There’s a special pleasure in seeing someone recognized for extraordinary efforts in service to others over a period of decades. It becomes even greater when the person doesn’t feel she’s done anything out of the ordinary, thinks that many others deserve the recognition more than she does, and seems more interested in continuing the work she’s doing than pausing to accept accolades from her peers.
So I guess that explains why seeing Lydia Brewster honored at last night’s Reaching Home dinner was so much fun for me.
I first met Lydia when she was leading the North End Action Team, and recognized this self-deprecating “carpetbagger from Haddam Neck” as the crusading idealist she really was (and still is.) NEAT was in its infancy at the time. It’s not uncommon for a young nonprofit founded by a strong individual to become “all about” that individual, with the board tagging along behind. Although Lydia was certainly a strong leader, NEAT was never “all about” her. Her focus was entirely on raising up the voices of residents of the North End, and providing them with the tools to take control of the future of their neighborhood. When she passed the torch of leadership to Izzi Greenberg a few years later, NEAT continued to thrive—because its power was vested in its constituents, not just in its leader.
When Lydia moved on to the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, her impact expanded from Middletown to many areas of the state. She was a vital link between CCEH and the various regional partnerships building Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness. With her at the table, local coalitions were plugged in to state and national thinking about new approaches to ending homelessness, as well as to information on the progress of their peer groups across the state. Just as important, Lydia brought CCEH on-the-ground intelligence about what was and wasn’t working out in the field, and made sure it was incorporated into statewide decision making.
I think Lydia’s success in this role owed a lot to her habit of “telling it like it is.” She’s a plain speaker, and certainly not shy about expressing her opinions or disagreeing with someone—but somehow she does it without making anyone feel put down. Maybe that’s because it’s so clear to all of us that her commitment to the work is what drives her to speak up. She tells us inconvenient truths, and we’re willing to hear them, because they spring from that laser focus on what’s going to benefit the people who need the system to work for them.
Lydia Brewster is a pit bull. She’s got her teeth sunk in the issue of homelessness, and she’s not letting go until it cries “uncle.”
Lydia says she found her true home when she came back to Middletown and began working for St. Vincent DePaul. There, she’s discovered the best of both worlds: she can work one-on-one with people who need assistance, and participate in the regional and statewide system change work at the same time. Her leadership, advocacy, and persistent follow-up built the foundation for the Middlesex/Meriden/Wallingford Coordinated Access Network. This group, which started as a “shotgun marriage” of three disparate communities that previously had almost never done anything together, has evolved into an alliance of providers with a shared agenda and an understanding of how they need to operate to achieve it. Together they are whittling away at the list of homeless people in our communities until every single one of them has a place to call home.
There’s lots more to tell about Lydia’s accomplishments: empowering homeless people to speak up through the LEAD group, joining forces with the Middlesex Community Care Team, orchestrating the annual Homeless Memorial Service.
What it all adds up to…OK, let’s just come out and say it. Lydia Brewster is a pit bull. She’s got her teeth sunk in the issue of homelessness, and she’s not letting go until it cries “uncle.” She richly deserves the Rev. Richard Schuster Advocacy Award that she received last night.
And somehow I know that today the award has been stuck on a shelf somewhere, and Lydia is back in the soup kitchen this morning, plotting how to get this person into rehab, and where to get a housing voucher for that person, and how to make sure the CAN gets the funding it needs. And I think to myself, so long as the world has people like this in it, there’s hope.