Doris Graham, still pushing at 85, says 'work together, move ahead'

After a lifetime spent advocating for her underprivileged neighbors in Dorchester, Doris Graham can look back on both challenges that she helped conquer, and problems that remain. Now, more than ever, she believes the solution to those problems is collaboration between energetic youth and knowledgeable senior citizens.

"The young and the old need to work together, and you will find the change," said Graham. Not all of this killing or any of that. You work together, and you will move ahead."

Graham, 85, reflected recently on her career of social advocacy, which spanned five decades, during an interview from the living room of her home on Columbia Road. Furniture in the room is decorated with pictures of her six children and six grandchildren, and the walls are covered in awards and citations given to her for her tireless efforts to improve the lives of her neighbors.

"The money is in City Hall for this community to do many things," said Graham. "It is all about bringing that money to people who need it here, where there were no jobs, where work is still hard to find. That's what I always told the mayor, governors, whoever."

Graham was honored last week during the grand opening of the Dorchester Neighborhood Service Center's new facility at 110 Claybourne Street. The new building had to be gutted and completely rebuilt after being destroyed in an electrical fire in October of 2004. At the ceremony last week, Graham was honored for the work she did during her 25 years as the center's first director; a brick bearing her name will be installed in a walkway leading into the new center.

Graham was born in Boston and raised in the South End. She moved often in her childhood, as well as with her own family.

"We were poor. We moved from neighborhood to neighborhood to survive. I needed lodging for my children," said Graham.

She and her husband raised six children in Dorchester, and while she was always looking for work, she says jobs were hard to come by, and much of their livelihood came from welfare.

Her own experience with poverty and empathy for neighbors in similar situations led her to her first community meeting, at Franklin Field in the 1956 to discuss the potential closing of a neighborhood health center.

"I stood up and said, 'you can't close these people out," she said. "They looked at me, and the next thing I knew I was talking. The next thing I knew I was involved."

That involvement stretched across five decades, from lobbying to bring increased federal aid into Boston in the 1960s to volunteering in a Dudley Square senior program in the 1990s.

One of her first acts, she said, was to collect hundreds of signatures from Dorchester residents on welfare, which she marched to City Hall to prove her neighborhood was suffering. That kind of activism eventually led her to testify before the U.S. congress in the 1960s and 1970s, where her advocacy was key in bringing federal aide to the city of Boston.

She became the first director of the Neighborhood Service Center in the 1960s, a post she held for 25 years, retiring in 1986. During that tenure, she saw the center's services grow to include a variety of training and education initiatives, daycare, and summer camps.

She stayed heavily involved in the center and other neighborhood initiatives after retiring, and even after her husband died of lung cancer in 1989. Old age has slowed her involvement in recent years, though she firmly believes that people of her generation should be an asset to young leaders who answer the call to advocate on behalf of their neighbors in need.

"What they needed was my voice &endash; no, not my voice, my actions. They were scared to do what I did," she said. "I have always said, 'I'm not black, I'm a person, just trying to help my community.'"