Q&A: MA State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz

By Political Parity on March 31, 2014

Sonia Chang-Díaz is the first Latina elected to the Massachusetts State Senate, where she is currently serving her third term. A former public school teacher, she is a well-known advocate for public education, increasing opportunities for low-income and immigrant communities, and for people affected by foreclosures, hate crimes, and youth violence. Her mother instilled in her a strong sense of social justice which inspired her to continue her family’s long tradition in public service.

Political Parity’s Nadia Farjood recently met with Senator Chang-Díaz at the Massachusetts Statehouse to glean her insights about Latinas in politics. Here’s what she had to say.

Nadia Farjood: Given that the Hispanic community is one of the fastest-growing communities in the United States, do you think it’s important for more Latinas to be represented in public office?

Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz: Well, that’s an easy yes, of course. Since my time coming into office, it has been at the core of my beliefs that the government and our public sector, in order to do the best job possible, need to draw on all the perspectives of the people it represents. To do that you need to have a representative sample of the people who are serving in the halls of government.

NF: What do you think Latinas can contribute that no other group thus far has been able to contribute in government, especially in Congress, given that Latinas make up only 1.6% of that body?

SCD: There’s no one Latina experience in America. In order to have an understanding of what that experience is like and what it takes—the passion for serving those needs—you need to have people at the table who have themselves lived that experience.

Let me mention one more thing Latinas are uniquely positioned to do, which I’ve become more and more of a believer in since coming into office: the role-model effect. We need role models in lots of sectors of our society, not just in government, but I have really been astounded to see how much it strikes an important and different chord for young people and for women and for people of color and all of those different segments of where they overlap to see people who they think are like them, for whatever reasons, in positions of power.

I’ve seen it with City Councilor Tito Jackson, who’s a young, African-American man. He tells the story about how when he was out campaigning once for reelection he ran into this young man—probably 10 or 11 years old—in a barber shop, a young Puerto Rican man. He looked up at Tito and he said “Mr. Jackson, you look like the president.” Councilor Jackson is a big guy and he says, “Manny, I look like I ate the president.” But, then he tells this story about how he went home that night and he had this real light bulb moment, when he was looking in the mirror and telling himself, “Man, if a young Puerto Rican boy in our city, and in our society today, can look at me and see the President of the United States, how much more likely is it that he’s going to be able to look at himself and see the President of the United States?”

As a possibility, it’s really, really powerful.

NF: Let me take you back to your first campaign. What was it like? What were the biggest challenges and opportunities you found? What were the most difficult parts of it for you, and what was rewarding?

SCD: Being a first-time candidate is hard for anybody who’s going through the process. I think this is normal for first-time candidacy. You start out with no name recognition, no volunteer base, no donor base, unless you come from a political family or something like that. You have to be willing to slog it out through some tough early months in the campaign. People think campaigns are glamorous and like a presidential campaign that they see on television, but most campaigns in America are not presidential campaigns. I remember my very first day of campaigning. It was just me, and some sneakers, and a clipboard, and a pencil. I mean literally, a clipboard and a pencil. There was no band playing in the background! None of that. All it is, is you at the door having a conversation with a voter, person-to-person, trying to make a connection about what do you believe in for the future of our community, what do I believe in, and do they match together.

NF: Was fundraising one of the toughest parts?

SCD: Sure, yes, fundraising is always the challenge. I think for most people it’s a challenge. I haven’t met someone yet who just says, “Oh, fundraising is easy and I just love it!” However, I think it’s particularly a challenge for women because we’re socialized to be givers of help rather than askers for help. That’s also one thing you’re doing while fundraising. You say, “I have this vision and I need your help in order to complete it. Can you offer me some of your power to put behind this mission?” It is an unfamiliar side of that equation for women to be on. Practice helps a lot, like most things in life. And I think you have to approach it with the right mindset, that what you are doing is asking for help for a cause that you deeply believe in, rather than asking for something for yourself. That’s a hang-up for many candidates—men and women—but especially women.

NF: What would you tell a young woman who’s interested in public service?

SCD: Do it, is the first thing I want to say. Do it! We really need good people in our public sector and you can’t get good government without good people, so that’s always my first and last message to young people is to consider a career in public service. I think volunteering on campaigns is a great, great way for young people to get an education in the mechanics of how does this work, is this a context that I can see myself in? It’s also a great way for young people to access power in our political system because even though you might be too young to vote, or too young to be a political donor, you’re rarely too young to be a volunteer.

NF: Even though it’s not the happiest memory ever, going back to a campaign you lost, what got you back up on your feet?

SCD: I wouldn’t have traded that experience. I wouldn’t have won the second year had I not run the first time around. When I started in 2008, which would be the second campaign, we had a donor base. We had a volunteer base. There was a message that people were already familiar with. I had some name recognition. So often many people lose their first election. That’s part of building the electorate’s familiarity with you and it takes longer than one election cycle. It made me a better candidate.

[Representing a district with the wealthiest and poorest households in the state] was very challenging, but also really beautiful in so many ways because the campaign was this amazing place where you would see people from totally divergent walks of life that might never have met each other. They would live in the city their whole lives, and would never have met each other and come to know one another had they not met on this campaign. They came together in the common space of this campaign and shared a belief in the set of values that I was running on. You would see people become friends across these vast social gaps, and that was really fulfilling. It made me feel like win, lose, or draw, we were doing something good for the city.

NF: I was wondering if you could give an example or a story of a mentor who has been or is really helpful to you, or someone who you mentored, and describe what strategies worked.

SCD: I think a key component to successful, meaningful mentorship is durability, longevity, and consistency. Just having a career day for young people is certainly good for planting the seed or sparking someone’s imagination, but that does not equal mentorship.

For me, I’ve seen you can find examples of mentorship in unexpected or nontraditional places. One of the mentoring relationships that’s been most meaningful to me has been among a peer group of mine. It wasn’t someone who was more advanced in her career. We have this informal group and we get together a few times a year and talk shop. Sometimes we talk about shoes, sometimes we talk about men, and sometimes we talk about negotiating for a raise, or how to manage a team of activists. Many different things, but it’s been a very meaningful set of relationships for me.

NF: Life in politics can be challenging and requires a demanding schedule. What is something really rewarding that you think young women would love to know about your experience?

SCD: I love my job and when I say to people, “Consider public service as a career,” it’s not just out of a sense of obligation to the common good. It’s a great job. It doesn’t pay well and the hours are crazy, but you get to work with really awesome people. The team in my office and the larger circle in [the Statehouse], many smart people, committed people, who even when we disagree on policy, I respect that they are passionate and believe in public service. That’s inspiring. It’s an inspiring place to work. You don’t win all the fights, but in my experience, you win enough to make it worth being in the ring.

What are your thoughts on Senator Chang-Díaz’s reflections? Have you had similar or different experiences as public servants and/or candidates? What have been your best mentoring experiences? @NadiaFarjood and the team at @PoliticalParity want to hear from you. Connect with #LatinasRepresent.