“People will say, ‘Wow, I’m just seeing so many people of color running for office these days,’” says Kelly Bates, 43. “Well, that didn’t just happen overnight!”
For the past five years, as executive director of the nonpartisan Access Strategies Fund, Bates has had a hand in diversifying the pool of potential candidates. The organization’s mission is to improve civic representation among minority groups and women and equip them with the skills necessary to seek political office or get involved in government.
A graduate of Boston University School of Law, Bates began her career in the 1990s with Women’s Statewide Legislative Network, where she helped to pass laws outlawing gender-based workplace discrimination and guaranteeing women longer postnatal hospital stays. She has also worked as a diversity consultant for Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and nonprofits.
But Bates cut her teeth as one of the only female or minority lobbyists at the State House, where she served as an advocate for people of color and low-income families. “I don’t even like the word ‘lobbyist,’ ’’ says Bates, who lives with her 7-year-old son in Roslindale. “I was probably the lowest-paid lobbyist on Beacon Hill!”
It was where she learned an important lesson: To bring about changes for outsiders, she had to learn to work the system as a political insider. As a woman and a minority, she says, she always had to ensure she was the most organized, best-dressed, most articulate lobbyist on Beacon Hill. And she picked up effective tricks used by veteran lobbyists — little-known tactics for cornering politicians and calling them out of legislative session — using them to ensure that the issues that mattered to communities of color were addressed.
In the 20 years that Bates has worked in Massachusetts, she has seen minority representation in state politics improve, she says. But, she adds, there’s still a long way to go. The next 25 years, she predicts, will bring Boston’s first mayor of color.
“I want to see communities at an equal level of representation,” says Bates, “and I just won’t rest until I see that happen.”
— Martine Powers