Equity and Justice
Equity and justice are central to my thought process. They, and an emphasis on practical action, are evident in my work: City action on the long-neglected but critical issue of municipal broadband, implementation of programs for climate mitigation and resilience both of which profoundly increase inequity, insistence that equity-building and home ownership supplement rent-focused policy in our city’s affordable housing programs, use of reparations to help counter the effects of prejudice embedded in over a century’s-worth of government policy, meaningful police reform sensitive to all citizen’s views, and equal educational achievement standards for all students independent of race. All are examples of specific policies I champion that go beyond feel-good declarations to actually move the city to be more equitable and just.
One example is my role on police reform. I was the lead sponsor on the Council’s policy order to support the HEART proposal, a citizen-driven proposal from The Black Response that provides a framework to address the full complexity of the topic and the varying needs of our diverse population.
Another example of how my work is infused at every step with an equity and justice lens, and my effectiveness: Municipal broadband. The Council has discussed it for many years – and yet other cities across the country have treated broadband as a core utility essential to equity and social justice while Cambridge has stalled. This past year of COVID made even more clear that affordable accessible reliable internet is an equity issue and necessary for everything from information to job hunting to education. Cities that have municipally owned networks – from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Loveland, Colorado to many here in Massachusetts – have found that the public internet is more reliable, affordable, and faster. And yet for 5 years, the Council repeatedly asked the City Manager to allocate funds to start the process with a feasibility study – just a study – by passing many orders that produced zero progress. When I got on council, one of my first actions was to be serious about this priority by leading the council to vote down the City’s information technology budget unless it committed to the study. As a result, for the first time in six years, the City Manager formally and publicly agreed to do the required feasibility study as the first and essential step toward a city-owned network. That feasibility study is now – finally – underway. Without my leadership we would still be stalled.
My starting point is that the climate crisis is precisely that: A crisis. I was part of a group that successfully lobbied to get the Cambridge City Council to declare a climate emergency – TEN YEARS AGO! And yet, a decade later, and more than 20 years after the City created a bold and innovative climate action plan, we find ourselves facing delays in our plans and a failure to reduce our city’s overall greenhouse gas emissions – despite a lot of hard work. With COVID, our city planned and implemented with a sense of focus and urgency. We need to couple our city’s and its citizens’ expertise and conviction with the determination to implement in the face of controversy so we can generate results on the timeline that science tells us is required.
Here in Cambridge, one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the world, we are behind in reaching our goals for reducing GHG emissions. AND WE DON’T EVEN ACKNOWLEDGE THAT to the wider community. Why do I call out these facts? It’s critical that we face the fact that we have failed to reach our goals, to learn from that failure, and to adapt. And yet, the city’s data dashboard on sustainability is not up to date, and when it comes to the city’s own municipal emission, fully under city control, only basic long-term aspirational goals are presented. Past goals and the lessons from our failure to meet them are not presented. And there is not a plan for accountability and monitoring progress.
Our city has a reputation for leadership on climate, the result of some excellent work within our City’s departments, citizen and climate activists who have organized and put pressure on the city. We have a substantial and talented city staff dedicated to sustainability, a community of active citizens willing to volunteer and push. We adopted a climate protection plan over 20 years ago, more recently assessed our city’s vulnerabilities to climate change and developed a resilience plan with a strong emphasis on equity and justice, and just completed a five-year review or our Net Zero Action Plan, which aims long-term to eliminate the use of fossil fuels in buildings and to fuel them with renewably generated electricity. And the review found that our emissions, instead of decreasing, have remained flat – as they had for the five years prior. In other words, we have the means – the talent and finances – to achieve our goals. And yet we are falling further behind. Without accountability, adjustments and evaluations of our impact, we may find ourselves in another 5 years in the same place as today: facing no progress, having worked hard with near complete ineffectiveness.
