Rappaport Connects Gateway |
Follow Us |

Linda Dorcena Forry: Generational Optimism

Linda Dorcena Forry: Generational Optimism

This daughter of Haitian immigrants, former Rappaport Urban Scholar, mother of four, wife, and impossibly proud lifelong resident of Dorchester, Massachusetts, is an unbreakably authentic optimist.

The resume is extensive, covering a decades-long career in public service followed by her role at New England’s largest construction contractor, Suffolk, where she is now Vice President of External Affairs.

It includes her education at Boston College and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. There are noted awards from the United Way, Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, and YMCA. There’s reference to her work as a trustee for Eversource Energy, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Kennedy Institute, Boston Public Library, and the Boys & Girls Club of Dorchester.

Under “Profile,” one finds descriptions such as organizational leader, embedded strategist, and change agent – all of which, of course, are apt.

But the one word nowhere to be found on these three pages of curriculum vitae is the word that may describe Linda Dorcena Forry best of all, and the word that probably most foundationally informs everything else that’s ever been written about her, here or elsewhere.

Above all, this daughter of Haitian immigrants, former Rappaport Urban Scholar, mother of four, wife, and impossibly proud lifelong resident of Dorchester, Massachusetts, is an unbreakably authentic optimist.

Then again, no one ever conveyed real optimism by self-proclamation, anyway. Show, don’t tell, they say, and Forry’s brand of optimism is shown in gratitude, service, and a smile that radiates unfailingly through her bright, brown eyes.

It’s an optimism that shows up everywhere that she does.

As a Rappaport Urban Scholar at the Kennedy School, she once moderated a “conversation of understanding” between two Palestinian and two Israeli students. The stories were “crushing,” Forry remembers, including one Palestinian man whose wife had lost their baby in a bombing, but her outlook was bright: “It was a powerful moment, and I loved it because we were able to experience it together. It showed the empathy piece, that we’re all the same.”

As a guest at the annual South Boston St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in 2013, the then-State Representative Forry raised her proverbial half-full glass to the future, grabbing the microphone during opening remarks to challenge the mostly Irish crowd: “You have Dorchester Heights! You have Dorchester Avenue! All you’re missing is a state Senator from Dorchester!” The following year, she was that State Senator from Dorchester.

And as the subject of a recent interview, she turned that optimism inward to her own family, addressing the care of her father, who has Alzheimer’s Disease, without a trace of self-pity. “This is year 14,” she said. “My mom is caring for him at home, and we are committed. We’re knee-deep in my parents’ care, but it’s been awesome, because my kids get to be a part of this, too.”

Those brown eyes shine brightly as she says the words, and it suddenly becomes quite clear from where this relentlessly rose-colored outlook comes. It’s literally in her blood, passed on to a first-generation American from parents who spoke only broken English and hoped for a better future when they arrived right here in Dorchester in the late-1960s.

That very same hope is revealed today in Linda Dorcena Forry’s smiling eyes. That optimism. It’s an immigrant’s optimism – and it’s now her birthright, her legacy and her responsibility.

Humble beginnings

Nearly a half-century before their daughter would, all at once in 2013, become the First Suffolk District’s first Senator of color, its first female Senator, and its first Senator from Dorchester, Andre and Annie Dorcena were simply a hard-working couple renting a room on Hartford Street in Dorchester, pregnant with their first child together.

They migrated daily to the bus stop, to work and back in those days, and it was during that hand-in-hand ritual that the pair caught the eye of a local Greek man who approached them one day with an offer. He’d been watching them from afar, appreciated their work ethic and, by the way, he was selling his three-story, two-family, mahogany and stain glass-filled Victorian on nearby Howard Avenue.

It was theirs for $5,000, he told them, and he would accept whatever payment plan was necessary to make it work. Through broken English, Andre Dorcena agreed, and the couple has lived there ever since.

“It’s the American Dream, isn’t it?” Forry said. “Even talking about it now, it’s going to make me cry.”

The immigrant’s path is one of hope by its very nature, and when that hope is rewarded it becomes faith, and when that faith is repaid forward it fuels the bright prospects and optimism of generations to come. That is the Dorcena story.

