Liz Malia has been a JP resident since 1970 and for almost 20 years she has served as a Massachusetts State Representative. Today we are talking with Representative Malia about her career in politics, the importance of the Francis Grady Apartments, and the one time she was arrested for a boycott.
K: Where are you from originally? Where do you live now?
L: I am originally from Endicott, New York. I came to Boston to attend the School of Education at Boston College in 1967. My senior year, I moved to an apartment on Hall Street. It was my introduction to JP, where I’ve lived since 1970. I’ve lived in Hyde Square and down by Forest Hills. Today I live on Child Street.
K: How and when did you start your work in politics?
L: I have kind of a mish-mash background. Way back, I did outreach to migrant agricultural workers in Upstate New York. I got a great education in Boston, but there weren’t a lot of public school jobs available when I graduated. The Boston Center for Blind Children was one of my first jobs. I worked in several advocacy positions and frequently with special needs youth. Eventually, I made my way to what is now SEIU-1199. I worked for them back in the mid-’80’s when there wasn’t much of a presence in the area. Anti-war activism and the bargaining table gave me my first tastes of organizing power.
JP was where I lived and such a home for activists that I got involved outside of work, too. We had the first neighborhood council in the city, and I was appointed to it. The Lesbian and Gay Neighbors of JP was another place I got really involved. Large national organizations didn’t exist, but JPers supported the gay rights movement, even in the beginning. We met up on a regular basis and connected with each other to provide some mutual support. One of our biggest accomplishments was a float in the Pride parade. It was unusual and very JP.
Around the end of the ’80s, I heard about and was intrigued by the Women in Politics and Government Program at BC. There were a couple of real hot shot woman running the program named Elizabeth Sherman and Betty Taymor. The program was a great place for me to gain some academic skills and a better understanding of crafting policy. When I finished, I needed a job, and someone told me there was an opening at State Representative John McDonough’s office. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work ninety hours a week with minimum pay even though I loved John. I had to be pushed a bit but I wanted to get started and I knew working for him was a great opportunity. I took that job, and I’ve been working at the State House ever since.
John’s background in housing and healthcare helped start JPNDC. He worked a lot with JPNDC around housing issues. He had deep ties in Egleston Square which was a neighborhood that was being overlooked at the time by almost everybody. There were some early plans that John was involved in that included economic development in Egleston Square. That was how I got to know JPNDC. John was a part of the 1986 Health Care Finance Reform bill which was the basis for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or Obama Care. I was working on issues that I really cared about. It was worth ten years of college to be there for just one year. When John’s seat suddenly opened I decided to run for it. The first few campaigns I ran, I had some challenges, but I really grew into it and learned. I had a challenger this past election cycle. I believe challengers can be restorative, and they help me to connect better with my constituents.
The State House was where I got to know Marty Walsh. I worked on a number of issues with him. One thing that a lot of people don’t know about Marty is that he was one of the first ones to show up and support gay marriage. Marty was traditional but he had a different focus and he took a lot of heat for his stance on equal marriage. He had a really strong influence on some of his colleagues who had not been allies or supporters at all. Those were people who others of us connected to the LGBT community would not have been able to get through to but he would sit down and talk to them and tell them this was the right thing to do. He would say ‘In 15 years do you want your kids to ask you if you were on the other side of this issue?’ It was really impressive. He’s from Dorchester. He’s Irish Catholic. I don’t think people understand or appreciate what that means. In order to get equal marriage passed we had to build relationships with lots of different people. I had Republican colleagues who I would sit with, talk about movies with and tell bad jokes with. It was really hard for them to look at me, know me as a person and think ‘Why would I vote to oppose her having the same rights that I do?’ I think that had a lot of effect. We would have never been able to do it without allies like Marty who were really working the other side.
K: What would you be doing now if you hadn’t been elected to public office?
L: I think I would still be involved in crafting policy. I would have stayed involved with issues I care about like LGBTQ equality, union organizing and other forms of economic and racial justice. I might have been a dog walker. I look at dog walkers sometimes, and I know they aren’t getting rich, but they look like they’re having fun.
L: Youth who got active are the reason that we talk about Black Lives Matters. BLM’s forebears in the civil rights movement were also young high schoolers who were jailed and beaten in Selma, and Martin Luther King was a national name at 26. And right here in Egleston youth have been particularly visible in the fight against displacement. They have learned quickly, built relationships with peers and across generations, and their network has a vital place at the negotiating table. Like all organizing, there isn’t always an immediate win, but their relationships are bringing great change and giving members of the community a real voice that highlights ways to tackle affordable housing and social justice.
K: How have you seen Jamaica Plain change over time?
L: I think one of the things where JPNDC has been essential is helping to build awareness for the needs of small businesses. Last week I was sitting outside in my car for a little while and looking at the old Haffenreffer smokestack, and I remember when JPNDC first got organized and everyone was like ‘They’re going to do what with that brewery!?’ That was an old relic of the industrial period. I have to really chuckle that it was once part of the economic lifeline of Jamaica Plain, the old brewery industry, and now Sam Adams is there in the same building. That is amazing to me.
