The Bostonians Giving Us Hope for the Future
In our darkest times, these locals are shining a light ahead. Four extraordinary tales of resilience, heroism, and transformation when we need it most.
Chief Information Officer, Boston Public Schools
On the morning of Saturday, March 14, Mark Racine received a text: “I need you to call this number.”
The message was from Charlene Briner, Boston Public Schools’ chief of staff. She gave no further information; the number itself was a mystery. But Racine dialed anyway. And after a few rings, he found himself speaking directly with Mayor Marty Walsh.
Just the night before, Walsh had announced that all Boston schools would close the following Tuesday to slow the spread of COVID-19—which meant that for the first time in BPS history, every single classroom would have to go virtual. But remote learning wouldn’t work, and certainly wouldn’t be equitable, if even one child lacked a computer or access to the Internet. In other words, if Racine, in charge of providing technology infrastructure, tools, and support for BPS, couldn’t get Chromebooks into students’ hands, then distance learning—the only kind of teaching possible under quarantine—wouldn’t happen, and Boston would have failed its kids. The pressure was on.
Walsh, of course, was feeling the heat too. We’re going to make sure every kid has what they need, so give me your best estimate right now, he told Racine over the phone. How many laptops do we need? Racine racked his brain for an answer. He had a number in mind based on surveys his team had taken before the pandemic. But he also knew that what once seemed adequate for a household—a single desktop, smartphone, or laptop shared among siblings—wouldn’t suffice when parents were working from home and all kids depended on digital access. “That was a very stressful conversation with the mayor, to come up with the magical number,” says Racine, who told Walsh they’d probably need at least 10,000.
As soon as he hung up the phone, Racine started calling vendors around the country—and quickly discovered he was competing against other school systems throughout America for a limited supply. The vendors were blunt: The first city to come up with the money would get the goods. Finally, he located 20,000 Chromebooks in two Chicago warehouses that New York City’s public schools were planning to purchase that Monday. He called back Walsh, who told him without hesitation: Buy all of them. The funds, thankfully, were there. In addition to the $1 million BPS had already raised in anticipation of the switch to remote learning, the mayor had extra money to kick in from his Resiliency Fund, which had raised millions of dollars in just a few days. And if Racine needed to send an 18-wheeler to Chicago to pick them up? Consider it done, Walsh said.
Racine then dialed BPS’s chief financial officer, asking if he could cut a check for an estimated $6 million. “It was signed and delivered before noon on Saturday,” Racine recalls. Within a few hours, a truck loaded with Chromebooks was racing across the country toward Boston. Racine constantly tracked the delivery over the next few days, giving Walsh regular updates. When it finally pulled into a city warehouse on Monday night, Racine breathed a sigh of relief: Boston had gotten its computers.
In many ways, Racine, a Maine native, had been preparing for this moment. Well, maybe not a global pandemic, but he’d been quietly building a tech-rich learning environment for Boston’s teachers, students, and administrators over the past seven years.
Racine first experienced the thrill of using computers in the classroom while teaching fifth grade at the Ohrenberger School in West Roxbury after graduating from Stonehill College in 2006. “I really gravitated toward technology because I was teaching subjects that my students didn’t have a lot of experience in,” he says. “How do you teach erosion when you’re surrounded by concrete, sidewalks, and pavement?” YouTube videos and virtual science labs, he adds, were “a way to show students what’s outside the city limits of Boston.”
In 2013, Racine joined the district’s central office, where he spent his days getting teachers comfortable with using educational software and ensuring they had the training they needed to incorporate computers into their lesson plans. Tech integration at BPS, though, was a slow, careful, and deliberate process. Adding these complex tools to a classroom, he says, introduces challenges for a teacher: “When you’re in a pencil-and-paper environment, you have full control over everything that’s going on. And suddenly your students are on YouTube, they’re off on their own. Successful integration requires strong teachers mixed with strong tech that’s well designed for the classroom.”
