A walk through Dorchester with Rosanne Foley almost always turns into an in-depth history lesson.
She walks slowly, pausing to tell how in the 19th century Peabody Square’s namesake, Col. Oliver Peabody, commissioned the first buildings still surrounding Ashmont Station. She stops to greet at least one person she knows, more likely two or three. She drops names of other community members like she’s talking about your friends and family -- people who, in her mind, you really should know.
This is what Rosanne Foley does. She knows all things Dorchester, she knows people, and she wants you to know them, too.
“I’m a booster,” she says. “It’s being an ambassador to the outside world, as well as a cheerleader within the community and then connecting the good things.”
What Foley, 57, doesn’t know, she’ll find out. Why is that street light out? Why are there so many cars parked on this street? What is that man smoking? Why is that person using a wheelchair ramp as a parking lot exit? A job description might read: “Rosanne Foley sees problems and she fixes them.”
Her contributions to Dorchester, Boston’s largest and oldest residential neighborhood, are many. She was instrumental in founding the Dorchester Environmental Health Coalition, the Dorchester Community Food Co-op, and the Dorchester Arts Collaborative, to name a few. She’s been a Boston police officer and currently works for GoLocal MetroBoston, an organization that connects local businesses to costumers. As Dorchester has changed, so has she, transitioning from energetic activist to efficient community organizer more content to stay behind the scenes.
Fellow Dorchester advocate Joel Wool, who Foley refers to as one of her “Rosanne juniors,” says her true focus is “fundamentally, being a good neighbor.”
Margery Buckingham heard Foley’s name for years before the two shared a table at the Ashmont-Peapody Square Farmers Market this summer, Buckingham representing the Dorchester Arts Collaborative and Foley using the table space to advertise for her current work at GoLocal MetroBoston. Buckingham came to rely on Foley every week to store three tables, two chairs and tent in her garage. She says Foley’s reliability made a lasting impression.
“She shows up,” Buckingham says. “That may seem like a small thing, but that’s what people remember.”
It’s hard to tell where Foley’s work begins and ends. She grew up in the North Shore suburb of Melrose and says the environmental movement sparked a sense of fairness that still guides her work.
“Lacing through all this is a sense of right and wrong that has nothing to do with being a police officer, being a community member,” she says. In Melrose, she rallied neighbors to clean up a local pond, but that was the extent of her early activism.
She moved to Dorchester in 1986 in the middle of a divorce, watching over a friend’s house on Wells Avenue, six houses down from where she lives now with her husband Jef Foley and daughter Amelia. From there she met community organizer Bob MacEachern who asked her to serve as vice president to the Ashmont Hill Association, an organization devoted to making Ashmont a better, more connected place to live.
Foley represented the association at meetings all over Dorchester. This was before she learned to facilitate connections rather than take the reins herself. “I probably didn’t even let them finish a sentence,” she says, remembering those early meetings, “‘Oh there’s a pothole? I can go get tar and a shovel.’”
She joined the Police Department in 1996 hoping, she says, to make a hands-on difference as a patrol office. Working in neighborhoods throughout Boston proper, she learned the laws, and how she could work within them to make a change.
But with Amelia turning 10, Foley left the department in 2001 to find less consuming work. To do so, Foley put together a list of 60 organizations whose aims aligned with hers and made a calendar of meetings. She went through the whole list, sometimes attending three meetings a day trying to find her niche. Once she settled into non-profit community activism, the transition turned out to be from one all-encompassing career to another.
“I threw myself into police work,” she says, “now I’m doing it in my own community but still not getting home until 9 or 10 at night.”
Tall and with a carriage that commands respect, Foley listens intently when others talk, strands of short grey hair shaking in front of thick rimmed glasses as she nods enthusiastically. She was born in 1955, but still seems to have the energy of a college student, checking her phone minute by minute, touching base with others on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, and various blogs that have made community organizing much easier since the days of picket lines and door-to-door pamphlets. (“I’ve done that too,” she says.)
Foley’s largest fingerprint on Dorchester is the Red Line’s Ashmont Station and surrounding Peabody Square. In 2005, the city had set aside $16 million for each of the four Dorchester T stops. Together with Chris Stanley, Foley co-chaired the Citizen Advisory Committee. The committee insisted that the $16 million the city proposed for the work might be enough for the other stops, the condition and location of Ashmont Station meant it would need more work.
When the station was finally dedicated in 2011, it had cost nearly $84 million. For a neighborhood regarded by outsiders with a skeptical eye, the new face of Peabody Square is clean and bustling, a destination for many of the area’s best restaurants and shops.
One truism of community reform holds true for most of what Foley has helped change: Progress takes time. The Dorchester Arts Collaborative, for example, which Foley co-founded with Joyce Linehan in 2002, is just now getting its first physical home, years after Foley stepped down.
Joel Wool, who worked with her as part of Americorp in 2010, says of Foley’s initial efforts with the Dorchester Environmental Health Coalition: “It’s now ten years out from her environmental work and we’re seeing a lot of that help now.”
Wool says Foley’s “persistence with passion” may be her greatest strength. It means being angry when the system doesn’t work the way Foley envisions. It means refusing to take no for an answer.
To Dorchester resident Craig Galvin, it means speaking her mind. “She’s not afraid to say what she means,” Galvin says, “and mean what she says.”
The renovation around Ashmont Station is a clear example.
“If I had said ‘oh fine’,” Foley says, “we would have a non-leaking, freshly painted but ugly Ashmont Station.”
These days, Foley says she is a long way from her early activism work, years of micromanaging, which she calls “the Rosanne show.” Today, one is more apt to think of Foley as an entrepreneur. Rather than taking the reins of a project herself, she is more likely to teach others how to make change themselves.
When Jenny Silverman, for example, wanted to start the Dorchester Community Food Co-Op so that residents could buy and sell local produce, she asked Foley if the project was worthwhile. With a portion of an endowment left over from Green Dorchester, Foley offered to help get the project running. “Yes it’s a good idea,” she remembers saying, “in fact Green Dorchester will pay you to do it.”
Foley has been interested in history even before graduating from Northeastern with a degree in Art History in 1984. Wool says understanding the past is one of the best lessons Foley taught him. “Every person, place and organization has a history. Once you know that, you know what a building needs to be,” he says.
That’s why, when working on a development project like the Ashmont Station, for example, Foley can get past esoteric architectural terms to “what will it feel like to have a triple decker on this street.”
Often, Foley’s vision for her community takes a back seat to smaller, more manageable goals, like convincing her neighbors that more trees would be good for Dorchester. She remembers one meeting where, as part of her environmental work she encouraged residents to plant trees. One audience member was unconvinced. That individual voiced her hatred of trees, blaming one planted in her front lawn for tedious leaf cleanup and standing in the way of her car door and granddaughters stroller. “That made sense then,” Foley says even as she rolls her eyes, “the city planted the wrong type of tree in front of your house, let’s find the right kind.”
Whatever the method, Foley’s work has changed Dorchester in ways big and small. Jef Foley remembers that in the midst of the almost ten years of renovation that changed the face of Ashmont Station the two took the time to save a tree that was set to be demolished. “Here we are, two 55 year old bodies, wrestling this tree,” he remembers. It was hard work, but Jef proudly acknowledges: “that tree is still there.” If you happen to walk through Dorchester with Rosanne Foley one day you can see for yourself, a small reminder of her big work.
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.