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Delivering Hope

Change begins in local government—so we ran and won

The morning after Election Day 2016, I met a group of Swarthmoreans to make sense of the new political reality.

Over wine and pasta, my classmates promised to help with my campaign for local office in Somerville, Mass.

Last November, Ben Ewen-Campen ’06 and I won seats on Somerville’s 11-member Board of Aldermen. We followed Patricia Deats Jehlen ’65, who has represented Somerville since 1976, including as its state senator since 2005.

Voter anxiety helped fuel our upset wins in our community of 82,000 that neighbors Boston and Cambridge. As we knocked on thousands of doors, Ben and I heard almost universal dismay. People shared their worries—about addiction, deportation, or eviction; about rats and traffic; and about the biggest of national and international threats. Often after talking to a voter on their stoop, I had to go around the corner, sit on a curb, and cry.

The current era echoed the mood when Pat grew into activism.

“In the 1960s, just like now, people were angry,” she says. “They wanted to change things and got engaged. I came to believe the most important way I could help is to talk to my neighbors.”

“This past year has been a wake-up call to get involved,” says Ben.

Local frustration now centers on the city and region’s housing crisis—eight out of 10 residents cannot afford to stay if they lose their current housing in Somerville. Ben and I promise to use the best tools to address the problem.

From donors to door-knocking volunteers, Swarthmore alums helped, as did our Swarthmore education. When I read the vote counts, the win felt bittersweet. I ran for office to make sure government works well for everyone and to advocate for people who have less of a voice. But in winning, I shifted the composition of the board. Pat, Ben, and I have degrees from Swarthmore and Harvard, making our profiles similar to a wave of residents who have contributed to gentrification. I will judge my success on how well I serve all residents, address issues we’ve heard, and build bridges across groups.

Pat reflected on a similar challenge in the ’60s.

“Working-class Americans were angry about the war, because it was their kids who were getting killed,” she says. “But to look at the rallies, it was the college students who seemed to be the face of the movement. There was a lot to be gained in finding the common ground by talking across class lines.”

The campaigns created a sense of hope, but can we deliver on it?

“We can’t solve these issues overnight,” says Ben, “but the first step is to increase engagement. I’m incredibly hopeful.”

Despite the challenge, in the face of terrible news every day, most of us are picking something to work on. I choose to believe that what we do at the local level matters, and that, together, we will bear witness to a stronger community that’s listening—and talking—across party lines.