Elaine DeRosa'scq college internship at the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committeecq turned into her life's work. DeRosa grew up hearing about the hardships her Italian immigrant grandparents endured as they sewed clothes, shoveled coal, and dug roads to get by in their new home of New Britain, Conn. During college, she protested the Vietnam War. A career in community organizing was a natural fit. In March, after more than four decades at the Cambridge anti-poverty agency, three of them running the place, DeRosa, 66, retired. She spoke with Globe reporter Katie Johnston about how she got where she is and what she plans to do now.
1) DeRosa's career at the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee started when she found its ad in the Yellow Pages in 1971 while she was looking for a place to volunteer. She landed a full-time job there soon after she graduated from Springfield College, making $7,000 a year.
"I came as a student intern, if you can imagine, and never left. Talk about lack of ambition. Somebody was coming in to Cambridge to do another placement, so I got a ride in, and that's it. It was all happenchance. I had the luck of the draw. A lot of other people, when you don't get the luck of the draw, whose fault is that? That's always kind of influenced my approach to public policy work."
2) During her four-plus decades in Cambridge, DeRosa has watched the city become an incredibly expensive place to live, pushing out more and more low-income families. This is unfortunate, she says, because Cambridge offers so many services to help people get back on their feet.
"If you're poor, being in Cambridge offers you opportunities. If you get displaced and you end up in a low-income community, your resources are pretty limited. So the schools, the services, the support systems, Cambridge really does offer you a support that you can't get in other communities."
DeRosa considers preserving affordable housing among the most important work the CEOC does, but in the red-hot Cambridge housing market, it can be difficult to convince people who inherit property to work with a nonprofit to preserve it for low-income residents instead of quickly flipping it for cash.
"You're racing to get to the property before the kids turn it over in 10 minutes and get a million dollars. Who's going to turn down a million dollars? They may have grown up here and moved on. 'Dad and Mom kept the house. But we don't live here. We're cashing in.' You're actually involving yourself in a family discussion about, 'Do you really want to be that greedy?' "
4) The CEOC had many successes during DeRosa's long tenure, including helping craft multiple affordable housing policies, running a sex-ed program for Cambridge Public Schools for 30 years, and getting women's health and birthing centers up and running.
"My success wasn't about me. It was about our capacity, because as a community action agency you have the flexibility to do all these things. You have the resources to hire staff, to respond to whatever the community needs in terms of eliminating those issues that create poverty. A pregnant teen — we know the statistics. The child is probably going to be poor, too. It goes on for generations. Where do you break that chain?"
5) For the past decade, DeRosa and her wife, Bonnie Johnston, a retired public health nurse, spent almost every weekend taking care of their ailing mothers. On Saturday mornings, DeRosa would drive Johnston to Amherst, where her mother lived, and then continue on to New Britain, Conn., to be with her own mother — and then reverse the trip on Sunday night. Their mothers have both since passed away, and the couple is now focused on projects around the house, going to their 10-year-old grandson's baseball games — and learning how to take it easy.
"[Bonnie] gives me the tips on how to be retired: You don't have to do anything. It takes a while to get in the swing of things. Take your time. Everybody goes, 'Oh, are you going to travel?', and I think, I'm too tired."