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Made for the job: Scott-Chandler takes reins at ABCD

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Made for the job: Scott-Chandler takes reins at ABCD
ABCD CEO and President Sharon Scott-Chandler. COURTESY PHOTO

The board of Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) in November named Sharon Scott-Chandler president and CEO of the anti-poverty agency. Scott-Chandler had for more than 10 years been executive vice president of the organization, which was founded in 1962 to combat poverty in Boston.

A Mattapan native, Scott-Chandler went to school in Foxborough through the METCO program and graduated from Tufts University and Northeastern University School of Law. She worked as a legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Sidney Yates in Washington, D.C., in private practice at a Boston law firm and as an assistant attorney general under Scott Harshbarger before joining ABCD. Scott-Chandler sat down with the Banner earlier this month to discuss her new role.

You started off in law. What made you decide to switch to anti-poverty work?

It wasn’t really a shift, because everything that I’ve done and experienced laid the foundation for the work that I’m doing today. Growing up, we didn’t have a whole lot of money. We had community. I was a METCO student; I was bused out to Foxborough schools from first grade on to high school. I had a good experience, but you can’t help but see around you the inequities both in resources and opportunities that that are not always available in the community that you’re in every day. At one point, I worked in Washington D.C. for a congressperson from Chicago. Everywhere I was, everywhere I worked, every experience I had just showed me those disparities. So I chose to go to law school, actually, with that in mind. Northeastern’s School of Law is a public-interest-oriented law school and they really focused on the law’s impact on people, and the equity and justice issues surrounding that.

I went first to a law firm and then to the attorney general’s office. I worked for Scott Harshbarger, and the work that we did and the leadership that he demonstrated was around equity and economic and social justice for everybody. Scott was the one who introduced me to [longtime former ABCD CEO] Bob Coard, and he convinced me. He said, “You need to be at ABCD.” It did feel like home, even from that first meeting with him.

You’ve been at ABCD for 23 years. How has it changed during your tenure? How has it evolved?

ABCD celebrated its 60th anniversary this year. In many ways, it’s stayed the same in the sense of what it’s meant to the community, but it has certainly grown. The programming really has evolved outside of the signature programs, which continue to be needed. We still have Head Start. Early childhood education couldn’t be more important today. Those programs have remained critical to the community and to the people we serve, and they too, have grown and evolved.

Then there’s also programming that responds to people’s needs now. We have programming that deals with foreclosure. Our weatherization program did always exist but, over the last 20 years it has grown exponentially because of the movement to have less reliance on fossil fuels. We have, from the time that I’ve been here, had a recovery high school. ABCD has evolved, developing programming that responds to current needs and current issues that that our communities face. In many ways, that’s how it’s really kept its finger on the pulse of what we can do for our communities.

What are the most pressing problems facing low-income people in Boston now?

Housing has got to be one of the most pressing issues. We’ve always been dealing with gentrification, but we just haven’t seen it to this extent. That struggle has been building, and more and more low-income people can’t afford to be in Boston.

As low-income people move out of Boston, to what extent does that change ABCD’s mission?

Interestingly, low-income people are moving out, but the population hasn’t necessarily dropped by that much. We’ve always had immigration. We continue to have newcomers who come in as others are moving out. Regardless, we still serve 100,000 people a year. It does not feel like the need has decreased at all. We really want to help our communities move into higher-skilled jobs. That that’s something that we’ve tried to think about as we’ve evolved. And surprisingly, and during the pandemic of course, food security has been an issue. You’d think in a country and a city and a state like ours, that food security would not be one of the most pressing needs, but unbelievably, our food access centers and our food security programming are more robust than they’ve ever been and serving more people than ever. With inflation now, and the cost of all basic necessities so high, you either have to pay your rent or put food on your table. People are using all their money to stay in their homes.

What’s your vision for ABCD? What does the future look like for the agency?

ABCD is an incredible institution, built really by Bob Coard and [former CEO] John Drew. As big as it is, it has been agile over the years. It’s been responsive to community needs, as we saw during the pandemic. We are a large organization, but during the shutdown, we were the first responders out there, getting people their food, getting children supports and helping them stay connected. We knew how to move during a crisis, and that’s certainly such a testament to the staff and to the organization that’s been built over the last 60 years.

What does the next 60 years look like? We’re in a different world. Right now, we’re starting a strategic planning process, and I’m going through this process, just getting out and talking to stakeholders — the people that we serve, people in the communities we work in, staff, elected officials, partners in the nonprofit world, private folks — just to see and think about, what does that next iteration or generation of ABCD look like? We want to continue to be a leader and a voice for low-income communities. We want to continue to break down silos, because many of our communities and many people we serve have to deal with government, the safety net. We have to ensure that the safety net isn’t a barrier itself to getting help.

I feel fortunate to be in such a great, stable place to write that next chapter for ABCD. The world looks different today — whether that’s diversity, the inequities, the technology, the gaps. So that’s really what I’m trying to focus on in this in this preliminary time period. There’s still so much opportunity for us to do things better, to do things differently, and really leverage all of the resources and the expertise. There are many nonprofits doing good work in the city. How can we all leverage that together? How can we align our work? How can ABCD, as a larger institution, help support or work with and collaborate with other nonprofits? I think it’s incumbent upon us and imperative for us to do it in a way that we haven’t done it before and be more creative, flexible and proactive.