A few weeks ago, I was hunting for information on the Fenway Interagency Group (FIG), a coalition of neighborhood organizations that came together during the early 1970s in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston as background for a blog post I’m writing for the MHS. Thanks to full-text searching on Google Books, that search led me to Thomas Martorelli’s For People, Not For Profit: A History of Fenway Health’s First Forty Years (AuthorHouse, 2012). Hanna and I have been using Fenway Health, originally Fenway Community Health Center, as our “healthcare home” since 2009. We stumbled into it on the recommendation of a friend and, from the inside out, have slowly become more aware of its national and international renown in the fields of community-based, culturally-competent healthcare — particularly within the fields of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and more recently trans* healthcare.
For People, Not For Profit is an institutional history written from an insider’s loving perspective: Martorelli is former chair of the Fenway Board of Directors. Nonetheless, he doesn’t paper over the growing pains of an organization that grew from an all-volunteer collective of health activists into the established health and research center it is today. Like many activist groups that formed during the idealism of the late Sixties and early Seventies, Fenway Community Health Center initially relied on volunteer labor, with collective decision-making processes and interminable meetings. It offered walk-in clinics for target populations — namely women, gay men, and the elderly residents of the neighborhood. As it grew into a non-profit organization with a paid staff, successive directors arrived to find finances on shakey footing and physical space in chronic shortfall.
It was the AIDS/HIV crisis during the 1980s that became the fire that forged modern Fenway Health; already positioned to serve the gay male population of Boston, Fenway staff were on the front lines of the epidemic providing innovative care and conducting ground-breaking research that helped develop treatments to extend and enhance the lives of those with HIV and AIDS. Simultaneously, Fenway was also offering education and resources to single women and women with female partners on the options for getting pregnant (alternative insemination), and working with feminist-minded area women’s health organizations to reach women across the sexual orientation spectrum who might benefit from community health education and services. In the past decade, Fenway has also become a leader in providing respectful and effective care for members of the trans* community as well.
Martorelli documents each phase of Fenway’s growth in a series of chronologically-arranged chapters, each of which contain a section on care, education, advocacy, and leadership. Lengthy excerpts from interviews with key players provide insights into how people involved in Fenway’s various programs and projects view their work in historical and social context.
Future historians of queer experience and the history of medicine will have more work to do telling the story of Fenway Health in wider historical context; thankfully, the historical records of Fenway Community Health Center have been donated to Northeastern University’s archives and special collections (where Hanna had a hand in processing them in 2010!) and are available for research. When these historians get to work — and I hope some of them are already digging in! — For People, Not for Profit will be a valuable starting point for more in-depth studies that focus on specific aspects of the Fenway Health project, as well as explorations of Fenway’s participation in the tumultuous landscape of queer activism, AIDS/HIV politics and care, and the rich story of Boston’s neighborhood-based activism.
Meanwhile, Martorelli’s book has given me valuable background for my own participation in the Fenway Health project as a volunteer on the consumer/community advisory board. I’m grateful that such a resource is available — and am developing librarian-ish plans to make it (and other Fenway publications) more visible and available to the patients who utilize Fenway’s services.