Boston Globe: Jim Brett’s Mission
As originally appearing in The Boston Globe

By Joan Vennochi

For Jim Brett, raising $1.3 million will be the easy part of his latest accomplishment. After all, he was helped by Jack Connors Jr., the legendary ad man and fundraiser extraordinaire.

The harder part will be delivering on the promise behind the money. It will be used to establish the James T. Brett Chair in Disability and Workforce Development at the University of Massachusetts/Boston. The endowed chair is dedicated to research and work force support and training for citizens with intellectual and developmental disabilities, a first-in-the-nation mission.

Brett, a former state representative and longtime president and CEO of The New England Council, is used to collecting honors. He owes this latest one to his late brother, John “Jack” Brett, who died in 2010 at age 76, and is often referenced when Jim Brett is accepting another honor.

Jack Brett was born in 1934 with what are now called “intellectual disabilities.” At the time, a doctor advised his mother to put him in an institution. But Mary Ann Brennan Brett declined. As a result, Jack Brett lived a life in full — meaning he was surrounded by loving family members, who include Bill Brett, the Globe’s former chief photographer, as well as a caring community of friends and neighbors.

As a state lawmaker, Jim Brett championed many social service causes related to his brother’s challenges. But Brett also came to define the cause as more than a need for government-funded services. The private sector also has an crucial role to play, he now believes.

The New England Council represents an alliance of schools, hospitals, corporations ,and other private organizations working together to promote economic growth in New England. In his role as president and chief executive, Brett extends that concept to citizens with intellectual and development challenges.

Just like anyone else, those citizens want to work, he said. The challenge is to help them find meaningful employment. To that end, the endowed chair will highlight an issue that has long been in the shadows — how to match labor market needs to the training needed to prepare people of all abilities for those jobs.

“This will elevate the discussion and contribute to research and teaching. Now we have an opportunity and a platform, here in Boston,” said Brett.

The James T. Brett chair will be held by the director of the Institute for Community Inclusion, a research institute directed by the University of Massachusetts/Boston and a central component of the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development, which was established in 2012.

Connecting the disabled with work is not an easy task, especially in troubled economic times. “When the economy turns down, they are the first to go out the door,” said William Kiernan, the founding dean and research professor at the new School for Global Inclusion and Social Development.

Some 800 people are expected to attend the Sept. 16 gala honoring Brett, and featuring Connors, an event co-chair, as emcee. After the celebrating comes the hard work of making this endowed chair stand for more than a lofty ideal. That’s when the movers and shakers who contributed much-appreciated money should begin to think about ways to back it up with real job opportunities.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.

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