In addition to raising eight children right there on Howard Avenue, Andre and Annie took in an untold number of parents and siblings and cousins to live with them in the house as well as non-family Haitian immigrants to stay in the first-floor apartment for free. There was always food, and seemingly a party for every occasion.

They made a modest living while supporting a multigenerational household – Andre in housekeeping at Beth Israel Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital and Annie in housekeeping at Stone & Webster and then as a home health aide – but they insisted they would not take money from the tenants as they began their new lives in these United States.

“They would say, ‘No, we’ve got to help these folks get acclimated into this new culture called America,’” Forry said. “So that’s how I grew up. I saw my parents, who didn’t have much, just give back to others. So for me, service has always been a thing.”

The family was also rooted in its Catholic faith, and the kids went to Catholic schools – Linda at St. Kevin Grammar School and Monsignor Ryan Memorial High School – which she said was instrumental in shaping her belief system. “We grew up with the faith of recognizing that we all come from different places, and to respect that,” she said.

It was those Catholic school sensibilities, along with an outstanding high school transcript, that landed a teenaged Linda Dorcena at Boston College for her undergraduate studies, and it was BC where her career would be seeded.

While serving as the local BC chapter President of the NAACP and working on the student body presidential campaign of her brother William, Linda met another undergrad from Dorchester named Bill Forry. When Bill later worked as a reporter for his family’s community newspaper, the Dorchester Reporter, he interviewed a young state representative from the Massachusetts Fifth Suffolk district named Charlotte Golar Richie.

Bill Forry and Linda Dorcena had begun dating by then, and when Forry learned that Richie was looking to hire a legislative aide, he immediately thought of Linda and her unflagging community involvement with the Boys & Girls Club, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, and her church youth group.

“So I did it. I went and interviewed with Charlotte,” Linda Forry said. “And she hired me.”

So began a career in the public sector that saw Linda Dorcena Forry rise to the rank of Acting Chief of Staff for Richie; become a member of the executive staff at the City of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development in 1999; serve as the first woman or person of color to be state representative from the 12th Suffolk House district, from 2005 to 2013; and then – historically in terms of gender, race, and her hometown – become Senator for the First Suffolk district, a position she would hold until stepping down in 2018.

In those 22 years, the issues to which she gravitated and took on are exactly what you might expect given her upbringing: housing affordability; small business; pension reform; diversity and equity; access and opportunity.

“We really just talked about bringing people together,” she said. “Building partnerships and coalitions, and really having people understand that we’re literally the same, right? We may look different and speak different languages, but the issues that are impacting you as a family are the same as what other people are going through as well.”

Linda Dorcena Forry

‘An incredible journey’

For those familiar with the Rappaport Foundation and its penchant for raising up those most deserving of being raised, they are familiar themes. It should come as no surprise, then, that during her service as a State Representative, she was tapped on the shoulder by State House colleague and former Rappaport Urban Scholar, Rep. Kevin Honan, who insisted she apply for the Rappaport award and the Kennedy School.

“He just said, ‘You have to do this,’” she recalls. “He told me that it really allows leaders opportunities to further their education and get more granular into different issues. So I decided, you know what, I’m going to apply.”

It was 2009, and by now Linda and Bill Forry were married with two children, John and Conor, so there were practical considerations as well. Bill had also applied and been accepted to the Kennedy School, and Linda was pregnant again, so she chose to defer until after Bill had graduated in 2010 and Madeline had been born.

With the help of the Rappaport Scholarship, she began the two-year program in 2011, maintained her State Representative seat, gave birth to another daughter Norah in 2012, and completed her MPA program at the Kennedy School in 2013.

“It was an incredible journey,” she said. “I was able to take these amazing classes in the public administration space that really looked at organizational structures within various models and organizations.”

In addition to an incomparable lineup of professors such as Tom Glynn and Juliette Kayyem, Forry said she was transformed by her relationships with students from all over the world. “I made friends from all different walks of life, and I’m still in touch with some of them today.”

