Ujima Fund Investor Report Interview: Marie St. Fleur
December 13th, 2021 -- Sustainability. Legacy. Futurity. This quarter for our Winter 2021 Investor Update, we sat down with a group of four esteemed Ujima Fund Investors.
Marie St. Fleur received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and received her law degree from the Boston College Law School. In 1999, Marie ran and won the race to become the Massachusetts State Representative of Dorchester and Roxbury, where she held that office for 11 years. She became the first Haitian-American person to hold a public office in Massachusetts. While in office, she was the vice-chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Marie also served as the Chair of the Joint Committee on Education, Arts, and Humanities, and led the establishment of the new Massachusetts Board and Department of Early Education and Care. Most recently, Marie served as the Executive Director of King Boston, a nonprofit working to create a living memorial and programs honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, and their time and work together in Boston. She is the principal of St. Fleur Communications.
James Vamboi: Thank you for making time to chat with us, Marie. I’m really excited. My name is James Vamboi, Chief of Staff, Community and Culture at Ujima. We’re here to learn more about you, and why you invest in our work. But before we jump into that I’m curious to know a little bit about you. Where did you get your name from?
Marie: Marie St. Fleur, huh? (laughs) Well I guess that was my father. I’m Haitian-American. I was actually born in Haiti and immigrated here when I was six years old. Haiti was colonized, so I presume that the St. Fleur is the slave name that we got from whoever on the plantation that my ancestors labored on. I kept my dad’s name. It’s a French name. We were colonized by the French, and by the Spanish for a period, but overwhelmingly the length of the colonization was by the French. We obtained our independence from the French, and have the proud, and sad, distinction of being the first Black republic. [We are] still struggling to come out from under the yoke of slavery. That’s, kind of, how I see where we are. The fact that we liberated ourselves from the chains doesn’t absolutely mean that we are enjoying freedom today. It’s still a struggle. That’s roughly how my name came about.
I am the eldest daughter of my family. We were lucky. We had parents who were very forward thinking about making certain that we were independent women, that we were well educated, and had the capacity to create choice for ourselves. That idea of self-determination is a key focus of my family’s life.
When I think of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, it translates. When I think about it, [the principles] lined up for those of us of African descent. I think they lined up in terms of who we are and who we can be. The principle of faith, Imani, is from my mother who believed all things are possible, and there is a creator who will guide you in making the right decisions and even helping you when you make a misstep, helping you get back up. It was always about getting back up.
I think about the idea of cooperative economics, that to me is what this Fund allows us [to do] — to live that. There doesn’t seem to be space for us to do that in this country. The collective impact of racism and colonization, which is just another word in my mind for racism, has effectively stripped us in many ways of our capacity to trust each other. And to build a cooperative economic space. We now have to take time to capture that again. I think that journey through the middle passage, and 400 years of being traumatized and terrorized, creating distrust, has led us to a place where our communities — wherever those communities are — it’s tough for us to embrace the idea of collective economics. Not simply with neighbors but even within family.
Why was it important for you to invest in the Fund?
You want to make smart decisions. You called me an elder, which I chuckle about when I think about it now. I don’t have a chance to start all over again. My trips around the sun are getting smaller and smaller. I made a lot of mistakes, financially. You were given what you needed. I never was in need. There’s a difference between need and want. I never had real needs. Those needs were taken care of. Whether it’s food, shelter, love, family, education. I had that.
At this point in my life, I’m about to hit 60, we don’t have time to just make mistakes again. But at the same time, when I was introduced to this Fund I said, “What an opportunity.” What an opportunity to support young people who actually are reclaiming our history as it relates to cooperative economics. As it relates to wanting to invest in us. [Who] really through this work are not just talking about collective work, and responsibility, but modeling it. You’re doing it in a transparent way.
One, we have to hold each other accountable. We talk a lot of stuff, but then we don’t hold each other accountable about our stuff. This Fund seems to be about that. Two, it’s transparent. If you want to build trust you have to create a frame that allows people to see in, in a direct way, how the business is being operated. The transparency of that lends itself to supporting this idea of collective work and responsibility. That builds trust. I liked that about what I saw in the Fund. Third, it was investing in us. We’re not investing in us because there’s guilt, not simply investing in us emotionally. There is a process that is methodical, that is smart, that is focused on getting results. I thought it was really good.
