Commonwealth Seminar
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Jarrett T. Barrios

Seminar class

State program helps minorities enter into government service
By Dan Baer / The Daily Item
September 15, 2009

Program Targeting Diversity in Government Marks 500 Graduates
By Kyle Cheney
State House News Service

D.C. inauguration spreads cheer, hope to the Hub
By St. John Barned-Smith | Bay State Banner
January 22, 2009

MIRA’s Ali Noorani feted at State House
By Victoria Cheng | Bay State Banner
February 17, 2008

Latina en Lynn hace historia
Por primera vez, una mujer hispana ocupa un cargo público en Lynn

El Planeta
28-02-2008 Daniela Briceño

Wong to graduates: Use your voice
By Hillary Chabot, Fitchburg Sentinel and Enterprise
November 17, 2007

Miryam Wiley: An inspiring run to the mayor's seat
By Miryam Wiley/Daily News columnist
Sat Nov 17, 2007

Leadership project’s goal: More minority candidates
by Dan Devine | Bay State Banner
February 15, 2007 | Front Page

The Best Sounds of The Season
Column by Miryam Wiley
Metrowest Daily News / Saturday, December 16, 2006

Patrick campaign praised for its statewide diversity
by Yawu Miller / Bay State Banner
December 2006

Legislative Seminar brings the people to the State House
by Vidya Rao / Bay State Banner
Thursday, July 20, 2006

From the State House News
March 16, 2006

Wiley: When competence meets compassion
By Miryam Wiley / In America
Saturday, March 4, 2006

Wiley: The State House is now our house
By Miryam Wiley / In America
Saturday, November 19, 2005

State House program encourages involvement
By: Helen Y. Wong / Boston Banner - May 12, 2005

Group encourages diversity in politics
By Jennifer Kavanaugh / Daily News Staff - Metrowest Daily News
Sunday, March 13, 2005

Program to offer a closer look at state government
By Liz Mineo / News Staff Writer  -  Metrowest Daily News
Thursday, January 27, 2005

Giving minorities a political primer
Program aims to make government accessible
By Alison O'Leary Murray, Globe Correspondent  |  July 8, 2004

Ethnic NewsWatch
Bay State Banner
By: Jeremy Schwab - December 4, 2003

Barrera is making himself right at home
By Charlie Breitrose/ Staff Writer - Natick Bulletin & TAB
Friday, March 3, 2006

State program helps minorities enter into government service
By Dan Baer / The Daily Item
September 15, 2009

LYNN - Although she has always been active in the local community, Lynn School Committee member Maria Carrasco said there was a time when she was far from comfortable with the workings of state and local government, and had no idea how to advocate for issues that were important to her.

In 2006, as she was gearing up for what turned out to be an historic run for School Committee, Carrasco took part in the Commonwealth Seminar, a two-month educational program designed to help minorities and immigrants understand the workings of state government, something she credits with helping boost her confidence heading into her campaign.

“It is teaching people how to use the State House, because a lot of people like me didn’t know,” she said. “The State House is not a secret to people, we should feel comfortable going in there and walking around. This teaches you where you have to go if you want to advocate for something or where to get started.”

Now in its sixth year, the program churned out another 48 graduates this week, who join Carrasco, Boston City Councilor Sam Yoon and Lexington School Committee member Ravi Sakhuja, among other successful politicians.

“It is different people from the state telling you how to advocate for your community,” said Carrasco. “They are teaching students how to be prepared to run for office or how to advocate for different things.”

The seminar began in fall 2003 as the brainchild of former state Sen. Jarrett Barrios and Joel Barrera, deputy director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. It began with a $45,000 seed grant from The Boston Foundation and has continued on a budget of about $100,000 a year from various other non-profits, including Access Strategies, the Herman and Frieda L. Miller Foundation, the Foley Hoag Foundation and the Ansara Family Foundation.The program includes six weekly three-hour sessions that give attendees a crash course in understanding the state budget, understanding the legislative process and working with the press, among other lessons. Students get lectures from seasoned lobbyists as well as journalists and agency spokespeople. Carrasco, a native of the Dominican Republic, graduated the program in 2006 and embarked on her first run at the Lynn School Committee, eventually beating out Charlie Gallo for the sixth and final seat in November 2007.

