Three hundred Boston-area civic and business leaders came together to honor legendary social activist Mel King at the UMass Boston Center for Collaborative Leadership’s fifth annual Building a Better Boston Award Breakfast on Friday at the Seaport World Trade Center.
For more than sixty years, King has served as an educator, youth worker, activist, community organizer and developer, elected politician, and author. He has stood up to injustice, made sure Boston lives up to its promise, and inspired younger generations of city leaders to follow in his path.
“Mel is a groundbreaker. He has both broken glass ceilings and opened doors,” said Felix Arroyo, the chief of health and human services in Boston.
Arroyo, who spoke on behalf of Mayor Marty Walsh, said he has known King his whole life. His parents still display a photo of him as a toddler in a Mel King for Mayor campaign office.
King was the first African American to win Boston’s preliminary election for mayor, losing to Raymond Flynn in the 1983 election, but changing the conversation about who deserved to be sitting at the table. He founded the Rainbow Coalition, which brought together people from all walks of life.
“At the time, many of us were on the outside of the political discussions in Boston. Mel worked to make sure that we weren’t,” Arroyo said. “He demonstrated how to take action. His historic campaign was a major milestone in the city’s long road toward justice and equity.”
The Center for Collaborative Leadership’s Building a Better Boston Award recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to advancing the region through their work as conveners and collaborators. Past recipients include Amy Latimer, Michelle Shell, Richard Holbrook, and William “Mo” Cowan.
Latimer, president of TD Garden, presented King with his award, calling him an architect of building a better Boston and saying, “I’m just not sure there’s anybody more deserving of this award.”
King thanked his supporters after receiving a standing ovation, asking that they also give themselves a round of applause.
“No one person solely can make this world a better place, can make Boston a better place. It’s bringing people together, and you do that with a sense of power of love,” King said. “When you think of it, a power of love opens doors and … the love of power has built fences.”
The Center for Collaborative Leadership houses the Emerging Leaders Program (ELP), founded by former UMass Boston Chancellor Sherry Penny and social justice activist Hubie Jones. Like King, they saw the need for inclusive and collaborative leadership in Boston that reflected the demographics of the city.
There are currently more than 600 ELP alumni; Thirty-six percent are people of color and 58 percent are women. They lead nonprofit organizations, own businesses, serve the commonwealth and city, and serve as philanthropists, mentors and leaders.
“UMass Boston Emerging Leaders have emerged, and they are everywhere,” Center for Collaborative Leadership Director Lisa DeAngelis said.
DeAngelis said King embodies the kind of collaborative leadership her center strives for.
“The art of leadership lies in doing what’s right, not what’s easy, and in doing it in a way that invites others to join you in the work,” DeAngelis said.
King served as a state representative from 1973 to 1982. He also served as an adjunct professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Never one to back down from the struggles he believes in, King is a constant force in providing a voice for communities of color.
He is responsible for creating community programs and institutions that have positively changed the lives of disenfranchised people across the city of Boston. Upon his retirement from MIT, King established the South End Technology Center to provide computer training for low-income people.
UMass President Marty Meehan thanked King for his selfless, tireless work over the course of his career, dedicating himself to education.
“I believe, as Mel believed, that education is critically important. Mel began his career as a teacher,” Meehan said. “We thank you for changing countless lives and improving this city and the commonwealth, and we get the fact you would be the first person to say we have a long way to go.”
UMass Boston Chancellor J. Keith Motley, in a video recording, thanked King for being a mentor.
"To me, you are an inspiration,” Motley said. “You lead by example, and you lead by supporting those around you and giving them the tools to succeed, and become leaders themselves.”
King — who wore a bright T-shirt that read, “Teamwork makes the dream work” — told the Building a Better Boston audience that he learned from an early age the importance of working in a way “where we really believe in liberty and justice for all.”
“I’ve tried to honor that all of the days that I’ve been able to be on this earth… all of us together make the dream work. All of us together make the kind of thing that we’re talking about here today- make Boston a better place.”