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A Conversation with Doreen Treacy, Director of the CivicHealth Institute at DotWell, Dorchester, Mass

Interview by Alexis Schroeder

Doreen Treacy is the Director of the DotWell CivicHealth Institute, where she works withother community activists to build social capital in the community. Doreen spearheaded the DotWell Fiscal Health Program and today also manages the Community Technology Resource Center. As a founding member of the Boston EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit) Coalition, she manages the largest Tax Counseling EITC site in Boston for low-income residents. DotWell also includes a 9,000 square foot Healthworks women’s fitness center. Prior to joining DotWell in 2001, Doreen was the principal owner of a consulting business that developed and managed the City of Boston Homebuying 101 program. Doreen has lived in Dorchester for the past 16 years.

NPi: What are the biggest challenges people in Codman Square are facing?

DT: Lack of 21st century education and job skills, which translates directly into economics…What we are still seeing in Codman Square are the residual effects of financial redlining from the 70s through early 90s. Those residual effects take a really, really long time to go away… To make it really simple, literally Washington Street was where the red line was drawn. What lenders did was they took a red pen (this is very simplistic), and they drew a line, and they said we’re going to make financial capital available east of the line… but not west because we deem it too high of a risk. This would have been in the 70s and into the 80s and 90s… And though they didn’t say this, [it was] because of the minority populations that were moving into the neighborhoods that were being vacated by a lot of Irish and Jewish folks who had occupied these neighborhoods for maybe the first three quarters of the 20th century. When you don’t make financial capital available, what you end up with is deteriorating properties… It becomes this cycle of interrelated issues, all the issues that go with not having enough money—issues with substance abuse, issues with violence, issues with lack of self-esteem that then get perpetuated generation to generation, lack of educational opportunities because now the high school that serves this area is only filled with kids who are troubled. There’s no balancing, mitigating factor. No bridging social capital.

So even though this kind of thing was happening behind the scenes—and it was blown open in a huge way in 1992 by a Federal Reserve Bank paper in Boston and I’m sure there were signs and indicators prior that—people saw that there were literally people drawing red lines. They saw no capital was available… They started to reverse this trend in the mid-1990s, but that’s only 10 years ago, 15 years ago. We haven’t even gone an entire generational cycle yet and in that time we’ve now also gone to war and now there’s also a recession…

When there started to be a rise with all the property values going up in the late 90s, early 2000s, there was more optimism… more hope. You could see it. The Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation did some incredible redevelopment of the business district. They said hey, we can do this! Let’s come back as a business district! But I think that a lot of the seeds – not just the seeds, but the trees that have grown since the time of redlining—they’re still there. Are we starting to break them down? Yes. Does cultural and institutional racism still impact everything? Of course it does.

NPi: Why did the redlining happen? What was the thinking?

DT: So what happened was cities were thriving post-WWII. That was the new wave. Urbanism. In the 1950s everybody had a lot of hope. We’re the leaders of the free world! We’re so cosmopolitan! The whole economy boomed as did the city. Then in the 1960s with the whole consciousness around race and race riots there then became a lot of fear again. What happened is people got really afraid when a black family bought a house… It’s amazing… You basically had people who were saying I’m out of here, and when everybody fled, so did the doctors, so did everybody else… They all followed one another out to the suburbs, out to Newton, out to the South Shore, out to wherever… In the 70s there were buildings burning every single night because people would collect more money from insurance than from selling their house because house prices had plummeted, and then no one wanted to buy, and the only people who would buy would be people who were previously shut out. It was their opportunity to get their foot in the door and so they did buy. But these tended to be minorities so as people were buying the white flight continued. Again, there was racism in lending, and at that time there was no civil rights legislation saying hello! It’s illegal! You can’t discriminate now!

NPi: So it was pretty institutionalized.

DT: It was completely institutionalized. It was couched in risk analysis. It was billed as a strict risk analysis decision of course. That’s how it all started.

NPi: What is something you’ve learned from your work that stands out to you that maybe surprised you?