Carrasco said she still supports the program and makes an attempt each year to get to the State House for a visit while it is going on, but says it is difficult because her job requires her to work days.

With all five of her colleagues running as incumbents this year and three challengers stepping into the fray, Carrasco will have her hands full in her first re-election bid this fall, but without the Commonwealth Seminar, Carrasco may have never acquired the skills and confidence needed to make even her first attempt at the board.

“What it does is it gives you preparation,” she said. “It also gives you an opportunity to learn more — to learn more about your cities and how they work.”

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Program Targeting Diversity in Government Marks 500 Graduates
By Kyle Cheney
State House News Service

State House, Boston, Aug. 13, 2009.....Graduates of a program aimed at fostering civic participation and understanding of state government for residents of Massachusetts minority communities said Thursday that they came away with the impression that government can be a tool for positive change.

Forty-eight Commonwealth Seminar participants, the largest of 17 graduating classes of the privately funded program, said the program taught them the importance of civic engagement and diversity, and those who spoke vowed to continue careers in public service. With the graduation, the seminar has now seen more than 500 students attend its courses.

“The best resource that we have is each other, the people in this room,” said Craig McClay, a graduate of the program who also works for Teen Empowerment, a Boston-based youth advocacy organization.

The seminar began in fall 2003 as the brainchild of former state Sen. Jarrett Barrios and Joel Barrera, deputy director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. It began with a $45,000 seed grant from The Boston Foundation and has continued on a budget of about $100,000 a year from various other non-profits, including Access Strategies, the Herman and Frieda L. Miller Foundation, the Foley Hoag Foundation and the Ansara Family Foundation.

The program includes six weekly three-hour sessions that give attendees a crash course in understanding the state budget, understanding the legislative process and working with the press, among other lessons. Students get lectures from seasoned lobbyists – Charles Glick spoke at a recent session – as well as journalists and agency spokespeople – “an insider’s perspective,” Barrera called it.

Commonwealth Seminar graduates include City Councilor Sam Yoon, Lynn School Committee member Maria Carrasco, and Lexington School Committee member Ravi Sakhuja.

Barrera told the News Service that he helps select the students who participate from a pool of applicants. The program runs three times a year, in the spring, fall and summer.

Barrera, who emceed the graduation ceremony, told attendees that when he came to Massachusetts from Texas in 1996, he was shocked by the lack of minorities and minority advocates in the State House community.

“If you had told me back then that our governor would be African American, that the chief of staff to the governor would be African American . . . I would find that difficult to believe,” he said.

Reprising a story Barrios has told often, Barrera said that in the mid-90’s, “If you worked late at five o’clock, the pigmentation of the building changed because the cleaning staff would come in.”

“It’s really important that people who look like you are here at daytime,” he said.

Keynote speaker Ayanna Pressley, a graduate of the program and a veteran Congressional staffer who is now running for Boston City Council, said she considers attendees of the seminar her family.

“It’s important that we see ourselves mirrored in the halls of government,” she said. “We need those stories and that perspective on every level of our government.”

Gov. Deval Patrick’s chief of staff Arthur Bernard, a longtime State House staffer who was a senior member of Senate President Robert Travaglini’s team, told graduates “You all have a role.”

“We all need to make sure that our voices are heard,” he said.

Thursday’s group of graduates included many students, as well as City Corps senior corps member Brian Harvey, New Sector Alliance consultant Jin Ho Kim, Boston Public schools student voice and engagement specialist Maria Ortiz, Rep. Alice Peisch legislative aide Alli O’Leary, and Department of Public Health special projects coordinator Fernando Perfas.

Patrick’s director of community affairs, Ron Bell, attended the ceremonies, along with Reps. Willie Mae Allen and Gloria Fox.

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D.C. inauguration spreads cheer, hope to the Hub
By St. John Barned-Smith | Bay State Banner
January 22, 2009

Pamela Bush (left) and her daughter, Latoya, watched the 44th president’s inauguration at Cactus Club with other 250 people. Barack Obama’s speech, which mentioned racism in America, reminded Pamela Bush of her experience as a black schoolgirl during the public school busing clashes at the 1970s, when her bus was pelted with stones.


The cheers at the Cactus Club started early on Tuesday morning, when the cameras first focused in on the moving van hauling the last vestiges of the Bush administration away from the White House.