A key area I am examining is what we need to do differently. We need our Net Zero Action Plan, resiliency plans, urban forest master plan, and other related policies and plans to have impact. Therefore, we need to treat the situation as an emergency (as we did with COVID), to be ambitious at the high level of urgency that science indicates is needed, to supplement our planning with discipline and resources necessary for implementation, and full transparency about success and failure in reaching our goals.
As Chair of the Climate Crisis Working Group, a newly-formed group for which I advocated to bring together experts in climate AND implementation together to reflect on the City’s efforts and focus on how to support and augment them to make real and immediate progress. This group started meeting in September, is focusing on helping to address barriers to progress, and will release an action plan – not just another report – in December.
On the policy side, I support policies that will keep fossil fuels in the ground. We already have enough on reserve to literally fry our planet. We don’t need to keep drilling. So, with an understanding of how this policy intersects with state law, new construction should NOT use systems on site that burn fossil fuel; new buildings should be 100% electrified. We need programs to improve the efficiency of buildings and convert their systems to electricity and fossil fuel. Electrification will be irrelevant if the electricity used is not renewably generated; therefore, I have advocated for the City to purchase renewable energy and/or invest in renewable energy facilities to fulfill municipal and city-wide electricity demand. Rather than be deterred by the likely legal and logistical challenges we must act; if Cambridge can solve these problems, we will serve as a model for other cities and towns.
I recognize that the costs of conversion, or in the short-term the additional costs of using electricity rather than fossil fuel, will be challenging or impossible for many of our citizens to afford. I therefore support the use of subsidies and other approaches to financing to help people, and give them incentives, for conversion. Two approaches include low or zero interest loans due only at the time of sale of a property, and adoption of PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy), which allows for investments in building-related sustainability improvements to be financed through loans paid as part of the tax bill), recently made possible by changes in state-level statutes.
Regarding electrification, I support some very straightforward and relatively simple policies. We need to dramatically increase charging infrastructure for Electric Vehicles (EVs). We can tap into lightposts on city streets, allow the electric cables across sidewalks (with appropriate guards) to reach cars parked on the street. Require any new indoor parking spots to be EV-ready.
Many measures the CCWG will support are in the City’s Net Zero Action Plan, which needs to be strengthened with more ambitious goals and timelines, and backed with the resources needed for successful implementation.
The city has a heat island problem, made worse by substantial loss of tree canopy; we’ve lost over 18% of it in recent years. Our urban forest master plan makes it clear: We need to treat trees as critical infrastructure as a matter of public health and equity, which in turn means we need to make significant effort to maintain our tree canopy. Despite our plans and awareness of the issue, arguably thoughtless design and planning is leading to the destruction of 140 large trees in the construction project at Jefferson Park and destruction of three very large trees in the Tobin School project, a loss that might have been avoided is the trees had been considered as valuable in the original project planning. I’ve championed the tree cutting moratorium to allow for sound and appropriate policy making on trees. And I sponsored a policy order to treat trees as essential infrastructure.
I’ve also championed and worked hard for the council to adopt a green roof policy in Cambridge to supplement our efforts with solar power. We need to depave, green or lighten our roofs, lighten our streets, and improve our tree canopy to temper the heat island effect.
When it comes to transportation, as the owner of an EV and frequent user of my bicycle, I support Cambridge’s efforts to improve the infrastructure to support both. I do believe that streets and sidewalks are a public resource and thus call for save and equitable use by all.
I’m an effective councilor who has been able to make real progress on climate issues during this first term. My emphasis is on: ensuring that our goals are in-line with the science independent of the many other pressures (including political) that officials face; ensuring that our efforts are well-planned, properly resourced, and ambitious in their timing; leveraging the know-how within our city and beyond; being transparent in sharing progress; and holding ourselves accountable to our goals.
The crisis with coronavirus is real, and we can get through it with preparation and clear-headed action. My top priority throughout the crisis has been to ensure that the Council acts rationally, grounding decisions in the best, most-current knowledge, benefitting from lessons learned elsewhere, and thinking clearly about each issue and decision to make sure we don’t accept easy, but inappropriate or incomplete answers.
