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The Art of Inclusion

For Kevin McCluskey, being a Rappaport Fellow is more than a badge of honor. It's a call to responsible action.

Professor Ronald Heifetz has no doubt spoken hundreds of thousands of words – and written untold thousands more – on the subject of public leadership in a career that has spanned continents and nearly a half-century.

He has helped forge the worldview of the best and the brightest as the King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, where he founded the Center for Public Leadership. He has advised heads of businesses, nonprofits and governments around the world. He was cited in the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize lecture of Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos.

And more than 30 years ago, six of Heifetz’s words broke through to a young member of the Boston School Committee studying at the Kennedy School as a Rappaport Urban Scholar. Kevin McCluskey has run with those six words ever since.

“He said, ‘Politics is the art of inclusion,’” McCluskey remembers today. “I had never heard it before, but it continues to be my guidepost.”

“The art of inclusion.”

McCluskey was 31 when Heifetz uttered those words in a leadership seminar that day, and though he’d never heard it said in that particular way, the sentiment certainly rang familiar.

It reaffirmed the sense of community values that had been instilled by his family on picket lines and as political organizers growing up in Columbia Point, the massive public housing complex that jutted out into Boston Harbor.

It echoed of the honorable calling of public service that had compelled McCluskey to serve as his class president in high school and as the student representative to the Boston School Committee as a teenager.

It rang of the same ideals he had found in common with Jerry Rappaport himself in the lead-up to McCluskey’s own run for the school committee, when his like-minded humanity proved worthy of Rappaport’s financial and moral support.

“We would have lunch, and Jerry sort of took his measure of me,” McCluskey remembers. “I think he has always appreciated people who are trying to do the right thing to help people and serve the City. So he provided financial support.”

But more than a mere affirmation, Heifetz’s words would serve as a lifelong directive for McCluskey, who has since gone on to leave a bold imprint wherever he’s landed.

He cast the swing vote to elect the Boston School Committee’s first African-American President, John O’Bryant. He became a star at Harvard University, serving for 23 years and under four presidents as Director, and later Senior Director, of Community Relations for Boston. And still today, sitting in his office at UMass-Boston, a frisbee-throw from where he grew up in the shadows of the Dorchester city dump, he employs that same mantra in his role as the school’s Associate Director of Athletics for Development and Marketing.

“The art of inclusion.”

“To me,” McCluskey said, “it just says everything you need to know in order to work effectively with people, whether in the political arena or any other setting. It ensures that you’re trying to tap into everyone’s particular talent.”

The setting McCluskey knew first was the Columbia Point housing project, where his father John was a cab driver and mother Patricia a homemaker. John and Patricia stressed the power of education and sent their seven kids to Boston’s three exam schools – Kevin to Boston Latin – while also modeling activism through various campaign work.

Kevin shoved leaflets under doors. He sat in the living room of their apartment and listened to the politicians who courted his father’s critical election support – Bob Quinn, Gabe Piemonte, Chris Iannella and others. He was an altar boy at St. Christopher’s. He grew up on sports, especially basketball, where his devotion to the game made him an All-City selection and brought him to every neighborhood of Boston.

“It’s funny, when I talk to people about growing up in Columbia Point, they have this image of being in gang fights every night,” he said with a laugh. “There were some bad actors, of course, but the primary dynamic was one of working class families of all backgrounds who formed a tightly knit community.

“I just have great memories of growing up there.”

There were also less wonderful memories.

It was 1962 when Kevin and his mom were riding the local bus and Patricia witnessed a dump truck hitting and killing 6-year-old Laura Ewing, a resident of the neighboring public housing complex. Locals had said for years it was only a matter of time before such a tragedy occurred, and now it had happened.

“We’re going to close that goddamn place down,” Patricia McCluskey declared to John later that day – and after organizing neighbors, then blocking the street to stop the trucks, they did just that.

“So,” Kevin McCluskey said, “I was in a picket line when I was eight-years-old.”

Indeed, he was well-versed in the ways of activism by the time he reached his stints as high school class president and student representative on the Boston School Committee, and even more ready for his turn at the adult table in 1976 following his graduation from Harvard College.