Nonetheless, Racine was able to make progress. He eventually moved nearly all of the district’s administrative tools into the cloud. His team offered countless hours of training to help teachers learn how to effectively use video, apps, and virtual assessment tools. And to ensure that all BPS students could operate in this new digital world, he and his team were already gearing up this summer to distribute Chromebooks to everyone in grades 7 through 12. But when the pandemic hit, all of that planning evaporated. BPS was forced to go fully digital in a heartbeat.
Once the truckload of laptops reached Boston, Racine faced a new, decidedly analog problem: getting 20,000 computers from the warehouse to individual families during a pandemic. “Those first few weeks, I didn’t sleep,” Racine says. At first, he planned pickups at various locations, similar to how lunch was being distributed. But safety rules kept changing, and he worried about putting BPS staff and families at risk. So instead, Racine and his team built an army of volunteers willing to load their cars up with laptops and deliver them to students.
Even with the extra help, distribution took weeks. Locating students was a challenge; sometimes volunteers would show up at the address on file and learn that a family had been forced to move without notice. Fortunately, teachers and principals often had other means of contacting kids. “Most of the families were still in Boston,” he explains, “but some were mobile. We had deliveries all the way up to Lawrence, Framingham, and Brockton for people who had lost their homes during this situation.” Even as Racine’s team was rushing to distribute tens of thousands of laptops to students throughout the region, though, critics were questioning their value. On May 17, the Globe ran an editorial asking whether BPS teachers were doing an adequate job in the online-only environment. For Racine, that didn’t seem like the right question for the moment. “While the intent was to keep our kids connected to learning, really for us it’s about closing the digital divide, making sure that every family has connectivity to the outside world right now,” he says. “At least that computer has value to that family in terms of keeping in touch with the pandemic and learning what’s going on in the world.”
Still, he’s the first to admit that there’s more work to be done—at BPS and beyond—in the midst of what is nothing short of an education revolution. “Even if the COVID situation is resolved by September, our classrooms will never be the same,” he says. “So we have to design and build a model for every student. Some students are very successful online, some teachers are very successful online, and others are challenged online. It’s a work in progress.” —Rachel Slade
Even before the sun has made its appearance in the sky over Boston, chef Anthony Caldwell is hard at work—and radiating determined energy—inside 50Kitchen, his Asian–American South fusion restaurant in his native Dorchester. He has many, many mouths to feed. They won’t be inside the restaurant, which is still closed for onsite dining, in keeping with Governor Charlie Baker’s COVID-19 orders. Nonetheless, the need for nourishment (and jambalaya egg rolls) is stronger than ever in the community.
On this early May morning, for instance, Caldwell is preparing weekly lunches for a local Salvation Army center. It’s one of the few regular orders that the chef can count on in the middle of a public health and economic nightmare—one that has restaurant owners across the city struggling to keep their dreams alive. Like Caldwell, most are folks with limited means but boundless commitment to their neighborhoods. Now they’re trying to figure out how to pay their bills, retain staff, and ride out economic purgatory in an industry with razor-thin margins: It’s a massive challenge, but one that chefs like Caldwell are meeting head-on.
“Chefs don’t quit,” says Caldwell, full of resolve. For him, that’s a cardinal rule of the kitchen—and life.
After all, on his way to opening his dream restaurant in February, mere weeks before the pandemic hit, Caldwell faced a rocky road. Raised in a particularly blighted public housing development, as a teenager he found the temptations of the street—its promise of fast money and a faster life—too great to resist. By the time he moved out at age 16, he was strapped with guns and selling drugs. “I’ve done some things I’m not proud of, been some places I’m not proud of,” he says. “Unfortunately, that was the lifestyle.”