[The Ujima Fund] did all that. I knew my money was going to serve a purpose, that it would be transparent, that it would be accountable, and at the end of the day we’re leaving whatever we invested in better than how we found it. That made sense.
And on the other side, folks have been taking my money for years and investing it in mutual funds. And I have no idea what they’re investing in. When you get a prospectus about companies that your money is being invested in, there’s no connection, really. By the way, what this Fund is doing is no different than what everyone else is doing. In terms of taking other people’s money to invest, and to strengthen other organizations. These other traditional funds don’t provide an entry for us. [Other funds are] not created so we will have an opportunity to invest and get a return that makes sense for us. And this one does.
I can see the impact of what [Ujima is] investing in when I walk to a restaurant, when I see the organizations and people [Ujima] is investing in. The local impact of that means that we are creating wealth in our community. My money isn’t going in and going out. I can see that my money is being used over and over here to grow wealth in our community. It’s goods and services that are quality. I get to sit in restaurants that are good in my own neighborhood. It also means that I get to invest in the people that are here. I am able to provide good job opportunities for people right here in this community, and those people are able to grow a life.
It sounds complicated but it’s all those things that got me to say why not take a chance on us. I, without thinking, for decades, have been taking a chance on somebody else’s intellect, and somebody else’s idea for investment. Why not do that here? From what I’ve seen it’s been really good thus far.
Date yourself: name an initiative that you recall in the past.
Well we had the Black Agenda, the Black Political Task Force. I remember the Demo Disco Projects, [which] destroyed a lot of housing. It supposedly was going to create a lot of affordable housing to increase and stabilize our community. But it actually just ended up [being] gentrification. I remember the preservation of Villa Victoria. They took over all the housing that used to exist where Copley Mall is right now. We had a lot of families that owned these properties that they were taking over by eminent domain. We’ve now built this high end neighborhood. But that neighborhood was where a lot of Black and brown people lived. We gave folks short money. That’s how a lot of folks ended up leaving Back Bay and the South End to live in Dorchester and Roxbury. They sold some of those properties.
When I think about us, I remember when we used to have the local Black chambers of commerce. Mr. Nelson used to run it in Grove Hall. The Black men in Grove Hall used to meet weekly and plan. We had quite a few small businesses as a result of that.
What does sustainability mean to you, personally and in community?
I’m in this place right now where I think of sustainability as not relying on my own labor in order to take care of my financial needs. If you can’t take care of your financial needs, it’s very difficult to take care of your personal needs. Sustainability for me means my ability to generate income without depending on my labor. Hence, investment is a real part of that. Home ownership is a real part of that. For me, that’s part of my sustainability.
Back in the day, when I was coming up, everyone told me that you had to have a real solid sustainability [plan] into your old age. Retirement. We know based on what’s happened in the past that you can’t count on social security, or really count on the retirement funds that folks used to have. And what’s there [sometimes] isn’t enough.
It translates into community. Sustainability for me is moving away from government subsidy, and being able to create our own wealth. And have revenue that’s able to circulate many times over, and grow opportunities in our neighborhoods. Subsidies limit our ability to do that. Home subsidy, or business subsidy, is a limited opportunity. It’s a one-time injection that is supposed to give you momentum to grow. But if it becomes the basis of your support it limits you. It limits our entrepreneurialism. And it makes us dependent on entities outside of our own. This type of fund allows us to nurture our self-determination and independence.
“And [the Ujima Fund] was purposeful. Yes, you have to be able to take care of yourself, but you have to do for others. Yes money is important, but what has gotten me up in the morning was never about a dollar bill. A dollar bill was a means to an end. There was a purpose behind it. That purpose was to make my community better. I love my neighborhood. […] There was a purpose to make our neighborhood, our larger neighborhood, better.”
How do you feel about the future?
When I turn off the TV, I’m hopeful. When I turn it on I’m a little concerned. (Laughs) My kids are in their 30s. There’s a different attitude [with your generation]. We’re the generation that tries to figure out how to make it work, manage through the system, and figure out how we can fight through it, then we try to negotiate through it. This generation is saying no.
