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Q&A: New rep Henriquez takes community organizing to next level

Posted by Cara Bayles  December 22, 2010 08:51 AM

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After a long election battle, community activist Carlos Henriquez won the Fifth Suffolk House seat vacated by Marie St. Fleur. For Henriquez, president of the Dudley Street Initiative and a former aide to former City Councilor Michael Flaherty, the importance of representing his Dorchester/Roxbury district after he's sworn in next month doesn't lie in the title but in the the leverage it will provide for his community organizing.

Q. What have you been up to since you won the election?

A. A little bit of everything. I've been to a lot of community meetings. I want to make sure that I'm visible and accessible to residents throughout the district. There are so many meetings in Dorchester, it's almost impossible to cover them all, but I want to try to at least. Sometimes, I'll cover two or three in a night. Sometimes I can only stay for 15 minutes, but I make an effort to give out my business card so that people can reach out to me if they'd like to.

I've also taken meetings with some community leaders, but I want to make sure that all people in the district have an equal amount of access, whether it's Joe Citizen, or the department head of a community development corporation.

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Carlos Henriquez

Q. Are there concerns that unite the district that you keep hearing about again and again?

A. Well, the number one issue about a month ago was violence. Now, two of the schools on the Boston Public Schools' closing list are in the Fifth Suffolk, as well. There are a couple hot-button issues that are coming up time and time again. Neither one of them is something where you can come up with a quick fix. It's not a simple constituent issue where you can pick up the phone and call downtown and get something fixed. It's really keeping an open dialogue, putting heads together to figuring out what best practices are and kind of getting all the stakeholders at the table.

Q. Are there legislative ways to address those issues?

A. There are a couple of things we're looking at. What we're looking at is on a grassroots level, in terms of how to create partnerships in the community between the police department and residents. I think that needs to be grown, just as much as legislation. It's really going to have to be owned by the residents and the police officers on the ground every day.

Q. It sounds like constituent services are really important to you.

A. It is important. But we are looking at what we can fix and change through legislation. I've had residents in the neighborhood, some of whom are veterans and some of whom are high school students, who are looking to propose legislation, which I will take a look at.

The other part of it is, in years past, a state representative would look for earmarks for their district, to get a school fixed, or get a park remodeled. Because of budget cuts, and what's going on financially in our state and country, now it's almost a game of defense, where you're looking to protect your district. We're looking at rising health care costs, health care makes up close to 45 percent of the budget, so we're looking at how to reform health care. At the same time, we're looking to protect resources. We're looking at budget cuts to local aid, which would affect our police departments and schools. So it's really how do we work together to minimize the collateral damage.

With schools, it's about sitting down with city councilors, education advocates, and the mayor, to figure out what damage will be done if cuts are made, how can we do minimal damage. Rather than going in with a machete, we'll go in with a scalpel and make surgical cuts.

Q. Do you have specific legislation in mind for the upcoming session?

A. I am meeting with a few people from the neighborhood, who have drafted legislation. I'm also looking to schedule time with former state representatives, like Marie St. Fleur and [her predecessor] Charlotte Richie, to talk about legislation they weren't able to completely push through, and projects that still need to be championed. It's been a little overwhelming because I have a staff member, but they aren't on the payroll yet. Hopefully once we get into the State House, with some research capabilities, we'll be able to get through it a little faster.

Q. Do you know which committees you'd like to be on?

A. Education, of course. As we're facing a critical time in education in the City of Boston, I want to make sure that I can affect change there, and be a good partner. I'm also looking at [the Committee on] Mental Health [and Substance Abuse]. I look at lot of the ills that are facing district, the city of Boston, and beyond, and I look at violence, whether it's violence with handguns or knives, whether it's domestic violence, whether it's substance abuse in terms of drug abuse and alcohol abuse, and a lot of these issues are looked at through a physical lens, and not a mental lens. I want to start to look at treatment and prevention through a mental health lens, and look at how we can begin some healing around families and schools.

I'm also looking at Ways and Means. Not many legislators get that, but both Charlotte Richie and Marie St. Fleur sat on it as rookies, so I will remind the committee chair of that. I'm hoping to sit on at least three committees, so I can do some good work there.

Q. You've run for City Council before you ran as a rep. What made you run for office? Why attack these issues from the State House instead of continuing to do community organizing?

A. I've been a community organizer since I was a teenager. You see all the issues in your neighborhood, and you know that by bringing people together, you can affect change. When I looked originally at the city council seat for District Seven, it was a platform that would allow me to organize at a larger scale, and advocate on a higher level. And that's what a wrapped my head around when I transitioned from running for city council to running for state representative. The position has you let go some of those day-to-day issues in the city, the pothole politics. But you're looking at policy, and larger budget issues. It allows you to take those organizing tools you grew up with and build consensus with your peers.

You sit down with Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, and as you have these conversations, you realize that your values are still pretty much the same. You're still there to represent your district, figure out how to get people working, and improve their quality of life. Those are tools you hear as a community organizer. You look for the commonality. The position of elected office gives you the push and the support of your district. They've elected you to find commonalities, not only within your own district, but in other districts that look like yours, and people with similar goals. It was great to talk to representatives from Springfield and New Bedford and Lowell and Lawrence that have working class communities struggling with unemployment and violence and education.

On the district level, it's building an infrastructure, and empowering people to make change themselves. … Residents need to know that when they have a problem, they have an advocate at the Statehouse, but they also need the tools to solve their own problems. Sometimes it's as simple as getting a street sign replaced or a street plowed. That helps build infrastructure.

Getting residents who aren't as civicly engaged to come out to meetings, that builds infrastructure. Having that dialogue allows me to give them information and cull information from them in return. I can tell them what's coming down the pipes from the Statehouse, and they can tell me what to look for on Bowdoin Street.

E-mail Cara Bayles at carabayles@gmail.com.

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