After finishing seventh in his 1977 school committee bid, then sixth in 1979, however, he thought he’d take a pause. “I wasn’t going to be one of those folks who just automatically ran every two years,” he said.

Turns out it was only one year before it was time. Just two weeks past his wedding day in the fall of 1980, McCluskey got a phone call from his close friend Jim English, an associate of Mayor Kevin White, who let McCluskey know that committee member Gerry O’Leary had been arrested for attempted extortion and would be stepping down.

“You’d better take off your sweats,” English told him. “You’re coming off the bench to go onto the school committee.”

“Being a Rappaport Fellow is more than just a badge of honor. It’s a call to responsible action.”

Kevin McCluskey, 1986 Rappaport Urban Scholar

So began an eventful seven-year run, and it didn’t take long to ramp up. In addition to 1980 being McCluskey’s election year, it was also the year that Massachusetts supported the Proposition 2½ referendum, which called for an unprecedented ceiling on property taxes.

And the subsequent, so-called “Tregor Decision,” a court ruling that mandated municipal and school deficits could no longer be rolled over from one year to the next, was an impending fiscal brick wall. Millions of dollars of revenue would be lost. The projected funding gap was extraordinary. More than 30 schools and roughly 1,500 employees would be the casualties.

So what did the 25-year-old McCluskey do? He called the mayor, of course. And Kevin White picked up the phone.

“Mayor, something tells me closing all these schools and laying off a bunch of good people is not a great start to a political career,” McCluskey said.

“Why don’t you come over,” Mayor White responded. “You can cry on my shoulder, and I’ll cry on yours.”

The three-hour meeting that followed was seminal, McCluskey said, in contextualizing the oncoming financial crisis and generally providing a private political tutorial for the price of one fearless phone call.

“A friend of mine said, ‘You know what anyone would pay to just sit there and learn from him for three hours?’” McCluskey said. “It was a mesmerizing lesson from one of the great political masters.”

McCluskey’s stay on the committee included not only his threat-inducing and historic swing vote for committee President John O’Bryant, but also his pivotal role in hiring Superintendent Bud Spillane, who would go on to help revive Boston’s troubled schools as one of the nation’s leading education innovators.

At the age of 28, McCluskey also helped usher in, and signed, the Boston Compact – a partnership between the higher education and business communities in greater Boston – as the school committee’s youngest President.

“Being part of that is something that I’m extraordinarily proud of,” he said. “It was about trying to act as a team member, not seeking the spotlight, and understanding that we needed to act as a committee to move things forward by embracing helpful partners.”

It was toward the end of his school committee tenure, during which he was working as Director of Development for Emerson College, that McCluskey was presented with the opportunity for the midcareer Rappaport Urban Scholarship at the Kennedy School.

He and Maureen had just welcomed their first child, Kate, in 1983, and daughter Caroline was on the way. He was on essentially a rookie’s salary at Emerson, and there was no trust fund to dip into.

“It just wasn’t going to work if it was something that I had to pay for myself,” he said. “And it was just a terrific experience.”

McCluskey found himself learning from the likes of urban policy and economic development expert Bill Apgar, who would later become Assistant Secretary of Housing at HUD; Marty Linsky, the future Massachusetts Assistant House Minority Leader, Boston Globe writer and Chief Secretary to Governor William Weld; and George Kelling, a founder of “broken windows” theory and one of the most profound influences on American policing of the 20th century.

The midcareer nature of the fellowship, McCluskey said, “was very important because I was able to keep my job, continue to serve on the school committee, and then be introduced to an incredible array of people – both the Kennedy School faculty and within the student body.”

And then there was Heifetz.

“It’s hard to improve on the simplistic power of Ron’s lesson about the art of inclusion,” McCluskey said. “It validated how I had tried to conduct myself personally and professionally, it’s how I viewed my time at the Kennedy School, and it was certainly what I used as a guidepost in my work at Harvard to make sure I was being as effective as I could as a broker between the university’s interests and the needs of the community.”

Ah yes, the work at Harvard.

