Thank the board for honoring me. I look forward to serving with all of you.
Most of all I’d like to thank my family, who always supported me. I thank my brothers Danny, Mark and Stephen for always validating my beliefs. Thanks to my sister Stacy for beating up the big kids for us. And I’d like to thank the three most important women in my life: My mother Charlene for keeping me alive, my grandmother Barbara for keeping me sheltered, and my loving wife Maura for keeping me in check.
Finally, I’d like to thank my father William McLaughlin for teaching me working class values and the importance of helping others without expecting anything in return. I’m sure if he were alive today he would be proud to know that his first born son, the descendant of immigrants who came to this country with no documentation and for generations swept the floors, drove the buses, worked in the factories, built the homes and served in every American war would one day rise to … teleprompter status.
Through my father’s work with people struggling with alcohol addiction, I learned the serenity prayer, which has always guided my decision making in tough times. The prayer says “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
This prayer has served me well in life, and in no better place than in local politics, where we are often powerless to make changes due to state and city charters, yet sometimes shrink from using the powers we do have because we fear what we can change. This term the city council will have the wisdom to accept what we can change, and change what we cannot accept.
I am honored and humbled to to speak at the last inauguration held at the old Somerville High School. I have a lot of memories in this school, where I graduated nearly 20 years ago in the first class of the new millennium. Not all of those memories are positive, however. I remember Freshman year this auditorium being filled with energized young people from every background imaginable. Four years later, this auditorium contained half as many students facing an uncertain future. Some went on to live productive lives, while others fell victim to low expectations and no support networks after they graduated. Very few of the success stories or the cautionary tales still live in Somerville.
These hallways are not the only negative memories I have in the city I love. Everywhere I go I am haunted by the ghosts of Somerville’s past. When I pass Dorothy’s Funeral Home I can’t help but think of my friends who succumbed to opoid addiction. I cannot count of how many friends I’ve lost, but they continue to leave their mark on me and the community.
When I pass the many basketball courts in Somerville I think of playing pickup games with friends from El Salvador, Barbados, Haiti, Brazil, Guatemala and every other background you can imagine. We all grew up in the wake of Boston busing, race riots at the high school and gang violence on the streets, yet through the innocence of youth were able to see each others as friends and equals and created the diverse and tolerant community we value. None of these friends live in Somerville anymore.
When I pass Foss Park I think of my friends who were first generation Americans whose families never unpacked because they never knew when they would have to move next. When they finally were forced out of the city, some lied about their residency just so they could graduate with their friends in their adopted community that they could no longer afford.
When I think of my closest friends, I think of fatherless children whose mothers and grandmothers had to play the role of parent, bread winner, tutor, sports coach and mentor in a city where even a two income family struggles to survive. I think about how despite their best efforts many were powerless to save their children from the streets.
When I pass our declining VFW and American Legion halls I think about my brothers and sisters in the military who enlisted to find opportunity and escape the problems of Somerville, only to return home with less opportunity and more problems.
When it snows out I think of the senior citizens that I used to shovel walks for and how they always insisted on paying me even when they lived on fixed incomes. Their modest homes are now luxury apartments no fixed income could afford. The Somerville of old has passed away and there aren’t enough children in new Somerville to help their neighbors dig out during a storm.
These are the ghosts that haunt me that I refuse to ignore, because to me they represent the true spirit of Somerville more than our festivals, parks and buildings. They all embody Somerville Pride, a pride that comes from overcoming adversity and becoming stronger as individuals and a community. It is to these lives that I dedicate the next term and all of my efforts.
Most of the people I mentioned no longer in Somerville, but they still represent the vulnerable populations that progressive governments are supposed to protect. Progressive minded people love to use the word “equity” as a catch all for our shared values, yet as Somerville has become more progressive it has also become more unequal. This paradox is not unique to Somerville. All across America cities are becoming unaffordable to the very people that represent the diversity and equity that progressive’s value. Some call it an urban renaissance, others call it gentrification. Both are accurate. The progress of American cities is undeniable, but that progress is not being shared equitably.
I come from a belief system where progress and equity mean the same thing. It’s a belief system that understands you can’t have social inclusion without economic inclusion. It’s one that values organized labor, grassroots activism and considering the voices of those who are unable to be in the room because they are struggling to survive. This belief can be described in the adage “a rising tide lifts all ships.” In Somerville, and in American cities in general, people are drowning in progress.
This is the challenge facing progressive cities and one Somerville is leading the way on. We’ve already done so much to address economic inequality, and yet the problem continues to grow. In the coming term the City Council will address equity head on. As we continue to progress we must ask ourselves if we are all achieving progress together. When we brag about our sanctuary city policy we have to ask what that means in a city where undocumented immigrants cannot afford housing or the standard of living. When we talk about transportation we need to guarantee that those who need public transportation live close to public transportation. When we talk about environmental justice we must prioritize the people most negatively affected by climate change and air pollution, such as the residents stuck next to highways that have a proven decline in public health. When we talk about open space we have to consider who will be around to benefit from that space. When we talk about substance abuse we have to consider if those who need help can access the care they need in the city they live in.
Every discussion we have, whether its affordable housing, transportation, open space or jobs, the question will be “does this increase equity?” We will do this, not by focusing on the things we cannot change, but by having the courage to change the things we can and focusing on the very tangible goals we can accomplish on our own. We will engage in radical pragmatism, using our limited powers to attain meaningful equity.
How will we do this?
The first and most important goal is to pass zoning!
