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The Breakthrough: How Women of Color are Transforming Boston and Cambridge Politics

News & Features | October 10, 2017

On September 26, Boston voters sent a clear and powerful message to the city’s political establishment: change is coming. Primaries in city council districts saw two women of color advance to Election Day—a marked shift from almost a decade ago—when no woman of color had ever sat on the council.

In District 1, which is composed of Charlestown, East Boston and the North End, Lydia Edwards, a Black attorney, advanced to the general after running an outstanding race to finish within 77 votes of upsetting Stephen Passacantilli, Director of Operations for the Boston Transportation Department and an ally of Mayor Marty Walsh. Similarly, Roxbury’s District 7 saw Kim Janey, who has spent two decades organizing for children’s issues, dominate in a field of thirteen candidates, setting her up to become the first Black woman to represent the district. If both women win, the Boston City Council will have a record six women—almost half of the council.

A similar story is unfolding north of the Charles River, with multiple women of color running for a position on the Cambridge City Council. Since Cambridge does not hold primaries, all twenty-six candidates are running in the general election. Out of these candidates, three are women of color running for the first time— Pakistani Muslim Sumbul Siddiqui, Laotian Vatsady Sivongxay, and Japanese and Taiwanese American Nadya Okamoto. Currently, the city council only has one woman of color, Mayor Denise Simmons, who is running for reelection.

With all these women running for office, it is easy to forget that it was only a short time ago that Boston and Cambridge politics was just another boy’s club. In 2008 and 2009, two women led the charge to shatter this norm: Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons, and Boston Councilor-at-Large Ayanna Pressley. Both these women’s victories were political earthquakes. Simmons was the first openly gay Black mayor in the entire country. Pressley was the first Black woman—and woman of color ever—to sit on the Boston City Council in its 107-year history.

Councilor Pressley reflected on her landmark win in 2009, stating, “I am the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council, but I am not the first woman of color to run. I do think that, although those candidates were not victorious in the conditional sense because they did not secure a seat, that every time a woman of color ran, the electorate became more adjusted to the idea. I commend a thanks to every diverse candidate, particularly the women, who ran before me.”

Pressley expanded upon this notion of the changing electorate, arguing that her election is a continuation of an overall long-term shift. “My election and the subsequent election of my fellow sister colleagues is evidence that once the electorate has tested that muscle, they just continue to build it,” she said. “They elected the first woman of color, and I’d like to think they thought that nothing blew up. Different issues were tackled, and there were positive outcomes. The electorate will continue to push for a government that is representative, and I do mean of every viewpoint.”

During her time in office, Pressley has worked hard to tackle what she calls the “transcendent issues” that she faced as a child growing up in an environment where addiction, poverty, violence, and abuse were not unique to her circumstances. Because of this, Pressley has spent much of her career on the council focused on addressing student health. She cites her initiatives of increasing social and emotional wellness support in schools, revising sexual and health education, and improving the quality of school food, to name a few.

“Ultimately, if the student is not healthy, they can’t even see what is being taught to them,” she said. “That lens is directly informed by my own experience as a child who experienced a great deal of trauma and dysfunction in my own life, who lived in the school nurse’s office. My advocacy is directly informed by my own personal experiences, which I know is not a unique story.”

Jessica Taubner, Pressley’s Chief of Staff, commented further on the idea of connecting advocacy and policy. “Often, advocacy is the first step,” she said. “These things are happening, but it seems no one knows about it because it’s not in the public dialogue, public discourse, public view […] We have to name [the problem] in order to work on it.”

Since Pressley’s election, other minority women have followed in her footsteps. Taiwanese American Michelle Wu, who first ran in 2013, became the council’s President only three years later, marking a historic occasion as the first woman of color to hold the office.

 

Another landmark year was 2015, as Annissa Essaibi George and Andrea Campbell ousted incumbents. Essaibi George, who is a first-generation American of Tunisian and Polish descent, ran a campaign focused on improving Boston’s high schools. She utilized her background as a teacher at East Boston High School to defeat Stephen J. Murphy, who had served nearly two decades on the council. Campbell, a Black attorney, cruised to victory against then-City Councilor Charles C. Yancey, who had represented the Mattapan and Dorchester-based District 4 for the entirety of its existence.

