Investor Interviews: Eric Leslie
Partnership. Creativity. This quarter for our Spring 2022 Investor Update, we sat down with a group of five esteemed Ujima Fund Investors.
Eric Leslie is a Cambridge, MA-based father and founder of Union Capital Boston. During high school in the 1990’s, he fell in love with community organizing after joining Project HIP HOP, a youth organization that trains young people to be cultural organizers. After receiving his B.A. at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Md., he relocated to Philadelphia, PA., to receive an Master’s of Education at Saint Joesph’s University. He went on to spend his time as an educator in North Philadelphia, eventually becoming a Principal at KIPP Charter School. After returning to his roots in Cambride, MA in 2013, he founded Union Capital Boston, where he currently works as Lead Organizer.
Tell me about the organization you founded.
UCB is an attempt to transform social capital into opportunity by rewarding community engagement. Community and civic engagement are immensely valuable. It creates social capital. But, we usually take it for granted. Like, “you should volunteer. Why aren’t you at this community meeting?” And it’s like “I’ve got stuff to do. I don’t have time to. I’ve got to take a shift off of work. I’ve gotta get the laundry done.” But when we’re in these spaces, powerful things happen. And so let’s reward it. Let’s recognize that value. So, we created the rewards program.
We’ve been able to distribute over $1.5 million and put into people’s pockets since 2014. I think the final exciting point, though, [is] seeing what emerges through 3,500 members of ours at our Network Nights: the anecdotes, and stories, of people forming and starting actions and campaigns.
Our members started to organize and take action at Mildred Haley apartments, part of Boston Housing Authority. The residents worked with Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), the Tenant Task Force, and other organizations, to petition the candidates for mayor for $50 million dollars of ARPA funding to renovate and rehab Mildred Haley apartments. And they got it. They won. There was a press conference in January announcing it. $50 million to come and do mold abatements, pest removal, [and more]. It’s people’s own resolve, and self determination. And, simply, our tools, support, and infrastructure sparked that and made that possible. That’s what excites me.
“If we repeat the same habits of capital gains, of past white generations, we’re just perpetuating and passing on the same class divides and habits to new generations of people that might be of different races and colors but will perpetuate many of the same inequities. And if we can stay grounded in people and in relationships, and in the songs and stories, then my God, we have to do it differently.”
How did the partnership begin, in your eyes?
Rev. Mariama White-Hammond and I were in Project Hip Hop together as 15-year-olds, Mariama, after college, became the executive director of Project HIP HOP, and led it for many years. And I think she, at the same time, [was in conversation with] Aaron [Tanaka], who was bringing on Nia [K. Evans] and started to build the idea of Ujima.
There was a demonstration day. I was out of town, I couldn’t go. But we promoted it with our members. And we’re delighted to see several of our members come out to this new thing. And Rev. Mariama, among others were like, “Yeah, you really should just try to connect.” There are two organizations, who are working in parallel ways, both trying to think differently about money, power, racist systems, and inequity, in the same geography and with the same people. It just made sense to try to figure out how could we support each other.
And so out of that idea, you, Mariama, and maybe Aaron, and Nia get together and have a conversation. What was the conversation? What was the catalyst?
[When we started UCB] we asked our members where they wanted the rewards to go. And they voted and said, “Look, money is what matters.”
The best way that we can quickly get money into their pockets is on a Visa gift card. It means you don’t have to have an account, you don’t have to deal with checks, and you don’t need social security numbers. We’re going to print [the UCB Visa Gift Card] out and ship it to you. But this also has a limitation. You’re not going to build wealth. It’s not reloadable. Once you use the money, it’s gone.
And so, [the question was] how could we provide other ways for people to use their money, build it in small ways to generate wealth and income. And I think, most importantly, to be investing back into the community where they live. This is something that many of our members were very passionate about.
So some of [the original conversation] were just like how can we share information with each other? How can we get members connected? From that point, though, it’s like we’re building this fund, what are some ways that we could support it?
“We see the power of organized money. The power of positional power, or of weaponry, of mass militarization. And what we don’t see as easily, but man it is beautiful and powerful when we observe it, is the power of organized people.”
Earlier, you talked about the interconnectedness of systemic issues. Looking out at the landscape in Boston, what do you hope partnerships like this one can accomplish?
In one word, power. And underneath that is understanding that power, in the dictionary definition, is the ability to act or influence others to act on your behalf. And in Spanish, there’s a much better word, it’s poder. It’s both power and ability.
We see the power of organized money. The power of positional power, or of weaponry, of mass militarization. And what we don’t see as easily, but man it is beautiful and powerful when we observe it, is the power of organized people. And so when I think about what’s going locally, I look at Mildred Haley apartments. I see that 50 residents, out of 750 units or more, are meeting, petitioning, speaking up, representing where they live, resulting in $50 million dollars. It was a lot of work. And it also wasn’t rocket science. It was methodical work.
What I see in our partnership, is the cultivation of spaces, and having an idea to change something. Whether that is around starting a business, growing and developing wealth, bringing in a new policy or advocate, or simply to just have a fun time on a Saturday at the park or a festival. All of those things are interconnected, and what makes life beautiful. And it keeps us focused on the people and in relationship.
Even as we work to organize money and recognize that we’ve got to close these wealth gaps. If we repeat the same habits of capital gains, of past white generations, we’re just perpetuating and passing on the same class divides and habits to new generations of people that might be of different races and colors but will perpetuate many of the same inequities. And if we can stay grounded in people and in relationships, and in the songs and stories, then my God, we have to do it differently. ◼︎
Union Capital Boston transforms social capital into opportunity by rewarding community engagement. They combine technology and relationship-building to strengthen community networks, build social capital, and create new pathways of opportunity for individuals and communities. Learn more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.