When McCluskey was hired as director of community relations in 1989, he inherited a frosty-at-best relationship between the university and the neighboring community of Allston-Brighton. Harvard had recently purchased a property at 230 Western Avenue in Allston that it had not included as part of its master plan process, and many in the community considered it a substantial breach of trust on the part of one of the world’s wealthiest universities.

And eight years later, it came to light that Harvard had, through an agent, anonymously purchased 52 acres in Allston for $88 million, again raising eyebrows and this time the hackles of Boston Mayor Tom Menino, who said the secret acquisition, “reflected the highest level of arrogance seen in our city in many years.”

McCluskey had some high stakes relationship reparation to do, and according to a very interested party who played witness to all of it, he did so with an artist’s touch.

“The relationships that we had with Harvard were pretty bad before Kevin came along,” said Paul Berkeley, a lifetime resident of Allston-Brighton who for 24 years served as President of the Allston Civic Association. “But he earned people’s trust for Harvard. People are a lot more receptive to Harvard’s plans today than they were when he got there, and that good relationship that exists is in large part due to Kevin.”

McCluskey did it, Berkely said, with a keen ear and a willingness to find mutually beneficial ends to any prospective conflict.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that you have to listen to people when they’re angry, and find out what’s behind the anger,” Berkeley said. “Of all the people who held those positions, Kevin was the one that listened the hardest. He took our concerns back, and we benefitted. We saw real results.”

McCluskey may never have had to walk a more delicate tightrope to get those results than when it came to the Charlesview Apartments in Allston.

By the turn of the century, the affordable housing complex on the corner of North Harvard Street and Western Avenue – locally known as Barry’s Corner – had fallen into significant disrepair in the 30 years since it was built. But it was a billion-dollar corner as far as Harvard was concerned, adjacent to both its soccer field and business school.

So when McCluskey got the call saying that Josephine Fiorentino, the distinguished, matriarchal chair of the Charlesview Board, was interested in a discussion with Harvard, he knew his administration would be a more-than-willing participant.

“You’re going to need to be on your best behavior, Mr. President,” he remembers telling Harvard President Larry Summers in setting up the meeting, referring to the no-nonsense style of Fiorentino.

So thanks in large part to the groundwork having been laid by McCluskey for more than a decade leading up to the meeting he arranged, the two local titans sat down at Harvard’s Mass Hall … and they found common ground. It was the foundation of a land swap that would provide Harvard with the space at Barry’s Corner, and Charlesview with a substantial upgrade.

Today, the Charlesview Residences offers 240 apartments – from one-bedroom flats to four-bedroom townhomes – with views of the Charles River. And the Josephine A. Fiorentino Community Center at Charlesview serves as the complex hub.

“I like to believe, and I think it would be seconded by the folks at Charlesview and their neighbors, that Harvard did the right thing and provided enough money to construct housing that in no way, shape or form resembles what someone would call public housing,” McCluskey said. “They’re in good, solid attractive housing that speaks to the dignity and respect they deserve.

“For me, that’s kind of full-circle. The role that my parents played in building a solid community in Columbia Point, I was able to do that in a similar way with the folks at Charlesview, and in the process help open up space for Harvard’s future growth.”

And how did McCluskey do it? By being honest with people, he’ll tell you.

But Berkely says it goes beyond just that.

“He had a certain style,” Berkeley said. “I think of him as a friend, the kind of guy who would get to know you, your family, your kids, ask how your son is doing in college. He made it his business to get to know us, which went beyond his role for Harvard to find what worked best for us.

“It’s not a science, it’s an art.”

That’s right. The art. We’ve heard that somewhere before.

“I always kept that voice in my head,” McCluskey said, “about practicing the art of inclusion. I think it’s helped me accomplish a lot of good.”

It’s a value system cultivated with the help of the Rappaport Foundation, and it’s one that McCluskey believes is shared by the Rappaports themselves.

“I think if you look at the diverse array of people that they’ve helped get over the fence,” he said, “the focus has always been to cast their net as broadly as they possibly can to bring like-minded people into the meaningful work of public service.

“Being a Rappaport Fellow is more than just a badge of honor. It’s a call to responsible action.”