Our History of Activism

Boston’s Ward 4, including parts of the neighborhoods of Back Bay, Fenway, and the South End, is home to a vibrant history of political activism and civic leadership.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Ward Committee and its members played an active role in advancing democracy and civil rights, from the initial efforts in 1968 to establish elected representation in state government for the South End, to the redrawing of Ward lines in 1972 to ensure diversity and balance, to the election of a slate of delegates supporting Shirley Chisholm at the Democratic National Convention, to, most importantly, grassroots activity on behalf of equity in housing and urban renewal, transportation, education, and healthcare. These efforts have lifted our communities and set a standard for progressive activism.

Members of the Ward committee’s leadership who have gone on to hold elected office include former State Rep Mel King, former State Rep Byron Rushing, Mayor Michelle Wu, and State Rep Jon Santiago.

Former and current Committee chairs Kim Vermeer, Janet Slovin, Michelle Wu, Conor Pewarski, Sheneal Parker, Andrea Olmstead, and Jonathan Cohn exemplify the guiding principles that have ignited our activism.

Our Archive

The Ward 4 Democratic Committee has been gifted a treasure trove of documents, newsletters, news clippings, flyers, and memos that date back to these early years of the Committee’s history. These papers represent an invaluable resource for understanding the powerful legacy of political activism and community engagement that we have inherited from Herb Hershfang, Byron Rushing, Mel King, Henry Wood, Patricia Flanigan, Edna James, Tom Atkins, David King, and so many others.

Explore the archive.

Ward 4 Community Impact: Citizen-Led City Making

Members of the Ward 4 Democratic Committee were central voices in the multiracial community coalition of the 1960s and 70s that opposed construction of the Inner Belt (Interstate 695) that “would have guided Interstate 95’s East Coast-hugging asphalt ribbon through the center of Boston,” writes Karolyn Crocket in People Before Highways: Boston Activists, Urban Planners, and a New Movement for City Making (2018):

“While the state’s planners proposed new highways as a means of organizing the region’s intercity traffic, liberal and progressive political activists viewed these roads as attacks on vibrant and racially diverse communities.

“Citizen opposition halted this modern vision of progress and replaced it with expansive new visions for transportation planning and regional economic development authored by the residents themselves.

“Both the development of the Central Artery and the Mass Pike taught Boston’s residents key political lessons about highway building. These lessons in conjunction with residents’ ongoing urban renewal battles birthed a radical grassroots political agenda intolerant of government-led efforts to reorder urban space through exclusionary, abusive, and antidemocratic means.

“Boston’s activists fought more than three decades to secure more democratic models of political decision making and a more just understanding of citizens’ rights to use, move through, plan, and control space. In this way, Boston’s activists situate themselves within the nation’s long arc of civil rights history.”

People Before Highways is available locally at the Boston Public Library and Trident Booksellers.

Mel King: Ward 4 Activist, Legislator, Educator, Guiding Light

The depth and dimension of Mel King’s community work defy categorization. For more than a half century, the South End native son created programs, institutes, and possibilities that have lifted the lives of underserved Bostonians through advocacy for equitable education, employment, housing and development, along with a full range of human services.

At a recent street-naming ceremony, Former Mayor Kim Janey lauded him as a “trailblazer…a living legend…and a national treasure.” Throughout his long career, Mel King led with love.

One of his first priorities as the newly elected State Representative for 9th Suffolk District in 1973 was to file legislation for urban community gardens. The state, he insisted, needed to turn the land back to the people.” He served in the legislature for 10 years.

King’s illustrious career  included teaching math at his alma mater, the Boston Technical High School; directing Boy’s Work at Lincoln House and United South End Settlements; and founding Community Assembly for a United South End (C.A.U.S.E.), to amplify the voices of tenants and community residents. He directed the New Urban League of Greater Boston’s job training initiatives before seeking political office, first as a member of the Boston School Committee and then as Mayor. He established Boston’s first Rainbow Coalition Party, which became a national model. He created the Community Fellows Program (CFP) in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT and the South End Technology Center to provide computer training to low-income people. Notably, King created The New Majority to unify Boston’s communities of color around candidates for elected office.