They strengthened and swelled as Aretha Franklin serenaded the country with a soaring version of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” and they filled the room to overflowing when Barack Obama took the oath of office to become the nation’s 44th — and first African American — president.

While millions gathered in Washington, D.C., to watch the inauguration in person, many Boston residents participated from home, celebrating in restaurants, community centers, churches and libraries around the city. At the Commonwealth Seminar’s inauguration watch party at the Cactus Club, 250 people packed into the Boylston Street bar and restaurant, while another 30 revelers occupied a nearby overflow room.

For many at the party, the moment was as much about closing the door on George W. Bush’s presidency as it was about the start of Barack Obama’s term. For Ken Onyechi, one of the exuberant revelers staring at the big screens scattered throughout the bar, Obama’s inauguration was a reaffirmation of the American dream.

“I’m overwhelmed [by] the fact that we made it, the fact that Barack proved America really is the land of opportunity,” said Onyechi, 21, a Wentworth Institute of Technology student. “No hurdles can stop any black person from becoming president. I think today is a revitalization for the country.”

Just as importantly, he added, “I think [people] just wanted somebody with character, someone they could trust and rely on to run the country.”

Others in attendance echoed Onyechi’s sentiments.

“This is what being an American is about,” said Mishella Etienne.

In an inaugural address rife with historical references, Obama called for responsible action and citizenship, as well as a return to the ideals on which America was founded.

“We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things,” Obama said. “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.”

Cactus Club attendees said they had high hopes for the new administration.

Under Obama, “the economy’s going to get better, slowly but surely,” Onyechi said. “I think that America’s [perception in the rest of] the world is going to change; they’re going to see that America is really not a place that’s so biased.

Obama spoke about the need for communal action, but much of his speech served as a rebuke to the Bush administration’s actions over the last eight years.

“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” he said. “Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

While other celebrants munched on a buffet of quesadillas and guacamole, Pamela Bush, a community organizer with the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition in Dorchester, recalled her experience as a black schoolgirl during the public school busing clashes of the 1970s.

“I had a flashback of being [in a bus that was] pelted with stones,” she said.

That was just one of many bracing experiences Bush shared.

“I was three or four when John F. Kennedy was shot, and I watched Roxbury burn in the riots,” Bush said. “And to see today, after everything that happened, to be able to see all of these people, in this room here together, this is the day. We have to leave all those negativities behind. Barack Obama represents a change.

“I’m really motivated to go back to the community I work in and do even more,” she added. “I’ve done a lot, but I want to see more change come.”

Pamela’s daughter, Latoya Bush, said she thought it was “amazing [Obama] delivered such a strong, focused speech that touched on a lot of important issues.”

“I spent all of my twenties with George Bush as president, and I really felt like it was a disillusionment,” said Latoya Bush, 30, “I kind of lost hope in our government.”

But now, she added, “I really look forward to Barack Obama and Joe Biden making the necessary changes.”

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MIRA’s Ali Noorani feted at State House
By Victoria Cheng | Bay State Banner
February 17, 2008

Standing in the empty Senate Chamber located directly beneath the State House’s iconic golden dome, a dozen tourists gaze in awed silence at the room’s sunburst ceiling and august marble busts. Emerging through the wooden double doors into the hall, the tourists marvel at the chamber’s history and architectural beauty.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), has distinctly different memories of that hallway. He remembers standing in the carpet-lined corridor, overcome with a sense of bewilderment, during one of the first Senate budget debates he attended four and a half years ago when he took the reins at MIRA.

“Standing just outside this hallway surrounded by lobbyists who never really looked like me, [who] didn’t really care about the same issues,” he told a group of community leaders at the State House last Friday. “I remember standing there in that hallway at 11:30 at night and thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’”

From those initial moments of doubt, however, Noorani went on to build MIRA into a powerful player in the immigration debate. In the process, he has become a noted advocate for revising immigration laws, protecting undocumented immigrants and working closely with community organizations to create a coalition of voices in favor of immigrant rights and opportunities.

In May, Noorani will step down from MIRA’s top post to become executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a prominent pro-immigrant advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. In anticipation of his move, the Commonwealth Seminar last Friday presented Noorani with its “Opening the Doors of Government” award at the State House.

