Interview with Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz

Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz speaking to an constituent. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz)

In November, 2008, Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz won the general election to represent the Second Suffolk District, which consists of Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill, Roxbury, Beacon Hill, Chinatown, South End, Back Bay, Fenway, and a small portion of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roslindale.  Chang-Díaz is once again.  Now she is seeking second term.  In the following interview, Senator Chang-Díaz talks to the Sampan about what stood out in the past two years, and what lies ahead.

Sampan:  How has your experience been as a State Senator?

Chang-Díaz:  My experience as the state senator for the past year and a half has been an extraordinary privilege.  To have it be my job to get to wake up every morning and go fight for the things my community needs and the values we believe in is incredibly challenging, incredibly trying work, but also deeply fulfilling work.  And it’s a challenge I still believe in.

It has been an action packed 20 months.  I have had the pleasure of forging new relationships with dozens of new colleagues in the Senate and House of Representatives.  I’ve learned the ins and outs of being a legislative committee chairwoman, as well as working on five other legislative committees.  My staff team and I have responded to over 8,000 constituent inquiries and requests, individually and personally.  I’ve attended events and worked with constituents and coalition groups in all eleven of the neighborhoods I represent.  After years of community organizing, we finally got CORI Reform and Bilingual Ballots over the finish line!  And we were able to secure a significant foreclosure protection bill this year that will help protect thousands of families from eviction from their homes and help keep our neighborhood fabric intact.

It has been a whirlwind 20 months for sure.  When I look back at what we have accomplished together, it seems like it should have been three or four years, not 20 months!

Sampan:  What have you learned about Chinatown for the past two years?

Chang-Díaz:   I think the thing that stands out for me the most is the incredible tenacity that the Chinatown residents and elders have shown over the years in fighting for bilingual ballots and full voting rights.  And the dignity they have embodied all the way through, even as they have been denied rights—coming back again and again to knock on the door of democracy and insist that they wanted in.  They’ve really given the rest of our state a lesson in what true citizenship looks like.  This is something the Senate Chairman of the Election Law Committee also remarked to me about, after meeting with and seeing the Chinatown residents in action.  And it’s a lesson our state and our country really need to see right now, as we go through such ugly debates about the role of immigrant communities in our society.  This is something that has made me so deeply proud to represent Chinatown.

Sampan:  Describe some memorable moments on the job?

Chang-Díaz:  Wow! There are so many.  As the legislative session has unfolded there really have been a lot of moments that are memorable. I’ll highlight a few that I have had specifically with the Asian-American community.

First: the moment Bilingual ballots passed the Senate with the Asian-American Voting Rights Coalition members in the Senate chamber.  The Senate President—who has been a great supporter of the bill—allowed me to get up on the Senate rostrum and recognize the Coalition members after the vote had been tallied and announced.  As I looked down at them and as the Senate cheered, I thought: that was a moment I will never forget as a Senator.

The day the Governor signed the legislation was a proud moment, as well.  Getting to see Mr. Yee shake the Governor’s hand and receive one of the pens that had been used to sign the bill was really fun.  Also, that day happened to be Governor Patrick’s birthday!  So it was a special twist that he was giving a gift, of sorts, to the community on his birthday.

Visiting the Josiah Quincy School and “swearing in” a group of students in a mock citizenship ceremony after they had been studying immigration also tops the list.  And, of course, the New Year’s banquets!

Sampan:  What can be done to help immigrants for jobs in MA?

Chang-Díaz: One of my top budget priorities since coming into office this year has been to fight for Adult Basic Education programs in the budget.  These programs really give immigrants opportunities to gain English proficiency and other skills that they need to access better employment and better opportunities.  These programs help with language barriers, computer skills, and job skills to help make our immigrant populations successful in the job market.  I know this has been a very difficult budget year for every program, but rest assured I will continue to fight hard for these programs.

Sampan:  Going forward, what are major issues facing the Second Suffolk District that you would like to tackle?

Chang-Díaz: There are so many here too.  There are the effects of this current economic downtime that people are suffering—the job losses and the cuts to core services and programs in our community.  So fighting to restore those and build an economic recovery that benefits everyone is of course a top priority.  And make no mistake: that’s going to take a lot of work.  Next year’s state budget debate is likely to be even more difficult than this year’s, if that’s imaginable, because the federal stimulus funds are going to run out.

But there are also issues I want to tackle that have long preceded this recession.  Improving our K-12 education system across the board; ensuring everyone has access to affordable, quality health care; affordable housing in the city; bringing a branch library back to Chinatown; reducing illegal guns and youth violence in our neighborhoods; continuing to fight for improvements in our elections system; promoting environmental justice, so that low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color don’t continue to suffer disproportionate pollution and health impacts…You can see, the list is long!  But that’s exactly why I hope voters will send me back to the legislature: because there is so much more work to get done.

Sampan:  What are your thoughts on in-state tuition for undocumented immigrant students in MA?

Chang-Díaz: I am proud to be the lead sponsor of the in-state tuition bill in the Senate and I plan to refile this bill next legislative session (should voters be willing to send me back for a second term on September 14th!).

This legislation will have such an enormous impact for many young people in our state who are already here, paying taxes, and who have been attending public schools for years.  It’s about access to the American Dream, and it’s about strengthening our economy for everyone in Massachusetts by developing our workforce.  That’s why the business community in the state generally supports it.  My father came to this country as an immigrant—with $50 in his pocket and very little English.  But because he had access to affordable public higher education after graduating from high school, he was able to go on to major success and years of economic and scientific contribution to this country.  This issue is personal for me as well as good public policy.  Everyone reading this article can count on me to be a leading voice on this issue until we make it law!

Sampan:  Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Chang-Díaz: I just want to thank everyone in the Asian-American community for their support and unbelievable advocacy this year.  Since I took office in 2009, the Asian-American community has been such a strong, persistent voice at the State House and in our neighborhoods. I want to thank residents for giving me the charge I need to fight for their priorities on Beacon Hill.

I also would like to note what a great partner Rep. Aaron Michelwitz has been in fighting for the needs of Chinatown with me up on Beacon Hill.  The Chinatown community has a good representative in him.

Finally, I want to ask the Asian-American community to continue to stay active through the fall elections. We are experiencing big challenges in our economy right now. Please make sure you make your voice heard and vote this fall.  As a part of that, I really encourage everyone to vote “No” on ballot questions 1, 2, and 3 on this November.  If these questions were to pass they would be extremely damaging for affordable housing in the state, and would decimate our ability to fund core public services, like schools, health care, and public safety.

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