By Madison Lipson
Special to the Gazette
In 2015, about only 20 percent of the United States Congress 535 members were women. This is a far cry from any kind of equal representation, so perhaps it should be no surprise that, despite seeking out political speakers for several years, I have never seen a female politician speak.
On Friday, Oct. 5 that changed. For the first time in my life, I met a female politician currently holding office. The image of leadership which had previously only been available on the television and in the newspapers was now standing right in front of me during a school assembly: local state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz.
I attend Meridian Academy, a small, independent school in Jamaica Plain, and our World Language department brought Chang-Diaz to speak in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. Diaz has represented the 2nd Suffolk District for the last eight years. As the first Latina to be elected to the Massachusetts State Senate, she has worked on an abundance of important issues such as CORI reform, lowering youth violence, and pushing for universal pre-K education.
Unlike other elected officials I had seen, Diaz spoke very openly about her opinions, including the misgivings she sometimes feels as a lawmaker and the complexity she sees in current legislation. She listened intently to our questions, seeming to care primarily about what we, the students, had to ask instead of what she had done. When one student asked her to recall the bill she was most proud of, she started with what she regretted the most, describing a dangerous bill that she let pass through her committee because she assumed it would be killed in another. She said this taught her an important lesson: “Don’t expect others to stop something you don’t want,” she warned. It took her more time to identify her most successful political moment before pointing to her work on CORI reform.
When I asked her what she thought about being a woman of color in government, she said that she felt respected at the State House, and did not feel as if anyone looked at her any differently because of her gender or race. She explained that many lawmakers feel an inherent respect for others who have made it through the grueling process of an election. The campaign, she said, was the toughest part of publicly navigating her gender and racial identity, explaining, “The problem is not once you’re in office, it’s getting there.” Diaz related this to the current Presidential election, noting the criticisms of Hillary Clinton—around toughness, displays of emotion, and clothing—that Diaz argues would never be leveled against her were she a man.
But Diaz didn’t seem to want to dwell on this point; instead, she spoke about her hope for a future in which we see greater representation in government and less unfounded criticism.
Her optimism reinvigorated the excitement I’d felt seeing a woman politician speak for the first time. Diaz made a compelling case that government can be an agent of change, no matter how stagnant things sometimes seem, and no matter how much the media portrays it otherwise. The simple fact of her presence—a woman, a Latina, and an influential State Senator—spoke volumes. In the 45 minutes she took to speak with us, I could see a world that is more open, more accepting, and more capable of significant change. Government, she told us, is the job of everyone who works together, not just those who are elected.
[Madison Lipson is a student at Meridian Academy and a member of the class of 2017]