Here is where I have focused most:
- Proper guidance and education around masking and distancing
- Vaccine campaigns and mandates for city employees
- Additional open space for people to get a mental break
- In-person learning when it was safe to do so
New questions arise almost daily. We are fortunate that in Cambridge, we have resources and an enormous knowledge base on which to draw. Please read my news updates for the latest information, and also my notes on how to help during the COVID-19 crisis and how to cope with it. Also, visit the City’s online resources.
When added together, our actions as individuals will meaningfully shape the course of this disease and its impact.
Good Governance and Charter Reform
One of my major priorities in my first Council term was responsible, rational, and comprehensive governance that holds the city, including the Council, accountable. For the reasons discussed below, I believe that Cambridge has a lot of work to do when it comes to effective, efficient and accountable leadership.
In 2021, after a few decades of others trying, I led a charter reform effort that made concrete progress for the first time in 80 years by getting three questions onto this year’s ballot. That’s a critical step because changes can be made to the Charter only when approved by the voters. The three proposed changes, which were overwhelmingly approved by the November 2021 vote, included 1) giving the Council veto power over Board and Commission appointments (approved by 69%), which adds a check/balance to an appointments process solely up to the City Manager; 2) mandating a formal review of the City Manager annually by the Council (approved by 79%), which is critical for the accountability of this powerful position and was something that had been missing from the City’s practices literally for decades, and 3) adding a mandatory charter review process every 10 years (approved by 74% of voters), which is sensible and brings us in line with most cities and towns in Massachusetts. These changes are sensible, fundamental, and principled. They help move our city toward a more democratic and responsive government.
Simply put, we need to do a better job of walking our talk about being a progressive and leading city. We need to demonstrate integrity and to hold ourselves accountable. How is it that our incredible city is lagging in a surprising number of areas when we are one of the richest cities in the Commonwealth, which is one of the richest states in the country? We pride ourselves on leadership yet other cities often manage to achieve important goals before us. We pride ourselves on our diversity yet we, too, struggle with the issues of social justice that are shaking the rest of the country.
Perhaps most significant, we set goals, then fail to hold ourselves accountable to them or learn from our failure to attain them. For example, we pride ourselves for our planning on climate issues yet have not met the climate goals that we ourselves established, far less achieved zero municipal greenhouse gas emissions. Our city councilors have taken Harvard to task for failure to divest from the fossil fuel industry yet have not insisted that the city take that same step.
Turning to development, when I ran in 2019 I promised to do what I could to have the city use the various plans on which we spent time and money – notably and especially Envision and Envision Alewife. Thoughtful strategic planning is critical to a well-run city and good governance requires monitoring progress and taking measures to ensure that we and the fast-moving developer community pursue the City’s goals and adhere to our plans. How is it that the City failed to request a preschool as part of the Volpe development? Early childhood education and quality preschool for all are high priority citywide goals; yet in discussing one of the largest developments in our city’s history, city leaders did not introduce an early education center (like the award-winning model facility next door in Somerville) as part of the package of community benefits negotiated. Another major missed opportunity: The Alewife Quad area is under intense development pressure by private developers. How is it that the city did not buy a 25,000 SF site, which was on the market for a year, for a school that we will soon need? That, despite the fact that more than two years ago the School Committee unanimously passed an order (which I authored) to include in the work of the Envision Cambridge project exploring a school specifically for that area’s rapidly growing population. Good governance would have meant this priority was not forgotten and this pre-identified opportunity seized rather than lost.
We need leaders who work hard, follow up, remember priorities, and focus on accountability. I have a solid track-record for all four.
