February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month, so this week I’m chatting with Allegra Stout, a community organizer at the Boston Center for Independent Living. In past years I’ve chatted with Eric Niemi, a Transitions to Work graduate, real estate developer Todd Finard, and Ben Soloway, who leads tours for the disabled in Israel.
Tell me about the Boston Center for Independent Living: What is your mission, whom do you serve, and what projects are you working on now?
The Boston Center for Independent Living (BCIL) is one of 11 independent living centers in Massachusetts and hundreds throughout the country. BCIL is a frontline civil rights organization led by people with disabilities that advocates to eliminate discrimination, isolation and segregation by providing advocacy, information and referral, peer support, skills training, and Personal Care Attendant services in order to enhance the independence of people with disabilities. We help people of all ages—with all disabilities—meet whatever goals they set to live more independently in the community.
My work as a community organizer is to bring Boston-area people with disabilities together to work for systemic change on the issues that impact our lives. Currently, major campaigns include making sure that One Care, a new managed care system for people on both MassHealth and Medicare, lives up to its promise of holistic, consumer-directed healthcare; getting more state funding for affordable housing, specifically the Alternative Housing Voucher Program; and lowering fares on The RIDE.
I understand your group, and others, was very involved in getting the MBTA to lower the price for The RIDE service for seniors and people with disabilities. What was the issue there?
I wish I could answer this in the past tense! We have had a significant intermediate victory, but the campaign continues. The RIDE provides door-to-door transportation for seniors and people with disabilities who can’t use buses and subways some or all of the time. Last year, the MBTA doubled RIDE fares from $2 to $4 each way—a 100 percent increase, while fares for other modes of transportation increased by an average of 23 percent. At the same time, the MBTA began charging $5 for rides in a new “premium service area” and those booked or changed after 5 p.m. the previous day. These extreme fare hikes kept many people with disabilities and seniors stuck at home, cutting back on volunteer work, visits to family and friends, community involvement, trips to the gym, medical appointments and more. RIDE use went down over 19 percent in the months following the fare hikes.
BCIL, Massachusetts Senior Action Council and other allies mounted a campaign for transit equity. Activists protested in the streets and spoke at countless MBTA hearings and board meetings. Finally, starting on Jan. 6, 2014, the RIDE fare went back down to $3. This is making a big difference for many people, but $3 is still far too much for many RIDE users, and “premium” fares remain at $5 each way. The struggle for equitable access to public transportation continues.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. How does being Jewish play into your work?
During my first year at BCIL, I participated in the JOIN for Justice Jewish Organizing Fellowship, a yearlong program in which Jewish young adults learn about community organizing and Jewish social justice values. The peers and mentors I met through JOIN have been a key support system and inspire me to work to embody my values in my organizing. Jewish spiritual communities also help make my work more sustainable by helping me pause to reflect and rejuvenate myself.
You live at the Franklin Street co-op in Lower Allston (my neighborhood!). What’s your go-to recipe when it’s your turn to cook dinner for the house?
I’m glad you asked! I like trying new things, but my tried and true go-to recipe is corn chowder, from a cookbook called “The Enchanted Broccoli Forest.” It’s simple to make and it meets the major co-op requirement of being easily doubled or tripled. Maybe I’ll make some the next time you come to dinner!