‘I started with strangers, and I left with lifelong brothers and sisters’ The story of UCBG's second black president and Newton's first black mayor.

F

orty-three years ago, Boston College’s undergraduate student government elected its first black leader. Twenty-eight years ago, it elected its second. As the 20th century turned into the 21st, and as racial tensions continued to flair in Newton, the town in which BC resided had failed to follow suit. So it turned to a hometown hero—a local kid who went from being the first black president of his high school, to the second black president of the town’s neighboring college, to the campaign trails, to Iraq, to the White House: Setti Warren, BC ’93.

After growing up in Newton, Warren attended Newton North High School, a short 10-minute drive northwest of BC’s Main Campus. There began Warren’s involvement in public service and leadership, as he was elected class president for all four years of his high school career.

“For me, a high school student, being class president there offered a really unique challenge in that the city was 3 percent African-American,” he said. “I had friends of all different backgrounds, all different walks of life, and I just felt so committed to the students, to find ways to bring people together wherever I was, [to] solve problems together and have fun together.”

"We were able to relate to each other as two kids at BC that just wanted to see a better campus." Setti Warren

Though Warren had strong ties to Newton, what brought him to BC wasn’t its proximity to his hometown—it was his boundless enthusiasm for the University. Warren remembers setting foot on campus in his early life to don maroon and gold for sports games at the Roberts Center, the precursor to Conte Forum, and studying with BC student tutor volunteers in his early education.

Warren didn’t wait long before getting involved on campus—his freshman year, he was appointed to serve as the coordinator of the Undergraduate Government of Boston College’s (UGBC) Lecture Series Program from 1990-91 by then-UGBC president Rick Culliton, BC ’91. Warren worked tirelessly to curate a collection of dynamic speakers that would bring different perspectives to campus.

After landing guest speakers such as Chris Flavin—a member of the World Watch Institute, which advised President George W. Bush on environmental matters—and ABC News Correspondent Gary Shepard—who spoke to his experience as the first correspondent to report the commencement of the Persian Gulf War on-site in Baghdad—Warren landed his most high-profile speaker: Senator John Kerry, BC Law ’76. On Sept. 24, 1990, he packed the O’Connell House.

“As Kerry took the podium, a packed floor greeted him warmly. No one in the audience was happier to see the politician, however, than the man responsible for bringing him to BC, Lecture Series Coordinator Setti Warren,” wrote David Fromm in a 1990 Heights article.

At the culmination of his tenure as Lecture Series Coordinator, Warren set his sights on the UGBC presidency. Clinching the campaign would be quite the challenge—for one thing, Warren, a sophomore, was younger than most candidates in years past. Only a limited number of underclassmen had secured the coveted position. Additionally, BC’s homogenous student body had previously elected only one African-American UGBC president: Duane Deskins, BC ’76.

“No one thought I could win that race,” he said. “At the end of the day, I think many people dismissed my candidacy as a longshot because I was a sophomore and there was a very small AHANA population … I was universally dismissed.”

In the face of this adversity, however, Warren employed a skill he would use many times in his subsequent career: the ability to make connections with constituents.

“I knocked on virtually every dorm room I could and when I had conversations with people, the sort of dismissiveness came down, and we were able to relate to each other as two kids at BC that just wanted to see a better campus,” Warren said.

Warren’s charismatic campaign approach paid off. He not only won the election, but he did so handsomely. Along with his running mate Elise DiCarlo, then-UGBC director of programming and BC ’92, students voted to elect Warren over Kevin Pulte, BC ’92,  and Tina Castellano, BC ’92, by a margin of 1,748 to 650 votes.

“I really believe that BC is moving into a new era where students are integrated with the UGBC,” Warren stated after winning the election. “The BC community will come together in this new era.”

Warren soon set forth to actualize his campaign goals and set his agenda in motion—primarily, he hoped to make BC’s campus more inclusive. He increased the impetus he’d generated during his time as Lecture Series Coordinator to bring Spike Lee to BC to discuss his film Malcolm X—then in theaters—as well as topics like how to break down racial barriers. Lee had happened to be teaching a film class at Harvard that semester in the spring of ’92, so after a few flattering phone calls and the negotiation of a $15,000 contract by UGBC, Lee came to Conte Forum.