DT: I’m always humbled by the resilience of people. People that continue to thrive despite circumstances that would have long ago had me give up and quit. So on the one hand I have absolute tremendous respect and have been humbled in the community. On the other hand, the thing that sort of perplexes me to no end is how when all these resources are laid out and the table is set and this amazing buffet is in front of you, why people don’t partake? What is it? I have my own theory, which is another reason why I’m really excited about the Healthworks gym.

We talk a lot about depressed communities and usually we mean economically depressed… It all comes down to hope and faith. And those are theological terms, but hope and faith to me are also part of the language of the psychological community. If you don’t have hope and faith then it doesn’t matter what kinds of amazing programs exist… I want to see behavioral health clinicians have offices in 450 [450 Washington Street, a building owned and operated by Codman Square Health Center]. That’s my vision, that at some point not only do dieticians and a nutritionist have an office right here, but a behavioral department has a presence here. And we know that exercising increases your endorphins. I know it for myself. I know when I’m doing it, it effects me biochemically.

NPi: What do you think a person needs to live well?

DT: It’s not enough to say you have to have housing to feel safe… Feeling safe is not just feeling safe in your own house free of domestic violence, but feeling safe on your street, feeling safe when you’re waiting for the bus, feeling that your children can go outside and play and be safe… Looking at childhood obesity for example, and this has come up many, many times… When I first started this job seven years ago, there was a funding opportunity to create green space, take some unoccupied lots and turn them into parks. And the folks I was working with were so excited about this. God, a park! For the kids! And there were these community meetings. A little level of interest, not a lot. We couldn’t understand why families wouldn’t embrace this most incredible thing, but when we dug down a little deeper and started really talking to moms, they were like I don’t let my child outside. Why? Because it’s not safe. I don’t let my child ride down the street. I don’t want my child in that park.

So I tried organizing this thing called “Moms in the Park” where we would actually have a presence for people who were afraid to go alone, saying OK, what if we all go two mornings a week for an hour, two hours? We know that if you go in those two hours, there will be other moms there. We did this whole thing… Again, flyers, PR, personal invitations, but we couldn’t get other moms out in the park. I think it’s that safety piece. Why don’t people thrive? Well, if you’re afraid to stand out and wait for the bus at night or you’re afraid to walk to your car at night or afraid to go into your house at night for the fear of who may be in the bushes… it’s going to limit you. The fear, whether real or perceived… becomes part of that intergenerational fear, one of those things that get passed down.

Now, I’m not saying be reckless. I’m not saying boys don’t get killed in Dorchester. I’m not saying girls don’t get killed in Dorchester. I’m not trying to minimize that. On the other hand, the only tools you can fight fear with is courage, love, you know, from the French, le coeur… with heart. Saying no, we’re not going to live in fear. Making that choice, and then doing creative things like making sure there’s always a group that you can walk with or having walking buddies. Until that becomes the true reality, we have to work to put supports in place. I do think that that’s what the community needs—to step out of the fear paradigm and again, it all interrelates. If you step out of the fear paradigm, you step into hope. You step into hope, you start thinking I can do x, y, and z… I understand how it works, but it breaks my heart to see the seeds of fear planted and watered and given life in the next generation because at some point it’s the fear itself and not the reality that dominates.

NPi: What would help you do your job better?

DT: No one ever wants to hear this, but to be better resourced financially… I’m so tired of hearing about how nonprofits, all they do is whine and they’re inefficient… I know what pieces of corporate budgets look like, and I see how much money a whole department can get to meet their goals and objectives, and then I look at how much money I have and what I do with it, how much energy I spend even figuring out can I make color copies? That’s 49 cents a copy for color copies versus five cents for the black and white, but if I make color copies for this flyer the odds of somebody reading it are better, but I don’t have a funder that is really funding this program yet, so what am I going to do when I get the $50 bill from the copy shop saying you did 100 flyers and you owe me $50?

NPi: Has there been much media coverage on DotWell and its holistic approach?

DT: Very little.

