As the first Black selectperson in Stoughton, she wants to prioritize diversity

Debra Roberts, who received her MBA from Northeastern in 2001, is the first Black person to be elected as a selectperson in Stoughton, Massachusetts, a town 20 miles south of Boston. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Walking alongside a large banner with the words “Stoughton celebrates diversity” emblazoned in bright orange letters, Northeastern graduate Debra Roberts marched toward the center of Stoughton, Massachusetts. She and roughly 50 others were protesting the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black victims of systemic racism.

“Black lives matter. If not now, then when,” they chanted, as the sounds of tambourines, shakers, and handheld drums filled the streets of this town 20 miles south of Boston. It was June 19, Juneteenth, the day that marks the end of slavery in the U.S.

The march was particularly important to Roberts because she was recently elected to Stoughton’s board of selectpersons, which is a group of elected officials that perform executive duties similar to that of a mayor and city councilors, and is the first Black person in the town to hold this position. 

Roberts says she’s excited for the job ahead. She wants to start her three-year term by tackling the lack of diversity in job hiring within Stoughton, a town with a population that, she says, is filled with diverse backgrounds that aren’t represented in the workforce. 

“Diversity has to be a priority,” says Roberts, who received her MBA from Northeastern in 2001. “There are people that say, ‘yeah this is important,’ or ‘yeah that is a feel-good,’ but if you don’t put a plan in place, then it’s not going to be a priority and it won’t happen.”

But the issue of diversity, or lack thereof, isn’t new to Roberts—it’s been something she’s tried to address for the past three years as a volunteer, and later, chair, for the Stoughton Diversity and Inclusion Organization.

Through small gatherings, potlucks, and an organized celebration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, she set out to unite different minority communities within the town.

Because of these efforts, Roberts was named as a Massachusetts Heroine of the Year by the commonwealth, which recognizes 100 women who have made meaningful contributions in their local communities. She says receiving this award has energized her.

Roberts says her other priorities in office include rezoning the downtown area of Stoughton to encourage more local businesses, implementing a sewer system to make the town more environmentally friendly, and modernizing city services such as the town’s fire department.

“I would like to see Stoughton move forward to the 21st century, and not look the same way it did when I first moved here 32 years ago,” Roberts says.

When the march reached the town center, several speakers delved into the history of Black people in the United States. They mentioned the Emancipation Proclamation, the Jim Crow era, the 1921 burning of ‘Black Wall Street’ in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the significance of Juneteenth, which marks the day in 1865—two years after the Emancipation Proclamation—when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, and informed enslaved Black people that they were free.

Roberts, who was one of the speakers, says it was important to focus on Black history because education is the best tool to mitigate systemic racism. 

“These [recent events] are things that have happened throughout the years, which is why the mourning was so deep—it was a deep cut this time,” Roberts says. “We talked about the importance of remembering our history because Black lives matter.”

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