Commentary: It’s a wrap for me after 34 years at MAHA; early on, women of color set the path

Thirty years as executive director. Thirty-four years at the same community-based organization. It comes to an end today (Dec. 31).

MAHA (the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance) is a wonderful place to create change, build a career, develop friendships. We’ve done “some good in this world,” as Hermione Granger said. I was 27 when Lew Finfer hired me. It was my third job in five years after the first two nonprofits where I worked fell on hard times financially. Back then it never occurred to me that I would be a few days away from 62 when I walked out the door at MAHA for the last time. Or that my two daughters would be born during my years at MAHA and would be full-grown adults before I changed employers.

In 1987, home prices were spiking for, perhaps, the first time in Boston history. Lew charged Hillary Pizer and me with the goal of developing a grassroots constituency for more affordable housing. After some research, the concept of an organization made up of would-be homebuyers was born. First-time homebuyers were being priced out of the city and the region. My wife Eileen and I experienced that first-hand a year earlier when we struck out trying to buy a home in Dorchester and eventually discovered a more affordable homeownership option in Brockton.

We mailed to people who had applied to buy an affordable home in the city and asked them to call or mail us a return postcard indicating that they would be interested in organizing a group effort to do something about unaffordable home prices. Twenty percent of those we mailed to returned that card – an organizer’s dream. People were reaching out to us. We were onto something. We just didn’t know what exactly.
At the very first meeting, this nascent group of [largely] women of color taught us something else about trying to buy a home in Boston. “The banks won’t give us a mortgage,” they said.

“Why?” asked this white guy.

“Because no one we know has ever gotten a loan from them. Let’s take on the banks!”

This was our first meeting. It would take another year, but we got our chance. On Jan. 11, 1989, the Boston Globe led with the headline “Inequities are cited in Hub mortgages; Preliminary Fed finding is ‘racial bias’.” By that summer, a coalition of six community organizations, including MAHA, presented the banks with a $1 billion community reinvestment plan. MAHA’s Homebuyers Union leaders demanded a more affordable mortgage that would help families of color and others afford to stay in Boston.

They won. We won. And ultimately, the banks learned that they had won as well. That mortgage program still exists today, thanks to MAHA’s organizing and with outstanding stewardship and so much more from the Massachusetts Housing Partnership. Today it has helped more than 23,600 homebuyers obtain their first home. Statewide, over 60 percent of those buyers are households of color and that number rises to 80 percent in Boston and the Gateway Cities. It has worked.

But what has really worked is that the women of color who showed up to that first meeting in a Dorchester church in 1989 have motivated and nurtured successive generations to keep fighting for change. Diana Strother and Adrianne Anderson gave way to Florence Hagins, who inspired current activists like Cortina Vann and Acia Adams-Heath. Cortina, Acia, and others helped Esther Dupie and Symone Crawford find a home at MAHA. And now Symone will lead MAHA into the future, with a young generation of soon-to-be activists signing up for classes in record numbers.

I cleaned my office yesterday and it was both easy and hard. Easy because I was alone in a quiet office on a rainy day ready to close a chapter, albeit a long one. Hard because every report, news clip, or photo brought a flood of memories of campaigns and long nights and wins and losses, both professional and personal.

Easy and hard. Easy to spend 34 years at a place where everyone is on the same team fighting for justice and pulling for each other. Those relationships have enriched me like I could never have imagined. Hard to do this work because there is so much more to do. Our 23,600 homebuyers haven’t closed the racial homeownership gap in Massachusetts. We have to be bolder and more intentional as an organization and as a Commonwealth if we are to succeed.

Thank you to all of my current and former co-workers, colleagues, friends, and family who have supported me over the years. You are too numerous to mention here, but know that your wisdom and guidance has been invaluable to me. Thank you and undying love to Eileen, Brenna, and Devan, who have been my support system and inspiration for 40, 28, and 25 years, respectively.

This is not retirement. Much work remains. A new chapter will unfold. MAHA is in great hands. As Marge Piercy wrote in “The Low Road”…

“It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.”

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