Did you know Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz is the first Latina ever elected to the Massachusetts Senate and a resident of JP? Today we are chatting with Senator Chang-Díaz about how two high school students helped her win an election, why it’s important to hold elected officials accountable, and how she believes we can bend the gentrification curve.

K: Where are you from originally? Where do you live now?

S: I was born in Boston. When I was just a sprout my dad lived in Jamaica Plain when it was easier to afford and he was a semi-starving student. I’ve lived in Boston, the suburbs, a couple of years on the West Coast and Costa Rica where my family is from. When I was in college my mom moved to Jamaica Plain. That’s where I would come home to when I was in college. I bought a home in JP when I was an adult.

K: How and when did you start working in politics?

S: My first political memory is in kindergarten. I was fighting for girls’ rights to use the monkey bars even when they were wearing dresses or skirts. That was my first political experience but in the more traditional sense of politics I was always involved in activism and organizing as a student. Coming out of college I worked in the State House as a legislative aide. I got involved with the voting rights organization MassVOTE. I served on their board and did a lot of volunteering.  I first ran for office in 2006.

K: What would you be doing now if you hadn’t gone down that career path?

S: I feel like if I wasn’t in the role that I have I would be in some other version of social change making whether it was policy making work, at an advocacy organization working to kick down the door of government to get good policy in, or grassroots organizing. In my heart I have always toggled back and forth between organizing and direct service. There is a lot I miss about the classroom. One of the nice things about this job is that I get to visit classrooms. When I was teaching I saw so many things that I couldn’t change in the direct services arena so there’s always a little ‘grass is greener on the other side’ idea because you can actually change things on the other side. I love the job that I have now and particularly now more than ever, in the wake of the recent elections, being at the State Legislative level is incredibly relevant. There is so much potential to roll the ball forward in the next few years and not all of it is going to be at the state level.  There are going to be a lot of opportunities to do defense work for people who need some protections.

K: What would you say to a young person today about why it’s important to get involved in their community?

S: I get that question a lot when I visit schools. I think it’s important to find something that is personally relevant to that young person and just run with it. I like to ask students ‘What matters to you? What do you think is working well in your school and your community? What would you like to see changed?’ Then I walk them through an example of making a change like if their student bus pass fare went up. How does that policy get set? What does that process look like? How do you become an agent of change for that? Another example is say your mom is working two jobs just to put food on the table and keep a roof over your head and you’re afraid that you’re not going to be able to afford to live in Jamaica Plain anymore. There are ways that the public sector can affect that reality for people in their everyday lives. I like to make a no-holds-barred pitch to begin a career in public service. We need people. Good government needs good people. We need you. You don’t have to wait until you’re in the ‘grownup world’ or be an adult to effect change.

I lost my first election, but the next election I won by 213 votes. When you do the math across the district that’s two or three votes per precinct. There were two tenth-graders who were interns on my campaign that summer and I know without a shadow of a doubt that those two young men got me 213 votes over the course of the summer. Those two young people won that election for me. There’s an immediate opportunity for young people to make an impact right now. They don’t need to wait until the future to get involved.

K: What are some projects you have worked on with JPNDC?

S: It’s been 8-plus years so it’s been a lot of work. The whole time I’ve been working the major project has been the Jackson Square redevelopment. I’ve worked with JPNDC and residents in the surrounding area to make sure that we are leveraging state support for the infrastructure developments that help make the building redevelopments flow, but also on process. I work with JPNDC, the other stakeholders and the neighborhood to make sure there is a lot of community input on the design, on the execution and making sure that we are building wealth in the community even as we’re building physical structures. I make sure that we are paying close attention to both diverse hiring and minority business enterprise goals so that you’re getting not just a physical development of buildings but you’re getting a development of people as well and something that the neighborhood has a strong sense of ownership for.

