(BOSTON) -- In today’s Digital Age, the term “social networking” is likely to conjure up self-promotional images of impressive profile pages, YouTube channels and selfies, but for two young adults of Cambridge, Mass., it also means turning the figurative lens outward, partnering with under-resourced communities and offering a warm, friendly place for people to meet and facilitate change.
While Eric and Anna Leslie are far too open-minded, grounded and humble to admit that they’ve mastered the art of engaging communities, they created an innovative nonprofit organization almost four years ago that is much more than a start.
Union Capital Boston (UCB), based in Roxbury, Mass., leverages the convenient and mobile aspects of technology to help unite and reward community members for enrichment work in four areas: education, health, finance and community. Equally inspiring, this brother and sister are tremendously supportive of each other.
Eric, who is “five and a bit” years older than Anna, said he vividly remembers the day this partnership began.
“I remember Anna being born and I remember being very excited to be her big brother, and that evolves as you get older,” he said before adding a bit of brotherly humor. “I’m not changing her diaper anymore, but now, how do we work together and support each other in growth-based ways?”
Anna recalls childhood days of genuinely admiring Eric and tottering around in his footsteps, which after school meant being hustled along their mile-long walk through Cambridge in time to catch the cartoon “Duck Tales” at home.
While differences in age, gender and interests prompted their paths toward adulthood to separate temporarily, the strength of family and a shared passion for social equity have brought them back together in a deeply meaningful way.
“In many ways, Eric and I are very similar and so we can read each other and really anticipate each other’s strengths or discomfort,” Anna said. “We can banter in meetings with funders or partners, joke that ‘No, we’re not married, yes we have the same chin.’ Though we don’t share an office, we trust each other to get the work done wherever we are. Even now that I’m grown, I will always have the mentality of a little sister trying to impress her big brother. When I succeed in this work, the ultimate recognition I look for is always from him, not as my colleague but as my brother. And it means that I will always stick by him and believe in what he is doing because I know who he is, who he has always been.”
With this special bond among the siblings and UCB staff, the organization has grown to include a network of more than 1,000 members of local under-resourced communities who have earned a total of more than $350,000 in rewards by logging more than 420,000 hours of enrichment activities. Engagement has ranged from taking financial workshops and volunteering in schools to helping an elderly neighbor and exercising.
Points are earned through an app — a simple interface website — which works on any cell phone, tablet or computer in tandem with paper versions for UCB members who might not use those devices. If members participate in a financial workshop, for example, their mobile devices geolocate their whereabouts and allow them to click “check in” on the screens of their devices. Or, if a member goes to a Zumba class or drives a neighbor to register to vote, he or she can check in with UCB by submitting a selfie. Both types of check-in methods build points toward earning a $25 Visa gift card for a bronze level of achievements, a $75 gift card for a silver level of achievements and so on.
“If you help an elderly or house-bound neighbor go grocery shopping, that is the definition of community engagement, but that’s not necessarily something that’s often organized or recognized or celebrated, and we’re able to,” Eric said. “We try not to be focused on incentives first, but we know incentives help. I shouldn’t be volunteering at my child’s school just to get a reward, but on the flip side, I also should be exercising. It’s nice when a gym gives you that first free month. It feels good to get a free coffee from Dunkin' Donuts.”
The concept resembles a civic version of the familiar Sir Isaac Newton law of “what goes up comes down.” Members put out great effort toward enhancing their lives and communities, and in return, rewards come back. In the short-term, the rewards are the gift cards, much-needed funds that are often members’ initial draw to the organization. The longer-lasting benefits include education, a feeling of civic engagement, social networking and a variety of new tools and skills.
One UCB member signed up for the program at a time when he had a “boot” or wheel clamp on his car that prevented his vehicle from moving. The man had a job, Eric said, but every dollar of his income had already been allocated toward meeting basic human needs. Shortly after joining UCB, the member logged his civic activities and earned the gift card, funds that allowed for a trip to Boston City Hall to get the boot off. The member was then able to drive to apply for a better job, one which he ended up securing.
