Ujima Interviews: Luis Cotto

Boston Ujima Project
4 min readApr 5, 2023

STANDARDS. COMMUNITIES. VALUES. This quarter for our Spring 2023 Investor Update, we sat down with members of our Community Standards Committee.

There is one crucial body without which Ujima’s mission would be impossible: our Community Standards Committee (CSC). The CSC is an elected group that ensures our investments align with our values and that plays a key role in developing Ujima’s Good Business Alliance (UGBA). As a steward of Ujima’s 36 Good Business Standards, the CSC partners directly with businesses throughout the UGBA application process. They hold businesses accountable and offer support where needed, ensuring that our investments continue to meet our communities’ needs. We invite you to celebrate the contributions of our CSC members, who bring diverse backgrounds in social impact and community power, embodying different dimensions of our ecosystem.

Luis Cotto is a cultural worker with more than three decades of work in Hartford, DC, Seattle, and now, the Greater Boston area. A former owner/operator of an independent coffeehouse and bookstore in Hartford, CT, Luis has since worked to highlight and support “third places” in Black and Brown communities.

Cotto was the Executive Director of Egleston Square Main Street in Roxbury/Jamaica Plain where he established his own brand of “placekeeping,” followed by his work with the Mass Cultural Council in charge of the state arts agency’s Cultural District initiative. Most recently, he served as Executive Director for the Central Square BID in Cambridge, where he lives with his partner and son.

Paige Curtis: What made you want to get involved with the Community Standards Committee?

Luis Cotto: Well, the mission of the committee really appealed to me personally. Like other aspects of Ujima, the CSC members are nominated by the community and then people have the opportunity to vote on the candidates they like best. I was a solidarity member and was fortunate enough to be nominated, but it was very out of the blue! To this day, I don’t know who nominated me. But, I told myself that if I were elected, I promised to really invest the time to do this work well, and that’s what we did. We spent the first two years of the committee meeting to develop the standards, and it was an amazing experience.

Which one of the 36 Community Standards most resonates with you?

There are a couple of standards around civic participation and civic engagement that I think are really important. This includes how to make voting available to employees and the wider public. There’s also some standards around purchasing from enterprises in the business alliance, as a way of continuing solidarity economy practices.

I really like the standards around protections for all people, irrespective of their documentation status or their gender identity, which forced some great conversations among more traditional mom and pop businesses, that may not have considered it otherwise. Underlying all of these standards is a basic respect for individuals as humans. A lot of businesses have these intentions, but may not know how to implement them.

Can you share a major win you experienced while working with the CSC?

So I’m not originally from Boston, I’m from Hartford, CT. I’m a Hartford boy. But I’ve lived in Boston with my family for ten years, and Egleston is my second home. There is a nativist undercurrent to Boston where outsiders aren’t always accepted. So it’s been incredible to meet and work with some warriors doing great things in the community, and know that I’m part of this network too.

I’m also very proud of the work we’ve done as a committee in the last six months, steadily meeting to approve new businesses in the alliance. We’re starting to see more of the fruits of our labor, and it’s really exciting. I’d say the attribute that all of our businesses in the alliance have in common is that they’re led by awesome people. Everyone has a great story that got them to this point in time. As a committee our role is really to help these businesses get to where they’re destined to go.

What is your dream for the future of the CSC?

The fact that Ujima was able to congregate folks even throughout the pandemic is incredible, and it would be amazing to see how this community in the network can keep coming together.

I think a lot of people would love to participate in the Community Standards committee, but may not have the luxury of time. So, I love the fact that the standards committee is made up of people from the community, in such a way that people who aren’t from Boston — folks like me — can be elected based on their values. Without this kind of participatory process, it would recreate those common dynamics of needing to know someone to participate. ♡

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Boston Ujima Project

THE BOSTON UJIMA PROJECT is organizing neighbors, workers, business owners and investors to create a new community controlled economy in Boston.