Paving the Way Forward: Honoring Black Changemakers and Their Leadership

BY Luisa Muñoz

Feb 15 2024

Every February, as we commemorate Black History Month, we pause to reflect on the remarkable achievements and contributions of Black individuals throughout history. While we take time to acknowledge the past, we must also look towards the future and take meaningful action to disrupt racism and shape a future free of systemic barriers. 

With this in mind, we are honored to shine a spotlight on the impactful work and leadership of several of our Black-led partner organizations. These leaders exemplify how their own lived experiences profoundly influence their approach to leadership across impact areas of economic inclusion, housing, education, and youth empowerment. They are at the helm of organizations that champion equity and justice, actively shaping a future free of systemic barriers by promoting economic prosperity in communities impacted by racism and underinvestment. 

This year, we are celebrating Black History Month by uplifting the work and leadership of individuals and organizations that are centering community voice and experiences to advance an equitable region.  This post highlights two such organizations that are impact partners of United Way of Massachusetts Bay – EDEN and Sportsmen’s Tennis and Enrichment Center.  Learn more about these changemakers who are breaking historical barriers and creating spaces where everyone, regardless of background, can rise to positions of influence and make a meaningful impact. 

Empowered and Dedicated to Edify the Nation, Inc -EDEN:

EDEN’s mission is to empower families to break the cycle of multigenerational poverty and homelessness. Eighty-four percent of their clients are mothers who identify as BIPOC (including new arrivals and survivors of domestic violence). Through compassionate and holistic case management, clinical therapeutic support, wellness programs, workforce development, financial literacy workshops, and even limited legal services, EDEN equips families with the necessary skills, knowledge, and resources for sustainable economic mobility, and financial stability.  

EDEN's commitment to racial equity is deeply intertwined with its mission. By actively fighting structural racism and placing racial equity at the forefront, both EDEN's executive leadership team and staff faithfully reflect the essence of the communities they serve. Each member brings a unique blend of personal experience and professional expertise to the table, ensuring that EDEN's approach is deeply rooted in cultural understanding and sensitivity. 

Dr. Jehu Leconte, the Founder and CEO of EDEN, brings a deeply personal perspective to the organization's mission. Hailing from Haiti, where he grappled with the harsh realities of housing and food insecurity, along with his tenure as a shelter director in Brockton, brings invaluable insight into the challenges faced by unhoused families during and after their time in shelters. Co-founder and COO, Deidra Leconte, draws from her own childhood spent in Dorchester shelters with her mom, shaping her empathy and understanding of the struggles faced by EDEN's participants. Annette Hinton, Board Treasurer, navigated single motherhood amidst housing insecurity, fueling her passionate advocacy for homeless justice within EDEN.  

What is one leadership insight that you use to drive success within your organization? 

Leconte: Part of my leadership insight is to focus on refining and cultivating my purpose to better serve my community. I believe that when a leader is guided by a clear purpose, they not only prevent misuse of their position but also inspire and educate others to find their own path. Purpose, to me, is the cornerstone of impactful leadership. 

Any other thoughts regarding your leadership style or professional journey you'd like to share? 

Leconte: Grace, Love and Forgiveness. As leaders, if we operate with Grace, harbor sincere Love in our hearts, and are willing to Forgive ourselves and others more quickly, the leadership journey will be truly rewarding. 

What are you most excited about your organization accomplishing over the coming year? 

Leconte: We are thrilled to announce the launch of our newest initiative called T.H.R.I.V.E., which stands for Training & Helping Residents in Valuable Employment, through the Neighborhood Job Training program. This initiative is designed to empower and support underrepresented residents, enabling them to receive training and thrive in their careers. 

Sportsmen's Tennis & Enrichment Center- STEC

For over 60 years, STEC, founded as the first African American tennis club in the US, has transformed the lives of thousands of youth from low and moderate-income minority neighborhoods such as Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, Hyde Park, South Boston, and Jamaica Plain, where challenges like poverty, youth violence, chronic disease, and educational disparities persist. 

Annually, STEC engages 5,000 BIPOC youths, prioritizing holistic youth development through academic, wellness and social development programs alongside recreational and competitive tennis instruction. Their School to Sportsmen’s initiative supports students from five low-performing elementary schools in these neighborhoods through personalized tutoring and enrichment activities such as art and tennis. STEC promotes LGBTQ+ inclusion and adaptive tennis through partnerships like Tennis4All and Special Olympics. Collaborating with the Department of Public Health and local shelters, STEC supports homeless families and youth facing family challenges. Recognized with the USTA Chapter of the Year award in 2021, STEC excels in youth development through tennis. 

Reflecting the diversity of the Blue Hill Corridor community, many staff members, including most of their leadership team, either currently reside in or have roots in the area. Some were former program participants who returned as teachers, tutors, and coaches, bringing a wealth of firsthand experience and an inclusive approach to their programs. This includes leaders such as Toni Wiley, who has served as Executive Director and CEO of Sportsmen’s since 2008. As a single parent who grew up in Dorchester and currently resides in Mattapan, Toni intimately understands the need for quality and affordable out-of-school time care. With extensive corporate and nonprofit leadership experience dedicated to ending domestic violence and family homelessness, Toni brings valuable insights to her role.  

What is one leadership insight that you use to drive success within your organization? 

Wiley: My personal philosophy, which I hope permeates my leadership style and Sportsmen's as a whole, is that we always have to keep learning.  Knowledge is never wasted!  What we learn on the job today will benefit us and our communities for decades to come.  We want our classroom teachers to WANT to be professional educators, our coaches to WANT to be certified, and our administrative staff to WANT to grow into whatever position and function excites them. We support that type of growth and investment at all levels of the organization. 

Any other thoughts regarding your leadership style or professional journey you'd like to share? 

Wiley: I would remind everyone that the path forward is not always linear. Mine has certainly not been!  I've journeyed from the corporate world to the non-profit sector, from international logistics to tennis, education, health, and wellness, with stops along the way working in and learning about domestic violence, sexual assault, Jewish education, and homelessness.  Never, ever stop learning and growing! 

The insights shared by leaders like Dr. Jehu Leconte and Toni Wiley highlight the importance of purpose-driven leadership, continuous learning, and the transformative potential of grace, love, and forgiveness in our leadership journeys. 

Sustaining Change Beyond Black History Month 

By embracing diversity in our partnerships, organizations not only gain unique perspectives but also foster innovation and contribute to a richer, more comprehensive approach to addressing societal challenges. Sustainable change requires continuous commitment and investment from individuals, communities, and organizations alike. While one-time gestures of support are valuable, it is the ongoing, sustained efforts that truly drive long-term impact and transformation. 

Join us in carrying forward the spirit of Black History Month throughout the year as we collectively strive for a more just and equitable world for generations to come. Together, let us continue to honor Black changemakers not just in February but every day, as we work towards a future defined by equality, opportunity, and collective prosperity.