I know that many in our city are housing insecure, unhoused, or struggling. As a city, we have done a lot yet need to do more. I am a firm supporter of affordable housing. I bring the same approach to it that I bring to any other set of issues: Specifically, I do my homework, am analytical, value results over claims, and think critically about the true complexity of the issue. We now invest more than $30 million annually in affordable housing and another $20 million in housing-related programs of support. We’ve built 6000 units in the past decade. That is on pace with our population growth. We cannot solve this problem on our own; we need to invest and to figure out how to have other towns ramp up, too.
I have acted to address housing affordability for both low and middle income households. I was the lead sponsor on a first-ever policy order to start the process to end single and two family-ONLY zoning in Cambridge, to address past exclusionary actions and incentivize more housing. That policy order resulted in meetings and work by the council and the city to figure out the best way to implement this idea. And it was before the “missing middle petition” was submitted by a group of residents. This comparatively uncontroversial approach could yield results without creating the environmental concerns and conflict associated with infill and other proposed zoning changes. I also have been the most consistent advocate for programs to support home ownership rather than using funds only to subsidize rentals, a practice that fails to build recipients’ wealth. Every time we deliberate on funding affordable housing, I ask for more home ownership opportunities. We will not make a difference in the unconscionable racial wealth gap until we directly address the question of how to build equity. I joined with Denise Simmons, to explore the use of reparations to help address the long-term impact of slavery and prejudice-laden policy on income, home ownership and wealth accumulation.
The Affordable Housing Overlay was passed to provide more housing and to get more affordable housing into parts of the city that don’t have much — particularly, West Cambridge. To date there have been three AHO projects proposed (although two were in process prior to the AHO), and they have likely progressed faster than without the AHO, although all would likely have been built with or without the AHO. All of them are on already existing affordable housing property, which raises the question of further concentration of low income residents; so far we have failed to meet the goal of geographic dispersion. I am the only Councilor who offered a specific proposal for affordable housing in West Cambridge, on a city owned lot on Lowell Street. I hope that proposal will soon yield a small perhaps 6-8 unit home ownership opportunity. We are awaiting the city’s response.
I contrast these approaches to the Missing Middle Petition, which proposed sweeping upzoning citywide, a set of measures that would do nothing for middle class affordability or equity-building among the people who have suffered the most. Instead, it provides a huge financial boon for existing property owners willing to tear down existing structures and eliminate open space. The details matter! A Better Cambridge cited research to argue that Cambridge should use infill to help increase housing affordability because it is also an effective means for reducing greenhouse gases. However, the research they cite fails to support ABC’s claims. Infill, while an aid to reducing GHG emissions for lower-density towns and cities, may not be appropriate for cities with density comparable to ours in Cambridge and doesn’t seem to yield the most emissions benefit. Citing research without reading and understanding it is irresponsible. Yes, Cambridge should build more housing; but that doesn’t necessarily mean infill is justified by a (false, in our city’s case) claim that its use will reduce GHG emissions. Since I believe we have a moral imperative to address the climate crisis AND our housing crisis, we should pursue approaches to building housing that maintain or increase our city’s tree canopy, a step that’s in our control and has environmental justice benefits as well. Requiring electrification and renewable energy in every project, including all affordable housing projects, is an imperative and possible. Making public transit free and eliminating parking minimums could also help.
I am on the record for increasing the density of units, but not on policy grounded in faulty analysis. And we should consider design and impact on neighborhoods – as long as we are not unconsciously maintaining exclusionary policies. I consistently call for data on impact. We must work for a regional approach. As with addressing the climate crisis, we cannot solve this issue on our own. Instead, we need both to continue, and thoughtfully expand, our local efforts and work with other towns and cities to provide more affordable housing, better public transportation, and a better geographic distribution of job opportunities.
Housing is complicated. The details matter. I do believe that affordable housing should continue as a high priority. I also believe that affordable housing should not trump all zoning or bypass the measures needed to address climate change. I recognize the colliding issues and values associated with our housing challenges, and believe that we can and must pursue an agenda that serves the full range of people struggling to afford housing while also addressing the climate crisis and keeping our city livable and welcoming.
