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.