City Council Candidate Chat: Ava Callender
David S. Bernstein: Why are you running in this district City Council race?
Ava Callender: I’ve lived in the community that is now in district five my whole life. I’m part of four generations there. There is a need in my community to make sure that we have a voice on the City Council, and I’m sure that I would bring that voice when elected. I was raised on Deering Road in Mattapan, but I like to say I had three parents: my mom, my dad, and my grandmother. From an early age, she really had an effect on the way that I see what was my duty to really stay engaged, and really be active in the community. I went to the Elihu Greenwood Elementary School, the Rogers Middle School, and Latin Academy. I started doing more of my own thing in high school, and that’s when I started joining some things at City Hall. I was on the Mayor’s Youth Council; I did some work with the Mayor’s Voting Task Force and the Public School Health Advisory Council. I went to school in Charlotte. I worked in the office of US Majority Whip James Clyborne, who happens to be my cousin also. Then when I came back to Boston, I worked as a victim witness advocate for the Suffolk County District Attorney. It’s about combining the two, my personal experience with my professional experience, that puts me apart.
You studied criminology at Johnson C. Smith University, and as you said worked for the District Attorney’s office, and I believe you are currently enrolled at New England Law. Has a career in law been a goal of yours?
It definitely has. My upbringing has contributed to that. I’ve always believed in advocacy work. It’s always been in my mind that if you can do it, you really should contribute. But I also notice that even now when I’m campaigning, and knocking on doors and talking to people, that there’s a need for more transparency when it comes to the relationship between local law enforcement and the residents of District 5. And with my work at the DA’s office, I had a large caseload of domestic violence cases. The victims really aren’t that comfortable talking about it. So, with this campaign I really want to talk to people about making sure that we have support systems for the victims of domestic violence, and making sure we have open communications about that.
I know that District Attorney Dan Conley has done some work in that area, but there is also some distrust between the minority residents of the city and the District Attorney’s office, as well as the Boston Police Department. Does that get in the way of some of this type of advocacy and outreach work?
When you have people on both ends that are reflective of each other, that diminishes this idea of not really collaborating with and connecting with each other. What’s happened is—and I’ll give this credit to the DA—that with the victim advocates he wants to make sure that there are people there that are reflective of the communities that they are representing. And it goes to this idea of community policing; community policing is great, but it needs to be implemented. I recently had this conversation with a man in the community about Almont Park. It attracts a lot of youths. But it needs basic services, like having a police cruiser there when it gets late, and there are no lights on. They have a cruiser on Blue Hill Ave. and Talbot Ave., but this community is asking for the same thing. It’s really about implementing measures where the community feels that there are things happening and they can see it.
When I ask other candidates about the diversity of the district, I hear over and over that yes it’s diverse, but ultimately everyone has the same desires, and everybody works together—is that realistic? From your perspective, are there real differences, and are parts of the district not getting heard and represented as well as others?
The issues are the same issues, that’s true. Everyone wants youth programming, and things geared toward youth development and quality education, and they want safe neighborhoods. That’s true. But we have to be realistic: there are communities and people who feel like they didn’t had a voice at City Hall. My example of Almont Park, that is a basic thing: there are no lights on in the park. It’s something really simple, but it feels like nobody’s listening sometimes. The issues are the same, but as long as they’re being implemented the same in each neighborhood in the entire district, that would be great.
As you said, you were very active in city organizations as a youth; what do you think you know or can do so that young people today can have it better down the line?
Youth programming is really a big deal to me, because it has had a great effect on who I am now, but it’s not just that. It’s also the connection that I had with the older residents of the neighborhood. It’s about connecting the generations, and diminishing the gap between the two. I think that the seniors think that the younger people don’t get it sometimes. That’s always true. I’m a younger person myself, I’m sure you know I’m the youngest person in the race. But it needs to be talked about, and there needs to be programs that bring the two together.
By the way, how young are you—25?
I’m 25 years old.
That is pretty young. [Callender laughs] There are a lot of young people running this year for City Council—do you feel this is a chance to bring young, fresh voices into city government? And what kind of difference might that make?
I think it’s great. And I’ll bring up what we talked about when Congressman Clyburn came to town. It was the anniversary of the March on Washington. We were talking about passing the torch, and making sure we have people who are able to continue this drive, and continue to advocate. I think it’s great when you have a number of people who are in their 20s and who are advocating, and really want to be involved in government. I also think it attracts other people their age, my age, and it really helps them engage and feel like they have a voice. The Boston City Council needs to be more reflective of all of Boston. All ages as well.
You didn’t say reflective of gender, but there is only one woman on the council right now. Do you think that has an actual impact, or is it important as a symbolic thing?
No, it definitely has an impact. You have to have to give credit to councilor [Ayanna] Pressley, who did implement the Committee on Women and Healthy Communities. Women’s issues are always an issue, but it wasn’t talked about before then. That is important. If you have a City Council where there aren’t a number of women who are there to speak about these issues, then we’re missing something.
You studied in Egypt and Israel—what was the experience like?
I went there the year of my graduation, in 2010, so it was right before the revolt in Egypt happened. I studied in Cairo, and then we traveled into Israel. We visited Jerusalem and then we traveled up to Tel Aviv. It was a great experience. It changes your perspective on things, but it’s a better understanding on how people see you, also. And how they see the United States, and people within the urban communities. I appreciated that.
Did they have certain preconceptions of you, as a black woman from a major U.S. city?
They did. It went from highs and lows. At one point I had someone think I was related to President Obama. [Laughs] But I also had people talk to me about what they watch. The movies that they see are movies where the urban communities, and the black communities—the minority communities—are seen as really, really gritty. One person told me they were afraid if they came to a city in the United States, they’d get robbed.
Your grandmother, Willie Mae Allen, served as a state representative, but much of her advocacy work was before that, outside of elected office. I’m curious, did she encourage you to run for office, or warn you away from it?
The main thing that she wanted to break down to me, when I told her that I wanted to run, was understanding the commitment. And that my voice was no longer my voice; my voice would be the voice of the people who elected me to that office.
Read more Boston City Council Candidate Chats. This interview has been edited for length.