City Council Candidate Chat: Ayanna Pressley

This is the 19th in a series of conversations with candidates for Boston City Council. This time, I sat down with at-large incumbent Ayanna Pressley.

David S. Bernstein: According to reports, you gave a very hard look at running for mayor; why have you ended up running for re-election?

Ayanna Pressley: I have been working very hard in my three years on the council, and I’m excited to get out there and share that record of service with people. I think my historic ticket-topping victory of the last cycle was really an affirmation and a mandate of an agenda that I championed. Any interest in my looking at higher ballot had everything to do with that agenda: fighting for women and girls, to stabilize every family in this city, to promote healthy communities, inclusion, to break cycles of poverty and violence. I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished in advancing that agenda, and looking forward to continuing that work. Because when you’re working on issues as big as poverty and violence, those are not things that are remedied in a term, and certainly not by one elected alone. I’m always looking to identify those victories that are small enough to win, but big enough to matter, that will ultimately reform and adjust the framework, and through incremental change have that systemic impact.

When you talk about making a difference in the time you’ve had, on issues that do not get fixed quickly, what do you see as the concrete advances that you’ve been able to make?

Where shall I begin? One of the main things when we’re talking about educating our young people is that there is a big emphasis on preparedness for our work force. But the conversation should begin with the readiness of every child when they come through those doors to learn. I know, given my own life challenges, that there are many non-academic barriers that get in the way of the scholastic and life success of our children and that complicate teaching. I was able, after three years of aggressive lobbying, to see eight school-based health centers that they were threatening to close remain open because of my advocacy. There were also six health resource centers that were opened in our high schools, and I continue to advocate for more of those. And then thirdly, a wellness policy was adopted, that includes a comprehensive sex and health education curriculum, that increases condom availability, that is medically accurate and culturally competent, and age-appropriate, and includes abstinence. None of this I do alone. I said when I ran that I was going to build broad-based coalitions to affect change. And in all of my work I have been able to do that.

One of the things that involves is to get a coalition to talk to other officials—and that set of officials is about to change. Are you seeing candidates who you will be able to work with, who see the same priorities on these issues?

Oh absolutely. I love the diversity of those fields. I believe my election, based upon a coalition of people that made it possible for me to be elected the first time, and re-elected, says that people care about these issues. Whoever is going to be in the fifth floor corner office needs to care about those issues. If they do, then I look forward to continuing to lead that agenda on the council and to partner with them. And if they don’t care about those set of issues, then I look forward to being a thorn in their side, because that is my responsibility.

Assuming you get re-elected, you would be entering your third term, but because of all the turnover you would already be in the top half in seniority on the councilyou would be at least sixth most senior, if not higher. Do you feel like that will give you more power?

When I joined the council, there was perhaps an old leadership paradigm in the minds of voters, that in order for you to be a leader, you needed to be council president, or chair Ways and Means. I think I have turned that paradigm on its ear. I was able to create my own committee—when I joined the council in 2009 I created this committee, a standing policy committee, on women and healthy communities, that has really given me the platform with which to advance this holistic agenda that I have, to break cycles of poverty and violence. I’m looking forward to continuing to lead, and it really doesn’t matter what title follows that.

There will be opportunities, though, to take over other committeesJohn Connolly has been leading the Education Committee, Mike Ross has been leading Public Safety. Are you interested in moving to chair one of those more traditional committees?

I think that’s premature. I’m very happy with the committee I’ve created and that I chair. This isn’t just a platform for me, David. I was doing this work before I was recruited to run. I worked on eight or 10 non-profits. I volunteered with YouthBuild. I was a motivational speaker at any girls-serving organization. I was a mentor. For me, whatever vantage point that I’m serving, I’m going to be an advocate and do the work to actualize my values. This wasn’t some agenda I pasted together once I said yes I will run. When I finally was able to communicate that, and I finally said the exact truth—I am running because I want to save girls—people said: “Don’t run. That’s not the job of a city councilor. You should go run a non-profit.”

As you look around at the candidates running in the city now, there are quite a few, including yourself, who have openly put out there as part of their political being, difficulties they’ve been through in their own livesaddiction, arrests, and in your case sexual assault and abuse.

But that’s not a ploy. I hope you find that when I talk about that, I speak from a place of strength. It’s never to elicit sympathy. And I’ll tell you, when I was frank in that way, I was surrounded by advisors, who have since been fired, who discouraged me from being that candid. They were worried that I would stereotype myself, that I would pigeonhole myself, that people would think that it’s a gimmick, that it wasn’t relevant to people. But what I said is it’s my story, and I’m going to tell the whole story. I have to say, that is the only time I have received hate mail, was around my disclosing that I was a survivor of rape.

Where was that coming from? It’s not like you were accusing someone who they knew.

I think this issue in its entirety makes people uncomfortable, but I will say that I think you always run the risk of people thinking that it’s a gimmick, you’re using your personal pain—which is ridiculous, because I had said from day one I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and sexual assault as an adult. I had just never said where it happened. That was the only difference. Other than that, I had always been straight up about that. And I do want to say, I was prepared to do that, David, because before I ran I had spent 10 years telling that story because of all the work I had been doing in intimate circles with girls, trying to support them in their healing, who had been victimized similarly. In a couple of weeks I’ll be doing a hearing about girls and violence. And it will be listening only, to hear from girls about what they need. People are going to be shocked. They’re going to hear the range of intimate-partner violence—that’s another reason why I fought for a comprehensive sex and health education curriculum, because that also teaches healthy relationships and behaviors.

Speaking of healthy relationships: you got engaged last October. Is a date set?

April 2014. Right now the focus is on my getting re-elected, and I’m out there doing what I do every time, running a citywide campaign, working hard to earn every vote, making sure people know about my record, and I am hopeful that the voters of this city will return me to the City Council; and then after that, then I can get to some wedding planning. So April 2014.

You had surgery about a year ago on benign uterine fibroids; I’ve known other women who have had similar surgery. I know it isn’t that uncommon, but wanted to check: you’re healthy and everything’s good?

Absolutely. Look, I chair the committee on women and healthy communities, so I often wonder if I’m being a good role model—I could stand to lose a few pounds, I wish I worked out more consistently and ate better all the time. But I’m strong and healthy, and the surgery was a great success. Again, it’s one of those things, people said, “Oh, Ayanna, why would you talk about these things, it’s so personal and intimate.” But why should I be ashamed? If Washington can talk about my anatomy, I sure as hell can.


Read more Boston City Council Candidate Chats. This interview has been edited for length.