Listening to Black Voices

Dr. Nancy Boxill on Creating Change and How Racism Affects Black Families Through Generations

“I’m not so sure we’re spending much time on structural changes, and that’s where the hard work is, in my view."

By Heather Dunhill June 8, 2021

This article is part of the series Listening to Diverse Voices, proudly presented by Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Dr. Nancy Boxill

Dr. Nancy Boxill

Nancy Boxill has dedicated her life to public policy, urban affairs, child development and poverty, advocating for women and children.

Boxill, who holds a Ph.D. in child psychology from Union Institute and University in Ohio, has served as a faculty member at Emory University and Ogelthorpe University and presented her educational theories at conferences and symposiums across the country. She’s also advocated for homeless children before Congress and presented at White House conferences on childcare.

In 2007, Boxill became the founding program coordinator of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Specialization in the doctoral program at Union Institute and University, her alma mater. The program encourages students to explore King’s ideals and practices and what they mean in today’s increasingly complex world.

Not one to shy away from difficult social issues, Boxill also co-chaired Atlanta’s Child Sexual Exploitation Task Force from 2000-2010, which organized efforts to combat the sexual exploitation of young girls. She was named one of the Atlanta Business League’s "Top 100 Black Women of Influence" four times and has received the Georgia Voices for Children award and Spelman College’s Local Community Service award.

Additionally, Boxill was the first woman—and woman of color—in 107 years to be appointed by former Georgia Gov. Joe Frank Harris to serve on Fulton County Board of Commissioners from 1987-2010.

In 2015, Boxill relocated to Sarasota with her husband of 20 years, Dennis Thompson. Today, she remains a part-time faculty member at Union Institute and University while continuing her work in her communities.

Where did you grow up and what was it like?

“I was born and raised in Harlem. It shaped what I do and who I have become. Our neighborhood in the Black community was the Riverton Houses at 135th and Fifth avenues.

“After World War II ended, many Black G.I.s came to New York looking for places to live and raise families. At the same time, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company owned affordable apartments on the east side of Midtown Manhattan in the United Nations neighborhood. The company didn’t want Black people to live there. So instead of a public rebuking, they took the exact architectural plans—from dimensions to appliances to parquet flooring—and built the apartments on the East River. Our community was one block from the Harlem Hospital and The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and 10 blocks from the Apollo Theater. It was a unique time in a unique place.

“This turned out to be a wonderful concession and resolution for Black families who were raising children around the same time. The G.I. Bill helped the men pursue professional educations, such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, principals, engineers and architects.

“But it was the middle of Riverton where all of the fun happened when families would gather. Our community had hired playground managers to organize festivals and supervised play activities for the children. We have managed to stay in touch and get together for reunions, too; at the last one I attended, people came from everywhere, from Texas to Canada. We had all of this simply because Met Life segregated Black families.

“Many historic and history-making figures came from Riverton, such as Clifford Alexander, Jr. who was Secretary of the Army with the Carter Administration, and singer Gregory Abbott, who wrote and sang ‘Shake You Down.’ Our upstairs neighbor was Constance Baker Motley, who was the first Black female judge on the federal court, and she worked with Thurgood Marshall on Brown vs. Board of Education. There was also Motown executive vice-president Suzanne de Passe, New York state assemblyman Keith Wright, jazz musician and composer Billy Taylor, former HUD Secretary Sam Pierce, Jr., newspaper columnist Cathy White, former New York City mayor David Dinkins and former New York Knicks player Cal Ramsey.”

You were in high school and college during the civil rights era. Tell us about an experience that has remained with you.

“During a summer home from college, I worked for Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited. We were paid weekly, but on one payday, the company withheld our checks until we had attended a talk by Malcom X. Had it not been for that requirement, I don’t know if I would have seen him otherwise. At about 19 years old, I was exposed to his message, which triggered me to want to think more and know more about the issues of the day.

“I also remember that during my freshman year at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, I was only one of three Black girls in my dorm. My roommate was a white girl named Paula from Wisconsin whose parents were devasted that she was assigned to live with me. She was undeterred, to her parents’ chagrin, and refused to move out.

“One day, Paula and I went to downtown Pittsburgh to buy matching bedspreads. A white man spit at us as he passed us on the sidewalk, saying, ‘You goddamned dirty [n-words].’ We looked around, confused, wondering who he could he be talking to, because we didn’t believe it could be us. I hadn’t heard that obscenity before that moment. It was my first experience like this.

“Also, during college, we were required to provide the housemother with a permission note from our parents if we spent the night away from the dorm. On one occasion, I was invited to a friend’s house to stay, when I returned, the housemother asked about my trip and said, ‘Thank your mother for the letter, it was very articulate.’ I shared that with my mother, who immediately recognized it as an-all-too-familiar insult. She wrote to the president of the university and the housemother. My mother was intent on reframing the comment, and—in the language of today—calling out this micro-aggression.”

You were a member of the Black Student Union. Tell us about that experience.

