Local Activism in an Era of National Uncertainty

activismPhoto by Emily Cassel

In the face of immigration bans and threats to sanctuary cities, what can people in our “liberal bubble” do to help?

On a February night at PA’s Lounge in Union Square, the Local 7 news was on mute. The lead story: President Donald Trump had threatened to cut federal funding from sanctuary cities like Somerville, and Mayor Joe Curtatone was firing back.

“We’re not going to run away from our fellow man for a bucket of money,” Curtatone told the press.

Near the U-shaped bar, a man took one look at my nine-month bump and offered me a seat. On stage, Stephanie Hirsch was making her pitch for alderman at large. Our country may be divided, she said, but Somerville has a real chance to make our community work.

“I was so worried before the election, and now I’m twice as worried,” Hirsch told me after her speech. She’s thought hard about the role she can play here in Somerville, and for her, that means running for the Board of Aldermen. “I had so much more sense of calm after I resolved to do this,” she added.

That question—“What role can I play?”—is what led me to this bar on a Wednesday night. Like a lot of Somervillians, I was wringing my hands over what to do about Trump besides march.

I moved here four years ago from Florida, and by now I should know a lot more about the political scene. But I’ve also felt stymied in our liberal bubble, where we have a mayor who hung a “Black Lives Matter” sign on City Hall and a newly elected state representative who was all-in for Bernie Sanders. In one of the most progressive places in America, I wondered—what are the social justice issues facing our community? What can we do right now in our diverse, rapidly gentrifying city?

On the night of the inauguration, I emailed Scout Somerville to pitch this story. In three weeks, I was due to have my first baby. I wanted to answer this question—and quickly, before having a newborn dampened my urgency to act.

***

People who devote their efforts to local activism often give two reasons for doing so: Citizens can have more influence on the local level because government is smaller and more responsive, and policies passed by cities and states sometimes become models that are later replicated nationwide.

There’s a third reason, too: Just because we’ve elected progressive officials doesn’t mean we’ve solved all our problems.

Take immigration. Sure, Somerville is a sanctuary city, where refugees and undocumented immigrants are welcomed. And the mayor has pledged it will stay that way, even if Trump cuts federal funding.

But as Hirsch says, there are area families in which parents work multiple jobs and pay $1,600 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Families that have to sell 30 aluminum cans to pay the bus fare. “If we can offer their kids an after-school program, that helps,” Hirsch says, “That helps a lot.”

After all, what good does it do for Somerville to be a sanctuary city if immigrants can’t afford to live here?

“Immigrant issues are not just about immigration,” says Ben Echevarria, executive director of the Somerville nonprofit the Welcome Project. “Immigrant issues are housing issues, job issues, education issues, so it’s not just limited to their documentation status.”

Echevarria suggests several things people can do to help Somerville’s immigrants, who he says are “very worried.” They can advocate for the Safe Communities Act, which would make the entire state a sanctuary, or donate to advocacy groups like the Welcome Project, which would take a hit from the loss of federal funding.

“Yes, be angry, be mad,” Echevarria says. “But mobilize, and keep mobilizing. It’s about the long, sustained resistance.”

For more on sustained resistance, I call State Rep. Mike Connolly—a longtime progressive activist, Bernie Sanders supporter and first-time elected official. He defeated Democratic incumbent Tim Toomey in the 26th Middlesex District last year.

“It’s been kind of surreal for me to enter public service at the same time that Donald Trump won the White House,” Connolly says. Now that he’s had time to process it, he’s landed on something he’s heard a lot of Democrats saying: “We have to simultaneously play defense and play offense.”

There’s greater urgency than ever to fight regressive policies, he said. But at the same time, the country wasn’t necessarily fair or just even before Donald Trump was elected.

Connolly is still pushing a progressive agenda on the state level: passing the Safe Communities Act; raising the minimum wage to $15; instituting paid family medical leave and universal childhood education; raising taxes on millionaires through the Fair Share Amendment; and investing in public transportation, including the Green Line Extension and the Community Path Extension.

As Connolly ticks off his list of priorities, I realize his agenda was a lot like what I voted for in the Democratic primary for president. I was feeling optimistic. We could make a difference in Massachussetts.

Then, two hours after our interview, Trump banned immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

***

Two days later, protesters were back on the streets, this time about the immigration ban.

