The following interview transcription has been edited for length and clarity. Spanish and Mandarin translation will soon be available.
Weaver: Hello everyone! My name is Lex Weaver. I am the audience engagement editor for The Scope: Boston, a digital news site that tells stories of justice, hope and resilience in the Greater Boston Area. We practice journalism as an act of service, working to connect communities and form civic life and amplify voices that are often overlooked or mis-characterized by traditional media. Today, we will be interviewing city councilor and Boston mayoral candidate, Michelle Wu, who just announced her run last week. Congratulations to you, Michelle!
I just wanted to jump right in and to start off by talking about your very first campaign video. In that video, which you had done in three different languages. You did take a stance by saying “Black Lives Matter.” In the climate that we’re in today and a lot of conversations happening, a lot of folks coming from Black communities feel that politicians often pander to the Black community by stating Black Lives Matter in order to secure the vote to get into office and then when they are in office, the Black community is often forgotten or overlooked.
Q: So my first question for you today is, if elected to office, how does your plan for racial equity include Black Boston residents?
Wu: So first, thank you so much for having me on. It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind week, and I’m so excited to get a moment just to connect with all of you and to celebrate the incredible work that you all do, telling stories and connecting everyone in your community to Boston as a whole. So, I completely agree that in this moment of historic national activism, our modern day civil rights movement, you really have to push to see what happens after the words are spoken, that everybody knows what to say or where to show up or be part of the protests, but then what’s the action that actually takes place following that?
Racial justice is central to our campaign and the reason why I have been in office and why I’m seeking to become mayor of the city is that Boston should be a city for everyone. We have the resources, we have the activism, we have the ideas. We just need bold urgent leadership to lift up our communities. And one of the communities that historically, systemically through policy has been left behind and deprived with the opportunity to build wealth generationally, to find security, and to pass on that stability is the Black community.
From redlining to economic policies to the very structures of city government today, we continue to see the disparities grow in Boston. You know I don’t need to go into all the many ways in which it is visible and apparent today. The median net worth of a Black family in Boston being $8. I think about $8, compared to about $250,000 for a white family. The life expectancy dropping by 30 years, over the course of just a couple bus stops between Back Bay, and Roxbury. And so, our goal is to attack the racial wealth gap from every angle, [by having] great schools to ensure that every single child in our city has access to incredible education in the city of tremendous resources and making sure that our development process is fair and accountable, and that everyone shares in the prosperity of our city.
We know that Boston has grown tremendously over the last seven or eight years, and yet these gaps have gotten bigger. Housing and home ownership, making sure that we are tackling this and connecting affordability to every development decision that happens. And our public health and public safety system, which we have been thinking about as two separate items, right now, and when you look at it that way, we’re not putting our resources where it makes sense. We need to shift our resources to the public health side of things, and think of it as one ecosystem.
And then just one example, moving forward I’m also going to keep pushing on something that I have been doing, which is really look at where city resources are going when it comes to Black-owned businesses and businesses owned by Boston residents. I’m proud to have been the lead sponsor of an ordinance that I partnered with then Councillor [now Congresswoman] Ayana Pressley back in 2017, to require reporting so we know where every dollar of city contracting goes. From that we learned, as of 2018, $664 million were spent, totally city discretionary spending, on contracts for goods and services. Of that, 0.65% of those contracts went to businesses owned by people of color, and just less than 1% of businesses owned by women, and just about 1% of businesses owned by Boston residents. That is something that is right within reach of us doing. We need to set those targets and ensure that every possible step we can take, we are focusing resources to close the racial wealth gap.
Q: So would you say, if elected to office, that would be one of your first initiatives, and if it’s not what would be your first initiative?
Wu: Yeah, I think that, I mean, that one’s [already] ongoing. I’ve already been pushing that initiative and so certainly that one will continue. I think in general, there are a lot of policies that we need to address, and a lot of changes that we need when it comes to what’s the vision for our city and where are we headed; But, at the core of all of those is who is benefiting from success in our city, whose voices are heard, who’s sharing in the power?
About a month and a half ago, we released a Green New Deal and Just Recovery plan for Boston really focusing on climate justice, which is racial justice, which is economic justice, and one key piece in there is the commitment to do what we’re calling a justice audit. If we’re thinking about structural disparities and structural racism, we have to start with the structures of city government. And so we need to look, top to bottom, at what are the ways in which we’re spending our dollars, making decisions, empowering or disempowering community members, and how to ensure that we come up with a justice framework for the city. That will be the vision for how we make every other policy decision moving forward.