It was during her time at the Kennedy School that Forry learned her own state Senator, Jack Hart, had decided not to run for re-election. So what does a full-time mom and state representative and master’s student do in that case? When that person is Linda Dorcena Forry, she sees opportunities, not obstacles.

“I said, ‘That’s my seat,’” she remembers. “I had done nine years in elected office, and I was going to run for that seat.”

She doubled down on a five-month, face-to-face campaign that involved sharing her vision with anyone who would open a door in the First Suffolk District.

“We really just talked about bringing people together,” she said. “Building partnerships and coalitions, and really having people understand that we’re literally the same, right? We may look different and speak different languages, but the issues that are impacting you as a family are the same as what other people are going through as well.”

The message resonated, and every bit of canvassing mattered, because Forry won the election by a mere 378 votes over Nick Collins, who would later go on to take the seat after Forry’s five years in that office.

And while her constituency grew larger, Forry’s purpose remained focused on equity and inclusion.

While in the Senate, she served in several leadership roles, including Assistant Majority Whip, Chair of the Joint Committee on Housing, and Vice Chair of the Committee on Intergovernmental Affairs and Export Development. She was also a member of the Joint Committees on Transportation, Marijuana Policy, and Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities.

She created the access and opportunity law, known today as the “Massport Model,” driving increased inclusion and diversity of businesses owned by people of color, women, and veterans in state-owned land development. She simultaneously managed constituent services inquiries while strategizing her office’s coverage of nearly 40 monthly community meetings.

She remains particularly proud of the conversations she helped facilitate as Chair of the Housing Committee.

“You’ll never hear me say ‘affordable housing,’ because people think, ‘those people,’” she said. “But I’ve always said we need to create ‘housing that’s affordable’ – for our kids, who want to come back after college but can’t afford it, and for our seniors, who have given everything, but they’re priced out.

“To make progress, you have to be able to talk about it in different ways to make people understand, and that’s what I helped to do.”

A legacy of optimism

After 22 years in public service, Linda Dorcena Forry left government in 2018 to work as Vice President of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations for Suffolk Construction, with its more than 2,100 employees across the country.

It was a job seemingly tailor-made with Forry’s background and experience in mind, and it has since allowed her to help lead difficult, cross-company conversations about diversity.

“No one wants to talk about race and racism,” she said, “but we leaned into it to really help our managers and leaders and employees. We need to create teams that trust each other, and the only way is by having these uncomfortable conversations.”

And while the murder of George Floyd fueled dialogue specifically targeting race relations, Forry’s mission is to talk about diversity in all forms, including gender, veterans’ issues, sexual orientation, and even age.

“When we talk about construction on the operations side, we have a lot of mature employees who have been doing it for a long time,” she said. “So how do we make sure that the early career folks respect and learn from the longer-term employees. We need to capture that information and all the experiences they’ve had.

“It’s generational.”

Forry certainly has a well-earned appreciation for all that is generational, for that which is passed down.

She has seen it first-hand in the gifts of Jerry Rappaport and the Rappaport family, whose vision has armed a legion of scholars with education and empathy that is now theirs to pass on.

“It’s about doing more because you’ve been given more,” she said. “What a visionary person, to be able to set aside the resources to allow leaders to continue their education knowing that we’re going to give back, and to really help drive the dialogue around issues that are impacting communities every day.

“I’m so grateful to Jerry and the Rappaport family, because without them I never would have thought of going to the Kennedy School.”

Forry takes that responsibility seriously, not only from the Rappaports but from her parents, the immigrants whose generosity and optimism helped fuel a career in public and private service that is laser focused on creating a better world.

“That’s how I grew up. For me, service has always been a thing.”

Despite all that is toxic in today’s world, she sees a bright future, and it starts at home. Even as she talks about raising kind children in an often-unkind world, her smile is unfailing. It’s not the smile of blind faith or far-flung hope, but a generational smile.

“It is a responsibility,” she said. “How do we teach our younger generation to be social citizens, and to be caring, and thoughtful, and to look out for each other? That’s my thing. Treat people how you want to be treated, and speak to people the way you want to be spoken to.

“You just have to be kind.”