Tufts alum Caroline Kimball-Katz, who is managing Campbell’s re-election campaign this year, said of her initial run that “the thing that motivated a lot of people to support [Campbell] was her tremendous story that was so relatable to so many people.” Throughout her campaign, Campbell discussed how the life of her late twin brother Andre had impacted her. Andre died at the age of 29 while serving time in state custody pending trial. Though Campbell and her brother’s lives took very different paths,  she ran on a platform that emphasized the need to increase the overall quality of opportunities available to disadvantaged youth. Though she doesn’t claim to have all the answers, she has connected visibly with the district’s voters, and has brought necessary attention to the glaring opportunity gap that exists for a large sector of the electorate.

Despite the successes of these women, gender remains a relevant obstacle in Boston politics, and the council is still male-dominated. Katz remembers a particular instance when she spoke to a neighbor while campaigning. “I said do you know who your councilor is,” she recalled. “I hadn’t said anything that was gendered. And he goes, ‘Oh yeah, who is he?,’ automatically. We still have [that bias] we’re battling.”

This inherent bias makes it all the more groundbreaking that women, specifically women of color, are the ones driving change in Boston, reaching people from all walks of life and drawing attention to the issues impacting local communities. Boston City Council candidate Kim Janey elaborated upon this sentiment. “It is not lost on me that if I am fortunate enough to be elected to represent District 7 on the City Council, I will be the first woman to hold that seat,” she said. “But for me, this election isn’t about making history, it’s about making a real impact that improves the lives of people in my community.”

Janey’s emphasis on a relationship between local communities and government describes a recurring theme of this election season, as candidates are working not only to change the conversation surrounding the community but also to influence how debate is conducted. Programs such as Emerge Massachusetts are working to train potential female candidates in order to make a difference in local communities. Previous alumni of the program include Siddiqui, Edwards, and Sivongxay, who all have sought to highlight community needs and discourse in their campaigns.

Tufts student and Cambridge local Jonah Schwartz, who is also an active volunteer for Tufts Democrats, elaborated upon this relationship. “Politics in both [Boston and Cambridge] is very heavily neighborhood driven,” he said. “[T]here are very large immigrant communities and communities of color in both cities [… ] With the increase of housing cost and gentrification in the two cities, these communities are really pushing back through political and activist means.”

In terms of candidates’ specific policies, Schwartz added, “I think the new generation of people running feel that they need to take charge to not only protect the places they were raised, but to make sure that their communities are able to survive.”

Sumbul Siddiqui, who is running for Cambridge City Council, echoed this sentiment, drawing upon her personal and professional background as a legal aid. “A creation of affordability, for me, is an important topic because I grew up in Cambridge public housing,” she said. “When I talk to residents […] especially people who live in low-income housing, they feel like they are the other in Cambridge […] It has been a huge motivating factor when people say, ‘We’re so happy that you understand what it’s like living in low-income housing.’”

In fact, the first section on Siddiqui’s campaign platform is dedicated to affordable housing. “For me, it’s looking at pathways out of poverty,” she said. “In Cambridge, it’s so hard to do because we have a lack of affordable housing. My platform is what are some policies that this city can really try to move the needle on making it easier to live here and addressing displacement because we are really displacing people of color and low-income people.” In the end, there is still work to be done, despite the increased representation of women of color in Boston and Cambridge politics.

“People subscribe to this idea that there is only one narrative for a candidate, especially for female candidates or female candidates of color,” Councilor Pressley remarked. “[Women] will cancel themselves out and say, ‘I have a desire to run, but I don’t fit the prototype.’”

However, Pressley remains optimistic. “The more women that disrupt this prototype, that come from many backgrounds to represent the diversity and the continuum of the experiences of women in our society, the more women are liberated to run, telling their own story, and standing in their own truth.”