A tribute to East Boston’s premier activist, advocate

Mary Ellen Welch, a school teacher who led anti-airport resistance

A LIGHT WENT OUT in East Boston last week.  More than a light, a beacon that guided more than one generation of local activists and civic leaders. Mary Ellen Welch died, and even typing those words seem incongruous because she was such a vibrant force of life, such a dynamic and compelling person.

For decades, Mary Ellen was East Boston’s premier activist and advocate for social justice, housing equity, and sustainable mobility. She was smart, strategic, and a force to be reckoned with, indefatigable in her commitment to empower people and build a better, more inclusive community. She was a principled and determined activist who did not disdain the realities of politics. Rather, she embraced them because she was, at her core, all about getting things done.

She was a Boston school teacher who began her grade school class every year by writing her name on the blackboard followed by the Logan Airport noise complaint phone number. Some of her teaching colleagues would say with admiration that Mary Ellen “bred young activists,” and she took that compliment with pride. She was determined to enliven her classes by, in her words, bringing “learning into their life experience.”

When Massport wanted to extend a runway that would have negative impacts on the community, she had the class write letters in order to teach them good writing and advocacy skills. Her commitment to teaching her students practical skills while opening their minds and eyes to the world around them enlivened her. “I had the best job in the whole wide world,” she said.

A proud Irish-American woman, she taught her grade school class of mostly Italian-American kids, and later Latino kids, about mobility equity by having them learn and sing a 1960s civil rights song about Rosa Parks, sung by the Freedom Singers:

“If you miss me at the back of the bus

If you can’t find me back there

Come up to the front of the bus

I’ll be sittin’ right there

I’ll be sittin’ right there

Come on up to the front of the bus

I’ll be sittin’ right there.

Her activism was her life. She marched against the Vietnam War, and she participated in a group called “Irish Americans Against Apartheid.” She made civil rights and social justice the cornerstone of her work, a woman with a moral compass that never failed, never faltered. There was no mind more curious, no spirit more generous, no heart more compassionate, no soul more deeply rooted in moral principles. And she never stopped.

In a time long before the term became popular, Mary Ellen persisted.

Her anti-airport activism in the 1960s and 1970s is a part of the city’s history. She was there at the bulldozing of the trees on Neptune Road. She was there when the mothers of Maverick Street blocked the road with their children in tow, preventing Massport’s cavalcade of heavy dump trucks from destroying their neighborhood. More important, she was a founding member of East Boston’s most enduring and effective advocacy group, Air Impact Relief (AIR Inc.).

An enlightened Massport in the Dukakis/Salvucci years gave AIR Inc. a modest budget so the community could hire its own lawyer and consultants. This enabled Mary Ellen and other activists to bring more than passion to their advocacy; they brought detailed and substantive knowledge of the facts to support their position. To hear Mary Ellen talk about the details of particulate matter when addressing Logan air quality issues was to hear someone better versed than most professionals.

She was the first president of NOAH, East Boston’s Neighborhood of Affordable Housing, and later recruited me to take on that role. NOAH is a community development corporation with a singular driving ethos: that everyone ought to have access to a decent, affordable home and living environment.  NOAH president Phil Giffee described Mary Ellen as “NOAH’s soul and backbone, and the North Star for justice, fairness, equity, and compassion.”

Mary Ellen embraced multi-culturalism. She enjoyed and celebrated diversity, and she did more to bridge differences and join people together than any single person in East Boston in my lifetime. This she did without fanfare or desire for recognition.

Mary Ellen’s brand of advocacy was tough and determined but she could open her arms wide and embrace the joy in every moment that she was making a difference. She was a happy warrior in the fight for housing and mobility equity and social justice. In an interview, she summarized her approach to advocacy this way: “People who are activists don’t give up. Usually their activism involves something that’s deeply inbred and people are committed to principles of justice that they want to achieve. The joy of creating a better neighborhood is very satisfying. There is a joy in making where you live a happy place, a sustainable place for others.”

Her life was an example for me, as it was for many others. When I became secretary of transportation, she sent me a framed poster from her early airport activism days. It is a black and white photograph of a jet airplane landing over a child in a swing. And it says “East Boston Is Not An Airport.” It was her way of reminding me where I came from, and it is something I treasure to this day.

Losing Mary Ellen is hard. There is sorrow, and there are tears, but there is also the joy of having known her and worked with her and the gratitude of having been made better by that proximity. And so, in retrospect, I was wrong to write that a light has gone out in East Boston. Her light resides within us, it sparkles with joy and it illuminates the work of hundreds of activists, people in East Boston, and elsewhere who looked upon her as a mentor and role model.

And I know that none of this is unique. There are people all across Boston and the region who are engaged every day in advocacy and activism for the causes they believe in. It might be social justice or housing equity or transit equity and sustainable mobility. It might be climate change or homelessness or access to healthcare or the challenges of aging and loneliness. Across our city and region are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who contribute, who care, who take their passion and act on it in order to make a difference. Mary Ellen Welch was a part of that virtuous cycle of giving and selflessness.

Meet the Author

Here’s what I know for sure, as sure as I know anything: if there’s a transit system in heaven, Mary Ellen is riding it, she’s singing a song of social justice. If angels can’t find her, all they need to do is go on up to the front of the bus. She’ll be sitting right there.

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a member of the TransitMatters board of directors.