An interview with ABCD President Sharon Scott-Chandler

Sharon Scott-Chandler

Q.You are leading one of the country’s largest anti-poverty agencies, and you grew up in Mattapan, a neighborhood heavily influenced by the issues of poverty. How has your life there as a young woman informed your work at ABCD?

A. Growing up in Mattapan established the foundation for who I am and the work I do. My family struggled to make ends meet just like the communities we support at ABCD. And just like the people who come through our doors each day, we believed in a brighter economic future. We saw education as a means way to get there, and also tried to access as many broader opportunities as possible.

My parents signed me up for the METCO program before first grade seeking an alternative education in the `70s; I had a summer job at the age of 15, stacking books at the Boston Public Library through the city-funded youth program. I was able to attend Tufts University through scholarships, including a critical one from the Ruth Batson Foundation.

Those experiences throughout, just to name a few, greatly inform my perspective working in community service and trying to ensure broader opportunity for those who come behind me.

What attracted you to this kind of social service work?

A. Community and service are part of my DNA, because ever since I can remember work and life was about helping people. My mother was a social worker for 40 years and I can still visualize sitting in her office on Adams Street while she worked overtime helping other moms obtain food and housing.

I also learned about “the village” through my grandmother’s influence and stories of how their small apartment in Roxbury was the place everyone in the neighborhood went to eat, relax, and stay safe.

The first-hand appreciation of the value of this work is a large part of what put me on this journey to ABCD. It is also a passion to be part of positive change, particularly for communities historically denied resources and power that has influenced my life and career decisions, including studying political science, joining political campaigns, working for a congressman in DC, and then returning to Boston to attend a public interest law school like Northeastern.

I saw the impact of laws and the role that government plays in people’s lives. It was only natural to come back to working directly in the community when I decided to leave a traditional legal career and I have been blessed to be able to use my skills to put back into the community that molded and supported me.

Q. Heating costs for the winter are up, affecting working families and low-income families and the elderly in a tremendous way. How did ABCD plan for the winter heating crisis?

A. The Fuel Assistance program (aka LIHEAP) is a lifeline for so many households each year to help get them through the winter season with support to pay for heating costs, and each year we struggle to get as much money as we can to help people.

ABCD and its allies successfully urged legislators to increase the program’s funding so that we received both federal and state money. As a result, the maximum LIHEAP benefit level was recently increased to $2,200, which is what it was during the pandemic and is at the highest it’s been in years.

This will go a long way to help struggling families, individuals, and seniors make it through the New England winter season, but given increased energy costs, we know we will need to continue to seek additional public funding as well as private philanthropic contributions to help people in need get through the winter.

ABCD began outreach over the summer to customers who previously received assistance in order to get their applications in for benefits again this year. We began accepting new customer applications for Fuel Assistance on Nov. 1 and have received almost 18,000 already, a couple thousand more than last year at this time, and statewide, LIHEAP applications have soared.

Despite this, we know there are still more people who may not know about the program, may not want to ask for help, or may think their income is too high. So, we continue to use every avenue to get the word out so that people will reach out and find out if they are eligible to receive assistance and help avoid no heat crises.

Application assistance is available in-person by appointment at all ABCD neighborhood centers. Residents of Greater Boston can visit our website or call our offices to learn the many ways to apply and to check if they may qualify based on their income and household size.

Q. You moved from executive vice president to president of ABCD recently, taking the place of the former leader, John Drew, who was there 51 years. What will you continue to do the same, and what will you change as the new leader? What leadership lessons did you learn from John?

A. Having been at ABCD for 23 years filling different roles, I am humbled and inspired in taking the helm of ABCD from both Robert Coard and his successor and longtime partner, John Drew. Their vision, leadership and determination built ABCD to be what it is today.

I was able to learn so much in my first decade at the organization from Bob, who recruited me at a time when I was exploring a career change outside the traditional legal space. He modeled both the history of ABCD’s journey and its current relevance as a powerful force and resource throughout Boston’s neighborhoods.

Working so closely with John over these last 13 years, I continued to live the lessons of centering that work in the community, speaking out against inequity and running an organization with the sharpest and forward-thinking business practices.

ABCD is an incredible organization that just celebrated its 60th anniversary of fighting the war on poverty and advocating for racial, social, economic and reproductive justice.

The community is at the heart of the mission that drives our work to mitigate the effects of poverty and support people with the resources and tools to thrive and we will continue to do that audaciously.

Going through a once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) pandemic had devastating impact and extraordinary change for our communities on many levels we may not even see for years. The times call us to think of new ways to be responsive and creative in our approach to often, old problems that have a twist.

During my first few months, I have begun the internal and external outreach, reflection, and strategic thinking that will be needed as we chart the next chapter of the organization. We are looking at ways to leverage funding and collaborate with other organizations and the city to maximize all the good will and talent working hard in our communities.

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