“It’s a wonderful, specific output, but if we can do that 1,000 times over, 1,000 days over, and over and over again, that’s where the real power is,” Eric said.
And as UCB evolves, one of the most powerful aspects of its work has become its hosting of “Network Nights” at the organization’s warm and open meeting space on Columbus Avenue and additionally at the locations of core partners including Urban Edge, KIPP Academy and East Boston Neighborhood Health Center. The nights are modeled after effective work by former Lawrence Community Works Executive Director Bill Traynor, a nationally recognized community development consultant. Evenings begin with “what’s new and good” before transitioning to “table talks” relating to any topic on participants’ minds. The night concludes with “marketplace,” an exchange of offers, needs and favors.
“Marketplace can be: I’m looking for a stroller. I’m driving to a training if anyone needs a ride. I can offer help with a resume,” Anna said. “It’s this exchange of human capital right then and there while always providing dinner, childcare, a welcoming space, a friendly space. It’s this thing that we’ve created from Bill’s model. In East Boston, it’s in Spanish. We’ve been doing this for less than a year and it’s become a real component. This is what UCB looks like in real time.”
Network Nights have facilitated discussions that are often led by some of UCB’s 23 Network Leaders, residents of the community who serve as liaisons between UCB and potential new members through establishing trust. Network Leaders sign a membership commitment alongside their recruits to set a tone of equal footing right from the beginning.
And it’s working. At a recent Network Night, one of the leaders who lives in public housing apartments across the street from UCB had voiced concerns about human feces in stairwells, drug dealing, a child having to step over a person who had overdosed and an overall lack of safety. While banding together, UCB members requested more security cameras, new locks and better relationships with Boston police and the Boston Public Housing Authority.
“They got all of those things done,” Eric said. “And it wasn’t our app. It wasn’t the points that got it done. It was all of our members who did it. UCB was the connecting point to create something like that. Our mission isn’t around housing or safety in a neighborhood. It’s all of those things and that’s what they took it for. It was a tool that they took advantage of in the best of ways.”
“For myself on nights like that, I’m an introverted person and not always comfortable in large group settings, but I always come away having a really warm feeling,” said Anna. “I leave the night with lots of hugs and seeing people that I care about, not people that I’m serving or they’re my client or they’re asking something of me. Just people that I genuinely wanted to see, they wanted to see me and we were at the same level in the relationship. I think that’s incredibly important in what we try to do. I’m not bringing anything to this night that’s any better than what you’re bringing. Yes, I’m leaving this community and going home to a community that has a lot more opportunity and services and resources, but I want to be part of this community. I think there always needs to be this tension of making sure that we’re always listening to our place in this conversation and we aren’t in an assuming position. And if we are the loudest voice, we are using it on behalf of a collective interest. It’s not just us being loud because we can be.”
To get to know Eric and Anna is to understand that those words are honest, genuine and at the heart of both of the siblings’ work. Their way of thinking grew from seeds that were planted early in their childhoods by civically engaged parents and teachers, they said. As children, the Leslies became mindful of not taking for granted their early opportunities, which not only included a loving nuclear family, but also a family dog, two cats and weekend trips to Vermont.
“Cambridge is a funky place to grow up, but it’s also a place of extreme privilege, and even more so today than when we were growing up,” said Eric. “I think we were fortunate to gradually become aware as children that we were well off. We had access to educational opportunities, and others didn’t.”
Their mother and father, teachers of wildlife and alternative education, respectively, facilitated natural discussions at the dinner table with questions similar to the ones that are presently emerging at UCB’s table talks. “Why is that? What is the impact of that? What can you do about it?” Those recurring questions complemented early education at Cambridge Friends School, an institution with a similar focus on civic engagement.
