Marie Downey’s journey to success through service has unfolded along a unique and personal path, steeped deeply in her own experience. As one of eight siblings growing up in South Boston in the 1950s and 60s, she was the first in her family to earn a high school degree. Since then, she has continued to leap over hurdles and push aside barriers, making strides that she could not have even imagined years ago when she toiled away as a teenaged factory worker. Today, she is a leader in her field, providing opportunity and a better life for many of the hotel workers in the City of Boston.
Downey, MSW ’94, recently sat down with Innovate to discuss how her background has shaped her mission, what it meant to graduate from BCSSW at the age of 40, and how her organization BEST Corp. is improving the lives of those hard at work in a profession that provided her with her own life-changing opportunity more than three decades ago.
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today Marie. Talk to us about BEST Corp., the organization you founded, and that you remain Executive Director for.
Marie Downey: Absolutely. BEST Corp. was founded in 2004, and we first opened our doors in 2006. Our mission is to provide hotel workers “the education, skills and training to excel in the hospitality industry and in their personal lives.” Since our inception, we’ve trained more than 3,000 people, many of them new immigrants to the United States.
Most of our funding comes from the Greater Boston Hospitality Employers (GBHE) /Local 26 Trust Fund, and so our trainees benefit from a strong working relationship with the UNITE HERE Local 26 union, as well as hotel employers in the Boston area. Thanks to these partnerships, our trainees enjoy benefits that are often new to them — $20 per hour salaries, affordable health care, legal services and a $10,000 loan if they decide to buy their own home, dental and vision insurance, even paid maternity leave. Twenty dollars per hour still isn’t easy to support a family, but when it compares to other jobs that many immigrants in our city take on that are minimum wage, without benefits, and require inhumane hours, these positions can be life altering.
When you say that work in the hotel industry can be life changing, you’re not just saying this because it’s your job to say so as Executive Director for BEST Corp. This reality is based on your own personal experience. Tell us more about how the hotel industry made such a difference in your life.
MD: I grew up in South Boston, one of eight kids whose parents didn’t have a high school education. My dad did whatever job he had to in order to support his family – he was a dishwasher, a bricklayer, you name it – and, in addition to raising eight kids, my mom worked in minimum wage jobs in-between pregnancies. But we were always so poor, and it was so hard for me to get past the injustice of it all. Good, hardworking people who struggled to provide for the people they loved the most. As a teen I internalized some of these hopeless feelings, and at the age of 16, despite encouragement from my parents that I would be the first in our family to finish high school, I dropped out and I began working at one of a long line of dead end factory jobs. For 12 years, I went from one bad job to another.
In my mid-twenties, I moved from factory work to waitressing, which in my family was seen as a step up. But I made next to nothing – $1.50/hour plus inconsistent tips – at some of the local neighborhood bars. I was struggling, couldn’t pay my rent, and was looking for a way out. When I turned 28, I saw an advertisement for a food server for the Boston Park Plaza in the Boston Globe, and I went for it. I just walked into this downtown luxury hotel seeking a job, and I got it. It was an amazing moment for me. And from that time on, things in my life started to change. I made five dollars an hour (this was 30 plus years ago now so it was a decent wage), I could pay my rent, I even had healthcare benefits. I remember feeling as if I had finally “made it”; I could afford to go to a doctor, a dentist, or a counselor when I needed to because of my employer-sponsored benefits.
Thanks largely to this job, the dreams my family had for me started to return. I enrolled in college and received my BA from UMass Boston, all the while working in hotels.
It was during this time that you met your mentor Paul McDevitt, also a Boston College graduate.
MD: That’s right. Paul worked to ensure that hotel and ironworkers received proper benefits, but even more than that, he helped the largely immigrant workforce to get the care they needed as they battled mental health and substance abuse issues. He also was instrumental in helping workers to navigate the myriad cultural differences that made life and work even more difficult.
Paul asked me to come to work for him, and it was during my time with Modern Assistance Programs Boston that I truly developed my passion for social justice. I then enrolled at BC Social Work to further develop my skills in this field in my late 30s.
How was your experience at BCSSW?
MD: I benefited greatly from my time at Boston College. It was incredible to be there, and I remember at the beginning, I was just so in awe of my surroundings, just the beauty of the campus. Here I was, the first in my family to go to college, now pursuing a master’s degree. It was remarkable.
At first, my family and friends were skeptical of my chosen field. Actually, horrified is a better word. The social workers they had known didn’t provide a positive image. But I promised them that I would be a ‘good social worker’ and change what they thought of the profession.
I really came to appreciate the reason I chose Boston College in the first place – the pursuit of the social justice mission that is inherent in the university’s Jesuit values. I take this with me today, each and every day. I believe I am a ‘good social worker’ and my BCSSW education helped me get here.
What advice would you offer to your fellow soon-to-be and recent alumni, who also aspire to do ‘good social work’?
MD: It’s so important to question the status quo. Don’t accept the way things are. In order to make change happen you have to be persistent, tenacious. I learned this throughout my life, growing up, and later, when I finally found my calling.
Social workers have such an important role in our society; take on this role with pride, and do good work.