“Ultimately, having a diverse set of people, backgrounds, ideas, actually strengthened the campus, because we were able to have real discussions in the open and listen.” Setti Warren

But the director’s presence wasn’t met with universal approval—some reacted to Warren’s inclusion initiative with hesitation and even hostility.

“I was met with a lot of resistance, and there were some really tense conversations that took place,” he said. “Ultimately, having a diverse set of people, backgrounds, ideas, actually strengthened the campus, because we were able to have real discussions in the open and listen.”

The second major initiative Warren incited during his administration was the Book Tuition Fund, the combined brainchild of Warren, UGBC, and the BC Bookstore. During his candidacy for the UGBC presidency, a friend of Warren’s was caught while stealing a textbook from the bookstore.

Explaining his reasoning, Warren’s friend cited a lack of funds to afford the pricey textbooks, in addition to food. Consequently, Warren was inspired to create the Book Tuition Fund for students, which gave those with the highest level of fiscal need and unmet financial aid $50 book vouchers. The first year, 80 students were provided with vouchers, and by the program’s second year, the number had doubled to 160.

“I remember when he was actually running for UGBC president,” said William Power, a close friend of Warren’s and BC ’93. “At the time you put up sheets in the quad. I still joke with him to this day about [how] his slogan was ‘Setti is ready.’ And it was a fitting slogan then, and it sounds like he’s been ready ever since.”

After graduation in 1993, Warren remained in Newton and briefly worked in his father’s job-training consultant firm aiding underserved Bostonians. But it wasn’t long before Warren felt called to a career in public service.

He volunteered for President Clinton’s reelection campaign. Eventually, he was offered the opportunity to move to Washington and work at the headquarters of the campaign, and soon after was appointed to a position in the Clinton Administration. Warren spent four years as a White House staff member in the Advance Office, Cabinet Affairs Office, and Social Office during the Clinton Administration, which culminated in his appointment to be the Regional Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“I really came to understand at a young age the importance of the presidency and the importance of national policy—how it affects people,” he said. “I saw these decisions being made in an up-close-and-personal way.”

Warren’s time at FEMA was defined by a direct, hands-on approach to disaster control. As Regional Director, Warren worked hand-in-hand with towns, cities, and states to ensure their preparedness for all different types of emergencies. To achieve this, Warren and his team traveled to various regions, running live exercises and drills. When disaster struck, they were soon on-location, serving as first responders to help coordinate and allocate local, state, and federal resources.

“You need to be on the ground, you need to be listening to people, and you need to be able to make the right decisions—making that direct connection was incredibly powerful when I was FEMA director,” he said. “I don’t remember all the weather events and storms, but I certainly remember being on the ground in different communities and responding.”

After the culmination of his time at FEMA—the Bush Administration had cycled out Clinton’s appointees—Warren returned to BC in 2001 to work in the University’s Development Office as the assistant director for leadership gifts. During his second time on the Heights, Warren contacted alumni to raise funds for scholarships as well as fundraising.

“It was fantastic, and it reminded me of why I wanted to go there and why the experience was so important to me and the mission of the University,” he said. “I loved it. I loved coming back to campus.”

In 2002, Warren enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Growing up in a family peppered with military accolades—Warren’s dad was a Korean War veteran, and his grandfather had fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II—Warren wanted to serve his country. He served in the reserves for the next nine years.

The following year, Warren once again came into contact with a certain BC Law graduate—and previous Lecture Series speaker—when Senator Kerry began to ramp up his presidential campaign. Kerry offered Warren a campaign position as trip director, which required him to travel with the senator throughout the campaign trail. Warren was responsible for selecting Kerry’s schedule and setting up his meetings and events as they bused, trained, and planed around the U.S.

“I was thrilled to be part of that campaign and that year traveling with him in October ’03 to election night in ’04—I gained an incredible understanding and knowledge for what it takes to run for president, and certainly an admiration for him, as he made his way through the campaign,” Warren said.

The appointment resulted in several long-lasting connections for Warren. Also working on Kerry’s campaign was Elizabeth Tasker “Tassy” Plummer, who would later marry Warren in 2006, with Kerry serving as a groomsman. Kerry, still a close friend of Warren’s, would later be named godfather to the couple’s daughter.