Maybe so, but it was one that took him in and out of prison for many years. There, during a work assignment in the kitchen of an offsite facility, he discovered the big difference that can come with making just one small change. “I saw the culinary educator chop parsley, sprinkle it on a plate, and it blew my mind,” Caldwell recalls. Cooking was a kind of alchemy, a way of transforming the scraps at hand into something better, more beautiful—and more whole.
Suddenly, Caldwell was hungry for something more. Granted access to a prerelease program in 2006, he convinced a chef at Legal Sea Foods to give him a shot as a line cook. He stuck with it after his release, and over the next decade, he earned his GED, went to culinary school, and honed his craft in various kitchens. But there were more battles to fight. Overwhelmed by the financial burden of caring for his ex-wife and children, Caldwell drowned himself in liquor and weed day after day until he hit rock bottom and considered taking his own life.
That, he says, is when God spoke to him, giving some pretty clear instructions: “Stop drinking, live your life for me, and I’ll give you your own kitchen by age 50.” So Caldwell quit cold turkey—and sure enough, 50Kitchen was born in November 2017, just months before his golden jubilee, when the chef won a small-business pitch contest created by a Dorchester developer. His reward: a retail storefront in Fields Corner, generous rent breaks, and free legal and business coaching. Though it took two more years of toil to finally get the doors open, it was nonetheless the big break Caldwell needed.
When the ban on onsite dining went into effect on March 17, the heartbreak was just as huge. It hit like “multiple stab wounds,” Caldwell says. At first the chef’s wife, concerned for his health, encouraged him to temporarily close. When he contacted another local chef he considers a mentor, he received similar advice: Sell what food was left in stock and batten down the hatches. To Caldwell, this sounded like “a challenge”—so instead, he placed an order for ingredients the very next day, determined to feed folks for as long as he could. He had gone through too much and worked too hard to get here, and he didn’t want to let down the many friends and neighbors who were inspired by his story and pulling for his success. “I felt like I owed it to the people,” Caldwell says.
It’s been a boon, then, to find regular business opportunities that also give back to his community. In May, for instance, Caldwell received an email from the team at Commonwealth Kitchen, a Dorchester small-business incubator where he had launched a catering side hustle before opening 50Kitchen. They wanted him to be part of the just-launched CommonTable program, a COVID relief initiative to feed vulnerable Bostonians while providing economic support to restaurants. Now, he’s preparing about 450 meals each week for distribution to the Salvation Army. That same month, he also connected with BAM (Becoming a Man) Boston, an inner-city youth-mentorship program, to feed 50 families.
As Caldwell continues to help his neighbors, people have certainly stepped up to keep this community fixture right where he belongs. One fan of his restaurant launched a fundraiser for 50Kitchen; it garnered $4,000, which has been used to purchase weekly lunches from the restaurant for frontline healthcare workers. Other acts of kindness have been smaller but no less impactful. “People have walked in, peeled twenties out of their pocket, and said, ‘I just want to be a blessing. I don’t even want food,’” he says.
As for Caldwell’s next move? “50Kitchen isn’t going anywhere,” he tells me. Chefs don’t quit, after all. —Scott Kearnan
Sue Brady Hartigan
Advocate for the Homeless
It’s 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in early May, and Sue Brady Hartigan is holed up in her car outside the Wellesley Roche Bros., attempting to steal a rare moment away from her husband; three kids ages 14, 17, and 20; and two cats. It’s already been a jam-packed day: The former 100.7 WZLX radio host has run 5 miles, arranged for the delivery of 50 toiletry kits to FamilyAid Boston, and texted a mother of three who has children’s clothing to donate. Perhaps because she’s so busy, she doesn’t have time to mince words: The day before, when she called her buddy JP Comella, of Comella’s Restaurants, to ask if he’d provide meals for the staff at St. Patrick’s Manor nursing home, she told him, “Look, they have about ten 85-year-old nuns working there. That’s the fucking frontline as much as any. When can you bring them dinner?”