His wide-ranging, humanist vision is captured in his own words (collected by James Burnett for Boston Magazine in 2009):

“For all they’ve talked about improving the city schools, we’ve had a system of low expectations. We’ve had algebra as a ceiling when calculus should be the floor.”

“I’m not one who buys into this hope business, by the way. Hope puts it almost in the realm of chance. I think we ought to be about expecting.”

“I was in the legislature 10 years. The day it felt good that somebody opened the door for me and said, ‘Hello, Mr. Representative’—I knew that was the time to go.”

“I grew up at a time when the images shown of people like me were negative. Then I got a chance to go to college in South Carolina. There was a movie theater there, the State. It was owned by and run by black folks. They showed films with people who looked like me, who were doing everyday things. I learned then the big issue was who controlled the content.”

“A statement I picked up way back was, ‘We complain about the dirt, and we have the broom in our hands.’”

Mel King authored Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development, first published by South End Press in 1981. His books, including his poetry collections Streets and Love is the Question & the Answer, are available at the Boston Public Library.

Introducing! The Ward 4 Oral History Series

Our History Subcommittee has launched Ward 4 Voices, an ambitious video project to capture the perspectives of our pioneering leaders. In our series of individual interviews, we are looking to discover:

  • What were the key issues that the Committee addressed at its formation that continue through the decades?
  • What have been the key successes of the Committee since its founding?
  • What are the roles ward committees have played in the political ecosystem of the City of Boston?
  • Is there a certain quality of Ward 4 activism?
  • What are the enduring lessons of grassroots activism that our history will continue to inspire?

Legacy of Activism

Herb Hershfang

The organizer and first Chair of the 1968 Ward 4 Democratic Committee, Herbert H. Hershfang is uniquely positioned to share the living history of our committee and community. He and his wife Ann hosted countless grassroots political organizing meetings at their West Rutland Square home, where they lived for 54 years. Before they moved, Herb bequeathed a treasure trove of papers that document the deep imprint of their work for social, racial, and economic equity. From spearheading legislation with the NAACP, chairing Tom Atkins’ successful campaigns for City Council, opposing gentrification and disruptive transportation projects, and more, Herb has an unmatched legacy. 

When he spoke with Ben Siegel in December 2021, Herb, who later became a judge, enthused, “If you have energy and you have desire, you’re going to get things done.”

Photo: Graeme Mills
Read Herb's Interview

Here are edited excerpts of Herb’s conversation with Ben

“The year of Ward 4’s founding, [1968], was an extraordinarily energetic [time for activism]. On the local level, the South End neighborhoods, divided into five wards, lacked any representation. We were in a joint district with Ward 10, whose three representatives had always come from Ward 10. We had no elected people who were committed to the interests of the South End. We had no political voice because we came from different places, we elected different Representatives, Senators and City Councilors. The South End was what I’ve described as the doormat of the city.

In order to be successful [as a committee], we had to galvanize the neighborhood and support a candidate. In 1973, we endorsed Mel King, a member of our committee, in his run for State Representative. We bulleted for him in the South End so we didn’t dilute his support. South Enders voted massively for Mel. We were able to get enough people in Ward 10 to give him one of their three votes. Mel served as our Representative for 10 years. After that, Byron Rushing was our Representative for 36 years. That’s one way we [secured a voice for our community].

One of [the committee’s] major successes was helping to kill the South End Bypass. The purpose of transportation had been to get vehicles through our neighborhood as quickly as possible. It made living quite unpleasant and flooded us with visiting vehicles. Very few [residents] owned cars. In fact, if you owned a car, frequently it became your living room, because many [South Enders] lived in single-rooms that were not accommodating to visitors. Our streets were filled with cars belonging to people who came from elsewhere, parked on our streets, and walked to the Prudential or Copley area. At the end of the day, they got out of here as quickly as they could.

The South End Bypass was going to dump 40,000 cars a day right into our streets so commuters could get into the Copley area. About the same time, we were losing affordable housing. As an example, the Christian Science Church took many rental units along Huntington Avenue including several six-room apartments, all now part of the Christian Science complex.

