourselves the opportunity to find out and figure out what we want and what we can do when we do it together. And we are looking to proliferate these processes as widely as possible. Because we know that it will be contagious.”

Ujima also works with various campaigns and local policy as part of creating the conditions for their model to thrive. They work with a divest-invest campaign around fossil fuels and prisons with the city and some local universities, and have specifically added a demand for a participatory process to imagine how divested money gets reinvested. Ultimately, they are working towards creating a public bank, which is part of Ujima’s origin story. Community members began by researching what it would take to start a public bank in Boston. They concluded that it would be too hard to accomplish at the time, but it was partially from that research that Ujima emerged. The vision for a public bank remains and they see it as a possibility, but only after building a certain amount of community power through collective decision-making, which is what Ujima provides.  

Ujima is involved in a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) campaign which targets universities and hospitals in Boston that do not pay taxes because they are technically non-profits. Universities have historically been bad actors in Boston when it comes to contributing to their surrounding community and hospitals have been slightly less harmful. As part of their work and understanding of development, groups like Ujima have been calling out the role of anchor institutions in communities —  what they offer to those communities compared to what they take and extract. This campaign works on ‘low-hanging fruit,’ trying to get these institutions to pay what they owe to their communities. Currently, these payments are not required, only suggested. Ujima is looking to both increase that payment and create a participatory process to decide where the money goes and what counts as a community benefit.

Who is the community?

Boston Ujima Project is working for and with the working class communities of color in Boston proper. Some of the neighborhoods include Roxbury, Dorchester, Matapan, East boston, Jamaica Plain, and Brighton.

What is the problem they’re working to address?

The problems Boston Ujima Project is looking to address have to do with planning, decision-making, and community engagement. Historically, engagement between official city authorities and communities of color – and even private actors in communities of color – has been generally poor. “Often, people say these communities have nothing to offer, or when any expertise in these communities is recognized at all, people say that it is only lived experience. Their expertise, our expertise, is not recognized and not valued, so it’s either not sought or it’s dismissed or ignored. The processes that do happen feel like formalities. It doesn’t feel like they’re enacted with good faith. And we can’t and we won’t be satisfied with that.” Ujima is applying a democratic model to the act of planning and investing. This comes directly out of recognizing and valuing community expertise and wanting to ensure that decisions that impact community members have as much of their input as is reasonably possible. 

The second problem Ujima works to address has to do with capital. “There is no access to traditional types of support. Racism is a powerful force. Racism dictates everything about capital and capital, in this world, dictates everything about race.” Ujima is attempting to be a channel for capital and different types of support for small businesses that serve working class communities of color. How they do this is also important; their model reimagines what is required to receive capital and support. “We are not undertaking conventional processes for loans and business support because things that seem neutral are not. The discrimination is baked into every step in the process, normally. We don’t look at credit scores, for example. We recognize many people haven’t had the opportunity to create a track record.” 

Ujima looks to community members to inform their investments. “They live there, so they have intimate knowledge of businesses they are interacting with or not interacting with. Conventional market research is distant. It’s deceptively numbers-oriented, as if numbers can really tell a story of a community’s needs and desires. We don’t ignore the financials, numbers, or quantitative information. But we take pains to add story and provide a comprehensive picture of the businesses we’re considering for investment. The places we are looking to invest in are sourced directly from community members. And in our processes, we take care to be as transparent and curious as possible.” 

The model seeks to reduce the racial wealth gap and poverty that results from structural racism.  Structural racism has kept those people, who do have the tools to create good jobs and community wealth, out of the processes that determine their neighborhoods. “The racial wealth gap in Boston is stunning. There is enduring generational poverty. Of course, these problems are not unique to Boston. These realities are shocking, should be shocking, everywhere. But hopefully by transforming these processes, the processes where people can actively and directly participate in their communities and see the fruits of their participation, we can transform poverty in cities like Boston. People will be able to see that the outputs match or exceed what they put in.” Ujima hopes that this can create individual and  community wealth-building opportunities. They work to create an atmosphere in which there are other Ujima-like projects — similar efforts to increase voice, decision-making power, and collaboration, and thereby increase individual and community wealth. “We think of wealth expansively. Wealth is health. Wealth is wellbeing. Wealth is our ability to do well and live well. Wealth is the assets we have to support us to live fully.”

Who is organizing? How are people organized?

Check out Ujima’s membership info here.

Ujima’s organizing model is non-traditional, but the founding group was comprised of organizers. They initially developed interactive workshops to show people what participating in Ujima would be like on a small scale: assemblies, voting, and more. These workshops have been successful and have allowed for creative ways to engage people. “Our spaces are beyond meetings that are problem orientated. We have never had those kinds of meetings ever. We know what the problems are. We won’t ever host a meeting on that, to talk about the same thing we’ve been talking about. We are always thinking about what we can do or what we can press authorities to do and then when we end a meeting, we pick up right where we left off last time. We always move forward.” 

The launch of the Boston Ujima Project involved a party. Three artists — Cierra Peters (Ujima’s current Arts & Cultural Organizing Fellow), Sarah Rejouis, and Jax Gil — approached Ujima looking to start a parallel artist and cultural network. They wanted to be supportive of the project and lend their gifts as artists while being an autonomous group. The launch party was their first collaboration, and to this day, Ujima and these artists continue to support one another. “Arts and cultural organizing are essential to our strategy. We’re trying to bring people together in a different way. We’re thinking about the ways people actually live our lives. We’re not bringing them together to fundraise. We’re not bringing them in to beat them with a message. We’re bringing them to have a party, bringing them in to be together because that’s the kind of thing we are working to create more of. Places where our community can be together. It’s an entryway.” 

Ujima invests in the work of cultural organizing and artists, providing support in the form of grants and an artist fellowship. Artist grants support them to work, perform, organize, and create in relationship with community assemblies. Ujima also hosts “Black Trust,” an arts and lecture series that brings community together to discuss those concepts which frame the relationships in a community — trust, belief, and faith.” Black Trust is creating a space for people to learn, trust, and believe in each other. “Arts and cultural organizing, communications – we are thinking about all the different ways people receive information. We are opening as many channels as possible to bring people in. We are letting people be complex. We are letting them be complex together. We are not trying to make them anything they aren’t.” 

Ujima also has a member organizing manager on staff, a position more in line with traditional organizing. This staff person is also an artist with a background in organizing. To Ujima, every single member is an important relationship. “We don’t recruit for the sake of recruiting. We don’t want members that aren’t doing anything. We look to build a deep engagement strategy with our current members, honoring all the ways they participate. If they’re gonna be making decisions, they need to be informed, feel empowered, and feel they can do it. It’s important that our membership is as active a body as possible.”

What has been successful in this organizing project? What are the benefits and impacts?

“It’s been inspiring. People who are getting pushed out and neglected in other cities are asking us to help them build this in their home. Many people want to build funds, others are interested in the assembly process, and some want the whole ecosystem. We are focusing our support on Black communities that want to do this. It’s motivating for us, for me especially. Many people are not thinking about finance and investment, they’re actually thinking more about participatory processes. They’re thinking about what it looks like and allowing themselves to think about real participation. It feels like imagination is being generated all over.

“With the events we put on, and with Ujima in general, we’re talking about a way of being, that we’ve known before, that was terrorized out of us. Coming together to make decisions, coming together to vision what we want in our communities. We’ve been here before. We know how to do this. It is not as fantastical as it may seem. Collective governance is in our ancestry.”