As award presenter and former state Sen. Jarrett Barrios told the crowd, Noorani has always approached his work with a firm belief that the promise of a better life implied in the American dream should be accessible to all.

To audience laughter and Noorani’s own growing but good-natured embarrassment, Barrios, now president of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts, put Noorani’s place in the Bay State political landscape in context.

“Ali, for five years, has taken the difficult task on of going toe-to-toe with my good friend Howie Carr, and many of the other troglodytes … who somehow like to argue that people who came here because they believe that dream are less worthy, less human, less capable of accomplishing those ideals that make us all Americans,” said Barrios.

For Noorani, one battle stands out as particularly pitched.

“A couple of years ago, Gov. [Mitt] Romney had said that he wanted to wiretap all the mosques,” Noorani recalled in an interview, referring to comments Romney made in a Sept. 2005 speech to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

“How many individuals are coming to our state and going to those institutions who have come from terrorist-sponsored states?” Romney said, referring to foreign students who attend universities in Massachusetts, according to a published report. “Do we know where they are? Are we tracking them?”

“How about people who are in settings — mosques, for instance — that may be teaching doctrines of hate and terror,” the then-governor continued. “Are we monitoring that? Are we wiretapping? Are we following what’s going on?”

Like many civil and immigrant rights advocates, Noorani didn’t take too kindly to Romney’s remarks.

“I just found what he said and what he did to be so reprehensible,” he said.

Still, the role MIRA played in organizing the Muslim community to “really push back on Gov. Romney” and to hold the governor accountable underlined to Noorani the possibilities inherent in coordinated and empowered political action.

This sense of solidarity has allowed Noorani to remain composed — or, as he termed it in a moment of self-deprecation, “perhaps naïve or delusional” — during the more difficult moments of his tenure.

“If you don’t feel like you’re alone, whatever challenge you’re faced with, it just isn’t so bad, whether or not you win,” he said. “If you win together, it’s nice. If you lose together, you fight another day.”

As Barrios said to the emphatic nodding of heads and loud applause last Friday, Noorani has stood firm in the face of “great and difficult circumstances.”

“It is not easy, in America, it is not easy in Massachusetts,” Barrios said, “to stand up for somebody who is undocumented,” but Noorani has done so because of his conviction that legislators and citizens alike “have some responsibility to maintain our faith and keep that contract with that [American] dream, that promise, that opportunity.”

Noorani himself echoed some of these sentiments, noting that his views are not necessarily popular ones, including his belief that immigrants and refugees, documented and undocumented, legal and illegal, deserve a chance to “get in line for citizenship.”

“I think the reality is that our immigration laws are so out of sync with reality that we’re responsible for putting people in these situations,” he said, alluding to the country’s relatively high standard of living and the international and domestic policies, many of which rely on being able to obtain services and products at low prices, that enable that standard. “That’s a tough thing to say.”

This willingness to make tough statements has made Noorani a formidable figure in the Massachusetts immigration debate, and there are many who hope that his move to Washington D.C. will similarly invigorate the debate nationwide. Noorani himself noted the need to continue the conversation in the nation’s capital.

“I think the biggest thing we need to do in 2008 is educate the candidates for president or Congress across the country to make sure they realize that there are realistic, legitimate opportunities to repair our immigration system,” he said. “This is an issue that needs to be resolved and that window opportunity might come up in the next few years.”

Commonwealth Seminar Executive Director Joel Barrera praised Noorani for his work in the Bay State.

“Under Ali, the MIRA Coalition was the strong voice immigrants needed in the face of a harsh political climate for new immigrants and refugees trying to find their place this country,” said Barrera. “He represented those often-marginalized strangers to this country with dignity, passion and humor.”

Exhibiting some of that humor in an e-mail inviting people to attend Noorani’s surprise award ceremony, Barrera announced, “Ali has personally promised me to go mano-a-mano with [CNN anchor and immigration opponent] Lou Dobbs and to tangle with [hard line anti-immigration Republican U.S. Rep.] Tom Tancredo. We wish him good luck with that!”

