Boston Foundation Associate Vice President of Communications reflects on 30+ years of interviews with key players in Boston and shares some memorable moments.
By Barbara Hindley, Associate Vice President of Communications
Did you see the Boston Foundation’s 2021 annual report, Closing Boston’s Equity Gap? It, like the 2020 report and others before it, includes articles and quotes based on extensive interviews with Foundation partners—be they donors, community organizers, nonprofit professionals, residents or other civic leaders. We try to capture their stories, observations and aspirations in our annual reports and quarterly newsletters (and sometimes this blog) because together they paint a vivid picture of our region—a mural of where we are, how far we have come and what we hope for tomorrow.
Associate Vice President of Communications Barbara Hindley has done the lion’s share of these interviews and articles over the last several decades. To kick off the new year, we asked her to reflect on that experience and share some memorable moments.
I have had the incredible privilege of interviewing and writing about hundreds of people for the Boston Foundation’s publications over the course of more than 36 years. Nonprofit innovators, big thinkers, active and engaged philanthropists, dedicated public officials—and many individuals and families who have benefited from programs funded by the Foundation. Because the Boston Foundation is a major funder and civic leader with a strong history of social justice work, no one ever declined to be interviewed—a luxury I wouldn’t have experienced writing for many other organizations. Here are a just three of the interviews that stand out.
At his request, I met Bob Moses at a Chinese restaurant in Central Square in Cambridge on a brutally hot summer evening in 1990. He was already there when I arrived. I remember that it was hard to make eye contact with him, because he wore large eyeglasses with very thick lenses. He was soft spoken and unassuming, but I knew I was in the presence of greatness. I didn’t ask him one question about his central role as a leader in the voting rights campaign in Mississippi in the 1960s. It was clear from the first moment he spoke that he considered the Algebra Project to be the next civil rights movement. His passion now was fixed on lifting children out of poverty through the power of math.
I told him that I had found algebra terrifying and incomprehensible in school and he said it must have been because of the way it was taught. He believed that everyone had the capacity to learn math. The Boston Foundation had invested heavily in the Algebra Project, which he launched in 1982 with the windfall he received through a MacArthur “genius grant.” He passionately believed that education in the United States was supporting an “embedded caste system” and that math was the key to lifting poor children, especially children of color, out of poverty and setting them on the path to college. The Algebra Project’s approach was to take students who were performing poorly on standardized exams and immerse them in a four-year program that would prepare them for college level math and science courses. Attending—and graduating from—college was the ultimate goal.
Today, with the support of the National Science Foundation, the Algebra Project is operating in hundreds of classrooms across America with teachers who are trained to present and teach math in ways children can truly comprehend. Bob Moses died in July of 2021, leaving a legacy of learning and advancement for tens of thousands of young people across America.
In 1986, I had the honor of interviewing Muriel Snowden who, with her husband Otto Snowden, had founded Freedom House in Roxbury. Freedom House was launched as a unique experiment in community organizing and has played a significant role in improving the educational, economic and social climate of Roxbury and Dorchester ever since. I was interviewing her because she and Otto had decided to step down from their leadership positions at Freedom House and the Boston Foundation had launched an endowment that would benefit Freedom House for many years. It was the first endowment for a Black-led nonprofit organization in Boston.
I sat down with Muriel in one of the meeting rooms at Freedom House. In those days, people were still smoking inside offices, and I remember that she smoked when we talked. I almost joined her, but she only had a few cigarettes left in her pack, so I declined. When I asked her what led to the founding of the organization in 1949, she used the words “enlightened self-interest,” explaining that she and Otto had to decide whether they would stay and raise their child in the neighborhood where they lived or move to a safer place. Ultimately, they recognized that if their neighborhood wasn’t good enough for their daughter, it wasn’t good enough for anyone else’s either and decided to do something about it.
During the desegregation of Boston’s public schools in the 1970s, The Freedom House Coalition was an important center of information and support for schoolchildren and their parents. Muriel said that many people didn’t realize the Coalition was just as concerned about the safety of White children coming into communities of color as they were of Black children who were being bused to South Boston and other primarily White school districts. During those days, she experienced severe migraine headaches almost on a daily basis, which she eventually realized were due to anxiety about the safety of all of the children.
Muriel Snowden died of cancer two years after our interview. Today, the organization continues its work to transform the economic and cultural fabric of “high-need communities” through education and leadership development. I think Muriel would be very proud to know that women of color now comprise almost the entire senior management and staff of Freedom House.
I was writing an article about gun buyback programs and other contributors to a remarkable period that lasted more than a year and a half, during which no young person was killed by gun violence in Boston. It had been achieved after a five-year effort on the part of several nonprofits that had come together in response to an especially deadly period in 1992, when violence related to gangs had been rending the fabric of Boston’s neighborhoods. There were 152 homicides that year alone. The work of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, the Dorchester Youth Collaborative and other groups and individuals resulted in what Bill Clinton eventually dubbed the “Boston Miracle.”
I met Michael for breakfast in a South End coffee shop to discuss a gun buyback program he was leading—and began by asking him about the roots of his commitment to nonviolence. He proceeded to tell me an astonishing and gut-wrenching story about growing up white and in poverty in the Old Colony housing development in South Boston. He spoke about his single mother and his six siblings. Several of them had lost their lives to violence and poverty thanks to the influence and tyranny of Southie’s resident gangster Whitey Bulger, who created a culture of drugs and violence that tore through the lives of the young people of Old Colony.
I was stunned and moved by his story and asked, “Have you ever thought about writing a book?” He said he had, but he had no idea how to go about it, so I introduced him to Deanne Urmy, an editor at Beacon Press. She was thrilled to discover that he was a naturally talented writer. The result was All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, which was released in 1999 to positive reviews from critics and death threats from Southie residents who deeply resented the airing of the town’s dirty laundry. Michael was getting so many threats that when he did a reading for the Foundation, we had to employ security guards to protect him. In 2009, 10 years after the book was published, Michael and I met in that same breakfast place in the South End to raise a cup of coffee to that first interview and the highly unusual path he took to becoming a published author.
We look forward to continuing to share the microphone with our partners across the region. Some may be making retirement and succession plans; others are just being born. More are stepping up every day. Their stories and insights will inform our work and help Greater Boston become a more just, equitable and beautiful home for us all.