Ralph Boyd: American Red Cross leader driven by faith and passion
By Kara Bettis | April 4, 2016, 10:18 EST
BOSTON – It’s hard to keep up with Ralph Boyd, Jr. At first glance, the résumé of the CEO of the American Red Cross of Massachusetts seems as frenetic as his exuberant personality.
In the span of two decades, he has worked as a federal prosecutor, been a partner at a major Boston Law firm, served as former President George W. Bush’s chief civil rights enforcer, headed up the Freddie Mac Foundation, and founded an inner-city charter school group.
But for Boyd, 59, there’s a common thread.
“If you look at everything I do, it’s all directed at giving people … the tools that they need to succeed; the tools that we, as a society, ought to feel obligated to give them,” he said during an interview at his Boston office.
“That doesn’t just mean government, that means individuals and groups of individuals putting a laboring oar in the water, and actually doing the heavy lifting with one’s personal sweat, presence, talent and equity.”
The desire to help disadvantaged youth has permeated both Boyd’s professional and personal life, and stems from his personal philosophy of charity rooted in faith. Boyd will put his money where his mouth is – not only does he currently spearhead Massachusetts’ primary charitable organization, but he travels often on his personal dime to volunteer and financially contribute to a children’s home in Kampala, Uganda.
Raised in Schenectady, New York, Boyd, grew up as an only child in a family of civil rights activists. His parents, Ralph Boyd, Sr., 97, and Catherine Boyd, 87, launched the Schenectady chapter of the NAACP and were heavily involved in their community.
The younger Boyd considers himself a conservative. The elder Boyds, more liberal. But despite their political differences, the younger Boyd says that he and his father, a World War II veteran, ultimately share core values.
“While our core values are exactly the same – they’re faith-based, they’re deeply rooted in our constitutional principles and our sense of fairness – we’ve had very different life experiences and live in different times,” he said.
The elder Boyd, a World War II veteran, was raised in the segregated Southern United States.
“That’s a very different environment than the environment we have today, and because of that the challenges are very different,” Boyd, Jr. said.
Bostonian to the core
Despite his New York background, Boyd considers himself a Bostonian to the core – and a “wicked Boston sports fan” since childhood. A 1979 graduate of Haverford College, Boyd received his Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law School in 1984. He remained in Boston after graduation, and eventually joined the Boston U.S. Attorney’s office, where he prosecuted organized crime and a range of narcotics and firearms trafficking.
It was in the Hub that Boyd developed his views on solutions for urban communities, prosecuting gang members and creating strategies to protect vulnerable people from extreme violence. Specifically, Boyd says, his work targets young people of color, youth who are materially disadvantaged, socio-economically disadvantaged and people in vulnerable communities, he said. Most of all, he focuses “not on group grievances, but on individual empowerment,” he said.
“I don’t see the law as the answer to where we are today. I see culture and empowerment as both the problems and the answers today,” Boyd said.
But he does have a strong view of the role of government.
“If government can’t create safe environments for people to live in, everything else is irrelevant,” he said. “A fraction of 1 percent of the community are causing 90 percent of the carnage. So it was appropriate for government – and I viewed it as one of my principal roles [as a prosecutor] – to remove that fraction of the 1 percent who are making the most vulnerable communities unlivable.”
Constructing a safe and just community is “the first stage of giving people the tools and toolkits” to move forward, leading to the success of new affordable housing developments, small businesses and new schools, in Boyd’s view. Investing in safe communities, housing and youth development are the keys, he said.
George Vien, who served as a federal prosecutor alongside Boyd at the U.S. Attorney’s office in the 1990s, said his former colleague was “always driven by a passion to help the people who were effectively held captive by criminals in their own communities.” He noted that Boyd advocated for people who “didn’t have a voice” within the criminal justice system.
“Ralph talks the talk and walks the walk in his personal and professional life,” Vien said. “I’m absolutely certain that Ralph saved the lives of young people and gave them opportunities they wouldn’t have had without him. He was a passionate and effective prosecutor.”
In 1997, Boyd left government service and entered private practice with the Boston law firm Goodwin Procter. Not long after George W. Bush became president in 2001, he tapped Boyd to be his head Civil Rights enforcer at the U.S. Department of Justice.
During the two years Boyd spent as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, he investigated alleged Florida voter fraud from the 2000 presidential election, drafted the U.S. Government’s Guidance to Federal Law Enforcement that banned racial profiling in police departments, and led the national task force in charge of prosecuting post-9/11 hate crimes, among other things.
Faith and a Red Cross
Boyd says it is his Christian faith that has driven him to a life of charity. The grandson of a Baptist preacher, he has attended a variety of Protestant churches throughout his life.
“I’m a person of deep faith,” he said. “You can’t just talk your faith, you’ve got to kind of live it. The Gospels are the guide for me. Whether it comes to time, treasure, talent – they’re the guide. Where it comes to wanting to help and heal those around you – whether it’s family, neighbor, community, country – all that matters a great deal.”
The value of family in his life is clear. In addition to his three biological daughters, 17 years ago Boyd and his wife Angela adopted two more children, making them a family of seven. The two children adopted by the Boyds are biological siblings who had attended school with their youngest daughter. The siblings needed a home. And the Boyds stepped up to the plate.
Committing to young people’s success is part of changing the world, Boyd said. Before coming to his current role at the American Red Cross of Massachusetts, where he has worked for more than a year, Boyd assisted in launching a charter organization, Center City Public Charter Schools, that operates six K-8 public schools in high need areas of inner-city Washington, D.C. communities.
“As a parent and as a good citizen of communities, and our country, and our world, the thing I feel the responsibility to do is give every child the opportunity to succeed, to go as far as they reasonably can,” Boyd said, adding that education is the first step to providing equal opportunities for children across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Now at the Red Cross, Boyd spent the past year helping national and local operations restructuring, but hopes to transition to more of a strategic leadership role in the near future. The projects that speak most to his personal vision, he said, include the nurse assistant training program – which he hopes to triple in size in the Bay State – and the food banks on Massachusetts Avenue and in New Bedford.
Since he has come on board, the organization has responded to nearly 1,500 disasters and displacements and disbursed $2.5 million in financial relief.
With only 60 paid employees, the state’s branch of the Red Cross relies heavily on the 3,000 volunteers, especially during last year’s winter that broke both weather records and records at the Red Cross. Volunteers responded to up to 27 disasters weekly.
“There were a lot of us who slept here many days in our office so that we could pull together our disaster action teams,” Boyd said. “This region really leads the way. We have strong volunteers.”
And those strong volunteers have a strong servant leader to emulate.