What’s that you say? The City Council already passed the most progressive zoning reform in the country just last month? Well that is not the end to the business. There is still much more we can do within zoning to build an equitable and progressive city. Zoning is the exclusive domain of the City Council. No mayor, no governor and no president can take on this responsibility. We must accept that there are changes we cannot stop, but we must also have the courage to adjust that change to our needs.
When we passed our historic zoning, the phase uttered repeatedly was “pass and tweak” and we will be tweaking out for the next term. The overhaul is not a finished work of art, it is a new canvass for us to create the city we want and the equity we need. We still need to fill in the many blank spots on the canvass. Now that we have a 20 percent affordable housing rate, 33 percent in residential neighborhoods, we must increase density in areas that will benefit from the Green Line Extension, as well as along main corridors.
Nothing symbolizes the paradox between progress and equity more than the Green Line Extension. Somerville won the Green Line through a lawsuit that successfully argued that poor communities negatively impacted by car pollution deserve public transportation and pollution mitigation. Decades later the people the Green Line was supposed to serve are a fading minority and any improvements in air quality are negated by hundreds of thousands of new cars literally cutting our city in pieces. The only way we can guarantee transit equity now is to build affordable housing near T stops. If we are not willing to do this we are blocking the people most in need of public transit from having an equitable share of our progress. Increased density along our transit corridors is no longer just good city planning, it is a moral obligation in exchange for the privilege of the Green Line.
Though our zoning reform Somerville is now requiring a 20 percent affordable housing rate, 33 percent in residential neighborhoods, LEED platinum certification, linkage fees for jobs and housing, strong open space requirements, an off street parking ban for new developments and a potential transfer fee for affordable housing. If we find partners willing to do all this and we still say “not in my backyard” then equity was never a true goal we intended on attaining. Keeping Somerville affordable and keeping Somerville the same are no longer the same things. The goal is no longer to keep Somerville affordable, but to make it affordable. Neighborhood character is not defined by building type, it is defined by the people who live here. If we want a diverse, inclusive community we have to build it.
Aside from zoning, the City Council’s biggest responsibility is the annual budget. Too often, however, our finance committee serves as a reactionary body, approving or rejecting items proposed by the executive branch. This term the finance committee will promote a “People’s Budget” that will proactively solicit input from the community and promote equity through our purse strings. We can’t have true equity without an equitable distribution of resources.
The City Council will also use it’s time in committee more deliberatively. It is my hope that committees are often considered secondary are better utilized to create an equitable and transparent government. To that end I followed the lead of my predecessor Councilor Ballentyne and made her special committee on Equity, Gender, Families and Venerable populations a permanent standing committee. This committee will ensure that the rising tide of progress lifts all ships in Somerville.
While we will focus internally on tangible goals, we must also focus on the intangible goal of promoting our innovative ideas to our neighbors. Critics of our affordable housing efforts often say that Somerville cannot solve these problems on our own and we need regional solutions. While this is often used to resist the changes we can make, they are not wrong. We need our colleagues in other cities to join us in this regional struggle. Last term Mayor Curtatone took a bold leadership position by forming a coalition of mayors willing to build housing in their cities. For every mayor with the courage to embrace the changes they can make, however, there are city councils who fear the changes they cannot accept. To that end I shall use the position of the presidency to form a regional coalition of city councilors willing to not only address affordability through increased housing, but also through transfer fees, condo conversion ordinances, inclusionary housing, zoning changes and any other method to increase equity. Make no mistake, cities in the Commonwealth are already looking at Somerville as the vanguard of this political revolution. We must work with our allies to come up with regional solutions and overcome the special interests that stymie progress and benefit from inequality.
Lastly, as our city continues to change, our form of government must change as well. Last term the Board of Alderman took the symbolic step of changing our name to the City Council. We must build on this with structural change as well. That is why the City Council will work in conjunction with Mayor Curtatone’s office to implement Charter Reform. We cannot have an equitable city when our system of government has unequal checks and balances. This is a systemic problem that existed long before us and will exist long after us if we do not address it.
These are the challenges before us, and while they are difficult they are not insurmountable. They are not forces of nature, they are man-made problems and they require people driven solutions. We can do all of this if we have the courage to do so. But we can’t do this alone. We need help from you, the people, to have the courage to change what we can. Some of the ideas I just promoted I know are unpopular with some people. Others are wildly popular ideas, until it comes to your neighborhood. Many fear change because so often that change doesn’t benefit them. Special interests feed on manipulate the narrative to benefit their selfish motives.
And yet every election in the past six years shows that the people are with us and they demand equity as well as progress. We as elected officials must have the courage to live our values and represent not just the will, but the needs of the people, even at the risk of losing our lauded part time jobs. I ask my colleagues to live our shared values, accept what we cannot change but have the courage to change what we can.
I also ask the people of Somerville to live our shared values as well. Our values are not theoretical, they are defined by our surroundings, and we have the ability to create those surroundings using our values. I ask our progressive residents to live your values are and ask if you are willing to implement them in your own backyard. That is the difference between words and deeds, between values and rhetoric.
Our nation is facing many challenges, some beyond our control and others beyond our will to control. We must not only stand up to external injustice from obvious foes, but also look within and determine our own role in combating injustice. Together and individually we must have the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change what we can and the wisdom to know the difference.
See Matt’s speech in its entirety by clicking link below: https://youtu.be/jXIg6PNA1Ak
City Councilor, Ward 1/President City Council