October 15, 2019
 
Field Work in Barbados in College Led Emily Rosenbaum to Lowell

Emily Rosenbaum: You have to listen to people – that you can really trust in them.
It was during her junior year at Vassar College, while working with the poor in the Caribbean, that Emily Rosenbaum, now executive director of Coalition for a Better Acre, a community development corporation in Lowell, discovered her interest in social justice and change.

Here is her story.

I was studying anthropology and wanted to be the next Margaret Mead. As an anthropologist you’re supposed to observe and document cultures and not participate. But I realized my passion was the pursuit of social justice and change. When I see something I don’t like, I want to get in and do something about it.

In my senior year, I volunteered for the U.S. Committee for UNICEF in New York, and was invited to Texas to see whether I could do more work for them, but found another opportunity with The Houston Interfaith Hunger Coalition where I advocated for families rejected for food stamps, set up food pantries, helped raise money, and lobbied and testified at state subcommittees on hunger and nutrition. I realized this work was rewarding and that people would pay me to do it.

I went back to New York and got my master’s in public policy from NYU. I then went to work for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which let me get my arms around affordable housing and policy. After David Dinkins became mayor in 1990 a lot of investment was made in affordable housing, and the New York program became a model for the federal HOME program.

Around this time I got married and moved to Massachusetts. My first job here was grant writing and fundraising for St. Francis House in Boston, now the largest day shelter in New England, and then joined the South Shore Housing Development Corporation in Kingston where I managed three large projects.

In 1998, I became ED of the Twin Cities CDC in Fitchburg. It appealed because it combined the best of what I like to do – working with people at the grass roots level, developing physical infrastructure of housing stock, and being involved in the soft side of community work, like raising money and board and staff management.

At Twin Cities, we had a very troubled neighborhood and brought together a group of residents to help figure out what to do. The city was with us for the most part, but decided they didn’t like the plan the residents came up with, which focused on two-family housing, which would provide rental income for owners. The city wanted a single-family solution, which is much more expensive. We parted ways with the city, saying, “Thanks for working with us, but you’re not listening to what people want” – and launched a grassroots campaign that involved the entire city. Every week we sent postcards to the city planning office. Finally, the city called up and asked us how many two-family homes we wanted.

This experience taught me that you have to listen to people – that you can really trust in them. I had to act against the typical ED impulse, which is to protect your organization, in this case by not opposing the city, which was funding us. I had to trust the people who said this would be OK, that they would look out for their interests and protect our organization. Today, the neighborhood has single- and two-family houses, and it’s very attractive and affordable.

I didn’t achieve this on my own. Luz Sanchez, my board president, was an inspiration to me. She has since died, but she was such a strong advocate for her community. Her 100% passion was to make sure people had access to resources and worked together.

I stayed in Fitchburg until 2002 and then took a hiatus, serving as program director with the Jewish Organizing Initiative in Boston, which combines training and job placement for young Jewish adults who want to go into community organizing or social justice careers. Then, in 2006, a friend told me about the Coalition for a Better Acre and encouraged me to apply for the ED’s job.

Through my work, I’ve found that persistence and stick-to-itness are vital. It sounds trite, but showing up is so important: go to the meetings, be accessible to people, go out in the community. You meet people and never know where it will lead. George Duncan, the founder and chairman of Enterprise Bank, who was on my board during my first year in Lowell, has been a tremendous mentor to me. He continues to be a very close advisor and is always introducing me to people.

I find that I can embrace the gray that exists in the world of work. There are always challenges and opportunities, and threats looming. I’ve been to so many ED retreats where I hear the sky is falling, but it’s always falling. I look for that part of the sky that is blue, where there are opportunities. It’s a challenging time in the nonprofit world and in the affordable housing field. But you always have to believe in that future, because you don’t know what it will bring.

As told to Peter Lowy, February 2012. Learn more about Coalition for a Better Acre.

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