Aside from Jackson Square there are many things that I’ve worked with the broader Jamaica Plain community on. JP is such a richly involved and caring neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood full of, and I say this in the most affectionate way possible, policy nerds and activists. I get a ton of communication from residents and constituents in JP about what they want to see the State Legislature working on and we’re guided by that advocacy People come to me about things like criminal justice reform, which is a huge priority issue for me. They come to me about education financing. There is a lot of worry from parents in JP on how to make sure our schools are great for all kids across the city. In the Legislature I chair the Education Committee so I have a lot of opportunity to carry the values of the JP neighborhood into policy. Environmental policy and climate change policy are other things I hear a lot about from JP constituents so this year I sponsored a community solar bill that was directly in response to a lot of the input I had from constituents. My agenda is full and well-informed.

Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz speaking to a Family Prosperity Initiative Financial Skills graduating class.

K: What do you think are some of the biggest issues people are facing in Jamaica Plain?

S: There are issues that Jamaica Plain residents are experiencing that are common across the city and the state and then there are issues that are not unique to JP residents but they are experiencing at a higher rate than other neighborhoods. Gentrification is first and foremost on that list. Gentrification is something that is constantly on my mind. There are some policies and land use decisions that happen on the city level that aren’t in my lane but I am keeping an eye on them. There are some things that are squarely in my lane at the state level that are longer term.

We can bend the gentrification curve on things like keeping up and increasing our commitment to financing affordable housing development and preservation. There are things that are less obvious, like living wage policy. You can build all the housing but if people can’t afford to live in it you have to also look at the poverty end and not just the housing end of the gentrification equation. Transit policy also affects the gentrification issue. We can’t meet the housing demand within the city limits of Boston. We are running out of space. If we can extend our transit lines out further into the state and make sure they are fast, reliable quality lines that people can depend on to get to work in the city it would reduce some of the demand and reduce some of the pricing pressure on housing in Boston. There are a lot of levers that we can work on at the state level to prevent the gentrification curve and preserve the thing people love about Jamaica Plain which is its diversity.

K: What do you think JPNDC and the community of JP could do to help with some of these issues?

S: Go to the community meetings, speak at the mic and make your voice heard. I always want to encourage people to take the next step. Follow up with a good old-fashioned email or phone call to an elected official saying ‘Hey, what are you doing to help people stay in the communities they have built over the years? What are you doing to help develop affordable housing and reduce poverty?’ You don’t need to know the specific bill. People sometimes have a phobia about not knowing a specific bill. Just the question of ‘What are you doing about this problem?’ is a compelling way to engage in the accountability relationship with your elected officials and let them know what your priorities are. Let them know you expect an answer back. Make sure you include your address or email. One of the most heartbreaking things that I see sometimes at the State House is that people will advocate there and they are nervous but they are so sincere and earnest. They read off of their advocacy sheet and ask me to support such and such a bill. Then they are out before they ever tell me their name or how I can get in touch with them to follow-up with them to let them know what I did or didn’t do to support that bill. A constituent wants to get answers.

Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz with El Embajador owners Juan Tejeda and Ramona Alvarez at the State House

I want the people of JP to know that I know they are struggling with the immigration policies right now. It seems like it’s transpiring at the federal level but there are things that we can do and I can do at a state level to make sure people are safe and welcomed here.

K: What would you like to see happen in JP in the future?

S: It’s like five-dimensional chess. There are a lot of things that have to happen. There are so many phenomenal things about Jamaica Plain. I wish to preserve what’s great about Jamaica Plain and that is not an easy thing to do. That is not going to happen by itself. We have to be intentional and engage in a lot of forethought and action in order to preserve the diversity in every sense of the word, economic diversity, racial diversity and age diversity. We need to make sure that everything is accessible to everyone in Jamaica Plain. JP is in that sweet spot and that’s why there is such a demand for housing because there is so much access to beautiful green spaces. We also have the MBTA routes so it’s very convenient to access the city. None of those things just exist without effort. It took those before us to put effort into establishing an urban park system and stewarding it and building a public transit system and stewarding it over the decades. We need to make sure that we are continuing to steward those gifts and hand them on to the residents that will come after us. It is a lot of work. I want people who have invested in JP with their families, with their sweat equity, with their activism over the years to be able to stay and enjoy what a phenomenal neighborhood it is.