Eric and Anna Leslie’s story is being told as part of
“The Good News Experiment" for their work with Union Capital Boston
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
BOSTON — Eric and Anna Leslie, siblings from Cambridge, Mass, are being recognized for their exceptional commitment to civic engagement as part of The Good News Experiment, an initiative that highlights stories of “helpers,” local people who are doing outstanding volunteerism or innovative neighborhood work.
The siblings’ story is being featured because of their work with Union Capital Boston (UCB), a nonprofit organization based in Roxbury, Mass., which allows members of under-resourced communities to earn rewards in the form of Visa gift cards after participating in civic activities in four areas — education, health, finance and community. Members log activities by “checking in” on UCB’s mobile device app, taking selfies during the civic activity or filling out paper forms.
In addition, the Leslies participate in “Network Nights” alongside UCB staff and nonprofit partners. The grassroots gatherings offer UCB members opportunities to make new connections and unite for positive community changes.
Eric Leslie founded the organization nearly four years ago after a sabbatical in New Zealand where he had observed a “win-win” rewards structure between many businesses and residents. He recognized the opportunity to build a similar structure in the United States while shifting the focus to rewarding civic activities with a web of non-profit partners. Today, Anna Leslie works alongside him as his sister and also as UCB’s Director of Development. She also works part- time as Coordinator of Allston Brighton Health Collaborative.
Just one of many examples that paints a picture of their impact involves a member who had signed up for the organization 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 Leslie said, but every dollar of his income had already been allocated toward making ends meet. Shortly after joining UCB, the member logged his civic activities and earned a 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 Leslie said.
UCB 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. While the much-needed funds are often members’ initial draw to the organization, longer lasting benefits include education, a feeling of civic engagement, social networking and a variety of new tools and skills.
The Leslies’s passion for social equity grew from seeds that were planted early in their childhoods by civic-minded 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.
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 Network Nights. “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.
Today, UCB’s Network Nights have become one of the most powerful aspects of the organization’s work, the Leslies said. The gatherings take place at UCB’s warm and open meeting space on Columbus Avenue in Roxbury and additionally at the locations of core partners including Urban Edge, KIPP Academy and East Boston Neighborhood Health Center. The nights are modeled after programs 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 Leslie 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.”
As part of The Good News Experiment, a more extensive feature story on the siblings’ work is being told through blog and social media formats in an effort to highlight human connections at a time when stories are often featuring division. The Good News Experiment was created through a partnership between Mothers for Justice and Equality Founder and President Monalisa Smith and writer Andrea Cale, author of The Corn Husk Experiment, a novel that carries a similar theme of unexpected human connections. Prior to their present positions, the women sat back-to-back in a public affairs department of a large bank in Boston. As part of their partnership today, Smith leverages her knowledge of community work to gather ideas about potential honorees in her service area and others. In turn, Cale leverages her background in journalism to write and share the feature-style stories on the helpers. They have begun sharing stories in their home state of Massachusetts, but they welcome nominations from throughout the country. Those interested in this good news effort may visit andreacalebooks.com/blog to read the siblings’ full feature story, nominate an individual or group for a feature story or read inspiring stories of other honorees.
Mothers for Justice and Equality was founded in Boston in 2010 by Smith and other mothers who had lost family members to community violence. Today, more than 500 members come to MJE’s “kitchen table,” an office space in Roxbury, Massachusetts, where neighborhood mothers receive tools to become community leaders. For more information, please visit mothersforjusticeandequality.org.
“Mothers for Justice and Equality shares Eric and Anna’s passion for social equity,” said Smith. “Through The Good News Experiment, we’re pleased to tell their story, one that has included supporting a group of UCB members in nearby public housing as they requested and succeeded in getting more security cameras, new locks and new relationships with Boston officials after experiencing safety concerns. Thank you, Anna and Eric, for your commitment and for this inspiring news.”
For more information on UCB, please visit unioncapitalboston.org. The Leslies work alongside a core team of people who they 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, they said. 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.