That’s a typical exchange for the spunky former radio professional turned professional volunteer, who’s made it her mission over the past decade to serve the underprivileged. Prior to the pandemic, Hartigan could be found every weekend delivering food and supplies to the hungry on the Common through her work with Boston Rescue Mission (BRM). It was a favorite stop along her usual volunteer circuit, which typically included lending a hand at FamilyAid Boston and a shelter run by Emmanuel Church. But all of that came to a screeching halt on March 7, when she got the call that BRM’s Saturday Morning Outreach had been canceled to slow the spread of COVID-19. It was “the day the music died,” Hartigan says. “All I could think was: What are [the people we help] going to do? It made me incredibly anxious.”
Hartigan comes by her altruism naturally. Growing up in Stoneham, she remembers watching her mother, a teacher, dole out lunch money and spare coats and shoes to any kid who needed them. “She always rooted for the underdog,” Hartigan explains. “Her desire to help others was instinctual.”
Sharing her mom’s strong sense of empathy, Hartigan became focused on the issue of homelessness in 2014 when she started volunteering at Back on My Feet, a program that helps women transform their lives through running. When she was laid off from 100.7 WZLX five years later, Hartigan seized the moment to throw herself full time into volunteer work at a dozen charitable organizations, including the David Ortiz Children’s Fund, which provides support for kids who can’t afford critical cardiac services in the Dominican Republic and New England. Hartigan “has made a huge impact,” says Ortiz, who considers her a close friend. Boston Globe managing director Linda Pizzuti Henry, another good friend, echoes that sentiment. “Sue is a beautiful soul in so many ways,” she says. “She feels for people with the kind of egalitarian passion I rarely see.”
So it was particularly difficult when Hartigan couldn’t help in the way she so desperately wanted during the initial days of the crisis. After a very brief “dark period,” she says, during which she “ate jars of Nutella and drank bottles of wine at a time,” Hartigan decided she couldn’t sit idle at home any longer—and with her strong community ties, she knew exactly whom to tap to make a difference. First, she started a group text with staffers at Boston Rescue Mission and a half-dozen other charitable organizations she’s involved with to ask what was needed. Then she reached out to several designer friends, who started cranking out masks for BRM, and asked her contacts at local restaurants to donate food and meals. To Hartigan, finding ways to help was as much a coping method as anything. “I immediately went into my mode of ‘What can I do?’” she says.
Flash-forward several months, and Hartigan is still getting calls, texts, and direct messages on social media from people responding to her requests for assistance. Her Wellesley home, meanwhile, has become a clearinghouse for donations of clothing and gear—prompting her husband, Craig, to ask patiently when he might be able to use his garage bay again. “I’m a dealer of sorts,” Hartigan explains with a laugh.
Just recently, in fact, she had a big ask for Lynda Cowin Nijensohn, a Wellesley mother of two who oversees a local sewing group. Could she make 600 adult and 150 child masks? No problem, Nijensohn replied. Three days later, Hartigan was speeding down Route 30 with Led Zeppelin blasting on the stereo, delivering her bounty to three local nonprofits. “I’m not afraid to ask people for help,” explains the perpetual helper.
Maybe that’s why she’s been able to get so much accomplished in her relatively short span volunteering. “I have a really hard time saying no to her,” admits Ernie Boch Jr., who’s worked with Hartigan on charity events. “It’s her sincerity. She talks the talk and walks the walk. Of course you’re going to say yes.” —Julie Suratt
Maria Belén Power and Caroline Ellenbird
Maria Belén Power wasn’t going to take no for an answer. The bespectacled 35-year-old activist had been pounding the pavement all day long, knocking on every door she could in hopes of rallying her neighbors. There was a hearing scheduled for later in the week about a controversial proposal to build an electrical substation just across Chelsea Creek in Eastie, and as associate executive director of the community organization GreenRoots, Power wanted to mount a show of force against it. But even as she tried to convince residents to attend the meeting, she couldn’t help but let her mind wander to a question her colleague, Caroline Ellenbird, had raised in the office earlier that morning: What would the city do when COVID-19 hit?
