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Can the staid old Boston Chamber of Commerce become a force for change?

September 24, 2018

When Jim Rooney became president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce in 2015, his was not viewed as an inspired selection, and he knew it.

Rooney was the city’s old guard distilled into a single résumé: a son of South Boston and graduate of Harvard who spent years in executive roles in state and city government before heading the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. Certainly, he was connected to the city’s traditional power centers in multiple ways. But if you had been hoping for a woman, or a person of color, or someone whose path to power was markedly different than those who had been winning these posts for the past half-century, he might have seemed like a letdown.

“They pointed out that I was an aging white guy from Southie,” he noted. “Several times.”

But he could look out the window of his downtown office — as you might expect, it’s a nice view — and see that the city was changing. The chamber needed to change with it. Specifically, he wanted the chamber, and the mainstream companies that make up the bulk of its membership, to begin to grapple seriously with issues of diversity.

“I am indeed an aging white guy,” Rooney, 61, said recently. “My Rolodex is pretty strong but it occurred to me pretty quickly that to achieve what I wanted to achieve I needed help. I needed people who represent the demographics of the new Boston.”

An important piece of the outreach effort is underway: a new six-day festival intended to connect young people of color with the broader business community. It includes workshops and panel discussions with purely social events. It’s the “Fierce Urgency of Now” Festival, with the catchy acronym of FUN. Featuring events across the city, it runs through Tuesday.

“We each have to think about the platform we’re given,” Rooney said. “This is our platform, and we’re using it.”

The event has been spearheaded by two talented young community organizers Rooney brought into the chamber: Justin Kang and Sheena Collier.

Kang was leading an organization called City Awake, when he was introduced to Rooney through a mutual acquaintance and, as he put it, “We decided after 20 minutes to change my life.” Like Kang, Collier, who came to Boston to attend Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, never pictured herself working for a chamber of commerce. “Business was something evil,” she said of her former beliefs.

Both have come to believe that the private sector could play a huge role in addressing the issues they care about.

“Personally, I don’t think there is an avenue that can be more powerful in shaping a city than the private sector,” Kang told me. He was convinced that the chamber wanted to do something real. “We wanted to do something that wasn’t just hollow rhetoric.”

There’s little disagreement that Boston is a laggard when it comes to equal opportunity. There’s the now-famous statistic that encapsulates the wealth gap, from the Federal Reserve: $247,500 in net worth of white families; $8 in net worth of African-American families. There’s a study produced by the chamber and the Boston Foundation suggesting that millennials of color are less upbeat about the area and their prospects in it and are far more likely to move on. There was the Boston Globe Spotlight report last year detailing the lack of progress in every major sector.

A couple of weeks ago, even “The Daily Show” piled on, with a segment titled “How Racist is Boston?”

Certainly, many organizations — not to mention individuals — are working diligently to address many of these issues, and I don’t mean to give the chamber undue credit. But let’s be honest: The city’s major companies have paid lip service to diversity for a long, long time.

If that’s beginning to change, that matters.

Even the cheeriest optimist admits that bringing people together is only the start of real change. That doesn’t mean it’s insignificant.

“We each have to think about the platform we’re given,” Rooney said. “This is our platform, and we’re using it.”

Read this piece on BostonGlobe.com.