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Latina en Lynn hace historia
Por primera vez, una mujer hispana ocupa un cargo público en Lynn

El Planeta
28-02-2008 Daniela Briceño

Cada vez más los latinos escalan posiciones y van abriendo las puertas de cargos en la administración pública de Massachusetts a la comunidad hispana. Ahora fue el turno de María Carrasco, una dominicana que tomó posesión como miembro del Comité Escolar de Lynn el 7 de enero de este año, convirtiéndose en la primera latina en ser elegida para un cargo público en la ciudad de Lynn.

"Creo que el terreno de Lynn estaba ya preparado por todas esas personas que se habían postulado antes y por una razón u otra no habían ganado", expresó Carrasco en entrevista con El Planeta. "Creo que ya estaban preparados para que una latina fuera elegida en estas elecciones y parece que Dios y la comunidad me eligió para que yo fuera la primera".

A pesar de que Carrasco no sabía de política, siempre estuvo muy involucrada con la comunidad. Fue así como participó en el Commonwealth Seminar que se encarga de impulsar la diversidad en la política del estado por medio de un seminario - invitada por Joel Barrera, director ejecutivo de la misma. Posteriormente comenzó a trabajar con Neighbor to Neighbor, que lucha por los derechos de las comunidades trabajadoras de bajos recursos económicos, y asistió a un programa de Oíste? donde aprendió las herramientas necesarias para montar una campaña.

La preparación y aprendizaje que recibió en esas organizaciones y programas, y su preocupación por la falta de interés de los padres en la educación de sus hijos, en especial de los padres hispanos, la llevó a lanzar su candidatura para el Comité Escolar de Lynn.

"Yo vi que los padres no se involucran mucho en la educación de sus hijos, quizás porque cuando van a la escuela no se sienten bienvenidos por los maestros o quizás por el idioma. Entonces me propuse ser un lazo entre ellos, el comité escolar y la educación de sus hijos, y me postulé", según dijo.

"Lynn es una ciudad en el que el 42% de los estudiantes son hispanos, y si se anexan los afroamericanos y los asiáticos forman un 72% de 'minorías'", según Carrasco. "Necesitamos más hispanos, necesitamos más gente de color, no tenemos a nadie. Necesitamos más representación tanto en el comité escolar como concejales. Yo creo que con mi elección estamos abriendo las puertas a que otras personas aspiren y puedan decir que si yo pude, ellos también pueden".

La nueva miembro del Comité Escolar de la ciudad de Lynn espera hacer un buen trabajo de forma que se pueda formar una base sólida para el ingreso de más representantes de la comunidad hispana en la ciudad de Lynn. "Siempre es difícil ser la primera o el primero en una posición porque todos los ojos están detrás de ti, como me dijo el senador [Jarrett] Barrios", expresó Carrasco. "Están mirando si lo hago bien o si lo hago mal. Es lo normal, yo creo que es lo lógico, pero es un reto. Yo me postulé y tengo que asumir mi posición". una organización- una organización

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Wong to graduates: Use your voice
By Hillary Chabot
Fitchburg Sentinel and Enterprise
November 17, 2007

BOSTON -- For a woman who was elected mayor of Fitchburg in a landslide victory on a message of change, Friday presented an unusual dilemma for Lisa Wong.

The keynote speaker could barely talk. Wong, who was scheduled as the main speaker at a graduation ceremony for a course meant to encourage diverse leaders, had laryngitis.

"My most powerful tool during my campaign was my voice," Wong rasped to the crowd of about 50 people who gathered at the Statehouse. "Those conversations were so key."

The students graduated from the Commonwealth Seminar, a six-week course designed to teach students about how to get involved in government.

Wong, the first Asian-American woman elected mayor in Massachusetts, had some tips for those students, many of whom were first-generation immigrants.

"We're here to break open that door and send a strong signal that this is something you can be a part of," Wong, 28, said about government. "The Commonwealth Seminar is extremely important because it gives people the resources and connections they need to get involved in government."

Wong's parents moved to America in the 1970s from Hong Kong. Her whirlwind campaign brought her knocking on doors across the city as well as in conversations with Gov. Deval Patrick.

She will take over for Mayor Dan Mylott when his term ends in January.

Wong had a volunteer, Leverett Wing, read the rest of her speech for her.

"This was a job and a lifestyle that at first glance did not seem to make sense to those around her," said Wing. "But, like all of you in this room, she's here to make a change."

Joel Barrera, co-founder of the Commonwealth Seminar, said Wong is an example of what minorities can accomplish.

