Kathy Abbott MC/MPA 1988 is creating change for Boston Harbor.

By Mari Megias
January 19, 2017

Kathy Abbott MC/MPA 1988 has come full circle. The young college student who once worked as a manager on a Boston Harbor island has become the woman who leads an organization that, today, is charged with protecting and promoting the very same waters where she held one of her first jobs. 

A native of Massachusetts, Abbott has lived both in the Boston area and on Cape Cod. “Growing up on the Cape, I saw the disappearance of private open space as it was used for housing,” she says. “Unless something was permanently protected as park land, it was going to development. And in a short span of time, I saw the place completely change.” 

By the “ripe age of 14,” as she puts it, Abbott had decided she wanted to focus on the natural world and the impact humans have on it. (“My life’s goal at the time was to save a tree,” she says.) Her environmentalist family gave her a deep love of nature, and this affinity—plus a course on the environment in high school—set her on a career path that would take her from her college job on the harbor to her current position leading Boston Harbor Now, an organization that works to advance Boston Harbor as one of the world's most “iconic destinations,” according to its website. Boston Harbor Now was formed in late 2015 through the merger of the Boston Harbor Island Alliance (an organization she had helped found) and the Boston Harbor Association.

Kathy Abbott MC/MPA 1988

Her first job on the waters around Boston—as manager for Gallops Island, a 23-acre land mass that is one of 34 islands that dot the harbor—involved living there for 10 days at a time. “The island doesn’t have camping, so I was sitting up there all by myself. Watching the sunset over the city was so beautiful—it was a really special laboratory for teaching people about our impact on the world.” 

After college—Kathy received her associate’s degree from Stockbridge School of Agriculture and her bachelor’s from University of Massachusetts, Amherst—she took an internship in the Planning Office at The Mass Department of Environmental Regulation. “Six or eight months into my internship, the woman who was my boss left and they hired me as the planner for the Boston Harbor Islands State Park.  From there on, I was promoted within the Department, every two or three years. 

At this point, she says, “it seemed natural to get some formal education in areas I hadn’t studied” This desire led her to Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), where she received her mid-career master’s in public administration in 1988. She particularly enjoyed Dutch Leonard’s finance class. It wasn’t just the courses, though, that made her to relish her time at HKS. “I’ve always said that the biggest resources are the fellow students, the people you get to meet. One of my best friends Susan Tracey and Tom Powers, who ran the Boston Harbor Island Alliance after I did—came from my time at the Kennedy School.”

Abbott went on from the Kennedy School to hold a series of senior positions in state government, including as commissioner of the newly formed Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). But in a move that her supporters deemed political and that her detractors blamed on snow removal challenges on the DCR’s roads, Abbott was pushed out of the job. 

After working at DCR, Abbott held a number of executive level jobs in the nonprofit sector, including at the Trust for Public Land, the Trustees of Reservations, and Tower Hill Botanic Garden. She was then recruited for the top job at the newly formed Boston Harbor Now.

Abbott is thrilled that she has returned, in a sense, to where it all started for her: the Boston Harbor. “I love making change. It’s about seeing what could be—and then making that happen and positively affecting other people. I love the mission of making the world a better place. Today it's about helping Boston and the region realize its potential through the Harbor.”