Mattapoisett resident named a commonwealth heroine

Jul 6, 2020

MATTAPOISETT — Community activist and retired registered nurse Liz DiCarlo was recognized by the Massachusetts Commission for the Status of Women as a member of its Class of 2020 Commonwealth Heroines on June 24. The Mattapoisett resident has advocated for public health causes in New Bedford, marriage equality at the state level, and protested U.S. involvement in Nicaragua and El Salvador. 

Sippican Week reporter Tim Seeberger spoke with DiCarlo to learn more about her experiences in community activism over the years.

Sippican Week: Growing up, how did your home life affect your outlook on helping others?

Liz DiCarlo: Hmm, interesting question. My mother actually was my biggest influence, and I get all emotional about this because it is our roots. She was always helping other people. It was a big deal to go to school and she wanted to be a nurse and she never could be. So helping people was what I was oriented toward. And she was a community organizer. She was involved in the PTA. She was building bridges with the Jewish community, which in our community was more of a class issue than anything else. It's sort of in my blood.

SW: Why did you decide to become a nurse and how has it influenced your outlook on community work?

LD: When I was in nursing school, I had this opportunity to work at the first urban community health center in the country. So I was a student nurse at Boston College doing my internship in Dorchester and saw the injustices of the way people were put into public housing, clustered in one section. Black people lived in one housing development and white people lived in another and white people didn't want to come to the health center where the black people lived to seek the health services that they needed. It became really obvious that injustices around healthcare were based on race and also based on class.

SW: What made you want to become an activist?

LD: Well, it's not that I wanted to become an activist. I became one as I understood how injustice impacted people’s lives. Becoming an activist shouldn't be a big deal. Everybody should become an activist and many are in their own way. Now, the fact that I'm being recognized as a community activist shouldn't be the outlier. You know, it should be the norm.

SW: I know you were against the U.S involvement in El Salvador in the 1980s. What was that like?

LD: That was a big, really intense time for a lot of different reasons. First on a principle level, I believe war is not the answer. We're a species that could do things differently if we wanted to if it wasn't for people's need to be in control and have power and dominance over other people and resources. And I don't agree that this is the approach you should take to resolving differences, right, blowing one another up and maiming and killing people.

SW: I have to imagine pushing back against the funding of Nicaraguan Contras had to be an interesting thing to advocate for as well, especially during the Reagan era.

LD: That's when we intensified our strategy and became involved in civil disobedience at military bases. A group of us from New Bedford did training and decided this was something we needed to do because a higher law was being broken. So that's when civil disobedience is appropriate.

SW: Could you speak to that experience?

LD: We were basically sitting on the roadway and the police asked me if I was going to walk. And I said, “Well actually, no.” So four of them picked me up and brought me to the bus and they carted us off to Framingham State Prison, where we were in the awaiting trial unit. And the guards who were checking us in were interviewing us. And one of them said, “I've never met so many people who had masters and doctorate degrees being arrested” because there were a group of people from Cambridge who came down. The guards were interested in what we were and why we did this. So we had an opportunity to talk more about what was going on with the Reagan administration. 

And similar to what's going on now, people are taking strong stands against racial injustice, and it's long overdue, and hopefully it'll create the kind of lasting change that needs to happen in our society.

SW: I know you also pushed for a needle exchange program at New Bedford in the mid-90s. How was that experience?

LD: We had been doing an enormous amount of HIV street outreach and education throughout the community, particularly the drug using community, the sex worker community and the gay community in terms of sexual practices and also drug using behaviors. I was fortunate enough to be working as the AIDS nurse educator at the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center, where we developed a multiracial, multicultural, multi-sexual orientation team to train recovering addicts as outreach workers to reach out to these communities. We went to visit a needle exchange program in New Haven and Boston with a delegation from the city. One of the New Bedford police officers who came with us was totally won over to the idea that a needle exchange program was an effective way to be a bridge to treatment for active addicts. It's not just exchanging needles and giving them clean needles and preventing all kinds of health problems. It's also the fact that you're interacting with them and caring about them until they are healthy enough to care for themselves. That's when people seek treatment.

SW: And I know the program went to a vote for a city-wide referendum. Is that correct?

LD: You did some good homework. The right wing city councilors lost the vote seven to six, and it was Victor Pinheiro and surprise surprise Tom Hodgson, who is now sheriff of Bristol County and is consistent with his right wing beliefs. He and Pinheiro got a referendum on the ballot that was worded by the City Solicitor as, "Do you agree with giving clean needles for drug addicts?" instead of "Do you agree with a public health strategy to reduce the spread of hepatitis and HIV disease to allow a needle exchange program?" Needless to say, it lost in New Bedford. And for many years, people continued to become infected with hepatitis and HIV disease, and that could have been prevented.

SW: You're also a big advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Personally, what was that moment like when the constitutional amendment to bar same-sex marriage in Massachusetts was shot down?

LD: It was very exciting. We were in the first row of the Gardner Auditorium at the State House and when the final vote came, we were crying like I am now. It was so exciting because our supporters were not just the legislators. The legislators were our supporters because not just the gay community, but the straight community also supported equal marriage rights. It was a critical vote. We weren't feeling the weight of the eyes the nation upon us or anything. We were just doing it because it was the right thing to do. I mean, who wants discrimination enshrined in the state constitution?

SW: So what happened after it passed?

LD: We recognized that the importance of more and more gay and lesbian people coming out was critical to our success. In our marriage equality coalition of the South Coast, we had our own local leadership because we felt we knew our community best. It was a wonderful organizing experience of every cross-section of people throughout our community and people of different ethnic backgrounds, different races, classes, sexual orientations and religions.

Now we're long overdue to examine closely what has been going on for centuries of injustice to people of color in this country. The bottom line is that everybody should be a community activist. It's a wonderful life. You meet a lot of really interesting people who you feel a strong camaraderie with and you feel very blessed to have met and known them.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.