"Ten years ago we didn't have any leaders in here of color," said Barrera. "Our mission is to open the doors of the Statehouse to everyone."

Luisa Pena, 24, graduated from the course and was pleased to have Wong as a speaker.

"She is very inspirational, not only as a woman but as someone who got engaged in politics so early," Pena said.

Wong was swarmed with well wishers after her speech, and left the crowd with encouraging, if hoarse, words of wisdom.

"You all have the power to change the future." Wong said. "Use your voice."

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Miryam Wiley: An inspiring run to the mayor's seat
By Miryam Wiley/Daily News columnist
Sat Nov 17, 2007

There she was: a young Asian woman with a gentle smile and a dynamite resume.

Lisa Wong, 28, the recently-elected mayor of Fitchburg, was the featured speaker at the graduation of the Commonwealth Seminar class at the State House on Friday.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, a restaurant owner and a nurse, Wong, is your typical top student with a drive to make it happen. A visit to her Web site offers a glimpse at the busy life and determined spirit of a dedicated athlete, a swim coach for Special Olympics, a top student and an avid traveler willing to engage the world.

Yes, a woman. Yes, Chinese/American - a complete revolution for the 243-year history of the city. But why not?

While Fitchburg is not Metrowest (I heard from one reader recently that he didn't care what happens in Somerville) I went all the way to Boston to listen to Wong because she is an inspiration and inspirations do cross all borders to speak to our humanity.

"Use your voice," she told the crowd of about 80 gathered in the Senate Reading Room. Ironically, she couldn't do it this time because of laryngitis. She said a few sentences and gave her written remarks to Leverett Wing, the executive director of the Asian American Commission of Massachusetts.

"(Running for mayor) is not about having a message, but having real conversations," she said before passing the baton to Wing. She said she was proud to have visited some 5,000 households in order to talk to people about real change and real commitments. But even with her hard work and personal way, she was surprised with her landslide win: 75 percent of the votes.

Close friends have asked her why she'd want to be mayor. She replies: "Wouldn't you love to serve the community you live in? Don't you want to make positive change?"

And: "Wouldn't it be great to use your skills and experience to make good choices for your friends and neighbors?"

Wong grew up working in her parents' restaurant, where she was supposed to deliver top service. She said she added to that the teachings from her mom's profession of being "compassionate, honest and kind" and respecting others, "no matter what."

To top it all, she said her parents instilled in her the notion that "if we had the skills and the opportunity to help, there is no other choice."

Wong said those were the basic values that pushed her to run.

Fitchburg is a city that has lost some 1,100 jobs between 2001 and 2005 and has seen businesses close while the minority population has grown to 53 percent, mostly Hispanics. An independent audit has found that $41,000 was stolen from the treasurer's office, according to the Sentinel & Enterprise.

Wong came to the city to visit her parents and suddenly found herself trying to find a place to call home. The time was September, 2001.

Initially she decided to stay three months "to help write grants and get projects like the redevelopment of the General Electric facility underway. That led to a year ... because now I had to implement the projects."

Soon she was the Fitchburg Redevelopment Authority's first full-time executive director.

"That led to buying a home," and that, she said, led to running for mayor, which she said "makes perfect sense to me."

Madeleine Albright was her hero in high school. Alan Greenspan her hero while she studied international relations and economy at Boston University - a three-year total endeavor. Then she decided to go around the globe with a back pack, as she put it, "sleeping in corn fields in India, climbing volcanoes in Central America, avoiding sharks in the Pacific Ocean and teaching in Wyoming." After her sojourn, Wong said she decided to run in April and "when I decide, I'm in it 110 percent."

As for the Commonwealth Seminars: Again a success, opening minds and doors for many, as the graduates recognize.

"I want to learn and get involved because laws must be passed to serve the grandparents and their grandchildren," said Catherine Harris, an African-American grandmother who was graduating. "Understanding the inside of the State House - how it works - brings it closer to our daily lives," said graduate Kumu Gupta, whose family is from India.

"Our goal is to open the doors and slowly and patiently we're accomplishing it," said Commonwealth Seminars co-founder Joel Barrera. "We've had dozens of people run for office, win office and become legislative aides or become leaders with non-profits."