Q: What does your platform plan to do with ‘Methadone Mile’ and the need for safety for lower income residents, as well as support for those experiencing substance abuse? South End – Roxbury Community Partnerships have reached out to us and they’ve also said that they reached out to your campaign a few times and even though they think you have great ideas, the group and the community are looking for more clear cut examples of your plan to tackle this issue.
Wu: Yeah, and I’m grateful to them for just drawing attention to the issue and sad that it has come to community members who, as volunteers, are feeling like they have no choice but to stand and disrupt traffic every single Thursday evening to just get some attention and resources. This is an example where the city has really failed to put forward our vision and to act. We have a concentration of services for substance use and recovery in an emergency shelter in a one mile radius that serves the entire New England region. And I think some of what we’ve heard from some elected officials and other leaders in response, is either ‘Well, we’re working on building the Long Island Bridge’ or ‘Let’s make sure other cities are taking back their people so they’re not coming here.’
I think we need to accept our role as the regional service provider and find things that we could be doing immediately, not just waiting on some sort of a dream of a bridge being built that I don’t actually believe will connect to dramatically changing the dynamic and situation today. Certainly there are lots of kinds of city services that have been added to address the symptoms of what is happening. Needle pickup that has been very responsive; our Public Works employees working extremely hard to get right out there as soon as something’s reported.
There has also been a law enforcement response that I think should be more of a public health response, but the underlying issue is that we need to treat this public health crisis and housing crisis. And until we can find the way to expand access to recovery and substance use treatment, medication assisted treatment across the city and state, we will always have issues with residents not feeling safe, but also the patients seeking services there, not feeling safe, either.
So, there are some hoops to jump through to expand medication assisted treatment It’s a very heavily regulated federal issue. And therefore, it means there’s a lot of cost to expand it. However, with just a little bit of support, either from the state or federal government, we could support local community health centers in various neighborhoods, going through that regulatory process to get approvals to have patients served at those health centers. We could make it balanced so that there’s access all across the various places as opposed to concentrated in one location and that will support access to recovery.
The underlying issue is that folks just need housing, right. No matter what, at the end of the day, even if you are getting treatment, even if you are receiving support for trauma and other help that you need, if you’re still not able to have a place to go home and have that stability of then trying to find a job and support your family, it’s back down to a very hopeless feeling situation; which is what underlies the entire opiate crisis.
We need more low thresholds supported housing, and it doesn’t have to be all in one location, it could be scattered site, it could be in partnership with some of our service providers today, but that also needs to be accessible in many other parts around the city and not just concentrated in a one mile area.
Q: How do you plan on actually implementing all of this because I hear you saying that we need this to happen but how do you make sure that it happens?
Wu: The conversation with community health centers could happen anytime, and the push to make sure that they’re getting the resources they need to 1). understand what expanding treatment would look like at that location 2.) have some technical assistance to get through the licensing process. And ideally, getting support, whether it’s from another level of government or an outside resource, that is all something that city leadership could push.
On the housing side, it’s a big conversation about how we get to the housing that we need at the affordability levels that people can actually afford. But, the bottom line is that we’re not currently planning for our city in a way that recognizes just where the need is in different communities. Our zoning code dates back to 1965 at base, and we have not done a comprehensive citywide updating of it. And that means that as every individual development is negotiated, there’s lots of exceptions happening and it’s not being connected to a holistic plan of where we want each of the major developments to go. I have proposed also in the Green New Deal and Just Recovery plan, a green affordable overlay that would ensure that we have climate resiliency and deep affordability in certain areas through zoning.
Q: What would your plan be to combat the high rent and living costs in the city and, is that a priority for your platform more-so over transportation?
Wu: Housing justice is at the foundation of everything else. It is the number one issue that comes up when you’re talking to residents. Just this morning we were out at an intersection in Grove Hall, just kind of saying ‘hi’ to commuters in the morning, and the bits of conversation that I could have were all around ‘How do we stop the displacement that is happening in our communities?’ There’s a couple pieces to it.
First, is that we need more units of housing that people can actually afford and we have to find resources to build that affordable housing. There are some resources that are being left on the table. We are asking for commitments from developers who are supposed to pay a certain amount into a fund, are supposed to complete an affordable housing project when they’re not being checked up on, there have been several instances that have come to light where that hasn’t happened and the promises made when the permits are built and that the new luxury building goes up and then the affordable housing that was supposed to go along with it didn’t end up happening.
So, even just making sure we’re following through and holding everyone accountable to the commitments around affordable housing is a basic step. And then there are other resources we should be seeking. There’s been a proposal for a fee on vacant units.There are other cities that have experienced this situation where lots of housing units, usually high end housing units, are built and people park their finances there. No one ends up living there, it’s a free market, people can choose to do whatever they want with housing units, when you can afford that situation.