Our neighborhoods thrive when the city respects its citizens, they feel respected, their input is honored, and they have a say in
As chair of the Neighborhood and Long Term Planning Committee, I held multiple hearings on how the city can be supporting neighborhood groups, and worked with CDD to ensure action. Neighborhood groups, made up entirely of volunteers, deserve more resources from the city, including space to meet, budgets to recruit more participants, and childcare for parents who want to participate. Too many people in Cambridge feel disconnected from the city, especially folks who don’t feel a part of the development bursting all over and are caught in the middle of, but not benefiting from, the current economic boom. People like me who live in a 2-family house they could never afford if they were looking to buy a place now – where do we all fit? Is Kendall Square the defining part of the city? What happened to the feeling of a neighborhood? Each neighborhood has its special community gathering spot – whether a square, cluster of stores, or a cafe, hair salon, church, or gym. I have worked hard this term to bring people together and I want to continue building community in Cambridge. How else can we foster a sense of connectedness and belonging?
Livable, Welcoming City
This priority area for me centers on a relentless focus on the arts, inclusion, diversity, accessible affordable public transit, supporting multi-modal forms of transit, and sustainable development. Another critical aspect is police reform. What I have done this term, and what I plan to do:
- I am a habitual bicyclist around Cambridge and occasionally go much further (most recently from Buffalo to Syracuse). As someone who voted enthusiastically for the bike ordinance, and as an avid advocate for streets able to be equitably used by all and a supporter of re-thinking urban infrastructure to ensure safe transit across the city, I have pledged to continue my work on these issues.
- Much of the automotive traffic in Cambridge is from folks passing through the city or commuting into the city for work. From the Alewife area to Kendall Square and increasingly to Porter, Inman, Central and Harvard Squares, for much of the day our streets are more like a parking lots than smoothly operating transit infrastructure. We can prioritize this issue, but cannot solve our traffic problems on our own; we must work with the state to explore ways to reduce tie-ups.
- Public transportation is key to reducing our traffic congestion – and mitigating the associated increased greenhouse gas emissions. The Red Line needs more frequent service with greater capacity. Buses need to bring people through Cambridge without needing to transfer at Harvard or Central Square. Bus lanes need to be expanded and used wherever possible to speed up travel times.
- As in many areas, our city thrives due to its amazing range of offerings, including in the arts. From music to community opera to children’s theater, to art classes to dance, our city offers many opportunities for residents of all ages. However, we can do more; my model is European cities, which fund the arts more extensively than in this country and in Cambridge. I’ll work to ensure that recent increases in support for the arts continue, and for more residents to know about and take advantage of opportunities.
- We celebrate our linguistic diversity, yet do not always think of ensuring that our various communities are aware of and have access to our offerings. As one next step, we can and should have more ways to translate information and activities into different languages.
- Nationally, awareness is on the rise about how race and ethnicity shape one’s lived experience. lead to differences in opportunity, different senses of being welcomed, and different perspectives on so many facets of life. The Cambridge Digs Deep work over the last year in both the school district and the city helped raise awareness and open up conversation about privilege and the damage that’s done often unintentionally by people with privilege. It put this important topic on the table in a new way and offered a valuable and useful framework for us all to dig deeper into our own impact. I support continued exploration of the many ways, large and small, that those of us like me who don’t face racial discrimination can contribute positively and face the challenge without defensiveness.
On School Committee I was a passionate and effective advocate for higher expectations, bold goals including equally high expectations for the entirety of our diverse student body, engaged classrooms, and more programs like Montessori and bilingual immersion that close achievement gaps and are highly desirable to families. The City Council’s role in education relates to overall budget, building (if we need to build more schools), and expanding preschools, afterschools, and summer programs with an eye on quality and joy. My knowledge of the schools combined with my willingness to do research means that you have a Councilor able to evaluate effectively, and thus critique, this essential contributor to our children’s future and enormous portion of the City’s budget.
