City councilors and Tufts alums Judy Pineda Neufeld of Somerville and Kit Collins of Medford returned to Tufts to speak about their careers and paths to local government in the event “The Importance of Local Politics: Perspectives from Local City Councilors” held in Olin Center for Language and Cultural Studies on Monday, March 27. Nimah Mazaheri, chair of the political science department, moderated the event.
Topics discussed included how the councilors became involved in local politics and pressing issues currently impacting Medford and Somerville, such as housing, transportation and climate change.
Both councilors asserted that their work as student activists at Tufts led to their careers in local government. Pineda Neufeld’s passion for advocacy began when she started a feminist student organization during her time at Tufts.
“I started my own student organization, and we did a lot of organizing around the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. [in] ’04,” Pineda Neufeld said. “We had 200 students from Tufts, which was the highest student delegation from any Boston area college going down to the march in D.C., and I was really proud of that. And it really sparked a love for organizing and for politics and to see how you can make a difference by organizing a group of people to make a difference.”
According to Collins, it was her involvement in the climate divestment movement and peace and justice studies at Tufts that laid the foundation for her activism in local and community politics.
“I found myself returning to a lot of the questions that I was trying to answer as a student at Tufts,” Collins said. “What do I do? What can we use? What are the tools that … I have as an individual?’”
Mazaheri then turned the topic of conversation to housing, a prevalent issue facing the greater Boston area. Both communities are currently working on initiatives to make housing more stable and affordable to Medford and Somerville residents.
“Medford does not have an affordable housing trust, which is something that a lot of communities [including Somerville] have,” Collins explained. “We just took our first vote on [implementing an affordable housing trust] last month. I’m so excited to get that on the books and we will finally start putting assets and resources into that trust.”
Collins also mentioned current work in Medford on a condominium conversion ordinance, which would protect tenants that are displaced by the conversion of rentals to condominium developments. Pineda Neufeld described projects, including opportunities for homeownership for low-income residents, that will make housing in Somerville more affordable, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“[When people] lose their job, or their restaurant closes because of the pandemic … one missed paycheck, two missed paychecks, is devastating for a family,” Pineda Neufeld said. “How do we support our community to make sure that their housing is stable and [that they] can stay in Somerville? So, really thinking about what buckets of money are available — state, federal and city-wide — to be able to keep people in their homes.”
The recent Green Line Extension, which brought the MBTA’s green line system into Medford and Somerville, also exacerbated the housing crisis by inflating the prices of housing. In Somerville, 85% of neighborhoods are walkable to an MBTA stop. Many Medford and Somerville neighborhoods were also affected by the Bus Network Redesign project, which will change the frequency of stops and location of MBTA bus routes.
Collins explained how city councilors must balance the demands of constituents with the limitations of local government.
“On the local level, you find these areas where there’s a lot of space for ‘what we can do creatively with the power that we do have,’ and then you run into some areas where it’s like, ‘we don’t have the power to change this,’” Collins said. “So, we either have to get creative or we have to be as good advocates as we can when our only power is to advocate.”
Climate change is also continuing to affect the policy initiatives of governments on the local level, as well as the state and federal levels. Pineda Neufeld stated that Somerville plans to boldly tackle the issue by implementing policies such as increasing access to electric vehicles.
“I really think it’s about putting the political power and pressure behind the plans we have in place and figuring out ways that we can build some momentum, give them a shot in the arm to get them done sooner,” Pineda Neufeld said.
Hailing from outside of Massachusetts was not a barrier to winning local elections here according to Pineda Neufeld and Collins who grew up in Los Angeles and upstate New York, respectively.
“I don’t think longevity equals success necessarily to communities,” Pineda Neufeld said. “It’s like getting involved, getting to know the issues, getting to know your constituents. That’s what matters.”
The councilors also offered advice to those considering involvement in local politics.
Collins emphasized the idea that every person can make a change in their community: “If you want to do it and have the space in your life to do it, you should do it.”
“Find an issue you care about, there are campaigns every single year,” Pineda Neufeld said. “Whether they’re local, statewide or federal. Get involved, there’s so much to learn and so many people to meet and so many skills to gain from that experience.