When Lew Finfer’s daughter, Sophia, was 5, someone asked her if she knew what her father did for a living. “He’s a community agonizer,” she said.
Nearly three decades later, her answer lives on as both a family joke and an apt description of Finfer’s career as a community organizer. Because anyone who does it knows the job of organizing people around a common cause can also require a great deal of agonizing to make that happen.
At the end of the year, Finfer, 72, is leaving his post as senior issues adviser at Massachusetts Communities Action Network — a group he led as director from 1985 to 2021. MCAN is just one of many groups he has worked with since he first came to Massachusetts in 1968 to attend Harvard. He still plans to work on projects he believes in. But his official departure from MCAN is a good time to celebrate the influence of a quiet leader who spent the past four decades orchestrating some of Boston’s biggest campaigns for social and economic justice — from rent control and home ownership programs to increasing the minimum wage and mandating family and medical leave.
John Sasso, the veteran business and political consultant who worked behind the scenes with Finfer on several causes, calls him “truly the most unsung hero in Massachusetts. ... Every major issue that lifts people, he has been involved with.” Sasso said that Finfer knows “how to move an agenda forward. He understands all the elements that are part of it — the media, legislators, public officials, business, and communities.”
Born in Brooklyn, Finfer grew up in Rockville Center, N.Y. Like many young people raised during the 1960s, he was influenced by the civil rights movement, and of course by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At Harvard, Finfer took classes in sociology, psychology, and anthropology. By the end of his freshman year, he was living and organizing in Dorchester. His commute to Cambridge, he said, took him “from two ends of the Red Line” between “two different worlds.”
He first started working on housing issues during the painful era of court-ordered busing in Boston. “The city was seriously divided. There were ugly racial incidents,” said Finfer. Yet, he was still able to pull together a diverse coalition of Dorchester residents who got behind rent control and won lower property tax assessments and rebates. Over the decades, he has repeated that coalition-building formula. What’s the trick?
“Any individual organization is proud of what they do,” Finfer told me. “But if they’re honest, they know there are limits to what they can do. ... You need partners. You need public officials and business people. … You need allies willing to listen. You can’t do it alone.”
Convincing powerful people to work on behalf of the less powerful is a big part of Finfer’s organizing genius, said Judy Meredith, the mother of grass-roots organizing in Massachusetts. “It’s simple really,” she said. “He is personally offended when he sees injustice. He is personally compelled to try to stop it and he knows the most effective way to stop it is by educating, organizing, and mobilizing the ordinary people who are being harmed.” Mobilizing means getting them in the same room with the people who can do something about it.
Finfer is also that rare person willing to put their name next to quotes that hold the powerful accountable. In 2002, when then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino was angered by striking janitors who stopped traffic, Finfer told me: “It would be more polite if the janitors were sight unseen and protesters never blocked traffic. But the question for the building owners is: Are you going to step forward and take responsibility, or step back and just let it be bitter conflict, like the classic labor bosses did?”
In 2010, when State Street was cutting jobs despite increased profits and access to Federal Reserve resources, Finfer said, “Where’s the fairness? If all the taxpayers helped your business continue to exist, don’t you have a responsibility back to maintain jobs, create jobs and invest in communities?” In 2021, real estate developer Jerome Rappaport died to great accolades for his philanthropy. But Finfer was unafraid to point out that Rappaport also undermined rent control in Boston and demolished a neighborhood to build a luxury housing complex. Rappaport’s generosity, he said, “will help in front of St. Peter, but there’s some hard time he also should be doing for what he did in the ’50s and ’60s.”
Finfer is still trying to get the so-called millionaires tax passed in Massachusetts. But to be a community organizer is to be an optimist. “It comes down to whether you look at the glass as half empty or half full. If we can get to half full, that’s concrete things that have created opportunities in people’s lives,” he said.
This Saturday night, fellow community organizers who also see a half-full glass will gather at the IBEW Hall in Dorchester to honor Finfer. Janine Carreiro, his successor as director of MCAN, said that when she first started, “Lew was my crutch. He told me what to say, how to say it, what a meeting needed to look like. I couldn’t do it without him.” Of his passing of the torch, Carreiro said, “He’s done it in a way I don’t think every white guy in that particular age range can do it, with that much grace.”
Finfer still lives in Dorchester with his wife, Judy Shea, a social worker he met at a St. Patrick’s Day party. They have a son, Alexsandr, 26, who was adopted from the Republic of Georgia; and a daughter, Sophia, who is now 34. For a recent Father’s Day gift, Sophia Finfer gave her dad a desk name plate engraved with these words: “Lew Finfer, community agonizer.” All these decades later, they still ring true.