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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Q&A with Boston City Councilor At-Large Ayanna Pressley

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Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley speaking at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center during a rally for Ed Markey.

Boston City Councilor At-Large Ayanna Pressley has used her political power to combat violence, sexual abuse, and poverty since being elected in 2009. The first ever woman of color to serve in the hundred-year history of the Boston City Council, the founder and chair of the Committee on Women and Healthy Communities, and a Dorchester resident, she is devoted to working alongside youth as a means of stabilizing Boston communities. Pressley took time to answer a few questions from The Mass Media regarding her historic leadership position and the issues she believes are worth fighting for.
You have been a strong and persistent advocate for improving and increasing sexual education over the past few years. Why is this an important issue to you, and in what ways have you seen your hard work pay off?
I am so proud of the partnership I have forged with tireless advocates and that after more than three years of work together, we were successful in getting a robust sexual health education and condom availability policy passed by Boston Public Schools this June. 
As founder and chair of the City Council’s Committee on Women and Healthy Communities, my maiden hearing as a City Councilor was on teen pregnancy in March of 2010. I called for the hearing because there was an uptick in the teen birth rate in Boston that year, with dramatic disparities by race and ethnicity.
Teen pregnancy is also cited as the number one reason girls drop out of school. As momentum was growing locally and at the state level to address the achievement gap and dropout rates, particularly among youth of color, I thought we would be remiss not to address the number one reason girls drop out of school.
Following the hearing, I helped build a broad and diverse coalition of advocates including the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, Hyde Square Task Force, Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, ACLU, MassEquality, ABCD Health Services, and NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. Over three-and-a-half years we met regularly and had many small wins along the way that made passage of the comprehensive policy possible.
We pushed for better services during the City Council’s FY12, FY13, and FY14 budgets. I called for the council’s first-ever budget hearings on the Health and Wellness Department. We advocated and drafted a district-wide policy and our work and recommendations went directly into the final policy.
What problems still need to be addressed, and how does sexual education relate directly to academic success?
I am deeply committed to the health and wellness of our students and understand how inextricably linked their health is to their ability to learn in a classroom. About 500 teen girls in Boston give birth each year. The chlamydia rate among Boston youth is more than triple the already-high state rate and 70% of Boston high school students report having sex by the age of eighteen. And almost 40% before the age of 15.
There is no reason that in 2013, the Boston Public Schools should not be providing comprehensive sex ed and making condoms available. Youth need it, parents say they want it, and research shows it works.
Now that we have a district policy that requires this, elected officials, advocates and families can hold BPS accountable for providing equitable access. Now the real work begins for our coalition — helping BPS implement the policy.
Given the personal connection that many of your supporters feel to your upbringing — being raised by a single mom and needing to take time off from school in order to help support your family — what advice do you have for students who may be experiencing similar challenges?
You’re not alone. We don’t get to choose our family or the zip code we were born in. I often felt isolated and ashamed because I believed I was the only one experiencing the dysfunction I had at home. Looking back, I wish I had known others going through similar challenges because I think it would have helped seek out the support of others earlier.
Every family, no matter the model (single parent, grandparents raising grandkids, two mommies or two daddies), has its challenges. Some families struggle with un- or under-employment, mental health issues, substance abuse, poverty, divorce, domestic violence, you name it — the list goes on. What is challenging is that too often we accept those stressors, the looming threat of violence in our home, litter in the streets, poor housing as normal, as what will always be.
I’ve come to learn what this kind of stress — toxic stress — can do to our wellbeing and success. So often when we are immersed in situations, they become normal and we may not realize the toll the stress takes on us later. We have to pay attention to the cycles that we don’t want repeated; we have to make a commitment to break them by seeking support.
This is why I do what I do — because in hindsight, I realize the long-term impact these things can have on our wellbeing and thus on entire communities. It’s important for me to create a space where we can all talk openly about the struggles that too many individuals and families face so that we can support each other and address them thoughtfully and holistically.  
As the first woman of color to serve for the Boston City Council, can you speak to what it’s been like striving to bring change in a political culture so heavily dominated by white men?
Since being sworn in as an at-large councilor in 2010, I have been encouraged by how my colleagues have embraced my agenda. I have found my fellow councilors to be receptive and appreciative of the different lens I have brought to the council. I am thankful for their partnership in many of the issues I’ve been championing.
I do think in the past there was an oversight in addressing some of the issues that uniquely impact girls and women or in tackling cycles of poverty and violence, but it wasn’t out of malice; it was a lack of perspective. It’s a reflection of why, in government, we need a diversity of perspective, opinion, and thought so we don’t approach policy through a monolithic lens.
I have confronted gender and cultural biases occasionally with some residents who might at first stereotype the issues I work on or attempt to marginalize my agenda. Before we talk in depth, they may not immediately see the causes I work on as relevant to them or to their neighborhood. But I do think many more folks understand that the issues I work on are neighborhood transcendent; they impact all of Boston.
What I’ve learned is that to change policy you have to change minds and to change minds, you must change hearts. This is what I do every day — I work to raise consciousness, about issues that erode at the core of our community, through dialogue and discourse.
Working with and for the community is something that you’ve described as being extremely important for you. What do you admire the most about the community you represent? 
It is my honor and privilege to represent the entire City of Boston. I have the pleasure of spending time with residents in every neighborhood of this great city and I learn so much from listening to them. It makes me think — so many people and pundits talk about our fiscal deficit and the ills that it brings. And they are right. But what I have always maintained is that our biggest deficit is empathy.
It has been heartening to have the residents of the City of Boston embrace my agenda of breaking cycles of poverty and violence and of championing girls and women. Their support and participation in this movement affirms for me the sense of empathy and compassion we have for each other. It affirms for me that in Boston we know that anything that erodes at community, at the fabric of us, is everyone’s problem.