There tends to be a presumption that political processes get too bureaucratic for any real change to be made, but at a more local level, if people are motivated and care about their communities, real change can, and does, take place.
This was made very clear to me throughout my experience observing different meetings at the local government level. In a Jamaica Plain neighborhood council meeting, the doors were open to anyone who wanted to watch and listen, and the floor was opened to questions and discussion at multiple points throughout the meeting. At the Kids’ First Press Conference at the Massachusetts State House, many different points of view were represented by the speakers, and at the ALPFA Latina Summit at MIT, the panelists used their own experiences to provide guidance and solidarity for members of the audience.
Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, the first Latina to hold such an office in Massachusetts, represents the second Suffolk district in the state. An energetic and warm person, she reliably keeps her hair up and away from her face, often wears blazers and muted tone clothing, and always has on hoop earrings and a creative necklace. The Senator spoke at the aforementioned Kids First Press Conference, an event that introduced a plan for improving public education practices across the state with a long-term blueprint, entitled the Kids First Initiative. Among the other speakers were many senators, a sheriff, teachers, and parents, all of whom were excited, confident, and driven about the Initiative, and the support from the audience was enthusiastic throughout the event. Everything from reducing rates of parental incarceration, to providing more free meals to impoverished children, to creating better extracurricular programs for elementary school students was met with applause, and the entire morning was nothing if not hope-inspiring for all the supportive people in attendance. In fact, there were many reasons to be hopeful about the positive impact local governance can have: past successes, demonstrated goals, and the sheer number of people who are dedicated to making life better for others.
In the neighborhood council meeting, it was very clear that the majority of those in the room, both council and audience members, were opposed to unjustified rent hikes and unnecessarily expensive construction projects. The overwhelming agreement was so obvious that it got to the point where one council member advised the audience to take the issues they were bringing up to other representatives in the city and state legislature, since the neighborhood council already agreed with a lot of what was being brought up. This suggestion was not asking a lot; city councillor Matt O’Malley had been present at the meeting for the first half, where he spoke about the current budget plan, upcoming events, and areas that he wanted to improve. He also answered questions about parking plans in Jamaica Plain, and how the recent influx of residents would affect traffic and local green spaces. Not only is it not impossible to voice your opinion, it also isn’t too difficult to speak with a representative, or at least listen to them speak, about matters that are important to you. The politicians who genuinely care about their jobs want it to be a dialogue between their administrations and the people they represent.
The Kids First Initiative was a great example of the collaborative effort between people who are driven by a common goal. While the current condition of public education was what Senator Chang-Díaz described as a “demerit” to the state, with reports that 40 percent of Massachusetts third graders cannot read at the expected level, and that 39 percent of educators are on public assistance, the atmosphere was hopeful and determined. The final speaker of the event, a parent to a child in the public school system spoke about how the definition of insanity was repeating the same actions expecting a different result, and how that often seemed like what the Massachusetts schooling system was doing. But then, addressing the lawmakers in the room, he said “I believe in you,” and that parents need to be able to support one another, as “we need to invest in our community.” The parent cited Boston’s many popular sports teams for his final remark: “We are a city of champions! … How are we not winning at [pioneering public education]?”
At the ALPFA summit, which was specifically about recognizing successful Latina businesswomen and promoting more support for Latinas who were looking to follow a similar path, I got to witness a similar level of energy: a group of people who recognized that the road before them would be difficult, but excited about what lay ahead of them. During our wait for an Uber to the event, I asked Senator Chang-Díaz if she often did work with organizations that were more business-oriented. She said that she didn’t really, that the draw to this event for her was the Latina community, but then she told me about a new initiative that would foster collaboration between members of the Senate and businesspeople. This initiative is still pretty young so it has not yet accomplished anything of note, but she was very optimistic about its potential. I also asked her what her expectations were for the night, and she said that she was expecting for it to go pretty smoothly, “knock on wood,” because the crowd at the Summit was most likely going to be very supportive. Laughing, she told me she doubted anyone would start yelling at her for backing a given bill or motion… but that she knew to be prepared for anything. During the Q&A session at the summit, a man in the audience asked her what she considered to be the most difficult part of her political career, as a woman. She responded that it was “probably the same biggest challenge for men: [the] infinity of demands” that politicians face from the public. She proceeded to say that it was probably more intense for women, relating back to an earlier point on how women are often taught to be overly accommodating. She mentioned that it could be difficult to manage the psychology of often saying ‘no’ to people. This struggle was noticeable in the neighborhood council meeting as well, where the desire to help everyone who needs or wants it is met with the reality of limited time and assets. Of course, there are ways that politicians can be very resourceful. The first question for the panel in the summit was about power- how they defined it and what they considered their relationship to it to be. The Senator was asked for her opinion on power first, and she replied, “Well, it’s good to have some,” which prompted laughter from the audience. Then she said power doesn’t always look the way people tend to imagine it, and that it’s important to use many different “kinds of power we recognize.” She talked about her journey through two lost elections before she finally made the Senate, and how her power came from using whatever she had at her disposal. “Use what you have to get to where you need to go.” She reminded the audience that there was power in being creative, and being able to “invent something out of nothing.” Talking about one of her lost elections, she said, “even though we lost, it was a win because of how close we came,” and cited determination as a very great source of power.
There are many people in various offices who are genuinely kind, and very focused on creating a better environment for the people they represent. This was evident on large and small scales. After the ALPFA summit, the Senator and her assistant dropped me off close to home in their Lyft, and as I was leaving the car, the Senator asked me to email her when I got home, so that she could be certain I arrived safely. It’s clear that people in power do care.