Elizabeth “Liz” DiCarlo has been advocating for people on multiple fronts for more than 40 years. That statement of fact recently put DiCarlo in a special category of women from Massachusetts – she was named as a Commonwealth Heroine by the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women.
Her name was advanced by State Representative Antonio Cabral of the 13th Bristol District.
Noted in DiCarlo’s biography posted on Mass.gov, Cabral gave a long list of her service achievements such as working with populations from Central America, HIV/AIDS education for at-risk people, affordable-housing issues, and efforts to mitigate discrimination faced by LGBTQ people. She is without a doubt the ultimate people-person.
When The Wanderer caught up with DiCarlo, she softly said of all the recognition she has been receiving, “…it’s a little embarrassing.” Yet DiCarlo speaks strongly and very clearly when it comes to the issues she believes in fighting for, namely helping those who may be the last to receive services. And while she claims to be retired, it was quite clear her work is far from over.
“I’m working with the Democratic Town Committee,” she said of her ongoing work on voter registration so that, “people can vote for those who represent them and their interests.”
After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the 1970s, DiCarlo became a nurse working as a public health sector. She is originally from Newton but moved to the New Bedford area after graduating. Her family built a home in Mattapoisett around 1975. “I was very happy about that!” she said.
New Bedford became her base from which she began work organizing labor-union groups and immersing herself in multi-cultural neighborhoods. “I love the richness, the diversity of cultures,” she said. “New Bedford has people from Cape Verde, the Caribbean, Latin America, Ireland, France – there have been waves of immigration through the centuries.” She said her work over the years has focused on identifying where need exists and then finding the ways and means to serve the people.
One need that DiCarlo identified as growing in urgency is affordable housing. “The next generation can’t afford to live in Mattapoisett,” she stated and explained that the rising cost of owning or even renting properties is impacting young and old alike. “Our seniors want to downsize and live in Mattapoisett, but where?”
DiCarlo said it is time to think about different types of housing stock and shared her hope that Mattapoisett’s updated Master Plan, currently under review by the Planning Board and other committees with the assistance of SRPEDD, will help in finding new ways to solve old problems – keeping a roof over heads. She expressed concern that if Mattapoisett doesn’t take a proactive approach to affordable housing, “Someone will come in and do it.”
Systems, process analysis, data collection, and assessment are some of the cornerstones of public nursing, and DiCarlo has thrown her talents to all of those through the years.
On Cape Cod, DiCarlo was hired as a consultant to bring together a network of agencies and community centers for a needs assessment of the 15 towns that comprise the peninsula. “There are growing Latino, Caribbean, and Brazilian communities on the Cape,” she said, the goal being to understand how well the people can access healthcare services. To her surprise, 1,000 households participated, not hesitating to share their data. She had deployed 200 volunteers in the effort. “There were four languages to take into consideration,” she said, “The response was fabulous.” The data from the surveys pointed to the need for culturally competent care and interpretation services.
With pride, DiCarlo said that this project inspired the development of dental services for immigrant populations throughout the Cape. “We found that there was a major issue for these people in accessing dental care.” The development of “dental operatories,” locations and services made available to those without insurance or the means to pay for services, bloomed. “We developed partnerships with Cape Cod Regional Vocational High School in Harwich and Cape Cod Community College to provide oral health services.” That program reached out across Buzzards Bay to Martha’s Vineyard as well.
More recently, DiCarlo’s work has focused on getting out the vote. “We want people to come out and vote their values.” From a regional standpoint, she said a strong effort had been made in networking for social justice including LGBTQ platforms, but that it is important to increase the dialogue and understanding that voting matters. “Having an up-to-date voter registration is critical.”
DiCarlo has been involved in school-based, voter-registration drives and placing visual reminders around New Bedford and the surrounding area that display dates of elections. “We need people to think about what is important to them; in the larger cities, you have to find ways of reaching people… But this isn’t new stuff,” she added with a chuckle. “We’ve been doing this since the Rainbow Coalition, personal empowerment, and political empowerment.”
HIV/AIDS, health education, and the role of public health nursing are also part of DiCarlo’s early work. “We engaged with communities to assess their assets and identify their limitations to come up with opportunities,” she said. “We had candid discussions about how to be safe; it’s not just giving out information but in having those explicit conversations about sexual practices and drugs.” She said providing health care was also part of the program, “so people could get the care that they needed.”
Given the current pandemic, DiCarlo believes, “It’s not enough to give education, systems have to be in place to help the victims.” She said the Southcoast region has done a good job reaching businesses to ensure that distancing and face coverings are used in the workplace.
While talking about workers her thoughts turned to their homelives. “Lots of family members may live in a small apartment. We need to educate the children, make sure food resources are readily available, and think about how they will care for one another to prevent the spread of COVID,” she said. “Half of New Bedford is Latino. They live in dense situations. If we are looking at the data, we need to make sure educational opportunities are there.”
That whole-systems approach is the hallmark of a public health professional or, as DiCarlo framed it, “All things are possible with honest collaboration, dignity and respect.”
By Marilou Newell