Distinguished Alumni Service Award Honors Advocate for Social Justice
This year’s Alumni Association Distinguished Service Award went to Ricardo O. Neal ’95 (political science), who has been executive director of Freedom House in Roxbury, Massachusetts, since 2003, and and was their director of development for the two years prior. A passionate advocate for social and economic justice, he will be leaving Freedom House in August to focus on educational reform and policy work.
“For the next six months I am going to focus on writing,” says Neal. “Then I will seek work with a school district or a national educational nonprofit. In short, I am blessed to able to take the time off to contemplate the next phase of my career.”
When he was twelve, Neal and his family moved to Lawrence from Jamaica to escape the political violence that gripped their home country in the early 1980s. His parents encouraged their eight children to excel in school as a way to advance themselves. After earning his degree from UMass Amherst, Neal completed his MSW at Boston University in 1999. All of his professional life he has worked for nonprofits—and garnered a reputation for his commitment.
Under Neal’s watch, Freedom House has become a hub for parent and student activism. “We’re a place where the community gathers, where information is disseminated,” he says. Neal has quietly rebuilt the 59-year-old institution after its mid-1990s slump, when it ran through six executive directors in seven years. Now, Freedom House is again operating after-school programs for middle- and high-school students and reaching out to senior citizens. Freedom House also hosts other organizations, including Reflect and Strengthen for teenage girls; We Are Educators with a Touch of Class, a peer-to-peer teen health education program; a local peace group; a Buddhist society; and Dunk the Vote, a voter education and mobilization program.
“Freedom House has long recognized that disparities in academic achievement have long-term negative impacts on students of color and that solutions can be complex and difficult to achieve,” Neal says. “We are committed to provide students with 21st-century skills, which will ensure their success in post-secondary education and throughout their careers. As executive director, I have had an unparalleled opportunity to work deeply with students and their families to broaden the scope of the learning experience.”
Neal points out that, historically, parents have been disengaged from the work of reforming education. “The idea is to help engage…students and parents to be part of the system that makes decisions,” he says. “I think institutions like the Freedom House, that believe in changing lives and uprooting and dismantling obstacles, are worth the investment.”
Increasingly, Freedom House gives Roxbury activists a forum to air ideas and grill candidates for elective office. Gov. Deval Patrick’s first campaign stop in Boston’s black community was held in the building’s auditorium. “People understand that whatever the issue is, if you come to Freedom House, you will be heard,” Neal says. “We’re committed to civic engagement.
Gail Snowden, daughter of Freedom House founders Muriel and Otto Snowden, says Neal has brought a strong commitment to the mission of the agency and a spirit of collaboration. “Ricardo doesn’t bring a lot of ego to the table,” says Snowden, who is chairwoman of the organization’s board. “He works very hard to include other people in what we’re doing.”
Freedom House played a central role in the search process for Boston’s school superintendent, helping parents and students to articulate an agenda for candidates: tackling the school system’s growing dropout rate, improving the system’s family-community engagement and closing the achievement gap between white students and students of color. Much of that work was funded by a $175,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation aimed at increasing community involvement in school systems.
Says Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner, “Ricardo is truly a rising star in our galaxy. His vision, creativity, and unflagging commitment to our youth have been an asset…to our whole community.”
June 23, 2008
Some of this information has been adapted from the Bay State Banner, Vol. 42, No. 26.