“I came into that year not knowing anyone, I started with strangers, and I left with lifelong brothers and sisters." Setti Warren

In 2007, Warren’s work for Kerry was interrupted when he was called to active duty from the reserves and deployed to serve in Iraq as a Navy intelligence specialist.

“You are committing to saying that if the Navy needs you and the country needs you, then no matter what you’re doing in your life, no matter what your political views…” he said. “I didn’t think we should go into Iraq, but I also love this country, and I’m passionate about it, and I felt very responsible to fulfill my duty, to be there.”

Around the same time, Warren learned that his wife was pregnant with their first child, which was constantly on his mind during his naval service. In the middle of his deployment, Warren was granted his only time off: two weeks known as R&R (rest and recuperation). On his first day back in Massachusetts, his daughter Abigail was born. Returning to Iraq less than two weeks after that moment was one of toughest experiences of Warren’s life. The time he spent serving in Iraq in its entirety, however, made a tremendous impact on him.

“I’ll never forget [that experience] because I was on this base with people of so many different races, religions, backgrounds, sexual orientations, and we all had to work together, we all had to find a way,” he said. “I came into that year not knowing anyone, I started with strangers, and I left with lifelong brothers and sisters—it was a powerful experience that in many different ways when I came home shaped how I thought.”

Warren’s return to Newton coincided with his decision to run for the city’s mayoral position. Once again, Warren considered himself an underdog in the campaign and relied on forming tight connections with his constituents to emerge victorious. In 2010, Warren defeated Massachusetts State Rep. Ruth Balser and simultaneously became the first African-American mayor of Newton and the first popularly elected African-American mayor in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

“People thought he was crazy for thinking about running for mayor, because he wasn’t an established politician, and he was young,” said Andrew Stern, former Service Employees International Union president and a close friend of Warren’s since their time spent on the Newton Community Preservation Committee. “I think growing up in a military family and the military notion of discipline and leadership … certainly helped him and his being indefectible and knocking on so many doors, and introducing himself to and talking with the citizens on a one-on-one basis.”

Shortly after the election, Warren realized that, at the time, Newton was the only city in Massachusetts that featured both an African-American mayor (Warren) and governor (Deval Patrick). A team member had the idea to hang up portraits of the city’s leaders side-by-side in all Newton public school classrooms, at which point Warren recognized the magnitude of his achievement.

“I remember seeing that and I remember children of all different backgrounds seeing that and how powerful of a statement it was that hearing children of all different races [were talking] about the significance of it,” Warren said.

Upon his mayoral election, Warren confronted a fiscal crisis in conjunction with structurally unsound schools, roads in need of repair, the demand for greater public safety measures, and more police and fire employees. In 2013, Warren worked with his team to curate a tax override package, which included three proposals on the ballot to raise taxes over two and a half percent, or $11.4 million. Warren planned to put the supplementary tax dollars toward education, infrastructure, and public safety in the form of schools and teachers, road and sidewalk work, additional police officers, and a new fire station. To advocate for such a measure would have been risky at any point in time—“Who wants to pay taxes, right?” laughed Warren—but he knew it was the right thing to do for the City of Newton and its constituents.

So, Warren turned back to the lessons he’d learned long ago when running for UGBC president. He and his staff went directly to the citizens, and when all was said and done, he and his campaign members had knocked on 11,000 doors.

“He doesn’t take anything for granted, he’s willing to knock on doors … I think he probably drew on his experience from BC in terms of knocking on dorm room doors to always listening to what students were saying just like his constituents in Newton,” Power said.

And ultimately, that extra effort to bring people from all backgrounds together under a common goal paid off. All three measures passed, and he won his reelection in the fall of 2013. Today, Warren looks back on the tax override package as his proudest accomplishment during the eight years he served as mayor of Newton from 2010 to 2018.

On July 9, 2018, Warren started his first day as Executive Director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government. The center works to promote healthy democracy by fostering journalistic and political integrity through fellowship programs, outreach initiatives, and special events.

“I think he had kind of a civic-minded perspective on things from the beginning,” Power said. “I think he would probably tell you that he always saw himself in a service—whether it be service to his country or service to the community or to the city, it’s something he thought he would turn out to do.”

Featured Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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About Brooke Kaiserman