[They’re saying,] “We’re done. We’re not doing this. We own this.” I’m hopeful about that. That creates so much joy for me. That’s what the work has been about. I think about it. Your parents are so conditioned for safety and security. Because coming out of slavery, finding each other again, trying to build family, protecting yourself from the evils of racism you had to just be about self preservation. My parents [were] about self preservation. Then they gave me this opportunity to grow. Still with security being the mindset. But security in a physical and concrete way. But then my kids, they have choice. They’re not trying to elbow their way into a seat at the table and just be grateful to be here. They’re like, “This is my table, no matter where it is. I own it. And I have choice.” That, to me, is what my ancestors were fighting for. For us to get to that place. Now the challenge is, can you keep it? Now that you understand your power. My second child is like, “You had to make people comfortable, I don’t.” That makes me feel amazingly hopeful, and powerful. When I think about the power in you all, I’m hopeful.
I’m also fearful because I understand. I was that kid that they called the n-word walking to school everyday. I understand that part of the work. There’s a fear of the past. We have to create tables for that sharing to happen. To continue to own the table, but also be cautious about the evils that lurk. But I am so hopeful that you are coming into yourselves with a new sense of power, intellect, strength. But they still own all of the tools. I pray that that energy, that sense of power, ownership, place, belonging, that it grows and it’s not snuffed out.
I understand that. I’m also hopeful, and I hope it continues to be nurtured and supported. This is our last question: what is your legacy?
You know, I’m a divorced mom. I raised three kids. They’re doing great. That’s a whole lot of pride for me. I try to make us better.
When I leave here, I want to know that I made a difference. I went to law school thinking that I could make a difference. Back in those days, there were not Black women who were litigators. There were very few of us, period. You’d walk into a motion session in Suffolk Superior Court and it’d be all white men. I had an opportunity coming out of Boston College Law School to work for a corporate law firm.
When you go into law school, you go with this idealism. Then, little by little, as reality starts to drill in, [you realize] that you have to figure out how to live, pay the loans. The mantra [was] go make money. But money was never the driver. At 24, 25, that was never the mantra. I [wanted] to take a step back, and go back to my center. I needed to make a difference. But I can’t make a difference if I don’t understand the system. There is a precedent that’s not going to shift if I say it should shift. I needed to understand it.
I did a clerkship, instead of going to work for the [corporate law] firm. My parents thought I was crazy. They said, “You’re not going to take that great job making six figures?” But it didn’t feel right. I became a law clerk at Suffolk County. But it was the best decision I ever made. It took me where my life was supposed to take me. I became an Assistant District Attorney. [This was] back in the day when we didn’t have anyone looking at what was happening to our kids when they showed up in court. And the disparate treatment that was occuring whether it is by the judges, by the probation officers, it put me in that space. Sometimes when you are there as a witness it changes behaviors. My kids will say, “I don’t need to be the first. I don’t need to be the only one. We’re tired of that.” But you know what, you have to put yourself in these uncomfortable places to shift how people behave.
At the end of the day, my legacy is that I’m blessed to have had the opportunity to raise three wonderful humans. And second, for my community — and I think of my community as broad — that I’ve been able to make a difference and change the quality of life for many. And that I did it my way. There’s different models for who we are as Black people, being a woman. Folks have this idea that [they] don’t like being labeled. I did it my way.
I’ve learned in life that progressive and conservative [are] the same coin [with] two different sides. At the end of the day, folks behave in their own interests. My question is, “What are you going to do in terms of your policies, your practice, your attitude that will shift opportunity and level the playing field for people that look like me?” Sometimes it is a huge shift. Sometimes it’s small shifts.
The other thing for me is are we buying into the idea of “can’t?” Our kids can’t learn, our kids can’t take tests, our kids can’t do this or that. We [need to] walk away from this idea of deficiency that we’ve bought into. And to aspire to what our ancestors did. Sojourner, Tubman, all of them didn’t believe in “I can’t.” They were willing to do what [they could], then push forward. That spirit lies dormant in us. We need to wake that up so we don’t continue to limit our kids. When I think of who I am, those are the things that drive me. It’s not necessarily a certain ideology.
Before we end, are there any sort of last thoughts that you want to share about Ujima, this movement, this work, our community? You’ve offered a lot, but I wanted to give you space to think about the future and what you wish for us.
My hope is that you continue to grow. There are going to be bumps. Don’t get discouraged, because that’s the nature of life. We learn from them. Pick it up, dust it off, and we keep moving. The more you grow, the more people will feel threatened because it’s a different way of operating. Now it’s cool, it’s cute. Power and influence [are] interesting thing[s]. It’s not the one person they are afraid of. It’s the collective. ■