News 

NEWS TO US: ONE-ON-ONE WITH SONIA CHANG-DÍAZ

N2U_SoniaHeadShot2

Every so often, we get the chance to bend the ear of one of our politicians. You know, the people who make all the rules we have to follow. She is our State Senator for the Suffolk District, which includes Boston neighborhoods like the Back Bay, Jamaica Plain and Mattapan, amongst others.

What are the common issues in your district, things that you keep returning to each year?

There are many, that’s one of the great things about this job and at the same time one of the challenges of this job, you have to be able to juggle a lot of priorities at once.

By and large, the things that I hear about most from the constituents, which are also the points that I’m working on, are really the core issues that most folks across Massachusetts are concerned about: the quality of our public school system; accessibility of health care; safety of the neighborhoods; job creation and economic development within folks’ local orbits. So those are things I think will always inform, across many terms, into future hopefully.

What I’m working on and to give it a particular shape this session,

the top priority legislative issues that I’m working on, one is a drop out prevention and intervention bill, which I’m thrilled about,

and I’m chair of the education committee, both because it’s such a personal area of interest and expertise for me, coming from a teaching background, but also because it is really fundamental in its impact on the district. So I guess I get to marry both interests there.

Also, there’s an economic development and jobs access bill that I’m working on to make sure that our economic development efforts as a state are reaching the populations that most need them.

And then there are, you know, youth violence continues to be a very high priority and area of interest for me. Most of what is worked through the budget are the sort of immediate-term things that help on front lines prevent youth violence, so like the summer jobs and year-round youth jobs funding. School to career connecting activities and funding, mentoring and funding, all that gets duked out through the budget process every year.

But then also through bills. The dropout bill is going to have a major impact on jobs. I also have a gun control bill that I’m working on, so there are a lot of different angles, all of which will hopefully help.

There’s no one – and it’s probably an ill-advised metaphor – silver bullet for solving youth violence, but it takes a lot of pieces pulled in the right direction.

What have been some of your biggest successes since you’ve come into the Senate?

CORI reform and foreclosure reform were my big legislative victories in my first term, and those were things that we didn’t anticipate going in we were going to score to big wins in the first term, that was a big deal. And certainly, my office wasn’t the only one pushing for it, but we were part of the core team in the Senate working on both of those bills.

With the foreclosure bill, I sat on the Housing committee last term, and that bill contained a specific bill about tenant protection, which really affects urban districts like mine, were you have a lot of multi-family housing. You may have the owner who is getting evicted because their mortgage is getting foreclosed on, but in addition to that you have tenants who had nothing to do with the mortgage, they’ve been paying their rent like clockwork, they’re in good standing, but they also would be getting evicted, because the bank just forecloses on the whole building and just houses them out.

The [mortgage] bill included a provision that prevented banks from doing that. So hopefully that’s going to help a lot people in the district, as well.

And then budget victories. And those are mostly defensive ones, given the landscape that we’re in right now, it’s all about blocking against cuts but the fact that we’ve been able to block against just millions and millions of dollars in potential cuts to our K-12 education system, we’ve able to hold the K-12 system last in line for cuts in all three of the budget cycles that I’ve been in so far, I think is a major show of priorities in [the State House]. Beating back some of the more egregious cuts on the youth violence prevention line items, we just got an extra $10 million in the supplemental budget a few weeks ago, which we really credit to the Governor, that we were able in the Senate to defend that against some of the attacks against it. As we’ve seen in the past days and weeks in the city of Boston, it really needs to be addressed.

This is a smaller one, doesn’t affect as broad a swath of people, but we got a bilingual ballots bill passed last session.

I’ll never forget the faces of some of the elder residents from Chinatown. They’ve been working on that bill for years, and don’t speak a lot of English, but they’re citizens of the United States and have been for years, but they’re blocked from full ballot access because of language barriers around candidates’ names.

Everything else on the ballot was translated before that bill was passed, except for candidate’s names, and you can imagine that’s the most important part.

Yeah, you want to know who you’re voting for.

So we got that secured for the precints in Boston where the heavy Asian-American population is. It was incredible to watch these residents, these citizens, who don’t fit the profile that you think of when you think of a US citizen and don’t speak much English, but they know this legislative process backwards and forwards. They have been through the halls to testify at hearings, they watch from the gallery, they know it inside and out.

It’s just so fulfilling to see people like that who are so invested in our democracy score a win.

I have a picture that one of them sent me once that’s just someone in front of the State House with this placard that just says “We just want to vote!” It’s so heartwarming to help deliver a victory for people like that.

How does your background as an educator affect your policies and what you do here at the State House?

Certainly, it influenced why I ran for office in the first place, it influenced my interest in serving on the education committee, which I did as a member last term and was a big part of why I asked for the chairmanship this session, and I was thrilled to get it. I chose to teach in the first place because I believe very profoundly that if there is one silver bullet in public policy, it’s our education system.

If we can get it right in public education, then it solves so many other of the really pernicious problems we struggle with—poverty, violence, access to health care, self-sustainability in terms of housing—it really has ripple effects far and wide.