Wong is not a graduate of the program, but what an inspiration!

(To reach Miryam Wiley, please e-mail or write to 33 New York Ave, Framingham, MA 01701)

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Leadership project’s goal: More minority candidates
by Dan Devine | Bay State Banner
February 15, 2007 | Front Page

Now that Massachusetts has elected its first African American governor, a new program intends to continue the job of developing leaders of color to enter public service in the greater Boston area.

Officially launched last Wednesday at a Suffolk University event featuring a keynote speech by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the Initiative for Diversity in Civic Leadership is a three-year effort that will provide education and training related to seeking elected office, managing and running political campaigns, and serving in all levels of government.

“This initiative represents a long-term commitment to a diverse civic leadership for Greater Boston. We need to welcome new leaders into elected office, into appointed positions and into political campaigns,” said Commonwealth Legislative Seminar Executive Director Joel Barrera, who will serve as co-chair of the Initiative’s Advisory Committee.

To do that, the Initiative must overcome an opinion long held by many in Massachusetts politics: that such diversity will be difficult to establish due to a lack of competent and willing participants.

Unearthing and training those participants is a challenge that Initiative principals like Giovanna Negretti relish.

“Too many times, we have heard that people of color are not appointed to office, hired to work in campaigns or even [encouraged to] run for office because no one could find the folks with sufficient qualifications,” said Negretti, executive director of ¿Oíste?, the Massachusetts Latino political organization. “Well, now we’ll have a full slate of folks with qualifications, and then some.”

Management of the Initiative will be led by ¿Oíste?, in partnership with the local non-partisan voting rights organization MassVOTE and Suffolk University’s Department of Government.

With the landmark administration of Gov. Deval Patrick now underway, the timing for such a venture seems perfect. But MassVOTE Executive Director Avi Green is quick to point out that the entrance of an African American into the Corner Office is only the beginning of the fight for a broader spectrum of political and social leaders in the Commonwealth.

“As our state becomes more diverse, our leadership should, too. It’s not just about the governor — it’s about school committees and members of town committees and everything in between,” said Green.

The introduction of the Initiative coincided with the release of a new study conducted by the McCormack Graduate School’s Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The center’s survey of 10 Massachusetts cities and towns found that despite the greater Boston area’s increasingly diverse population, elected and appointed municipal positions are filled overwhelmingly by whites.

While people of color make up, on average, 41.3 percent of the total population of the 10 cities and towns surveyed, minorities hold just 9.1 percent of municipal elective positions and 15.5 percent of appointed posts in those communities. Four of the 10 — Everett, Lynn, Quincy and Somerville — have no elected officials of color, while Framingham, Malden and Randolph have just one each.

The report follows an earlier center study, released in December, which found that people of color held only 11 percent of top-level gubernatorial appointees during the administration of former governor and 2008 Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

“This should serve as a wake-up call to communities of color to pursue paths that will gain them representation on appointed boards and commissions, as well as position them to run for elective office, where their voices are sorely missed,” said Dr. Carol Hardy-Fanta, director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy and lead author of the study.

According to the report, Boston and Somerville have levels of appointed representation that are closest to the diversity of their populations. In Boston, 47.5 percent of the appointed officials are people of color compared to its population of 50.5 percent non-white, and in Somerville the percent of appointed officials of color (26.3 percent) is nearly the same as their share of the population (27.4 percent).

The study’s recommendations for reducing the disparities include reexamination by cities and towns of their appointment practices and election oversight; greater emphasis by community groups and educational institutions on programs supporting increased public service participation by people of color; and more open discussion on how to foster greater diversity among officials at both the state and local levels.

“Developing the next generation of leaders is a critical issue for the region,” said Paul S. Grogan, president and CEO of The Boston Foundation. “The power of this report is to make clear where we stand today — and to make us more aware of the need to build a diverse and inclusive leadership across Greater Boston.”

For their part, the Initiative’s directors are confident that their work will address that need.

“This program will identify leaders and give them the tools and connections to find their rightful place in our public life,” said Barrera.

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The Best Sounds of The Season
Column by Miryam Wiley
Metrowest Daily News / Saturday, December 16, 2006

What are really the best sounds of this season? I'd pick the sounds of hope over a favorite version of a Christmas carol.

