The fight to protect vital social service programs in Dorchester has never been an easy one, even during more stable financial times. But now as budgets shrink across the state, longtime community activists Judy Meredith and Lew Finfer believe the time is right to prepare a new generation of organizers to preserve programs and services they say are key to the neighborhood’s survival. The two have teamed up to devise a joint advocacy and organizing training curriculum dubbed the Massachusetts Policy and Organizing Leadership Training Academy, which will officially launch in January.
Meredith and Finfer each moved to Dorchester in the early 70s and quickly found themselves embedded in local politics, albeit from different points of view.
Finfer, a community organizer fresh out of school in New York, was an active member in the Massachusetts Fair Share (MFS) organization, doing stand-outs and campaigns to preserve affordable housing and employment opportunities in the community. Even though Finfer was 23, colleagues like former Codman Square Health Center director Bill Walczak, now the president of Carney Hospital, were impressed by his determination.
“I remember walking in there as a young activist and being very surprised by this extremely pleasant, knowledgable guy who cared deeply that the working class people of Dorchester had a strong voice,” Walczak said.
While Finfer spent much of his time working side-by-side with residents, Meredith had a top-down introduction to state politics as a private lobbyist, where she said she was forced to quickly pick up “the inside tricks” of moving policies forward on Beacon Hill, nudging lawmakers into action.
Despite having access to key players in the Commonwealth during her time at the State House, Meredith said her interactions with groups like MFS opened up new opportunities to trigger change through a new non-profit lobbying group for low-income neighborhoods.
“I learned the real power came from empowering grassroots folks to have a say in the policy-making process,” Meredith said. “I quickly learned that my power depended entirely on my ability to mobilize district-based networks to speak to their own legislators, I can be as charming as I want, but people listen to their constituents.”
Dorchester Youth Collaborative executive director Emmett Folgert has been a longtime collaborator with the pair and said that what makes the two so effective is not a particular tactic they use to gain leverage in the State House, but rather a sense of camraderie they instill in policymakers.
“If you think about Dorchetser’s legislators, they’re all Democrats and many of them are just as much advocates for an issue as we are,” Folgert said. “You’re advocating for low-income youth and they’re right there with you. What these organizers get that many others don’t is that we’re all working for the same cause.”
Meredith said the key to positive change is in creating “hero opportunities” for legislators. Rather than confronting policymakers with a problem, the pair work with local groups to find realistic solutions and ensure politicians that their efforts will not go unnoticed.
“I don’t think there are many legislators held in high regard these days,” Meredith said. “So we try to show them [a policy] will benefit a critical mass of their constituents, that they will get recognition for the work they did and that critical mass will say ‘thank you.’”
Since the campaigns of the 70s, Finfer and Meredith have continued to pool their skills, with Finfer stoking local voices while Meredith ensures legislators keep an open ear. The two developed a guide for lobbying on a shoestring budget and have now begun work on what they hope will become a training academy that will pass their decades of experience to future advocates.
Meredith said the goal for their academy is to help expand an organization’s understanding of how the state government works, from the legislative calendar’s impact on decision making to lessons on how to understand the State budget and make recommendations that funds be transfered to programs in need.
“This stuff is not hard,” Meredith said. “All we’re doing is demystifying basic civic engagement and showing people how best they can make a difference.”
State Representative Linda Dorcena Forry said the pair’s new focus on educating future activists comes at a critical time as non-profits struggle through a sluggish economy and new ethics reforms which she said has left many organizations scrambling to adjust.
“I think it’s great what they’re doing,” Forry said. “There are a lot of non-profits that feel they don’t have the skills to address legislators. They find themselves paying out for a lobbyist when they could be doing much of the work themselves.”
So far, their strategy of cooperation over confrontation has served them well. Policymakers from across the state have commended Finfer and Meredith for their lobbying efforts and several politicians, including City of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Congressmen Michael Capuano and Barney Frank have supported the creation of their leadership academy.
In a testament to the pair’s style, Congressman Frank said he considers Meredith and Finfer “old friends” and was quick to show his support for improving local advocacy.
“They understand the situation and they ask how to go beyond it.” Frank said. “I want to help but I can’t find all the solutions for someone. Judy and Lou come forward, say ‘here’s the problem, the steps to fix it and here’s what you need to do.’ From the minute you talk to either of them, you are collaborating with them.”