“Grammar and arithmetic are not our strong suits, but social justice and equity amongst all people, that’s where the emphasis was placed in our elementary education,” Anna said. “And then we went home to an environment that was not the antithesis of that.”
And so they share this honest and often unspoken acknowledgement that just as they had done nothing special to be given early opportunities in their youth, the young child across the street from their office today had done nothing to warrant having to step through an opioid crisis in order to get to school.
Anna, who early in her career worked as a teacher in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and Eric, who worked as a teacher and principal for several years in Philadelphia, said that their time in those roles brought their attention to the link between low-income areas and failing institutions.
Anna recalled the lack of a kitchen in her New Orleans school, where meals were brought in and reheated. She remembers feeling torn over having the kids follow the rules of “this is lunch time, you need nutrients” and watching them struggle with stomaching the unsavory meals. She witnessed the disconnect between inputs and expected outputs, an observation that inspired her to begin focusing her career on public health. Today, she works part-time as Coordinator of Allston Brighton Health Collaborative.
Like his sister, Eric experienced frustration when attempting to look through the eyes of his students. The success of the children within the school’s walls contrasted starkly with their fight to simply survive outside of them, he said. He remembers a girl who had arrived at his school in 5th grade, a year that had brought her significant academic struggle. After just two years of hard work from the student and school staff, the girl had become one of the most studious and successful children in the building.
Eric felt as though the school had done its job, but a phone call came in that made him realize that progress for this girl, and for many of his students, wasn’t always going to be so straightforward. He had learned that she had exited the school bus one stop early in order to punch another student in the face. It was a report that flabbergasted him. As principal, he called the student and her mother into his office.
“I said, ‘Help me understand,’ ” Eric recalled. “‘Everything we have built here and you have exemplified, the values on the walls and our shirts and the messages and the opportunities you are creating for yourself could’ve been thrown away in an instant if a police patrol car had been by.’ And she said, ‘Mr. Leslie, all of the things in here are good, but you know it’s just in here.’ ”
In that moment, Eric said he began to understand that the incident wasn’t because of a failure of the school. It wasn’t her parent’s failure, either.
“It turns out there was a rational choice that she had to make because of disagreements within families, and that had been fostered by oppression and distrust by this pulling apart of resources and opportunities,” he said.
It was a realization that rocked him and encouraged him to seek other solutions. The journey brought him to New Zealand, where Eric took a sabbatical as his wife, who had just become a doctor, began practicing medicine in the third-poorest rural community in that country. It was there that another unexpected lesson hit him in a life-changing way.
“We went from dense, urban poverty and oppression in Philadelphia to a rural, expansive kind of southern hemisphere poverty, and it was the same,” Eric said. “The problems and challenges they were presenting in the examination room were the same — obesity, depression, domestic violence and everything that comes from that in the health perspective. And so, just to feel that and understand that was disturbingly comforting in the sense that there are things we’re messing up and we need to do better in Philly or Boston or anywhere. There’s also a real human condition and a real challenge with capitalism and our world structures. One challenge in our little town in New Zealand was that the food that was available was fast food and that’s where you ate and you were obese. And that was the same in north Philadelphia.”
He went on to observe a rewards program that was common in New Zealand, where points were earned by doing business with many different companies. Businesses profited and individuals benefited from rewards, Eric said. One day, as he went running with his young daughter in a jogging stroller down New Zealand streets, the concept for UCB was born.
“I envisioned the map of a town and thought of the web of connected activities and asked, ‘What if that same principle could be applied to community engagement?’ ” Eric said. “Rather than corporate institutions, it’s nonprofit institutions, and rather than people and profit, it’s community wellbeing and opportunity. We reward those activities and behaviors and we connect with those institutions that are bringing health and vibrancy here.”
Upon returning to the United States, Eric attended Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he worked to flesh out the idea, a process that had the encouragement and support of his sister, who now works as the Director of Development for UCB alongside a core team of people who the Leslies are proud to recognize.
