I offered these remarks at the 2023 Launch of the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy.
Thank you to the School of Public Policy for inviting me to speak with you as you launch the academic year. Thank you Director Fountain and Dean Rethemeyer.
I’m delighted to join Jim — a policy and social justice hero of mine. And delighted to have the opportunity to again cheer the school’s necessary work and your commitment to public service.
It’s hard to believe that this is the third time I’m joining you.
Looking back at my notes, in 2022, I offered nine lessons I’ve learned about crafting and passing policy. In 2021, I talked about Shaw’s “splendid torch” of policy making as our nation reeled amid the ravages of the Trump era.
Much has changed in these recent times.
We have a new President at the federal level and a new Governor and Lieutenant Governor here in the Commonwealth. I am chairing different Committees now, the last two times I joined you, I was Chair of Public Health and a COVID-specific committee, now I Chair committees on higher education and agriculture. UMass Amherst is also under new leadership with Chancellor Javier Reyes now leading the University.
Yet still, much remains the same.
Government still doesn’t work unless we — people —- make it work.
Policy development is still the work of taking an idea about how to make something better and figuring it out with legalese.
Passing good legislation still requires teamwork with and listening deeply to those most affected by any policy change. Public policy still must be crafted through a public process — because policy development dies in a vacuum.
Still, we should NEVER be afraid to think big thoughts — or shy away from transformative ideas. The work of policy making is to crystalize those ideas and then build the social and political capacity to get them done.
ANNNNNNND “no” still means “not now” when it comes to government. There almost always is another path to victory, if you’re willing to hunt and work. And if you can keep the faith.
There’s no better example of keeping the faith than Jim — who’s life’s work has been about ending hunger and who has exacted a promise from the Biden Administration to end hunger and tackle diet-related disease in the U.S. (and yes that means in the Commonwealth) by 2030.
2030 is — like — tomorrow. (I’ll come back to “tomorrow” at the end of my remarks.)
I want to speak for one more moment about faith — faith — believing that change is possible. Believing in the miracle that is democracy. Believing in people power and that long arc of the moral universe — to quote the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Believing we can bend that too-long arc toward justice. Believing that government and systems can work but only when people make them work.
That was me in my life before the State House. I was on the outside of government as a community organizing social worker — at the local, state, and national level. Banging on people like me to work in the best interest of everyone. To ensure that people didn’t just survive, but that they had the opportunity to THRIVE.
For years I taught the theory around this faithful organizing through trainings in nonviolent civil disobedience, conflict resolution, and community organizing.
Fast forward to early January 2019 and I’m moments from being sworn in. I’m in an elevator. Coming up from my first State House office in the bowels of the basement. Thinking to myself: Damn. What if I’m wrong?! What if I’ve spent my life believing in institutions like this. In people power. And it’s all wrong. What if government can’t change? What if it can’t move? What am I doing here?!
I was in the midst of this existential crisis when [[ding]] the elevator doors opened and I was swept by a stream of people into the chamber, to my seat, and in what seemed like seconds I took the oath of office for the first time.
And in the four and a half years since — though government can be slow, vexing, confusing, frustrating, broken — thankfully, I wasn’t wrong. I still have more examples than there is time for today where government has risen to meet crises, appropriated resources with compassion, been innovative, and showed up as bold and gutsy because of the people power that drove it forward.
In the remainder of my time with you, I’m going to focus on some of those bold and gutsy budget and policy solutions that have succeeded in your state house by sharing a few stories.
First, I have to confess that I love state government. In my younger years, I used to think about entering government at the state level.
Here are three reasons why:
#1 For me, state government offers my team and me the opportunity to do high-impact policy and budget work that can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives while still allowing us to be deeply rooted in the 25 communities we represent. (Let me pause here and say that Jim manages to do that — as a member of Congress. But I’ve come to believe it’s because he’s super human.)