“I joined in demonstrations, lobbied and picketed for change. That’s what I was doing the night Dr. King was shot. I had to go home, because Pittsburgh started to burn. Some of the white girls in the dorm were afraid to come to my end of hallway, while other white girls wanted to get to me quickly to be empathetic.

“I continue to think about those life-changing experiences and how they influenced the paths that women took to come together or stay apart. That time was reflective of challenges that Black and white women have today in sustaining and maintaining meaningful relationships in pursuit of social change and justice.”

How does racism affect Black families through generations?

“The transmission of racial attitudes and warnings is transmitted from Blacks to Blacks. It can be likened to carrying a pocketbook, which provides a visual of the burden a Black person carries regarding racialized attitudes and the transmission, or learning, of how one may be viewed in the world.

“The more things that one puts in their pocketbook, or wallet, the heavier it gets. Most women know the experience of slinging a heavy purse over one shoulder. Then, when the pocketbook is opened, there are pieces of oneself inside, such as a favorite lipstick, a fountain pen, etc. Those articles don’t seem to change much over time. In some Black families, it’s likely that the items are the same—and that information points to a descriptor of who they are.

“I think many in the Black community carry around a heavy pocketbook. People that we pass on the streets can’t see what’s inside, because pocketbooks are most often opaque, but they can get a sense that we are carrying something heavy. There are some things in that purse that can be removed that might not be needed on a particular day. Then there are some things that one will always have on their person.

“That’s how I see the transfer. Even when a little girl is given a purse, her mom, sister, or aunt shares what to put in it—a dollar, keys or tissue. You don’t just wake up one morning knowing. It’s within us, and it doesn’t go away. The transgenerational transmissions begin at a young age. That’s the heaviness of that purse.”

More than 50 years ago, the Kerner Commission proposed practical and seemingly achievable remedies to systemic racism, which then went unheeded. Many say the commission got it right. What are your thoughts?

“The Kerner Commission was important, valuable and insightful for its time. However, the report did not imagine—or lead us to imagine—a different nation. 

“A colleague, Michael Simanga, and I talk regularly about the fact that our country came into being as a result of a series of imaginings. Those imagined intentions were and are supported structures and policies that were also imagined.  If we want to shift our nation towards a more just and equitable nation we must imagine not only that difference, but we must also imagine new and different structures and polices to support the vision. The vision alone is not enough.”

Many in your generation are weary that things haven’t changed. What do you say to them?

“Well, I would say things have changed. The question is whether it has been helpful or not, and also what has changed and what has not. The murder of Black men hasn’t changed, nor have the reasons for those murders. The disrespect, disregard and dehumanization of Black women and children hasn’t changed. For those who argue that either issue has, I say that we wouldn’t still be having this discussion if it that were true.

“Often when a group of Black women come together, it’s inevitable that one will tell a story that starts with, ‘Guess what happened to me in Sarasota last week.’ When a Black woman shares these stories with you, stop and really listen. Don’t dismiss it as a misinterpretation of the experience.”

In Atlanta, you served on the Health and Human Services Steering Committee of the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia. What is Atlanta doing well that every city could learn from?

“These examples didn’t necessarily come out of the commission, but were connected to the work. First is the framing of questions regarding the issues, which allows for resolution. In this area, Atlanta is gifted.

“Recently, Dr. Cherie Ndaliko shared a perfect example regarding framing the question: ‘When a flying machine crashes to the ground, how can we improve the machine without understanding aerodynamics?’ Perhaps an even more important thought, according to Dr. Ndaliko, is, ‘Just because we don’t question doesn’t mean options don’t exist.’ I find this a powerful and important insight. I remind myself, and others, of it during complex discussions about race and gender.

 “Let’s look at two cases that I worked on: homelessness and child sex trafficking. In those instances, Atlantans were spot-on with the framing of the issues. Everything starts with framing of the question. For instance, if we frame the question as wanting safe and affordable housing for everyone—that’s different from asking, ‘How many shelters do we need?’

“Regarding child sex trafficking, we framed that issue directly at the victimizer, not the victim, so we acted by making sweeping changes in legislation. For instance, pimps were tried in courts under the RICO Statute [a federal law designed to combat organized crime].

“I don’t mean to imply that problems don’t exist, but rather that Atlanta is a model due to the way it frames questions around them.”

What would you like your white friends or acquaintances to be doing right now?

“I’m not so sure we’re spending much time on structural changes, and that’s where the hard work is, in my view.

“I would ask them to inform themselves about structures that maintain the status quo. Find something that helps inform their understanding when they have been thoughtful about a new and expanded perspective. Or find or create an alliance that helps all of us move toward social change and justice within those structures.

“In some ways, it’s not any different from discovering a recipe in magazine that you want to create at home. You must research and inform yourself, especially if the recipe calls for an ingredient that is new. You figure out where to buy it. You figure it out. In this way, you will make change part of who you are. Social change and justice are not something that you can simply write a check for.”

Listening to Black Voices is a series created by Heather Dunhill.

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