Power knew Chelsea had a bull’s-eye on its back. The city she calls home and has long worked to protect from an onslaught of environmental hazards is one of the most densely packed in the country, populated by low-income service workers who depend on public transportation to get to work. The air quality is consistently poor, and rates of asthma, diabetes, and hypertension are persistently high. Throw a potentially lethal, highly contagious upper-respiratory infection into the mix, and it seemed clear Chelsea was likely to suffer more than most communities during the pandemic.
Sure enough, just three days later, on March 12, authorities ordered schools in the district closed on the news of a presumptive coronavirus case, and storm clouds gathered over the city of 40,000. While Power knew she couldn’t stop the disease from spreading—“over 80 percent of our workforce are deemed essential employees, and they’re being exposed at a much higher rate,” she says—she believed she and her GreenRoots colleagues could help mend the social and economic fractures it would inflict. The undertaking would require far more than an ordinary organizing effort, however. If locals, many undocumented and hesitant to ask for help from authorities, were to have access to the information and assistance required to survive the surge, the city would need a more exhaustive level of community outreach than it—and arguably anywhere else in Massachusetts—had ever known.
Power had heard about systems in Jamaica Plain and East Boston that were successfully organizing networks of neighbors. What if we could do something similar in Chelsea? she wondered. But in a city of fewer English speakers and greater needs, she knew she’d have to think even bigger, connecting people not only to one another but also to much-needed resources and support. First, Power, Ellenbird, and other members of a working group divided Chelsea into eight so-called pods—geographical areas that mirror the electoral map. Then they recruited volunteers to serve as “block captains” of each pod, people who would establish contact with residents and channel their needs and requests to the COVID Response Team, a coalition of city officials, community organizations, and locals that coordinated Chelsea’s broader efforts.
Power and Ellenbird left it up to the block captains to decide how to get in touch with people in their pod. Some went door to door, leaving fliers for residents. Others employed a digital approach, contacting neighbors through apps such as Nextdoor. Once they were connected, oftentimes via a WhatsApp group, the block captains passed all incoming requests for help up the chain to the response team and funneled information and updates about available resources back down to their pod. “I was born and raised in Nicaragua,” Power says, “and the level of deep collaboration that’s going on here resembles the big social movements in Latin America that drive change.”
As Power predicted, Chelsea got hit hard, logging 2,600 confirmed cases and almost 150 deaths by late May, the most of any city in the state on a per capita basis. Some households saw multiple family members fall ill, which required everyone to stay quarantined for weeks on end. Many lost their jobs as restaurants and business shuttered.
In the face of it all, the pods pulled together, from doing grocery runs for elderly neighbors to arranging diaper deliveries to securing protective masks and hand sanitizer for frontline workers. They also provided a starting point for families navigating the oftentimes confusing web of social services available to them. “Almost everybody who has been talking about this [has said] how impressed they are with the levels of trust we’ve all felt,” says Mimi Graney, who has been leading the city’s response efforts. “It does kind of feel like one of those friendships-born-in-wartime type of things.”
The response was so overwhelming that some pods have since divided to form even smaller, more personalized groups. “I hope these structures last into the future because COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere, and neither are the crises in people’s lives,” says Ellenbird, adding that now they have hundreds of phone numbers of people who want to connect with their neighbors.
Power and Ellenbird, for their part, are already focusing on the challenges of the future, including a possible wave of foreclosures and evictions. Even after the virus is stamped into submission, Power notes that Chelsea will still have air pollution, climate change, and health disparities to contend with—not to mention that proposed electrical substation. But the city now has the chance to face these challenges with a fresh sense of unity. “This pandemic has helped us develop a network that I truly believe is going to make Chelsea better and stronger,” Power says. “I feel extremely lucky to live here right now.” —Chris Sweeney