#2 State governments truly are laboratories of democracy. We can work out big ideas — like Massachusetts did with health care reform, the foundation for the Affordable Care Act. States signal to each other by passing far-reaching policies and in doing so, we pave the way for national change.
And #3 State government can also act as a line of defense for our people. I call this keeping the lights of democracy ON. We are welcoming to immigrants and refugees. We are going to guarantee the right to choose. We are going to take precautions during a pandemic. Sometimes I get an image of a brooding fierce hen (I’ve never shared that before) — especially in times of great peril.
So the stories …
I’ll take these in reverse order and focus my first story on government as brooding hen. In the wake of the decisions of our woefully misguided Supreme Court around bodily autonomy and amid the brutal backlash against the LGBTQIA + community sweeping the nation, the Massachusetts legislature has taken big leaps forward around reproductive justice and gender affirming care.
We passed some of the strongest laws in the nation to protect both patients and providers — shielding those who seek or provide care in the Commonwealth from legal challenges from opposing states. We legalized medication abortion on college campuses. We funded an abortion access hotline and new programs to help scale healthcare access for — especially — the gender diverse community. The Senate passed my bill to mandate nonbinary markers be available on birth certificates, drivers licenses, marriage certificates, and all state documents where gender is requested. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Let’s talk for a moment about states as laboratories of democracy. There are no better recent examples than Massachusetts’ leadership in addressing climate change — an issue where knowledge and social and political will change every day. Back in 2019, my team and I filed a bill to create and mandate a building code that would require the construction of “net-zero energy” buildings for communities in the Commonwealth that have opted into the “green communities” program.
Happily most communities statewide have adopted this program which means they try to do things like build buildings in a more climate conscious way. But over time, the standards required in the stretch building code had atrophied. They weren’t much of a stretch. So we needed a bill to meet the urgency of the climate emergency.
But a net zero building code? There was a collective NO WAY when we first filed this. People actually guffawed. Governor Baker vetoed an entire bill because of the net zero code provision. They scoffed. [BEAT] Until they didn’t. As people power revved up, led beautifully by constituents from…Amherst, which had already passed its own net zero building ordinance –- legislators dug in to pass one of the strongest codes in the nation -– signaling to other states in the country that this kind of change is possible at the state level and we should join together so it becomes possible at the federal level.
And like a laboratory, we always have something else germinating in our petri dish. I have now filed and am dogging legislation to count the carbon emissions embodied in the materials that construct the buildings. There’s always a new frontier in the fight against climate change, and new ideas being exchanged between state legislatures.
And finally, a story about high-impact policy. Again, recent Supreme Court decisions striking down the affirmative action admissions policies are a wake-up call for those concerned about equity in higher education. For Massachusetts, these decisions must prompt policymakers to enact much stronger measures to advance equity throughout state higher education. We’re often seen as a beacon of success for higher education, but looking closer we can see deeply concerning trends around student debt burden and truly disturbing racial and ethnic disparities in debt and student enrollment right here in Massachusetts. So this session the Senate has increased its investment in public higher education equal to the great equity engine it is. We made nursing programs free at Community Colleges and we guaranteed in-state tuition prices to all Commonwealth residents, regardless of their immigration status — AND we’re working now on a blueprint for game-changing, universal, free community college beginning in the fall of 2024.
I promised I’d close by dwelling on tomorrow. Let’s call it a gutsy tomorrow.
We have to end hunger by 2030 thanks to Jim McGovern. I feel grateful to have the opportunity to help move this work forward in Massachusetts.
We’re not nearly finished protecting the right to choose, or enshrining the right to gender-affirming health care.
We have to take the boldest possible leaps forward to address our rapidly-warming climate. Sending signals to states across the nation that the time is now.
And we have to make community college in Massachusetts free — while fully unleashing the transformative possibilities of public higher education.
Of course this is only a fraction of the work of tomorrow.
And it all belongs to you. All of you.