Fortunately for us, Kevin White was running for Governor at the time. He called representatives of the 22 wards in Boston to come to his office and tell him [what it would take] to support him. We sent three representatives who, had a list of about a dozen requests for his action, topped by his help to kill the Bypass. [Other items on] the list included increasing affordable housing and that construction projects hire a minimum percentage of minorities and women. A few days later White responded positively to almost all the items on our list. (Congressman Barney Frank later said that the other ward committees all came looking for jobs.) Citing Mayor White’s action, Gov. Sargent then killed the project.

Back then, we had a blank slate with which to make an impact. We could exert ourselves in [these arenas] because we weren’t on anyone else’s turf. There was nobody to contest us. The ward committee’s job today is much harder than it was in our time. We didn’t have to compete with another authority. We created our own.”

Legacy of Activism

Jovita Fontánez

The first Latina to head the Boston Election Commission and the Boston Fair Housing Commission, Jovita Fonánez was a founding member of the South End Community Health Center, director of Casa Esperanza’s Latinas y Niños, and chair of the Ward 4 Dems. From her family’s home on West Springfield Street, she launched a remarkable career in public service. She was honored by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Centro) in 2014 for her contributions to the Puerto Rican Preserving Our History campaign.

“I always had this passion for working with the underdog and making things better for everybody,” Jovita told Ben Siegel when they spoke in November, 2021.   

Photo: Graeme Mills
Read Jovita's Interview

Here are edited excerpts of Jovita’s conversation with Ben

After moving from Puerto Rico as a child in 50s, I discovered the value of politics—not just election politics, but grassroots activity to make things happen on the community level. There was a lot happening in the South End, the Fenway, and Mission Hill at that time. It was a tipping point in terms of housing, safety, and overall equity. I came here, grew up here, and raised my family here. The common thread has always been about making a difference and being inclusive as the neighborhoods were growing and changing. That doesn’t come easily.

When Ray Flynn was first elected Mayor, I went to the Boston Fair Housing Commission, initially thinking I didn’t know enough [to make an impact]. But the Mayor would say, ‘You know the whole world.’ It made a difference to be able to pick up the phone and just say ’Jovita;’ I didn’t even have to use my last name.

When I look back, I did most of my work with non-profits. Many of them were intertwined with commissions. Casa Esperanza, for example, was Boston’s first residential treatment center for Latina women. We provided job training and parenting classes. Action for Boston Community (ABCD) was the antipoverty agency. This was a blessing to me because my children were able to go to Head Start, which allowed me to do the things that I wanted to do while I worked.

I become a member of the Ward 4 Democratic Committee in late 1967. The residents of Villa Victoria joined us at meetings to protest the possible sale of Parcel 19, which would have destroyed the Latino and Puerto Rican communities. A group of us organized and took over the Tent City area. Ward 4 members individually and as a group made sure that at least a thousand units of low- and moderate-income housing were preserved.

The same issues challenge us today. For the district, the committee, and the city as a whole, how do we make housing affordable so that everyone who wants to live here can live here? Many of us who have been members of Ward 4 for a long time are struggling now. How do we keep our homes? Property taxes are killing us.

The big difference now is that instead of community members needing to go to City Hall, our elected leaders are coming to us. We now have a South End councilor who actively comes to me, who actually came as a candidate because of the importance of our ward committee. It’s not just about constituent issues; it’s about policy.

Looking ahead, our challenge will be to support candidates who are younger and more diverse, who will bring a whole different view to city politics and to the neighborhoods.

People should not live on this planet without giving back. For me, that means giving back to the people that made a difference in my life. The riches that I have, my family, my neighbors, this doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because of a commitment to take care of your neighbor. We are making a difference and having our voices heard throughout the city. But we cannot do it by ourselves.”

Legacy of Activism

Michelle Wu

Mayor of Boston Michelle Wu served as the Chair of the Ward 4 Dems from 2011 to 2012. In March 2022, about 130 days into her term as Mayor, she spoke with Ben Siegel about her immigrant family’s experiences navigating government bureaucracies, her introduction to political work with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Boston Mayor Tom Menino, and her deep affinity for Ward 4 activism.

