Raised by social activists, Tito Jackson ’99 embraces his power and responsibility to transform lives and communities

Tuesday, April 4, 2017
Boston city councilor and UNH alumnus Tito Jackson '99

Shortly after arriving at UNH in the fall of 1993, Tito Jackson ’99 walked into the Field House, excited to meet his freshman class. As he squeezed through the crowd, he scanned the students’ faces, stunned. He saw no one who was black, like him.

“I was nervous, surprised and scared,” Jackson, now a 41-year-old Boston city councilor, admits. “I hadn’t mentally prepared for this.”

Jackson was “shell shocked” but did not allow himself to feel that way for long. He was raised by community activists in Roxbury, Mass., and had just graduated from Brookline High School with a diverse class of 450, including students from 65 countries. At UNH he saw a community in need of change.

In his time in Durham, Jackson both studied and made history. Now he seeks to make history again, this time as Boston’s first African-American mayor.

The DNA of an Activist

At Boston City Hall, a towering concrete edifice at the heart of Government Center, Jackson digs into a late lunch and an interview at once. He dispenses with the hard part first.

“I was born into a very difficult situation,” he says. “My biological mom was 13 when she was sexually assaulted by two men.”

Jackson exhales and moves on with his story. “I was adopted by the most amazing parents, Rosa and Herb Jackson. I have three older siblings who are biological to my parents, and I remind them on a regular basis that unlike them, I was chosen.” He laughs.

His parents adopted three more children and served as foster parents for dozens of others. Their home in Roxbury, which Jackson now owns, was full of children, as Rosa Jackson also ran a daycare program there for 25 years.

Herb Jackson was a prominent community organizer for the Greater Roxbury Workers Association who helped black and Hispanic people secure good-paying jobs in Boston’s construction industry. He had the power to shut down work sites that didn’t hire enough of these local people. Some of Jackson’s earliest memories are of attending community meetings with his father, where people passionately debated what he sensed were issues critical to their lives. 

“I was raised with the DNA of an activist and the mentality of grace—that we can help people and be a part of transforming their lives,” he says, “not because of something we’re going to get back, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

Boston city councilor and UNH alumnus Tito Jackson '99 talks with some protesters

Jackson attended public schools in nearby Brookline through the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, an optional state-funded program with a mission to desegregate Boston area schools. Within his multicultural school environment, Jackson wasn’t conscious that he was black until an incident in fourth grade, when he missed a soccer ball and accidentally kicked his friend, who hurled the N-word at him.

“We got into a tussle because he yelled at me, not because of the N-word,” Jackson says. “I didn’t know what that meant.”

The incident led to hard conversations at home and at school that had a big impact on Jackson. “The fact that my community was so loving in how they dealt with it made for a time of growth for me,” he says.

In 1989, in the wake of a notorious murder of a pregnant woman in Boston, a teenaged Jackson and his friends were stopped and frisked by the police several times and even forced to drop their pants. The teens contacted the NAACP, which helped them create a petition demanding an investigation of the police. The organization helped the teens collect thousands of signatures and brought in the U.S. Justice Department, which led to changes in policing practices.

“It was one of those moments in life, a guidepost where we made something happen, not only for us, but also for other folks,” Jackson says.

Tito Jackson with his family

His parents were strict about their children’s activities—“it was a matter of life and death,” Jackson says—but he was allowed to participate in organized sports and leadership programs like Teen Empowerment. The program affirmed his belief that his voice mattered, that he and his peers could bring positive change to their communities.

At age 16 or 17, Jackson was invited to attend a multicultural summer camp for young leaders called Anytown, where they were led through real and raw experiences that exposed their racism, sexism, homophobia and religious intolerance.

“It was very painful,” Jackson says. “We cried a lot, but we had to feel it.”

These emotional experiences transformed Jackson’s understanding of his privilege and responsibility as a young man and a peer leader and would later lead him to participate in training through UNH’s Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program.

“There’s only two places you can stand when you know something is wrong: You can do something or you can shrink from it and do nothing,” he says. “The trajectory of my life has been doing something about it.”

Navigating a New Culture

Jackson was one of 72 black students, less than 1 percent of the student population, when he arrived at UNH and moved into Lord Hall, then a men’s dorm. His roommate, Steven Tsao ’97, had never met a black person before, but the duo bonded over Street Fighter 2, a video game they both liked, and they socialized in their hall and across campus.

Tsao recalls that most students assumed the tall, husky Jackson was a football or basketball player who got into UNH on an athletic scholarship. Others thought he might be the brother of Michael Jackson.