I love the sense of history and livelihood you get in the old buildings. It is so nice that The Brewery has such a vibrant community with so many small businesses inside of it. That was the vision of the organizers at JPNDC. A lot of people didn’t see things that way at that time.
My partner and I came to a JP that was a safe place for the LGBTQ community. Affordable housing was one of the reasons for that, and it’s important to us that it continues to be welcoming. The neighborhood has kept its progressive energy, because of our people-first policies, and attracts newcomers because of that.
One of the other amazing things about JP is the growth of the Latino population and its diversity. JP now is one of the main Latino neighborhoods in the city. There have been a lot of struggles, but it really is amazing when you look back and see people developing businesses and their skills to enhance the community. The Latino community has help build an
K: As JP has changed, your constituency must have changed. What’s different and what’s the same about concerns brought to you by your constituents?
L: It’s a mixed bag. Many of the newer folks coming to JP are wealthier than the immigrants who have been here for a long time. Economic stability, especially around housing, has been a topic of concern since I moved here, and it’s become more urgent. Immigration is a big issue too. The first waves of Latino immigrants and migrants moved into affordable housing here in the neighborhood because this is where there was the economic opportunity. Making sure that economic opportunity, education, and housing are available for everyone are concerns that have been brought to me by most of my constituents, regardless of class or the color of their passport.
I’ve had the opportunity to work with organizations like City Life/Vida Urbana who have made an incredible difference in the lives of people who would otherwise have no one to advocate for them. I had a constituent who lived on Boylston Street, and she was in danger of losing her home because of the mortgage crisis. I knew her from my time with McDonough. She bought when Boylston Street attracted heavy drug traffic, and no one wanted to live there. This hardworking woman bought when she could, then fell on some hard times. She got sucked into a mortgage scam. The bank just wouldn’t negotiate with her. The day that the movers were coming to take her house, I blockaded the eviction and was arrested with a couple of other people. Some of the police were really upset. If I got a criminal record in the name of a good cause, so what? I’m lucky to live with that kind of privilege. The charges were later dropped.
K: What are some projects you have worked on with JPNDC?
L: Francis Grady Apartments is one of my favorites. It took so long to bring back that resource for chronically ill and homeless individuals. I was reminded of the need for places like Francis Grady while I was out campaigning this past summer in Egleston Square. Egleston has always had a small steady crew of people who obviously need drug treatment and homes, but this summer I saw so many new faces. JPNDC began the drive for the Francis Grady House with Healthcare for the Homeless.
Healthcare for the Homeless has done an incredible job of meeting people where they are on the street, taking care of people physically and that’s turned lives around. The apartments are the next level of care beyond respite housing for the ill. They are permanent homes. It’s one of the most amazing things. Lives are saved. People really flourish with a home and supports. They then want to help other people. It’s a unique way of creating a counter-thrust to the ‘me-me’ economy. That’s one of the things I love about JP and Massachusetts is that there really are some incredible models created here that can be applied elsewhere. A lot of knowledge was gained from the Francis Grady Apartments.
K: What do you think are some of the biggest issues people are facing in Jamaica Plain?
L: When City Realty came to JP and bought out a block in Egleston, it helped us all see that there’s a big rush for people to come in and just build and build with no real connection to who needs housing and why. That is not the best way to build community. We are lucky to have such a strong organizing base here. Fighting the gold rush has been hard work, but I think folks have drawn some hope from the connections they’ve made.
The JP/Rox activists have really been instrumental in focusing us on how we make affordable housing actually affordable. It’s not good for people when all housing is market rate and high-income housing. If you price out the workers and the community builders, what have you got? That’s the struggle that I think is going to be the biggest for the next generation.
K: What do you think JPNDC and the community of JP could do to help with some of these issues?
L: Back when fire insurance reimbursements were the only investments JP saw, JPNDC took responsibility for abandoned buildings around Hyde Square and gave us housing. It really is the visionary work of CDCs to take housing that is reclaimable and rebuild it for better use. It doesn’t happen everywhere. Infrastructure and housing are at risk all over America. I sure am glad you’re here. We really need you.
L: More affordable housing, a permanent Arborway yard, and the implementation of GoBoston 2030, the city’s transportation. We have to hold on to the affordable housing we have and try to expand it. I think we’re making progress. The biggest part of the housing problem is that we haven’t had the federal government involved as a partner since Ronald Reagan was President. States, cities, and towns have been doing their best to provide as much as they can, but they don’t have that much money. We’re going to have to get creative.
There also has to be more access to mental health and substance use services in a way that eliminates health disparities. Until we begin to deal with mental health and substance abuse and trauma in a more effective way, we’re going to continue to see devastated lives. We’ve been able to provide more resources to people who abuse alcohol and prescription drugs. However, the demand for heroin and Fentanyl is increasing. We see a spike in consumption even though we are doing a lot to limit supply and hopefully demand.