Laura Ballek, who has been with UCB since its inception, works full time as its Chief of Networks and is credited with having great “energy and ingenuity” for the nonprofit. Jalina Suggs joined UCB in June as Network Coordinator. The Leslies attribute the success and popularity of Network Nights to Suggs’ “efforts and enthusiasm for the model.” Diana Garcia, one of UCB’s 23 Network Leaders, who the Leslies call “essential to growing the network authentically and methodically,” has taken on additional responsibilities as Network Leader Support. In addition, UCB has a Board of Directors who have been “constant cheerleaders, thought partners, and supporters of something fairly unusual,” the Leslies said.
Today, both siblings have established residences once again in Cambridge, where their parents still live. The Leslie family, which has grown in number, still takes weekend trips to Vermont, where Anna has learned the skill of gardening, an activity that she brings back to life in the city with her partner thanks to a four-by-four-foot parcel for plantings there.
“Eric takes 90 percent of the credit in introducing me to him,” she says of the man she met in New Zealand while visiting her brother.
Eric is now a father to two- and six-year-old daughters alongside his wife, a woman who Anna says has been a “sister” for more than half of Anna’s life. Family and civic engagement continue to be his passions.
And even after accomplishing so much, neither sibling is ready to rest or declare victory on the civic engagement front. Just one of the many conversations happening at UCB and at Network Nights with nonprofit partners, for example, relates to the deteriorating quality of the city’s bus service. While there is tremendous public awareness around the under-resourced subway and commuter lines, “imagine the buses,” they both said, adding that a bus rider doesn’t tend to have nearly as powerful of a voice as other commuters, and that conditions have become dire.
To help bring voice to the issue and many others, Eric points to the historic grassroots gatherings in church basements and union halls that facilitated change decades ago. The meetings are exactly the kind of in-person networking that need to return today, he said.
“The literal infrastructure of communication that had to be built (prior to the Digital Age) does not exist today, and we hope that we can be a part of building that back up,” he said. “That hope that people who have been oppressed and are being taken advantage of and do not have access to ways of power, do themselves have power. When they come together, things really do change. It takes a long time to build that. We’re in that long game. Just keep doing these nights over and over again. It’s the church basement over and over again. It’s the union hall over and over again. Anna and I won’t necessarily be the ones to call for a bus boycott, but when that day comes, our network will be there.”
Written By Andrea Cale, The Good News Experiment
For more information on UCB or to donate any amount to its work, please visit unioncapitalboston.org.
UCB’s supporters include John Hancock, Santander, SVP Boston, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley and the Walton Family Foundation. Additional support comes from UCB’s nonprofit partners, which are called “anchor institutions” and “satellite partners.” These nonprofit participants benefit from promoting their calendar of events and classes on UCB’s app. In addition, people who are served by the nonprofit partners receive UCB’s offerings. The three anchor institutions are Urban Edge, KIPP Academy and East Boston Neighborhood Health Center. UCB’s satellite partners are: Jeremiah Burke School, Haynes EEC, Martin L. King Jr. School, Determined Divas Civic Challenge, DSNI, East Boston Community Soup Kitchen, The Family Exchange, Higher Ground, Match Charter Public School, Nurtury, Phenomenal Moms, Uncommon Schools Roxbury Prep, Transitional Remedies Solutions and YMCA Greater Boston.
Eric and Anna’s story is part of The Good News Experiment, an initiative to recognize neighborhood innovators and volunteers in partnership with Mothers for Justice and Equality. The stories highlight human connections following a year that has often focused on division. The feature stories are a non-fiction spinoff of Cale’s novel, The Corn Husk Experiment, which explores the lives of five characters who have unexpected connections with each other. The novel will be released in May. For more information or to follow other stories of The Good News Experiment, please visit andreacalebooks.com/blog.
Eric and Anna were nominated for The Good News Experiment by Julie Nations, Sr. Coordinator, Communications & Community Engagement at The MetroHealth System (Cleveland, OH).