DotWell is relatively young as a partnership… and one of the organizational challenges for me is connecting the clinical and nonclinical pieces of the puzzle. I know the clinical side is very difficult. They have like 12.2 minutes to see a patient and then they’re supposed to see another one, so even though clinicians are asking the psycho-social kinds of questions, are they then able to really quickly click a few buttons in the electronic medical records software and print out hand-outs to come to my program, for example, because they hear that someone’s having problems with their bills? That’s one of the pieces that we’re still continuing to work on and the dream for me is to have literally a seamless integration.

The great news about the Healthworks gym is that it provides this incredible connection—I mean, even as I just said that I got a flutter in my stomach because I’m so excited. There are several clinicians, for example, who now want to be sitting on this team that’s going to meet to talk about programming and better integration between the clinical and the nonclinical because now they see the real value in 450… Oh, my obese client? You can get them in a program? Yes. What I’m seeing is that this is finally the lubricant that we’ve been looking for to reinforce the connection between the clinical and the nonclinical… We have so many other examples of collaboration and seamless integration between the clinical and nonclinical like our fiscal health programs (tax preparation, credit counseling), and that day is closer because of our ability to track patients and users using both the clinical and nonclinical software. So there’s really been this culture shift on both sides. The next really big level paradigm shift is to create the seamless integration across both health centers and all the clinical and nonclinical programs.

NPi: Can you tell me more about the Healthworks gym?

DT: It’s an amazing partnership with Healthworks women’s gym. The most that anyone pays, including me, is $30 with a sliding scale. Part of the reason for that is very deliberate. I really believe bridging social capital is critical to move people out of poverty. One of the amazing things about people is their resourceful-ness. I think of my friend Linda, whom I love. When I first met Linda 15 years ago—she lived in Dorchester/Roxbury her whole life—every time she had a problem she’d say I’m going to call my friend Amos. He’ll come over and fix it for me. He’ll just charge me for the little part and I’ll cook him Sunday dinner… The woman didn’t pay $85/hour for a plumber, didn’t pay $85/hour for a mechanic… she [had people she could call]. These were also people who were relatively poor.

NPi: They were doing payment by time…

DT: That’s bonding though. According to social capital theory there’s bonding social capital. That’s when you connect like with like. You’ve got people like you and you’re doing stuff for each other, but the problem with that is that it keeps you insular. And the way that you have some mobility is with bridging social capital, when you start establishing relationships with people who aren’t like you that have a different socio-economic background… or are of a different geography… have a different level of expertise or whatever. That’s when you can bridge it. This community could have written the book on bonding for Robert Putnam. But the point is that it raised the conversation, spoke about social capital as a commodity, sort of codified the term.

You look at my income and say you can afford to pay for Healthworks gym membership, but no, I can’t, not when you look at my expenses… I really can’t afford more than $30/month when you look at my whole economic situation. But it’s important for me to be in the gym on the elliptical right next to the woman I just met who lives on Champlain Circle who’s there.

NPi: Who’s paying $0.

DT: Who’s paying $0, yes. It’s really important. It’s important for both of us. It’s important for me because you always grow when you’re around people who are different from you… There are things that we share as humans that are 99% of what people share, but we always focus on the things that are different unfortunately. That’s what we focus on, but that 1% can make a difference. It goes both ways. I may find out that she’s interested in doing something, and I need someone for a job. That’s what country clubs have always done! That’s why we have country club and golf club memberships because it’s not that you’re playing golf and playing tennis; it’s that you’re networking and elbow-rubbing and you’re setting up deals. It’s the deals that get made…Why shouldn’t our community have a place where people can rub elbows?

That’s why we made it so that $30 is the top. We want to make it really affordable. It’s about bridging those social circles. Do you know how many people from the east of Washington have never walked inside 450?

Image by Sean A. Fisher

How to Get Involved:

For more information on DotWell or the CivicHealth Institute or to make a donation, please visit dotwell.org. For more information on the Healthworks Foundation, please visit healthworksfoundation.org.

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One Response to A Conversation with Doreen Treacy, Director of the CivicHealth Institute at DotWell, Dorchester, Mass

  1. JamesD on June 11, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Thanks for the useful info. It’s so interesting

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