Frieda Garcia and Jerrell Cox came to leadership at United South End Settlements (USES) in vastly different eras, spearheading an organization with different needs and serving different populations. But both have been transformative leaders for USES, approaching their work at the nonprofit with passion, grace, and an urgency to help the children and families who come through USES’s doors every day.
Garcia’s journey as a legendary community activist began in the 1940s when her family immigrated to the Bronx from her native Dominican Republic.
Growing up in a big city, Garcia was surrounded by great buildings with strong foundations. It’s no surprise that later, when she moved to Boston in 1965, settling in the South End, she was one of the building blocks that helped build – literally and figuratively – the space USES occupied at Columbus Avenue beginning in the 1970s.
“In 1970, I lived two blocks away from United South End Settlements,” Garcia recalled in a recent interview. “They were raising money by selling bricks to build a new building, so I bought bricks to help out.”
Garcia, a longtime activist in Boston and a pioneer in providing opportunity and services for the city’s Latinos, earned her degree in social work at the New School for Social Research. Early on in her career, she worked in the newly minted Roxbury Multi-Service Center. By 1970, she had already established herself in the nonprofit sector in the city. As the city’s Latino population surged, she secured funding from federal anti-poverty programs and became the founding director of La Alianza Hispana (the Spanish Alliance) in 1971, the first multiethnic Latino service organization in Boston.
Garcia later went on to work at the Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center in the South End and,in 1981, became the executive director of USES, supporting families in the city’s South End in achieving economic mobility. Serving generations of Latino and Black youth and families, Garcia helped expand programming, development, and facilities at USES until her retirement in 2001.
During her 21-year tenure, Garcia’s path through USES was as memorable as the woman herself and infused with her special brand of leadership. Her fundraising experience allowed her to bring another level of expertise to the organization. Garcia played a pivotal role in many areas of USES’s advancement, including leading a $4 million campaign to supply 48 Rutland Street with elevator service for the building.
“USES opened up so many doors for me,” Garcia says. “It was an incredible learning opportunity for me. It was an incredible environment and fantastic staff that were determined to really make a difference in people’s lives.”
In the 1990s, Garcia was asked to chair the committee that commissioned the first female statue on city property, the Harriet Tubman statue in Columbus Avenue Park that bears her name, memorializing the legendary abolitionist and her ties to Boston. The sculpture was completed in 1999. Garcia remains the chair of the Harriet Tubman Park Committee to this day.
“My connection has never ended,” she says. “Today, I’m involved in the restoration of the original Harriet Tubman house on Holyoke Street, trying to document its unique history and impact.”
Seven years before Garcia’s retirement, a young boy named Jerrell Cox was just getting his start in what would be a long and varied journey with USES. In 1994, Cox first attended Camp Hale, the overnight camp in Sandwich, N.H., owned and operated by USES. His mother had always cultivated a diverse group of friends, and one of them had mentioned Camp Hale to her as an opportunity for her kids to get out of the city and explore another part of New England.
Much like Garcia, Cox had grown up in the hustle and bustle of the city, surrounded by streetlights, traffic, and buildings. He soon came to realize that being at Camp Hale felt like home for him. For the next few years, Jerrell spent his summers at Camp Hale learning about community, leadership, responsibility, and accountability.
“At camp, I was seen for who I was and who I wanted to be,” Cox reflected recently. “I was encouraged by my counselors and USES staff to lead. I was challenged to embrace differences as strengths.”
Having grown up a Black girl in Boston during busing, Cox’s mother was keenly aware of the challenges the city faced and always sought out the best opportunities for her children to grow and develop into involved, confident, community-minded people. She thought she had found the golden ticket when she heard about a program offering him and his siblings an opportunity for a better education through the METCO program.. Suddenly, they were heading to the brightest (and whitest) institutions, and while that came with access to greater opportunity, for a Black boy from an urban environment, going to a predominately white school in the suburbs also meant being quickly forced to face the reality that his identity was an obstacle in the eyes of some of his fellow students and teachers.
For Cox, Camp Hale and USES became a place for inclusion and acceptance. He was taught to be proud of who he was and had diverse role models to look up to. This type of environment led to discovering his passion for leadership. It was exactly the type of environment that Garcia years before had helped shape for future youth.
“I still got to enjoy the best parts about camp, the meaningful relationships, impactful conversations, lake swims and hikes in the White Mountains,” Cox says. “But now I was the leader that my time as a camper had helped groom me to be.”
In 2009, after holding several different roles at USES, Cox became camp director – a position he held for more than ten years. During that time, he oversaw the master plan to renovate and rebuild the camp, raising more than $5 million for key infrastructure improvements. In 2020, Cox became USES’ VP of development and external relations. In May 2021, he was named co-executive director before becoming CEO in 2022.
Both Garcia and Cox’s experiences, as participants and collaborators of USES, embody the mission of an organization that for 130 years has been dedicated to uplifting, strengthening, and connecting the South End and surrounding communities. While their paths to leadership were different, both have left a lasting mark on USES through their commitment to those they serve.
“My message to the participants at USES is to take advantage of every opportunity USES gives them,” said Garcia. “The people I’ve met through the years are my family and each individual plays an important role in USES’s mission to harness the power of our diverse community.”
“I found my safe and protected space, and I hope every young person finds it at Camp Hale and USES,” said Cox. “The organization uplifts families and aims for young people and adults to develop to their best potential. We invite our neighbors and the community around us to join and partner with us because this work is special. After 130 years, we want to maintain our building blocks of community to lean in and reach out to help in any way they can to help families thrive.”
In honor of USES’ 130th anniversary, we will be sharing stories linking members of our long history to USES’ leaders of today and tomorrow throughout the Spring of 2023. Check back each week to read stories and interviews from some of the people who have made USES into the organization it is today and learn more here.