ABCD’s Coard, antipoverty movement icon, to retire
Robert M. Coard, president and CEO of Action for Boston Community Development Inc. (ABCD), announced last month that he will retire in November after more than 40 years at the antipoverty agency’s helm.
After the news broke, friends and colleagues praised him as a man whose efforts impacted countless lives.
“He’s a giant,” said David Bradley, executive director of the National Community Action Foundation (NCAF), which he co-founded with Coard in 1981. “There’s no one that has done more, no one that has meant more and no one that has been more inspirational in the movement than Bob Coard.”
Thanks to Coard, ABCD now stands as a national model for community-building. The organization has an annual budget in excess of $100 million and a staff of almost 1,000 working to provide residents across Boston with services ranging from its renowned Head Start education program to financial assistance with fuel costs, housing advocacy, career development resources and more.
Coard’s savvy matched his commitment, said veteran strategist Joyce Ferriabough-Bolling.
“There is no greater political mind in this city, as far as I’m concerned, than Bob Coard,” she said. “To be able to stand up for folks who don’t have anything and who are often marginalized — to be able to fight for them on a local and also a national stage, and to change things, to actually change the system — is no easy job.”
His ability to work with legislators to promote ABCD’s interests — and his willingness to hold their feet to the fire if they shied away — earned him respect. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., called Coard “an irresistible advocate for the most vulnerable,” while fellow Sen. John F. Kerry said Coard is “one in a million.”
“He’s never lost that sense of idealism, that deep in the gut conviction that he’s here to help people, to give a voice to those who would otherwise get drowned out by the big interests,” Kerry said in a statement.
Perhaps no one has more insight into Coard than ABCD Executive Vice President John J. Drew, his longtime lieutenant, who said he has “seen it all” over the past four decades.
“Bob has been a hero,” Drew said. “Bob’s leadership … I think it’s helped the city flower.”
It also helped develop latter-day leaders like J. Keith Motley, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
“He’s been a tremendous role model to all of us who aspired to be leaders along the way,” Motley said. “He always took the time to have words with us — even at the busiest times in his life … he always would sit us down and have conversations about what it took.”
ABCD Director of Public Affairs Susan Kooperstein said Coard, 82, was unavailable for comment, citing doctor’s orders that he rest up while undergoing rehabilitation following a hospital stay last month.
In what he termed “a difficult letter to write,” Coard informed ABCD’s staff and board of directors on July 24, 2009, of his health issues and his plans to step away.
“I want you to know that I have been ill for the past several weeks and, although I am now much better, I need to allow some time off from my duties as President/CEO for recovery and rehabilitation,” Coard wrote. “… I have also decided to retire on November 1, 2009 after more than 40 years heading up ABCD and 45 years with the agency.”
Coard joined ABCD on June 4, 1964, following stints at the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Urban League. After three years as the agency’s deputy director of planning — during which he created the decentralized model of delivering services through area planning action councils and neighborhood service centers, an ABCD trademark — he became executive director in 1968.
As he worked to make ABCD a major player in city and state politics, Coard developed a progressive approach to building consensus, according to Ferriabough-Bolling.
“We’re talking back in the ’60s and ’70s, OK?” Ferriabough-Bolling said. “Here was a guy who was talking about crossing Boston’s political and racial lines and bringing communities together.
“… And the way he did it was not through direct confrontation, but through the power of his negotiating skills, the power of his mind, the power of saying, ‘Oh, something’s not right, but I’m not going to scream about it — I’m going to get to the essence of it and I’m going to turn it around.’”
Coard’s commitment to serving those in need led him to envision expanding the ABCD model across the country. NCAF co-founder Bradley said they began working on the project “within hours of [President Ronald] Reagan’s election in 1980.”
“There was a sense — a correct sense — that a lot of social service programs, particularly those targeted toward the poor, were going to have a tough time in the new Reagan administration,” said Bradley in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. “… Bob, right after the November election, approached me about starting the NCAF and trying to defend the interests of America’s war on poverty.”
That call sparked a relationship that’s seen them talk on “pretty much a daily basis” for almost 29 years, said Bradley. They’ve shared a lot of laughs — “When we went out to dinner, I used to always tell the waitress it was his birthday; like six times a year, they were bringing in a cake to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him,” Bradley said — as well as some high-stakes political battles.
Arguably Coard’s greatest battle, though, came years earlier. In 1973, he joined three other community action programs in filing a class action lawsuit against President Richard M. Nixon to prevent him from abolishing the federal Office of Economic Opportunity, which funded community action programs across the country.
Bradley cited Coard’s leadership in that case as evidence of his considerable resolve.
“Bob has a spine of steel,” Bradley said. “He never, ever backed off tough decisions. What propelled Bob were these questions: How does this impact the people in Boston that depend on ABCD? How do these decisions, policies or politics impact a network of 1,000 antipoverty agencies around the country? And how does this impact America as a society?
“… I put him in tough positions,” Bradley added. “I put him in positions where he’d have to complain loudly that maybe everyone in the Massachusetts congressional delegation was not addressing those questions … the way we wanted them to, and Bob would have to make a strong case that might make some members uncomfortable. He did, and he never flinched.”
That strength resonates with everyone Coard meets, according to Drew.
“He has the presence, the charisma that attracts people to him and to the agency,” Drew said. “He’s able to project that through his own person. … and over the years, [we’ve] developed the credibility that enables us to sustain ourselves and build important institutions.”
For ABCD, the challenge ahead will be filling the vacuum created by such a “giant.”
“ABCD’s going to have to wrestle with it,” Bradley said. “[But] his vision’s instilled and his commitment is there. … The road’s still there. People know the direction.”
No one knows it better than Drew. In his letter, Coard recommended Drew as his successor, but also suggested the process of selecting ABCD’s next president be “an open one where candidates from the agency and neighborhood centers as well as outside candidates are considered.”
“It is also important that candidates of color are given careful consideration,” Coard wrote. “ABCD has always been a multicultural, multi-racial institution and this is an important strength that we need to preserve.”
Drew, who is white, said ABCD’s history of developing leaders internally will serve the organization well.
“Bob is not the kind of person you’re going to replace,” Drew said. “But his legacy is that we have behind the two of us some very, very, very good people up and down the line. They’re going to be the next generation to keep ABCD going.”
Whoever takes the lead, Ferriabough-Bolling said, “ABCD is certainly in good hands. But there will only ever be one Bob Coard.”