Chelsea Collaborative Celebrates Major Victories This Summer

Roseanne Bongiovanni

Roseanne Bongiovanni

Gladys Vega

Gladys Vega

Chelsea residents have guts.

That according to leaders of the Chelsea Collaborative on Broadway – who have successfully led the charge this summer on several community organizing victories.

At the top of that extensive list of recent accomplishments are defeating the plan by Global Petroleum to bring Ethanol trains through Chelsea at least two times a week on the commuter rail, and secondly, organizing tenants of the Chelsea Housing Authority (CHA) in order to push for a harsher sentence for former Director Michael McLaughlin – as well as restitution for his misdeeds and a chance to address the court during his sentencing.

And of course, that’s just the top of the list.

There are, of course, still irons in the fire that include scoring thousands of dollars in withheld wages for Chelsea workers who were exploited by a local company, and procuring a major award that still cannot be completely disclosed to the public.

With all that’s going on right now at the busy community organizing office (which includes several members being out or ready to go out on maternity leave), directors find it hard to sit down for a minute and reflect on what just about any non-profit in the world would consider a “resume topping summer.”

“Both of these big victories this summer are examples of how powerful community organizing is when everyone comes together,” said Collaborative organizer Roseanne Bongiovanni – who led the charge against Global’s Ethanol train proposal. “I think we always felt we were going to win the fight against Global, but that quickly and in that way was not anticipated. When their attorney called us to say they were pulling their application, he said ‘We surrender.’ That was powerful.”

Executive Director Gladys Vega, who helped oversee the Ethanol fight and spearheaded the grass-roots organizing of CHA tenants, said Chelsea residents cannot be pushed over. She said – in Spanish terms that cannot be printed in English – that residents here are not scared to stand up.

“Chelsea has been incredible in terms of victories over the years for the community,” she said. “This summer has been particularly incredible. For me, people in Chelsea; they have guts. That’s what’s amazing about this small, poor community. They aren’t scared. You give them a few tools and they run with it and they don’t give up. They win.”

One of the most notable victories for the Collaborative’s organizing efforts this summer was uniting tenants from the CHA, who were outraged at the plea deal given to McLaughlin by federal prosecutors – a plea deal that indicated he might not get any jail time for his crimes. Given the conditions of many of the housing projects, conditions that tenants today still blame on years of neglect brought about by McLaughlin’s management, there was measurable outrage.

That outrage resulted in a visit to the Collaborative, where some outspoken tenants came through the door of the office after remembering past efforts by the organization to help them.

“The whole McLaughlin thing was being thrown under the rug and we had to do something, but we weren’t sure what,” said Vega. “I heard tenants were getting together, and they remembered we had been doing community organizing in the housing projects in the past. They remembered that and they remembered where we were and they came to us for help. Before we knew it, they came through the door and we gave them the help they needed to get action.”

And action they got.

In fact, perhaps for the first time ever, a federal judge allowed victims of government corruption to address the court as victims. It was a very rare move for a judge, but one that the Collaborative and tenants pushed for. So, July 17th, CHA tenants Mildred Valentin and Jean Fusco stood up in Boston Federal Court and told the world what they endured, and what they still endure, as a result of McLaughlin’s actions.

“The icing on the cake for this summer was when we took 300-plus signatures on a petition to (U.S. Attorney) Carmen Ortiz,” said Vega. “She put in a motion to the judge for us to speak and we were able to give the tenants a voice at the sentencing…For the judge to eventually completely ignore what Carmen Ortiz had proposed for McLaughlin’s sentence and to up his sentence to three years – that was incredible for me. That, along with the tenants speaking, that was historic, and many have told me it’s never been done.”

She credited Valentin for taking the tools given to her by the Collaborative and pounding the pavement throughout the spring – going door-to-door at the Clark Avenue and 14 Bloomingdale St. housing developments.

“Much of this would not be happening if it wasn’t for her courage to stand up with us,” said Vega.

Vega said, for her, that victory was accompanied by a record number of youth being able to participate in the Collaborative’s youth program.

“This was the year I felt that if we had 100 youth participating, that would be a lot,” she said. “We ended up with 225 in the summer youth program. That was even more incredible.”

Bongiovanni – who recently gave birth to a baby girl – said she admired the perseverance of the folks in Revere, East Boston and Chelsea – including City Manager Jay Ash and many elected officials – who persevered over a period of two years to oppose the trains.

“We fully showed Global that the power of community organizing was strong enough to cross City lines and to make them withdraw the proposal, which was especially fulfilling because they were so arrogant in the process…They were arrogant and wanted to push these trains down people’s throats,” said Bongiovanni.

There is no doubt that such accomplishments do display some measure of strength in the power of the community to rally around issues that threaten the City’s quality of life, but whether or not this summer will send a message that will ward off future noxious proposals – Bongiovanni isn’t so sure.

She harkened back to the successful victory over a Boston company that wanted to site a power plant on the banks of the Chelsea Creek next door to the Burke School Complex. The Collaborative met that head on with many outraged residents, eventually defeating the proposal.

“It’s hard to say if this summer will make a lasting statement because I thought we made that point with the power plant years ago, letting corporations know that they couldn’t come in and walk all over Chelsea,” she said. “Then waltzed in Global Oil. I think we’re going to have to continue to send this message out until environmental justice is achieved in Chelsea, Revere and East Boston…The hard part is we would have been doing so many positive things, like getting parks and other things, if we didn’t have to spend two years fighting an oil company again. We’ll continue to fight if we have to, but hopefully the message has been received.”

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