Speaking with Ben Siegel about the impact of citizen activism, Mayor Wu emphasized, “…if we truly want to see change, if we truly want to build a different kind of system, we have to take risks, we have to get involved and we have to do whatever it takes to pull everyone into that process.”
Photo: Graeme Mills
Read Michelle's Interview

Here are edited excerpts of Michelle’s conversation with Ben

“Ward 4 not only has a legacy of being involved and pushing for what’s right, and standing up and fighting for progressive ideals, but also a commitment to passing that on and ensuring that the next generation takes up the torch. So figures like Byron Rushing and David King and Mel King…getting to go and have brunch at Mel King’s home in the South End…being able to sit with Joan Wood, and learning from Herb Hershfang about how Boston was founded, how the streets and the traffic patterns in the South End were set. The sense of living history is incredibly special.

There was an early focus among Ward 4 members around environmental sustainability, as well as a very strong desire to see artists have space and be able to afford to maintain live/work spaces and studios in the neighborhood. [Decades ago], the committee saw the pinch of the housing crisis start to ramp up. Neighborhoods like the South End were gentrifying at a very fast clip, with buildings that had great historical significance being converted to luxury housing or, buildings that had been single-room occupancy and rooming houses purchased, gutted, and made into large, expensive units for one family. This community banded together with so many others across the city to stop the highway.

It’s always easier to do nothing. No one gets upset, no risks are taken, and there are no negative consequences you have to plan for. But that simply perpetuates the status quo. And so if we truly want to see change, if we truly want to build a different kind of system, we have to take risks, we have to get involved and we have to do whatever it takes to pull everyone into that process.”

Legacy of Activism

Janet Slovin

Boston born and raised, 45-year Worcester resident and long-time political activist Janet Slovin chaired the Ward 4 Dems from 2007 to 2012. An education advocate who recalls the Geneva Avenue Dorchester Public Library as her childhood refuge, Janet considers her work to keep the South End Library from closing a genuine accomplishment. She taught ESL classes at the main branch of the BPL for years.

Janet left her much-loved position in the Dukakis Administration’s Office of Economic Development to join his Presidential election team and campaigned for every Democratic Presidential contender since. “I love campaigning,” Janet told Ben Siegel during their November, 2021 conversation. “I love being out there and meeting people.”

Photo: Graeme Mills
Read Janet's Interview

Here are edited excerpts of Janet’s conversation with Ben

“The Ward 4 Committee has had a tremendous impact on the South End and our other neighborhoods. Our press events, our news releases, our people out there knocking on doors making calls…we’re effective.

In fact, you can see the impact of the entire ward system in reviewing the 2006 campaign of Governor Deval Patrick. He did not go to the convention thinking that the establishment was going to endorse him. Instead, as a relative political unknown, he began his campaign by going from ward to ward to ward, making his case and building his delegate count. It shows what politics can accomplish.

Our committee’s endorsements have become important because we’ve been able to support candidates with muscle and impact. I think sponsoring our candidate forums has also become important because we are getting information out to the population with great success. The endorsement process has required politicians to come and state what their platform and philosophies are. We can question them in the context of a public meeting. So let’s say, for example, that [someone promises] free transportation or a cabinet position for a particular issue. We can hold them to it and follow up.

In my years attending the state convention as a delegate, I’m sometimes asked to say a few words. I have always said the same thing, that I believe that government can improve people’s lives. That’s why we’re in this. And so the people who call less government the best government, I’m sorry, that’s not what a democratic society ought to be.

We can be a society that is inclusive, diverse, that provides opportunity for improvement, for investment, for job creation, for, educational opportunities. I think that the Democratic Party has always stood for all those things. Ward 4 certainly stands for all those things. And so I’m proud to be part of this.”

Legacy of Activism

Jonathan Cohn

A highly respected political thought leader and progressive activist in Boston and beyond, Jonathan served as the Ward 4 Committee’s treasurer before taking the reins as chair for two+ terms. He now serves as vice chair and continues to elevate every aspect of the Committee’s work, from endorsement votes and GOTV efforts to fueling our rich roster of speakers and activities. A member of the State Democratic Committee and Policy Director for Progressive Massachusetts, Jonathan is a force of nature.