Economic development, this is what brings employers to Massachusetts. It’s not our cheap real estate! That’s why I went towards teaching in the first place, so of course that’s going to inform policy interests, as well. And then on top of that, you layer the experiences that I had in the classroom, and seeing what the realities are of what teachers face, of what parents are facing, what helps children succeed and what the barriers are that they’re facing.

And all of that is packed into my work on the Education committee. And not just the Education committee. A lot of the work we need to do to get things to work right in our schools happens outside the Education committee, on revenue policy, for example. How do we pay for the things we want to do in our schools? Foreclosure, for example, has a real impact on education, because sometimes one of the causal factors we see for kids who are struggling in school is them having been in three school systems in two years because they don’t have a stable housing situation. Of course they can’t get a leg up in education if they’re bouncing from system to system. If we can give people more stable housing in the Housing committee, it’s going to impact our prospects in education. So all of those realities that I saw on the front line really informed me. And of course the drop out bill has a lot of that baked in, the things I’ve seen on the front line that don’t work.

How has your heritage as a Latin-American woman, which is a unique thing in the Senate, affected your career and your policies? I know that you’re coming from a very diverse district. Does it have any effect?

It can help and have an effect, just like anybody’s life experiences and family history informs the issues that they prioritize and the perspectives that they bring to their seat in the Senate.

That’s also true of me.

My district is the most diverse Senate district in the state, without question, and personally I think it’s helpful for me to bring a multi-ethnic background to that because I can identify with a lot of the different strands of experience going on in the district.

It also comes with its challenges, you know, being a “multi-culti.” You’re never all one thing, and so there are always people who say you’re not really this or you’re not really that, but the other side of that is there will always be people who embrace you from all different communities. So it has both its ways that it’s helped me and ways that it’s challenged me.

But any member in here has things like that, things in their background that serves as both for them. And people frequently say to me, it must be so hard to represent such a diverse district. And it is the most diverse: racially, ethnically and economically. We have the poorest neighborhoods and poorest households in the state, and the richest households in the state. It’s diverse age-wise, we have the universities, we have a lot of old Boston. It’s diverse in terms of landscape, we have a lot of urban and concrete, and then a lot of green space. Every which way—religion, we’ve got everything!

In spite of all of that, there is a real shared experience. Even if it’s not shared experience, shared values, across the neighborhoods and the district, that I found very affirming as a public servant and an activist to know that when I talk to constituents in the Back Bay, let’s say, they’re not personally experiencing the fear of letting their children go out and play in the park, but they are horrified when they read those stories in the paper and they don’t want to live in a city like that, and they do care about what I’m doing on youth violence.

So there is still a unity of purpose there, even if it’s not born of personal experience. That makes it an easy district to represent.

Have you started looking forward to the next election yet? I know it’s still a little ways off.

Oh man, I just finished the last one!

So are you taking a break right now?

Well, no, there’s never a break.

It’s a two-year cycle, so there’s never any down time. You know, there’s so much to do just in a short, two year term that when you’re not knocking on the door of an election, that’s when you really have time to dig into the legislative work. And then there’s not just the legislative work in this building. In terms of priorities that I’m working on this term, there’s so many district-based priorities that the office is also focused on at the same time.

For example, we just cut the ribbon on the Cass Recreational Complex out in Roxbury, and that has been decades-long fight by the neighborhood and by multiple generations of neighborhood activists to get that place reopened. I want to say it was open twenty-plus years ago as a skating rink and then it was shut down, and since it’s just this empty shell of a building for decades. Finally, in my first term, we heard right away from advocates to please make this a priority, so we really dug into it in the first few months and got DCR to take another look at it, really pay attention, and reopen it—first as a three season facility, and to come out to the community and ask what the community wanted before they started making plans for it. They did that, and then they heard at that meeting, loud and clear, that three seasons was not enough, it had to be year-round, and that this was something the community has been promised, and then not followed through on, and then promised, and not followed through on, and

then the Governor, God bless him, came through and put the commitment on the table, okay, we’re going to do it – four season, year round – and it took a year and change to do the construction, but we did it, and cut the ribbon on it.

That’s not legislation, but it’s something you have to organize for and you have to fight for just the same. And there’s always things like that going on in the district, even if it’s the summer, and people say you’ll be in recess and it’ll be a slower time. You know, I’m still waiting for the mythical slower time in my office!

'

2 Responses to NEWS TO US: ONE-ON-ONE WITH SONIA CHANG-DÍAZ

  1. Jon Frum Jon Frum says:

    For those people who have been citizens of an English-speaking country for years, and have to time to work on legislation for years, you’d think they could cut out the middle man and just learn the language. If I moved to France, I wouldn’t have the nerve to tell the French people – in English! – that they had to give me English-language ballots.

  2. JPRez JPRez says:

    How do you interview Sen. Chang-Diaz and not ask her about her controversial agenda/manifesto towards Whole Foods?

    Interesting…