“Serving on the board has been so fulfilling and has given me a wonderful opportunity to serve people seeking decent, affordable housing and jobs that pay a respectable wage.”
JP resident and activist Joe Vallely joined the JPNDC board in 1993 and served for 25 years. At our Annual Meeting on June 7, we were delighted to present him with the Nate Smith Award for Community Organizing.
Where are you from originally and how did you come to do what you do now?
I grew up just outside of Boston in the town of Needham, home to the current Governors of both Massachusetts and New Jersey (NJ has an awesome Democrat, right now). I’m one of five kids. I graduated from Boston College and joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps where I learned about social justice through my community organizing in the city of Wilmington, Delaware.
After completing my year with the JVC and moving home, I was invited to move into Haley House in the South End. Haley House served meals to the homeless and today provides housing and job training. That was a profound experience. At that time, I also worked for Congressman Robert Drinan, SJ and later the Planning Office of the Archdiocese of Boston.
I was appointed under Mayor Flynn to direct the Emergency Shelter Commission charged with addressing homelessness, and went on the Mass. Department of Public Health where I oversaw homeless programs and housing initiatives. I’ve been a Housing Specialist at the Dept. of Mental Health for nearly 20 years, with responsibilities for housing development and policy along with oversight of our statewide homeless outreach program.
How did you end up working and living in JP?
I came to JP through a friend, Sister Virginia Mulhern, a Notre Dame Sister who was assigned to Blessed Sacrament. It so happens we met at a “sit-in” at the State House seeking to keep open the Parker St. Shelter, which at the time was the first and only shelter serving people with serious mental illness. Sister Virginia inspired me so much that I decided I wanted to attend Blessed Sacrament and live in Jamaica Plain.
I now have lived here for over 30 years with my wife, Kitty, and our two (now grown) children John and Clare. I’ve dragged them all along to many JPNDC meetings and demonstrations over the years!
What brought you to the JPNDC board?
I live across the street from what’s now the Nate Smith House. When I moved in 30 years ago, the building there looked like it was abandoned. It was this building that led to my involvement with JPNDC. City Life/Vida Urbana was actively trying to help the handful of tenants who remained and were up against a landlord who had total disregard for decency but who was well-connected downtown.
City Life, the neighbors and the tenants, along with JPNDC, fought in court and won. The building was taken from the owner and sold in Bankruptcy Court to JPNDC. Nate Smith, who fought for justice across the city, especially for elders, helped the cause and we honored him by naming the new building for him. The Nate Smith House is home to 45 elderly residents and is owned by JPNDC.
It was during this process that Lizbeth Heyer, the staff person who headed the JPNDC team developing the Nate Smith House, asked if I would consider joining the board. It was an honor and I readily accepted. Serving on the board has been so fulfilling and has given me a wonderful opportunity to serve people seeking decent, affordable housing and jobs that pay a respectable wage.
Board member Kathy Brown, presenting the award to Joe at the Annual Meeting: “I think it’s great that Joe is getting the Nate Smith Award. Joe is a social justice warrior for peace, housing, health care and more—like Nate Smith himself, whose life we honor with this award. He worked for years, and I mean years, with other neighbors and tenants to fight a slumlord, create the Nate Smith House and convert it into the wonderful senior housing community that it is.
Joe played a key leadership role in JPNDC, and as a neighborhood and faith activist, for the conversion of the shuttered Blessed Sacrament church to a wonderful campus. It is now home to supportive housing, cooperative housing, affordable condos, and the Hyde Square Task Force (as opposed to luxury condos)!
Joe was also a leader in the “Campaign of Conscience,” a community campaign that raised awareness about the housing crisis back in the late 1990s in which homeowners, landlords, and other residents worked together to preserve affordability and raised funds to help tenants with legal costs. He embodies the commitment to housing is for people, not a cash cow for speculators.
I loved working with Joe on the board to strengthen and maintain organizing as a key part of the JPNDC’s mission. And I love his compassion and his humor!”
What was the most rewarding part of being on the board?
There have been so many highlights over 25 years! Some memories that stand out are picketing in front of Austin O’Connor’s bar in Allston (he was a JP landlord only seeking profits); marching on Centre St. with the Campaign of Conscience, which raised awareness about the housing crisis and helped us save the affordability of Pondview Apartments; and Blessed Sacrament becoming affordable housing for so many, including 28 formerly homeless people who now live in a building named for Sister Virginia Mulhern herself. I also recall taking JPNDC making the bold decision to join with other groups and take on the City (and winning) over a promise to give South Boston a disproportionate amount of linkage funds.
Now that you’ve decided to retire from your position as a member, what do you hope for the future of the board?
My hope for the board and JPNDC is that they continue to thrive. I hope that the spirit of generosity and kindness toward others expands. I hope JP finds even more ways of creating affordable housing, and developing jobs and training opportunities that enable people to live comfortably and feel they are full members of the community.