The City has talked for more than a decade about the need for Universal PreK, but progress has been stalled for many years. As a leading city with deep financial and community resources, there is no excuse for us not to be implementing Universal PreK. Although Covid prevented progress during my first term, if re-elected I will focus on ensuring that the City’s promise to have a citywide program of excellent high quality publicly supported PreK for all is finally kept.
In education, as with many other areas (climate for one), we must stop congratulating ourselves for plans and instead focus entirely on results. We named a youth center after Bob Moses and celebrate him and his wife Janet endlessly, and we have been conscious about addressing equity and barriers to success. Yet programs are meaningless if they don’t lead to better results. The best way to celebrate the Moses family is to honor their work and reach the goal of algebra for all eighth graders. And it is beyond shameful that in our small school district we have any students not reaching literacy proficiency by grade 3. While the council doesn’t set educational policy, we do approve the budget. And I will continue, as I did this year, to insist on outcomes and progress if I am to vote for the school department budget.
Along with cities throughout the US, we are stepping up efforts to address our country’s history of slavery and racism and its impact on our institutions and systems. Exploring a shift in emphasis from traditional policing to social services is an important step, but just one of many. The Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team (the HEART proposal) is an exciting and important initiative; and I was happy to be the lead sponsor of a policy order to support HEART.
Last year, following the murder of George Floyd and the collective action of hundreds, if not thousands, of Cambridge residents, the Council unanimously passed an order asking the City Manager to determine the feasibility of an alternative Public Safety Crisis Response System. The HEART proposal, coordinated by The Black Response, is a framework for what that system could look like, and gets us closer to the vision that was laid out very clearly in that policy order.
I want to reiterate briefly the summary of the proposal: “As the acronym HEART suggests, the development and vision for this organization has been guided by a deep sense of love – love for our communities and a belief that love must be at the center of any long term solution to public safety… it seeks to further the well-being of all people in Cambridge, particularly those who are most vulnerable to experiencing the violence of our current institutions, which includes Black and Brown people, Disabled people, folks experiencing houselessness, low-income people, immigrants, and all of those living at the intersection of these identities. ”
This writing of the proposal was a collaborative effort with individuals, groups, and organizations in Cambridge. The people and organizations working on it gave of their time, energy, passion and dedication on a volunteer basis to develop an extensive comprehensive proposal – read it and take it in. That is what engaged activism can yield. They sought counsel from organizations that have implemented successful programs in the past, including the CAHOOTS/White Bird Clinic, which was directly referenced in the City Council’s initial policy order last year and referred to as a model and which has endorsed HEART. And as the policy order recognizes, that collaborative work should continue before this proposal is fully implemented. The policy order is clear that if this passes, a program will not be fully funded tomorrow. Rather, it would begin the process of implementing an alternative public safety program this year, with continuing collaboration from groups that have written this proposal and others in the community. And HEART should be funded – it includes so many resources and thoughtful ideas that will radically reshape how we approach community safety.
I am working with the city administration, my colleagues and the HEART proponents to see how we can start the next phase of work – implementation. The city has proposed a completely separate program outside of the policy department to do this work – and the HEART program is considering how to ensure independence and autonomy. I am optimistic we will be able to move forward.
And on the larger question of the police budget, I believe it’s important and eminently feasible to re-allocate meaningful funding into addressing the root cause of actions that ensnare people in the criminal justice system. And we can do that without compromising the police department’s ability to continue its social justice work. Our police department budget this year is $65 million, large compared to Somerville’s at less than $20 million. Surely, we can reallocate funds into community work, substance abuse help, and social services to prevent involvement with the police and criminal justice system. We have done it in our schools and we need to learn from those efforts, which successfully divert young people into programs away from the criminal justice system, and expand this approach and set of goals to all residents.