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The road to leadership was the focus of the 2013 Ethnic Minority Affairs conference

Christine Boseman

EMAC Chair Christine Boseman led conference participants in a moment of silence for Nelson Mandela.

Building professional networks, hearing from ethnic minorities who faced and surmounted roadblocks as they became leaders themselves, and attending an array of informative workshops were the highlights of this year’s Ethnic Minority Affairs Committee conference on December 6 and 7.

More than 110 participants listened to inspiring speakers and attended workshops over the course of the weekend at the Sheraton Framingham. Sessions included “Family and Community School Partnerships,” “Facing History and Ourselves” and an “Analysis of the Portrayal of African-Americans in the movies ‘Django’ and ‘Lincoln.’ "

The conference began Friday with a moment of silence for human and civil rights icon Nelson Mandela of South Africa, who died Thursday, Dec. 5 at the age of 95.

EMAC Chair Christine Boseman welcomed the crowd and called for greater activism by ethnic minorities in the MTA and in the National Education Association.

“I like to point out that all human beings are part of some ethnic group, and most people find themselves in the minority at some point in their lives,” she said. “But EMAC’s mission statement specifies that our committee be particularly concerned about increasing participation” by ethnic minority members. She implored members to join committees and watch for opportunities to serve. “For everyone, time is an issue,” she said. “But I find that if the cause is important enough, most people find a way to make time.”

The keynote address was delivered by Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong, now in her fourth term. Wong, first elected at the age of 28, is the first ethnic minority mayor in Fitchburg’s almost 250-year history and the first female Asian-American mayor in Massachusetts.

She told conference participants that one of her greatest accomplishments as mayor has been “tearing down the walls” between departments, people and institutions. Collaboration between the police, the city and the schools, for example, has brought a new, positive focus to creating activities for young people in the city. She said that inviting artists into a collaboration between Fitchburg State University, the schools and the city “just grew and grew.”

Wong credits her success to the strong family legacy of education built by her grandmother, an orphan in China who fled the Cultural Revolution and moved to Hong Kong. A factory worker, she had six children, but she wouldn’t let any of them work in the factory even though the family needed the income. Instead, each of the children would get an education and hold a professional degree. Wong said she is “living out the values that were instilled” by her grandmother.

Juan Nuñez, former chief diversity officer at UMass Boston and an inclusion specialist, spoke to conference participants on Saturday.

In his introduction, MTA President Paul Toner said Nuñez “has taken the lessons that life has doled out and turned them into positive ones.” He said that while at UMass, Nuñez “advanced a campus climate that was respectful and supportive of academic, social and personal development.” Toner said that Nuñez managed his own career trajectory by using a combination of flexibility and strategic planning and by “working harder than others, taking on problems and dealing with issues that others avoided, and not dwelling on the negative.”

Nuñez said his family, which moved to the United States so the children could get an education, prepared him to take on life’s challenges, but not before he experienced the contradictory and confusing messages that ethnic minorities sometimes face.

He recounted his early career in sales in a major drug company, saying he was one of the most productive in his group and had been told that he would be promoted in two years if he hit certain benchmarks. He did meet his sales numbers, only to find out that in fact he would not be promoted, and he was eventually fired. The person who replaced him, he said, “did not look like me” and was promoted despite lesser qualifications. 

But with much perseverance, going on to get college degrees and seeking out the right mentors, Nuñez learned to “manage” negative experiences and stay positive. “I dealt with it, I thought about it, and I moved on,” he said.

The Ethnic Minority Affairs Committee was founded in 1979 to implement the MTA Ethnic Minority Involvement Plan, which is designed to increase the participation of members from diverse backgrounds in all phases of the association.

A full set of photos of the Ethnic Minority Affairs Committee Conference is available on the MTA's Flickr page .