By Brian Davis
“She was quiet and reserved and yet on fire for social justice” were the words Sister Madeline Shemo, Associate Director of the West Side Ecumenical Ministry, used to describe activist Allison Bonagura. The overriding sentiment among those that knew her was that she cared deeply about reforming society, but she was not interested in the politics or the glamour or the media attention that some issues generate.
Allison Bonagura died February 4, 1995 of cancer. After coming to Cleveland in 1989, one of her first tasks as an activist was organizing the Housing NOW bus trip to Washington. According to Bonagura’s husband, Matthew Maruggi, she was inspired by noted homeless advocate Mitch Snyder, who sparked her interest in organizing people to combat homelessness.
Maruggi said she was content to be behind the scenes. She did, however, venture into the spotlight to lend her voice to the chorus of sadness around the deaths of Ralph Delaney, a homeless activist in Cleveland, and Snyder in Washington. She spoke at the memorial services for both activists.
As an employee of the west Side Ecumenical Ministry, she educated the staff and the public about issues ranging from welfare reform to healthcare to nuclear disarmament. Shemo said, “She was our conscience. She kept us alert and motivated us to action.”
She had no aspirations for politics. “She had a more prophetic role,” according to Maruggi. “She was a voice for those that didn’t have a voice. She had no desire for a position of power.” Many were inspired by her voice, according to her friends, and her activism in Cleveland will be sorely missed.
Linda Johanek, manager of women programming at Healthcare for the Homeless and friend of Bonagura, said that it is hard to act as an advocate in today’s society. Few groups fund advocacy, and “it is not real popular today.” But Allison loved her role as advocate, Johanek noted, and she loved helping people
She had a passion for social change,” according to Johanek. “She was a wonderful person.” Bonagura worked for the Northeast Ohio Coalition for National Healthcare as an advocacy coordinator.
Bonagura spoke and did a great deal of work for passage of a universal healthcare package in the U.S. similar to the Canadian medical system. Realizing the current system was unjust, she even lobbied for passage of the California Universal Healthcare Program. Her most powerful and successful campaigns were those that enabled ordinary citizens to petition the government said Johanek.
Bonagura’s husband remembered, “She had a commitment over the long haul. Her activism flowed from her faith. She was concerned about people, not just policies. She always brought it down to the personal level.”
“The work was very consuming,” Maruggi said. “During her illness she did a lot of reassessing of what was important. She was an activist, but she realized she had to take care of herself.” He said that Bonagura was able to keep her goals in focus, and was not depressed by the slow pace of social change or daunted by the overwhelming obstacles she had to overcome..
“My time I spend with Allison was a gift. I was lucky enough to be married to this marvelous person. It will be a long time to feel healed. It is a big loss for me as well as others,” Maruggi concluded.
The Northeast Ohio Coalition for National Healthcare has set up a foundation in Bonagura’s name to continue the advocacy work that was important to her.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue 10 May – July 1995