John Drew is probably one of the most influential Bostonians you don’t know much about.
Which is a shame because — at the tender age of 84 — he is stepping down as the CEO of Action for Boston Community Development, better known as ABCD.
It’s the city’s biggest and most durable antipoverty agency, a Swiss Army knife of social services. It offers everything from fuel assistance to Head Start programs, to summer jobs, in every neighborhood of Boston.
It’s been performing these functions since it was conceived in the 1960s, a product of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” program. And Drew has been there practically from the beginning, fighting (and usually winning) one political battle after another, especially in its early days.
“It was a huge start-up, the War on Poverty,” Drew said. “Money was coming directly into neighborhoods. Suddenly there was the first legal services program, the first Head Start program, the first [Women Infants and Children] program.”
Drew grew up in hardscrabble Charlestown, not to be confused with the upscale neighborhood we know today. His passion for using politics to help poor people was formed early, watching the old ward bosses of his youth, like the legendary Martin Lomasney.
“Lomasney gave people a bucket of coal for a vote,” Drew quipped. “We gave people fuel assistance.”
Drew, of course, was not the founder of ABCD. That was Robert Coard, the incredibly charismatic and persuasive man who ran it until his death in 2009. Coard was a master at working with the region’s power brokers without ever losing touch with the people ABCD was meant to help. Meanwhile, Drew was the inside player maintaining stability inside the organization.
They were a formidable team.
“At that time, Bob was the only Black man running an organization in the city,” Drew said. “I used the skills I had. We were very entrepreneurial. We deal with the political community, and we try to make sure they come back to us.”
ABCD was the product of a certain period in history. Johnson was fresh off passage of landmark civil rights legislation and under the gun for continuing a very unpopular war in Vietnam. He turned his attention to the project of addressing poverty, particularly in major cities. ABCD was among the first of a group of agencies around the country that sprung up as a result.
Drew was involved in ABCD early on, and came on full time in 1971 to help stabilize the agency’s haphazard finances and record-keeping.
He and Coard formed an unshakable bond. Their first major fight was against Richard M. Nixon, whose administration wanted to unwind the food stamps program ABCD was administering.
Johnson was gone, and the passion in Washington for antipoverty programs had left with him. But they won that fight, and the agency continued to build and grow.
By the time Coard died, leaving Drew as his long-entrenched second-in-command, Drew was not a universally popular choice as a successor. He was a white guy in his 70s, seeking to run an agency whose clientele was overwhelmingly Black and brown.
But he felt that he wasn’t anywhere near done fighting the battles that have driven him. ABCD has continued developing innovative ways to reach people where they are and to provide many services government doesn’t. It’s a model grassroots organization.
Drew’s successor was effectively selected years ago. Sharon Scott-Chandler, a 25- year veteran of the agency and Drew’s longtime second-in-command, will assume the helm when he formally retires on July 1.
Even now, I get the sense that leaving ABCD wasn’t an easy decision for Drew. But he said it was.
“I do recognize that time has passed,” he said. “And Sharon’s time has come. She’s so well-prepared to take over, and I deserve a rest. The last vacation I took was in 1984.”
The organization Drew helped build has been on the forefront of fighting for poor people, people of color — and, by extension, cities themselves. Those are constituencies that will always need champions, and they don’t come any more committed than John Drew.