Marcus Nelson / Credit: Caitrin Dunphy

In April 2021, Marcus Nelson made history as the first black candidate to be elected to the Needham Select Board. A native of Rome, N.Y., Nelson moved to Massachusetts in 2014 to work at the West Suburban Y. In 2014 he took the position of sports director at the Charles River Y and moved to Needham in 2018. The social tensions in 2020 and the desire to further serve his community spurred him to run for a seat on the board. Now, his three-year term comes to an end this year, and for several reasons he told the Observer he does not plan to run again. Nelson discussed his campaign, his service, and reasons he believes holding the position is not sustainable as it currently stands. 

NELSON: I’m thinking that for now, I’m not going to run for reelection. There’s a few different reasons — one of them is me just not being sure what my future holds in Needham. I’m not sure if I can be here, not because I don’t want to be here. I’m not sure I can afford to stay. I don’t know if I can be here to make it all work logistically and financially. That’s something that’s been a weight on my mind since I got elected. I don’t want to permanently shut the door on the Select Board, but it makes sense now to step away. I don’t want to start something that I can’t finish. 

NELSON: Some people in the “old guard” made it feel like you had to do 20, 30, 40 hours a week to do this. But I think it’s just because they had a lot more free time, because of where they were in their careers and their life journey. There was the initial burden of ‘If you don’t put in the time, you’re not doing a good job.’ If we want people to be involved in town government and committees, we don’t want to scare them away.

NELSON: I’ll miss having an opportunity to be in the rooms where decisions are being made that affect so many people. It’s tough to be disappointed because things are happening in this town. I’m cautiously optimistic for what the future holds. Cautious because I don’t know who’s going to fill the seat, but optimistic if they come in with an open mindset and not a fixed mindset and are willing to collaborate.

NELSON: Where we were as a world, in America, and the friction there was with black people, with the unnecessary killings of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. And I asked what more can I do for the place that I live in? What more can I do to make an impact knowing that the people that are making a lot of these decisions don’t look like me. 

Marcus Nelson at Hazel’s Bakery / Credit: Caitrin Dunphy

When I finally, for the first time I think of my life, saw that white people were listening with intention to do good, I felt like there was no other time than now to try to make the biggest impact I could. And I felt like running for Select Board was something that I could do that would not really benefit me, but to benefit whoever comes after me, the people, the kids to see somebody like me in a seat like that, serving a town that predominantly doesn’t look like them. That’s really just having an opportunity to be heard and no possibility of being ignored when you’re in a seat like that. I can’t speak for every person of color in the history of the world or that’s ever lived in Needham, but to have someone at the table who knows what it’s like to be looked down upon, that when you come out of your house the first thing people see is the color of your skin, there was no one on the board that saw things from that perspective.  

NELSON: It was so exciting to see it take off, getting people excited for something they’d never paid attention to. It sparked an interest and brought people from all different age groups. It was such a cool and surreal moment, getting people who wanted to help and bring this to life. 

NELSON: There was a belief from former people on boards that I couldn’t do what was asked of me. Or if I didn’t do certain things first I wouldn’t get elected. That threw fuel on the fire and made me want to do it more. The MO I pride myself in is being somebody who is willing to work with people no matter what and find a way to get over a hump or hurdle by having honest and intentional conversations with people. 

NELSON: One of the toughest things that happened was in the first couple of months. The way that we started felt really divisive at first, arguing with each other more than working with each other. There’s also been anger at times with how long it takes to get things done. There was a lot of learning and growth and understanding that everybody has opinions and they matter to them, but I had to figure out which ones to take. 

There are so many emotions, angst, trying to understand things and trying to listen to people while not getting caught up in other people’s agendas for you. I didn’t want to succumb to the bigotry of low expectations. I didn’t want to let people with loud opinions dictate where I go or what I do, I didn’t want to get caught up in the noise and instead speak truth to power and let the truth be the foundation. Sometimes when you lead with your empathy and lead with your heart, people mistake your kindness for weakness. 

At first I felt I had to be perfect, and I put some of that weight on my shoulders. But I also heard from people when things weren’t happening overnight, and that really got me down. The firehose was strong that first year and half. Once I stopped letting the job try to consume me, I took a step back. I realized you don’t have to be the best at everything, but be willing to collaborate with as many people and work with as many people as possible.

NELSON: I think they expect me not to cause trouble. I feel like to be the first black man and to be the only black man comes with a separate notion. Me personally I wanted to be the best version of myself possible, and it so happens that I’m a black man as well. So when we do things and when we say things, people are listening more, people are looking to see how it plays out. I’m super, super proud of being a black man. I know the pain my ancestors have felt and fought for me to get me to where I am. I wish my mom could have seen this. I wish so many people that have gone before us could see what I’ve been able to do when it comes to uniting people. To know that years ago, we wouldn’t be in the same room talking — I never take anything for granted and I never lose sight of how we got here and how much it took for us to be willing to sit and converse and be at tables, making decisions together. 

More than anything, I’m always aware of being almost the only black person in every room that I’ve been in when decisions have been made, but God, I hope I’m not the last to be in these rooms or to be elected and help make decisions that are pushing our town to be something greater than it’s ever been.

NELSON: Being on NUARI (Needham United Against Racism Initiative) was a big bright spot for me because that was such a diverse group of people that had strong opinions, but in the end everyone wanted Needham to be better. 

We got this whole onboarding package that didn’t exist before in a very intentional way from when I got elected. I really pushed for that and we got it done, and I’m excited that happened. 

In almost the past three years I’ve seen people more working with each other than against each other. If I’ve been a part of that — to play some small role in that — I can take that away from this. 

NELSON: I’m so floored and in awe of how much goes into the day to day that goes into running a town. It’s nonstop. Even when they’re not working they’re working from home or have their phones. I’m sad I won’t see them on a weekly or biweekly basis, that I won’t be part of meetings and celebrating people, and even being criticized — it’s not a cakewalk by any means.  You make some really tough decisions and you have to live with those. Someone is being affected by every single decision you make. At the core of who I am, I think I’m a very decent human. I’m a work in progress, but I put other people first and I hope people felt that the way that I treated them and the way that I made them feel was never less than but as the most important person in that room when they were talking about what was important to them. Can’t leave with much disappointment because I feel like I’ve done good. 

Note: In the first posting of the story, Ahmaud Arbery’s name was misspelled.

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