A call to action
Tanisha Sullivan, the new president of the Boston NAACP, thinks the city can ‘get it right’ on race issues
Photograph by Frank Curran
What’s at the top of your agenda as you prepare to take over as the new president of the Boston NAACP? It really is a continuation of the work that the NAACP historically has done. There are five key areas that I would say we will continue to focus on: criminal justice reform; economic development; access to high quality public education; the elimination of health disparities; and of course voting rights and access.
I read in the Bay State Banner that you got your early political bearings and interest in these issues sitting in a hair salon as a young girl. Yes. My early exposure to the NAACP really was in a local hair salon. I grew up in Brockton, and for most black folks you had three options for church, but you had one option for a hair salon. The owner of the salon was Mrs. Nan Ellison, and she was also the president of the local branch [of the NAACP]. So from a very early age I would sit in her shop waiting to get what we would call a press and curl with the hot comb, and really have the opportunity to listen to women talk about civil rights, and women talk about solutions to the civil rights issues of the day. And that certainly left a lasting impression on me, and really planted the seed of being involved and understanding civil rights issues and issues of racial justice, but also the fact that as a woman I could be involved, too. Having an understanding of all the women who’ve been in the movement prior to me, and the impact they’ve had, that’s how I’m here.
The Boston office is the oldest NAACP branch in the country, and yet we’re a city that has often been known nationally more for the stain of racial strife. I believe that if there’s any city in this country that can get it right when it comes to race relations and race issues, it’s Boston. The question is whether we have the fortitude and will to stick through the difficult conversation and to make some very challenging decisions through a racial lens. I think, certainly, we’re seeing that with the mayor trying to open citywide dialogues around race. I think that can be a very positive thing for the city. But I think we have to be mindful that when it gets difficult—because right now we’re in the beginning stages, and it feels good—we have to make a commitment as a city to push through the pain points, push through, yes, a rough history, a challenging history, and for some people a challenging present. I think we are the city to get it done. We do have the history of racial strife, but we also have a history of standing up against racial injustice. We have a history of a commitment to helping to ensure that America’s delivering on her promise of freedom and justice for all.
You are an attorney and worked previously inside the Boston schools as the chief equity officer. What was your take on the race issues that erupted there this year, centered at Boston Latin School? I am deeply encouraged by the voice of our young people. I could not be more proud of the young people at Boston Latin. Young people across the city also raised their voices this year to push back on some of the budget decisions that were happening or that were proposed to occur within the BPS. I certainly believe, if anything, this is like a proof point. Our young people are fully capable of carrying this mantle of civil rights and social justice.
What’s your reaction been to the election of Donald Trump–someone who’s been praised by the Ku Klux Klan, who himself has made bigoted statements about groups ranging from immigrants to Mexicans to Muslims? We know we’re going to have to remain vigilant and stand firm on issues of racial discrimination. It means that specifically on the criminal justice front we will continue to stay alert as it relates to police-community interactions. It means we will be mindful of what we have coming up in 2017, hopefully criminal justice reform, real criminal justice reform. We will be paying very close attention to that even here on a local level. That being said, the issues that are pressing in our community in December 2016 are the same issues that were pressing our community in October 2016. What may have changed is how steep our curve is. The battle is not new.
But wasn’t it distressing to hear some of the things that came out in the campaign? Certainly. The fact that the rhetoric resonated with so many people across this country is disturbing, but not necessarily surprising for those of us who have been doing this work. This is what we’ve been fighting against for so long. My hope is people remain angry, people remain shocked, and stand shoulder to shoulder with us in this fight for equality and justice.