“Tito was never insulted by it,” says Tsao, who studied chemical engineering and is now an international entrepreneur in the video gaming industry. “He opened my eyes and helped open a lot of other people’s eyes. He viewed everyone as friends and didn’t really see things through a racial lens.”

When asked about his experience of racism, Jackson sighs. 

“Yeah, I did face racism. It was real, at times very in your face,” he says. “How I dealt with it is that I would literally not allow any individual to taint my view of everyone on campus. I built real and trusting relationships where we could ask each other questions, debate issues and challenge one another’s thinking.”

Boston city councilor and a man taking a cell phone photo of UNH alumnus Tito Jackson '99

Demands for Diversity

Soon Jackson connected with six other black students who agreed that they “had to do something about this.” The students revived the dormant Black Student Union (BSU), electing Jared Sexton ’96 as president and Jackson as vice president, and they began to consider ways to bring more diversity to campus. 

Sexton, who had come to UNH on a football scholarship, says he was profoundly dismayed by what he saw as an insular and deeply conservative culture on campus. Despite the university’s official declarations of “celebrating diversity,” Sexton and other black students discovered “an abysmal lack of racial, ethnic, religious and sexual diversity” at the school and in surrounding areas.

Now an associate professor of African American Studies at the University of California/Irvine, Sexton saw in Jackson a confident leader with an outgoing and disarming personality who was able to talk openly with anyone, from his fellow students and campus staff to the university president. 

“Tito taught me that leadership is, in crucial ways, about the quality of the personal relationships you have with those around you,” Sexton says. “He takes himself and others seriously without losing his strong sense of humor. There is a real buoyancy there that keeps people motivated and lets people know that it is good to pursue progressive change even if it’s uphill, into the wind.”

Sexton and Jackson worked with BSU members to craft a list of demands for increased recruitment of black students, including more women and non-athletes, and black tenure-track faculty. They sought pre-orientation programs, proven to lead to higher achievement and graduation rates for people of color at other schools, and prejudice-reduction training for faculty, staff and administrators.

“We thought it necessary to push the institution to commit sufficient resources to actively recruit and retain black students, faculty, staff and administration as part of a larger strategy to open up access to and transform the quality of the university,” Sexton says. 

photo collage of Tito Jackson

In the spring of 1994, the BSU gathered 4,000 signatures from UNH students and presented its petition to President Dale Nitzschke. The president agreed that changes were needed and initiated the “Making Diversity a Priority” program. Progress on the demands stalled, however, when Nitzschke resigned later that year, citing philosophical differences with the board of trustees on the university’s direction.

Yet a spark had been ignited on campus. The BSU extended its presence, hosting social events and helping other student groups to form, such as Mosaico for Latino students and the United Asian Coalition. The BSU also brought students together to discuss tense situations on campus, including a blackface incident and cases when they felt students of color were treated unfairly.

“The greatest part about our community was that in the face of difficult times, we dealt with them head on,” Jackson recalls. “Not everyone agreed, but they cared and they showed up, and we were better for that process.”

Like Sexton, Jackson went on to serve as a student senator and student body president. Both pushed for student empowerment—believing that the university existed for students and that their voices should carry more weight with the administration.

Four years after the BSU presented its original demands, its members had grown frustrated by what they saw as a lack of progress and dialogue with the administration. Early on the morning of Nov. 9, 1998, Jackson was one of the BSU leaders who led more than 60 students into Thompson Hall to stage a sit-in in President Joan Leitzel’s office. They presented her with an updated list of demands they called “Broken Promises.” The disruptive yet peaceful event captured state and national media attention and led, after more than 16 hours, to a negotiated agreement with UNH leaders that met most of the BSU’s demands. 

“We knew that a degree from UNH, which was a homogeneous institution at the time, wouldn’t be as valuable because the world is so diverse,” Jackson says. “We pushed for UNH to make changes that would benefit all students and prepare them for the world we live in.”

Boston city councilor and UNH alumnus Tito Jackson '99 at his desk

The Lessons of History

Jackson believes his liberal arts education and major in history honed his analytical skills and expanded his world view in ways that continue to shape his life and work. The teaching and scholarship of professors Mel Bobick, Jeffrey Bolster, John Ernest, Harvard Sitkoff and others pushed him to dig more deeply into human history and to understand it as a continuum, with relevance to the present day.

“It helped me understand how we got to where we are today and the challenges people faced in getting here,” he says. “I believe history gives us the best view of what we should do in the future to remedy the disparities of the past.”

Jackson has encountered a good deal of revisionist history and wishes more Americans had a better grasp on their nation’s past.

