October 31, 2014

Being an Advocate

Thank you, Erica [Powers], and thank you to the American Bar Association for this tremendous honor.

Congratulations to the other honorees here with us today. To be recognized as an advocate means so much.

Since I have left office, many people have asked me how Boston has changed, and how we were able to do it. We opened up the city by creating the Greenway.

We transformed the industrial South Boston waterfront into the Innovation District—where parking lots and unused wharfs once stood, hotels and gleaming office towers have recreated the skyline as young entrepreneurs and traditional businesses gather below.

We have become the youngest city in America, bringing families and young professionals out of the suburbs and into our neighborhoods. Cranes rose over Dudley Square, and the new Boston Public School Headquarters nears completion, bringing the school leadership out of the office buildings downtown and into the communities it serves.

We even had a few duck boat parades along the way.

The biggest change I have noticed, and the one I am most proud of, is how Boston has become a more inclusive and tolerant city. When I first became a city councilor in 1983, memories of busing riots and racial tension were still fresh.

An infamous photograph from 1976 shows Ted Landsmark, a prominent Boston attorney and leader of the Boston Architectural College for 17 years, being jabbed with an American flag. It was a dark time.

Today, our city is thriving. Our neighborhoods are more diverse—we are a minority-majority city. People of all different backgrounds live and work and play and worship side by side.

How did all this happen? The secret is simple: my team was able to change Boston’s identity, and change the city, by gaining the trust of the people.

Having the people’s trust is so important. It gives you the power to make big changes, but it means always paying attention to the little details.

Trust comes from being an advocate for your constituents. It comes from giving the people a voice, being there to listen, and letting them know that you are committed to be their champion, day in and day out.

I always say that I had the best job in America, and it’s true. Every day, I was able to help people. But it isn’t always easy.

Not long after I first became mayor, there was a horrible shooting in Boston. A young boy named Louis Brown was walking to a Christmas party for a group called Teens Against Gang Violence when he was shot and killed.

All lives lost to violence deserve our grief, but young deaths are especially tragic. After learning about the shooting, I made my way to the mother’s house. As I walked up her front steps, my hand on the railing, I paused. What am I doing? What can I possibly say to this woman who just lost her child? What can I ever do to make that pain go away?

I entered the house and met the mother, Tina. She was crying. I stood there and told her, I didn’t know what I could do to help, but I would be there for her.

That experience has stuck with me for over 20 years. I realized that violence among our city’s youth had to stop. Being there, sharing Tina’s grief, helped inspire me to enact programs and policies from Mayors Against Illegal Guns to community policing that would make our city safer.

I couldn’t bring her son back, but I could help other families from experiencing this terrible loss. I could be an advocate, and together we could rally others to join the cause.

My visit to Tina’s house was one of those small moments when I began to understand how to be a good political leader. You see a need and you realize you can help.

When you are with the people, there are these moments of sorrow, but there are also moments of joy.

Every Christmas Eve, I went to Bowdoin-Geneva, a neighborhood that has suffered through years of poverty and violence. On the 24th of December, I put on my warmest coat and walked the streets with members of the community.

I wanted them to know I would never forget about them. In a neighborhood that had been through so much, I wanted to help bring a sense of togetherness, unity, and hope.

In another yearly winter tradition, my staff and I would go out and perform the homeless census. We would visit every corner of the city, talk to the homeless, hear their stories, and get them to the nearest shelters. On those frigid nights, I wanted to make sure that City Hall served all of its people, especially those who needed help the most.

As the days grew warmer, I would hold regular coffee hours in Boston’s parks, where neighbors could come together and tell me about their communities. They would let me know what the city was doing well, and what needed to improve.

Most importantly, they were reminded that as members of the community, they had a voice. They were heard. They had a say in Boston’s future.

But my favorite days were the ones I was able to spend with the children of Boston. On the first day of school, I would be out in the neighborhoods, greeting new students and proud parents.

I would visit classrooms and speak with teachers and principals. They needed to know that I was there for them. That I cared about their kids.

I tell you all of this because at the end of the day, it is about the people. It’s always about the people.

That is what government leaders have to remember. It is what mayors and city councilors, police officers and firefighters, teachers and attorneys have to remember.

When you are an advocate for your people, when you take the time to understand their issues, cheer their victories, provide a shoulder to lean on during those moments of sadness, and fight for their future, you can make a positive change in your city.

It is easy to get caught up in poll numbers, approval ratings, economic developments, and commercial growth. I urge today’s leaders to remember what they were elected to do: serve the people. Be their leader, their advocate, and their biggest champion.

When you do that, when you do the little things to show the people that you truly care, you will earn their trust. And when you earn their trust, you can make amazing things happen.

You can take a stand for what you believe in, even if it is a politically dangerous thing to do. You can defend the causes that make a real difference in people’s lives, even if it goes against conventional wisdom.

You can make your city, your state, and your country a better place, all because you have earned the people’s trust. You have earned their respect by being there for them.

By paying attention to the little details, you can make big things happen.

I think city administrations are beginning to understand this more. But it cannot be emphasized enough. Be there for your constituents. Remember the human side of politics. Earn their trust by being an advocate for them every single day.

Protect the groups that need an ally. Stand up for the people who need a helping hand. Make sure the little things are taken care of—working streetlights, clean parks, businesses free from graffiti, reliable responses from city services—and the big things will fall into place.

That is the biggest lesson I can offer from my 30 years in City Hall. I am proud of all that my team was able to accomplish, and I hope that other cities can learn something from what we have done. City leaders need a great vision, but they also need a commitment to the little things. Every city deserves an advocate. Every city deserves a champion.

Thank you.