On the T, I pulled the pregnancy card and sat down in the crowded train. A toddler struggled into the seat next to me, and I hoisted him up by his coat. He was holding a sign mounted on a paper towel roll. It said, “No!” with blue scribbles.

Had it been only a week since the Women’s March?

activismLike a lot of people, I was thrilled to join the historic protest in Boston Common the week before—to have something constructive to do with and listened to Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey and Marty Walsh tell me what I wanted to hear. But I also left wondering what civic levers I could pull myself when my elected officials were already leading the resistance.

“Sometimes we do buy into a story that’s not true in terms of what’s playing out in our city,” says Elizabeth Nguyen, a Unitarian Universalist minister involved in racial justice work in Boston.

“We really are fighting local struggles,” she says, defending the public school budget, which has been cut repeatedly, “while our quote-unquote progressive officials have also given huge tax cuts to corporations like GE.”

So what can the marchers do to channel their energy into results? The first step, she says, is to transform it into a long-term commitment to activism by incorporating it into our daily and weekly habits and supporting the people who have been doing this work for a long time. She also hopes that newcomers to the movement, especially white, cisgender people who are learning to work alongside people of color, transgender people and immigrants, will listen to the voices of those who are most marginalized.

“To me, it’s about faith,” Nguyen says. “We have to have faith that we don’t need to do the perfect thing … all we have to do is try and try again, and be open to what we learn from those experiences.”

***

The next night, I went to the Somerville High School for the first time. The auditorium was packed like a Saturday morning at Market Basket, though the crowd was noticeably older and whiter. I had come to this citywide meeting of the Somerville Democratic Party to see one of our conflicts up close. A panel of Democratic officials and intellectuals were discussing who would be next chair of the Democratic National Committee. One of the speakers was—no kidding—the grandson of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This was The Establishment.

“I don’t need to tell you that I think we’re in the political fight of our lifetimes,” said Russ Muirhead, a professor of political science at Dartmouth College. “The only institution capable of winning this fight is the Democratic Party.”

He made his case for partisanship: Obama was a charismatic individual, but his legacy is in danger because he didn’t invest in the team—the Democratic Party. The party stacks the bench with Democratic candidates, gets out the vote and connects the progressive cause across generations, from the New Deal to the Affordable Care Act.

Then, it was the audience’s turn to speak. A lanky young activist named Ben Bradlow took the microphone.

“Immigrant issues are not just about immigration. Immigrant issues are housing“If the Democratic Party is not able to catch up to the energy in the streets, there is going to be a major reckoning,” said Bradlow, who said he backed Bernie Sanders in the primary but canvassed for Hillary Clinton in the general election. “I fear there will be a major split and turning away from the party.”

Before this meeting, I had no idea that the party infrastructure reached into my neighborhood. Here was an opportunity to shape this team into the one we want and help win back power in the midterms and the next presidential election. Maryann Heuston, Ward 2 alderman and the chair of the Ward 2 Democratic Committee, said a silver lining of Trump’s election is unprecedented interest in the local Democratic Party.

“We know what’s happening out of Washington is outrageous and unacceptable, but my fear is that the outrage and the unacceptable becomes the status quo,” she said. “The only way you fight back is to push a progressive Democratic agenda, and you have to push it on so many levels.”

***

I didn’t make it to the sanctuary city rally at the high school in early February. I was scrubbing floors, doing a final Target run and finishing this story—trying to get those last few things in order before the baby came.

I was sorry to miss it, but I also knew that there would be other chances—many other chances—to join the cause. To believe I could figure this all out and somehow make my contribution by the time the baby arrived was the kind of thinking that leads people to give up in times like these. I had to prepare for the long haul, not just on this one weekend, not just the next four years and not just my lifetime.

A few nights before, my husband and I watched a recording of Cornel West, a longtime leftist activist, giving a talk at Harvard called “The Trump Era: Hope in a Time of Escalating Despair.”

As he took the podium, wizened, powerful and smiling, he said, “I stand here, I am who I am, because somebody loved me, somebody cared for me, somebody attended to me.”

Maybe it was the hormones, or maybe it was Donald Trump in the White House, but his words brought me to tears. Parenting is part of the work, too.

This story originally appeared in the March/April print edition of Scout, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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