“Racism is not over. Sexism is not over. Homophobia is not over, and neither is economic inequality,” he says. “There are decision points in history that are directly related to where we are right now, relative to who has access to capital, who holds political office, who is CEO.”

UNH protesters seeking diversity

Senior Vice Provost of Student Affairs Ted Kirkpatrick has been at UNH for 34 years, and he says Jackson’s time there in the 1990s was a formative period in its history, when student groups defined by their racial and religious identities began to emerge.

“The work that Tito, Jared, Malik Aziz ’99 and others did on identity politics has paid great dividends for the institution because it’s an evolutionary process,” Kirkpatrick says. “These were students who were certainly militant about their aims, but they were not marginalized. They were part of the fabric of this place.”

Back then, as associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Kirkpatrick often saw Jackson in the dining hall, stopping at every table to talk to people.

“Tito was a big guy with this infectious smile, and even then, at 19 or 20 years old, it always looked like he was running for something,” Kirkpatrick says. “He’s a naturally gifted politician. Tito can be pointed when he needs to be, but he’s an affable, diplomatic guy.”

Kirkpatrick says Jackson worked skillfully with the administration to make sure supports were there for all students, but especially for those who were underrepresented and felt invisible on campus. “Tito was big on giving students a voice and a forum for what they wanted to talk about. The entire campus was his office.” 

Jackson is grateful that UNH allowed and provided him with a platform to lead. “UNH made me grow as a leader and a person in ways I never would have in any other place.”

Boston city councilor and UNH alumnus Tito Jackson '99 on the dance floor

The Urgency of Now

After graduating from UNH, Jackson worked in pharmaceutical sales and marketing for more than 10 years before realizing his dream of public service by joining the administration of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, the first African-American to serve as governor of the state. In his role as the governor’s industry director for information technology and then later as Governor Patrick’s political director, Jackson witnessed the huge positive impacts that government can have on people. These experiences inspired him to run for Boston City Council, the legislative branch of city government, to which he was first elected in 2011.

As a city councilor, Jackson is a ubiquitous and popular presence across Boston. He was the only public official to join thousands of Boston Public School students who had walked out on March 8, 2016, in protest of $40-million in budget cuts to public education, and he then invited some students to speak to City Council. Jackson was among the first to call for Boston to serve as a sanctuary city, calling it morally wrong and economically untenable for the city to turn its back on its most vulnerable people. And on Jan. 30, the day President Donald Trump announced his first executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, Jackson went to Logan Airport to comfort and stand with travelers and protesters hours before Boston Mayor Marty J. Walsh arrived.

Jackson, who represents District 7, including Roxbury and parts of the South End, Dorchester and Fenway, sees Boston and its 23 neighborhoods as “a tale of two cities.” In downtown Boston, innovation and entrepreneurship are thriving and creating high-paying jobs and opportunities. In other areas, 50 percent of residents earn $35,000 or less and struggle with high unemployment and crime rates, lack of affordable housing, homelessness and lower life expectancies.

photo collage of different images of Tito Jackson

Behind the scenes, Jackson focuses on these intractable issues for public school students and the city’s vulnerable and least represented people. He has fought school budget cuts and closures and proposed programs to provide summer jobs for youth and housing vouchers for homeless families. He initiated Reclaim Roxbury, a community-driven organization that works with urban planners from MIT to assert greater local control over their city’s housing and business development. Jackson also led community members and civil rights organizations in a successful effort to equip Boston Police with body-worn cameras. 

While Jackson supported Mayor Walsh’s candidacy four years ago, he soon became critical of the mayor’s deep cuts to funding for public education and his record on affordable housing and public safety. The tipping point for Jackson’s candidacy was the mayor’s support for the failed bid to host the Olympics in 2024—which could have cost taxpayers billions of dollars. 

When he announced his run for mayor of Boston on Jan. 11, his mother, Rosa, was by his side. Although Walsh’s campaign budget is about 50 times the size of Jackson’s, and an incumbent mayor has not been defeated since 1949, Jackson is confident that his vision and record will ensure his victory in the Nov. 7 election. 

Jackson sees an urgency to address Boston’s huge income disparities and inequitable development before its people wake up to find themselves in a city more like San Francisco, inhabited by the rich and the poor. 

“When I was running for student body president at UNH, I didn’t think about the fact that I was only one of 72 black kids on campus. I was passionate and understood the needs of our campus, and I was going to work with all of my classmates to make sure we got we wanted, needed and deserved,” he says. “And we won.” 


Originally published in UNH Magazine Spring 2017 Issue


Bill Truslow | Communications and Public Affairs