Pointing to the impact Ward 4’s impact in Boston, Jonathan stated, “We have had a role in the evolution of the city, of the city council, from the years of being largely a conservative old (white) boys’ club to a more diverse, female, and progressive council.”

Photo: Graeme Mills
Read Jonathan's Interview

Here are edited excerpts from Jonathan’s conversation with Ben Siegel

“The first time I got involved in any type of party political campaign was back in 2012 with the Obama campaign. I was in Philadelphia at the time and I was seeing how the Republicans in Harrisburg were working to restrict who could vote with the photo ID law. I thought: if people are trying to actively restrict who can vote and I have time, I should spend time trying to help counter that and get better involved with the democratic process.

I moved to Boston in August, 2013 and by my third weekend, I was already volunteering with Felix Arroyo Jr.’s mayoral campaign. Then I ended up on Marty Walsh’s campaign in the general after Felix endorsed Marty, working largely in Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain.

In the 2014 gubernatorial race, I decided to volunteer for Don Berwick’s gubernatorial campaign because he was particularly passionate about single-payer healthcare and other progressive issues. My first experience with Ward 4 was going to the caucus in February of 2014.

I remember that Michelle Wu, now our Mayor and then city councilor-at-large, was the timekeeper for speeches at that caucus. You got two minutes. I came in at exactly two minutes and I recall her commenting about how my speech seemed perfectly timed for that purpose. After going to the caucus, I wanted to stay involved. I guess I’m a joiner by nature.

I credit Ward 4 with getting me involved in opposing Boston’s Olympic bid, which was a huge part of 2015. In October of that year, we met at the Fensgate Cooperative and voted to oppose the city’s Olympic bid. It was kind of a cool thing to have as a claim to fame for the Committee, having been early in registering opposition.

Since then, Ward 4’s focus has been vast. We as a Committee are mainly geared to the local and state more so than the national. That’s how I’ve always envisioned the Committee’s work, knowing that the local and state politicians you can get to come to talk to you on a much easier basis than you can like getting a senator to come to your meeting during an election year. Our forums showcase where they stand on key issues, which guides our endorsement votes.

Giving candidates some of their first times speaking to large groups, being able to offer that to people, I think is something really valuable. Knowing that we will ask you some hard questions, but we are largely a friendly crowd to you, that we’re not trying to trip you up. But to be able to offer that space where you’ll have an engaged group of people who are asking you questions about things and if you don’t know the answer to something, you should probably figure it out because you’ll be asked it many other times on the doors and people might not be as forgiving during the quick period that you have on the doors. And then to be able to offer that as a venue both for the people who are on the Committee or people from the neighborhood who want to join and see because you can see candidates grow over time…that’s really fascinating.

One thing that’s wild with Ward 4 is we have more elected officials than any other ward in the city representing us.

There are four state senators that represent part of us and four state representatives and three district councilors. So we actually have a situation where a majority of the city council are people that we can bring in, that we can bring in to talk to us because they represent at least part of our committee. And I am of the mindset to use that as a strength. Rather than just reaching out to the person who represents me by sending them emails or calling their office on different things, we can bring them in person so that we can ask them a number of the questions, have them talk about what they’re up to, and create that avenue for engagement so that people can get either questions answered or unanswered. (That is its own valuable thing when they never answer you.)

We’ve created a civic culture that develops from those meetings where people can learn from each other, that candidates can learn from what you’re asking them, and that elected officials can learn from.

If our Committee wants to show that there’s a force of pressure behind things that are in the platform, then we need to register to our legislators that this is something that we care about and we want you to act on that. When we, as a Committee, endorse something, it shows that there are numbers behind that decision rather than just one person. It is a collection of people and a collection of people with a prominent voice in the community that can then amplify that. One thing that I think that I’ve been able to help us do as chair is to increase our local media presence. When we’ve endorsed a cause or candidate, I’ve often written about it in, say, the Boston Sun or the Fenway News or the South End News. That’s a way of also helping to educate more people in the community as well.

We know that people bring our endorsement flyers with them when they go to the polls. That’s definitely a source of power and one that needs to be attended to: to make sure that that you do the work to make sure that people view the Ward 4 Committee as a good source of information and validation of candidates, but also to make sure you have a robust process for deciding whom to endorse.”