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Photograph of Zoe Alysse Washington Fabio - a woman with medium length black hair, she is wearing a red sweater and a pearl necklace

Susan Adams

A groundbreaking leader in employment counseling and civil rights, Zoe Alysse Washington Fabio (1925-2009) was an agent for change as both civil servant and activist. She advocated for New Bedford’s underserved as principal employment counselor for the New Bedford Division of Employment and as member/president of the New Bedford Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Zoe Alysse Washington Fabio (1925-2009), a distinguished civil servant and community leader, was born in Indianapolis, IN, the only child of Irttle (Handley) and Milton Washington. She spent her summers as a child on her grandparents’ farm in Kentucky. Her mother was employed as a stenographer to the great Madam C.J. Walker, one of the country’s first African American female millionaire entrepreneurs. 

When Zoe was still a child, she and her mother moved to New York City where her mother worked as a secretary for Dr. William DeBerry. After spending several years in New York, they moved to Springfield, MA, where her mother continued to work for Dr. DeBerry. As a child, Zoe enjoyed spending summers on Martha’s Vineyard and at Camp Atwater, the oldest African American owned and operated summer residential youth camp in the nation founded by Dr. DeBerry in North Brookfield, MA to provide summer recreation for African Americans. Zoe graduated from Classical High School in Springfield in 1942. She then attended West Virginia State College where she majored in Languages, Literature and Fine Arts.

After college, Zoe returned to Springfield where she married her first husband John H. Arrington, who was in the military and stationed at Westover Air Force base. She had a son John and daughter Constance. Following a divorce, Zoe married William H. Fabio, moved to New Bedford in 1958 and gave birth to her daughter Susan. It was shortly thereafter that Zoe began her storied career in civil service as a clerk for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 1958, Zoe secured a transfer to the New Bedford Division of Employment Security (DES), also known as the “unemployment office.”

Zoe continued to move up in her career by taking and scoring exceptionally high on civil service exams, the only way to secure employment with the Commonwealth at that time. She would have her older children John and Connie quiz her with practice questions to prepare for the exams while they were still children themselves. Zoe advanced to the role of Principal Employment Counselor in the main DES office and numerous employees reported to her. This was groundbreaking at the time because New Bedford had not seen many women of color in management roles, especially working for the Commonwealth. During the early 1970s, Zoe’s skills were so in demand that the state called on her to lead two employment and training programs: the Concentrated Employment Program (CEP) and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). 

In 1967, President Johnson announced the creation of the Concentrated Employment Program (CEP), a special program to provide focused assistance to those with the greatest need. Its purpose was to concentrate on those areas with the highest unemployment rates by focusing program enrollment efforts on target area residents. During this period, Zoe worked closely with programs such as ONBOARD, Manpower, and Massachusetts Vocational Rehab to provide employment and vocational training opportunities for those that struggled due to lack of education and work skills. After spending several years leading CEP, Zoe returned to the local Employment Office where she continued her life’s work of helping the disenfranchised find jobs.  

In the late 1970s, Zoe was again sought out to lead a vital program in the city, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). The CETA program offered work to those with low incomes and the long term unemployed as well as summer jobs to low income high school students. Full-time jobs were provided for a period of 12 to 24 months in public agencies or private not for profit organizations. The intent was to impart a marketable skill that would allow participants to move to an unsubsidized job. Zoe spent numerous years at CETA developing supplemental programs and providing guidance for the youth of New Bedford. Many young people received their introduction to civil employment and public service using skills acquired while working through CETA. Time after time, people of all ethnicities would stop Zoe and her children on the street and express their gratitude for the ways Zoe had helped them to get a job or assisted them with getting their unemployment claims resolved or leading them to training programs. Zoe was a groundbreaker in New Bedford at a time when women of color in leadership were underrepresented, especially for the Commonwealth.

Zoe also formed an interest in human and civil rights during this time. She joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and began to use her knowledge of employment training and counseling to assist others in navigating the unemployment system and securing vocational training. In 1970, New Bedford also saw its share of racial unrest and violence. Rioting in the city’s West End followed the shootings of several African American youth, resulting in the death of one. As a member of the local NAACP, Zoe was often called upon by the mayor and city officials for advice and she worked tirelessly with the NAACP to address the concerns of those involved. She served as President of the New Bedford Branch of the NAACP from 1981 to 1983. 

Zoe, an agent for change, worked with local leaders and activists such as Jabreel Khazan, Duncan Dottin, Earl Carter, Billy Carmo and Lee Charlton to continuously advance the causes of the less fortunate. She was also a member of the Martha Briggs Educational Club and a former Chairperson of the New Bedford Human Relations Commission. She also served on the board of Coastline Elderly. She was a member of Business and Professional Associates and a member of Westerly Associates. She worked in partnership with ONBOARD and Job Corp in her unending desire to help others get ahead.

Zoe led and served actively in her place of worship, Union Baptist Church, holding the offices of Church Moderator, President of the Usher Board, and President of the Pastors Aid Society. In addition to her full-time employment, she also held the position of social worker at the former Francis P. Memorial Hospital., tirelessly working as an advocate for the patient community.

Throughout her lifetime, Zoe juggled work, community service and raising children as a single parent with grace and dignity advocating for the less fortunate and underserved in New Bedford. She strived to ensure that everyone had access to programs, funding, jobs, training, and services that were so greatly needed. Zoe was a well-known and visible leader, role model and advocate serving a diverse population throughout New Bedford for many, many years, especially during a time when young people of color did not see a lot of people that looked like them in positions of power. She was beautiful, articulate, kind, tenacious and desired to nurture and serve the people of the South Coast. 

Susan Adams

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