But then, we are going to ask for resources from you to pay to offset the impacts of your decision of not having community there and not having people actually living there. Those types of resources need to go to build more affordable housing, and then it’s not enough just to say how we are going to build and increase the supply of affordable housing. How are we also going to stabilize people who are living in the city today? So, rent stabilization and making sure that the state is allowing cities to pursue that is really important, and supporting our residents who have built our communities, but are feeling incredible pressure while we wait for the new affordable housing and supply and green affordable overlays to have more of an impact.
And then the other thing I’ll mention on housing, especially now during COVID, is that we’re seeing this reshuffle. It’s a big reset moment in so many ways. And one of the important ways is how we previously thought of using buildings, maybe forever changed. So there might be some large, downtown office buildings where companies aren’t ever gonna return to everyone working crowded next to each other or the co-working spaces and things like that. There might be a lot of economic stress from those types of decisions being made that can actually create the silver lining or sort of opportunity, if you will, to rethink how we get more housing, then, out of these changes, that necessarily need to happen.
Q: Considering that you’ve helped spearhead the conversation of free MBTA rider services and the economic issues caused by the coronavirus, do you still feel as strongly about free transportation now, with everything that has happened? If so, how have your plans changed for MBTA services.
Wu: If we saw nothing else during the pandemic, it is just how much people depend on the T; Especially our essential workers, especially through Black and Latinx communities, and how much we depend on it to be safe and a place where you can maintain your health when you’re using it. So, the MBTA did a big thing in the height of the pandemic. They made all buses free, because it was clearly the safest thing to do. It meant that people didn’t have to be tapping all the same surfaces and all crowding near the driver. It also meant that buses could go faster because people didn’t have to rummage through their bags to get out the cards or cash or whatever, and the faster the bus route goes, the more likely you can just wait for the next bus to come, instead of being squished on next to someone in a very crowded one.
Unfortunately, they reversed that a couple of weeks ago and have decided to start collecting fares again. But when ridership is down so much, they’re not going to be able to make up the loss in operating costs through collecting fare. This is a moment to really rethink everything. We have seen with a pandemic just how much public transportation is a public good. And so we need to start financing it, funding it and treating it that way.
Q: What are your thoughts on accountability and policing. What policies are you in favor of to address and repair the harm that has been done as a result of policing?
Wu: In general, we need to think about safety and healing as one system, because when we think about law enforcement on its own, and public health on its own, we’re not making the right investments relative to what actually delivers safety and health for our community members.
I’ve put a proposal on the table, specifically along with two of my colleagues, Councilor Lydia Edwards and Councilor Julia Mejia that would divert 911 crisis response calls away from law enforcement to an unarmed community safety force that would be trained and in a fully professional force, but trained in mental health counseling, substance use counseling, maybe also address traffic stops and other situations where right now we’re asking police to show up, but it’s not within [the police’s] expertise; it’s not efficient or effective and it leads to sometimes devastating outcomes and we’ve seen that right here in Boston, as well.
I believe we need more accountability in every part of the structure. There’s been a conversation with the mayor’s Task Force and City Council about a civilian review board and ways to have some independent accountability. I totally support moving forward with that. We also just need to recognize that you can’t just have accountability at the back end without changing the structure of how we think about safety and healing. So, really emphasizing resources into our public health side would shift the role of what police and law enforcement are resourced to do.
Q: Is there anything that you would like the general public to know about you that I didn’t ask today?
Wu: If you need to know anything about me, I’m someone who never thought I would run for office growing up. I’m the daughter of immigrants and I’m the oldest kid. My parents had just arrived in the US, a year before I was born and so I’ve seen, from when I was very little, what it means to be the kid that has to translate for your parents and understand that even the grownups in your life face these barriers that are invisible. And [these barriers] are set up sometimes to keep certain people out. Today, as a mom of two boys, I really feel the urgency to make sure that we’re leaving the best possible city to them and to all of their peers and their generation and the generation after.
I’m in this because I’ve lived it and it’s impossible to ignore the issues when you know what it feels like. And especially when you know how big of a disconnect there can be when you most need help and then the services are supposed to be there from the government.
I just ask everyone to please reach out. This has been a campaign that is about lifting up the struggles and the dreams of every community. We are starting relatively early compared to when people usually launch their campaigns, because it takes time to get to know communities to talk about the big ideas to have multiple rounds of conversations to understand what kind of city we want to build together. This is a moment where it is not just possible to reimagine what Boston could do, but absolutely necessary. To get out of this crisis, we need to make sure that everybody has a role in shaping the future of our city.