If you were among those attending the end of the year party of the Commonwealth Seminar last weekend you may have seen and heard stuff that really matters and that could, indeed, be the true meaning of holiday celebrations.

Joel Barrera, who co-founded the Legislative Seminar along with state Sen. Jarrett Barrios, will not let important deeds go unnoticed. During the party at Fisher College, he honored Patrick's campaign staff with the seminar's Opening the Doors to Government Award given to three people.

Naming names and citing exact efforts by a large community of volunteers, Barrera said the Seminar recognizes the hard work of people who took it upon themselves to promote such great voter turnout.

Sounds from several on stage included the praises to those who filled up their homes with campaign materials. I had never heard such thank you, and I bet this is one of the most difficult invasions to endure.

Barrera told again the story of when he moved here from Texas, about 10 years ago, and the orientation for 40 new staff at the State House startled him. In 40 staff, he said, there were only two non-white people, and he was among them.

"Texas is not a progressive state, but our state government reflects the population," he said.

When Barrios took the stage he, too, repeated a story, but I hope we will keep repeating it in order to inform every one out there of the struggles to get things moving.

As a freshman senator he soon realized that at 5:30 p.m., when the legislators were gone, "all of a sudden everybody spoke Spanish."

Fortunately, that has changed, but Barrios wasn't about to let people forget that including everyone is a work in progress.

He told the story of Patricia Oliveira, one of his constituents and a familiar name to some of us, because she came here as a young child, attended school, graduated with honors but couldn't attend Bunker Hill College paying in-state tuition. Her father was here legally, but residency was still an issue, therefore she would have to pay a much higher tuition.

"Her dad made bagels, but not that many bagels," Barrios said.

"Sometimes you need more help than a few legislators," he said. "The American dream begins with the immigrant story. Now Patricia, who still wants to go to Bunker Hill College, has a reason to be happy."

Among those honored for their leadership role in the campaign was Lily-Mendez-Morgan, the executive director of the Access Strategies Fund, a foundation especially devoted to communities of the disenfranchised. What she said was more than a thank you and should not be forgotten.

"I want to thank Deval Patrick who said that he wouldn't want to win at all costs because that would have been an empty victory."

It would have been easy to just hear this and let go, but I wanted to quote her because I find it inspiring and worth hearing it again and again. A victory must have meaning.

Richard Chacon, the Globe's former ombudsman and Deval Patrick's deputy campaign manager and director of communications, was also praised for his great work as a leader of the whole campaign, and he took the opportunity to mention the importance of the Legislative Seminars as a way to include everyone.

"This program speaks of what Dr. King asked What are you doing for others?' " he said.

The seminars welcome all who want to learn more about state government. Leaders from communities of color all around have been coming and taking back the message to bring more people.

Juanita McKoy, an African-American psalmist and minister, encouraged all speakers with the same style she would have in church saying "Amen" and clapping often.

A resident of Dorchester, McKoy said, "Opening the doors of the State House for all to see how the Legislature works means we, as citizens, count."

As a graduate of the seminar, I started thinking about how the program embraces all who want to be a part of the government and how it keeps all of us coming back. I saw several of my classmates there and it was obvious that they feel a connection to the event.

Leverett Wing, an Asian leader who has been invited to be in the Patrick transition team, reminded the participants that "during the campaign, (Patrick) stressed a message of inclusion" and that "everyone has to play a continuing role."

Indeed. All of these sound bites are what I call the best sounds of the season.

(Miryam Wiley is a contributing columnist. She can be reached at

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Patrick campaign praised for its statewide diversity
by Yawu Miller
Bay State Banner / December 2006

In a state that is more than 80 percent white, people of color rarely play prominent roles in statewide campaigns. But in Deval Patrick’s gubernatorial campaign, three of the five deputy campaign managers were people of color.

“It’s been widely noted that Deval Patrick is going to be the first African American governor of Massachusetts,” said Joel Barrera, executive director of the Commonwealth Legislative Seminar. “What isn’t noted is that within his campaign was an unprecedented diversity of campaign staff — not just volunteers, but deputy directors.”

Last week, Barrera and the Commonwealth Legislative Seminar honored the Patrick campaign with a celebratory dinner that brought together campaign staff of color who helped secure Patrick’s historic victory.

The dinner, held in Fisher College’s student center, brought together black, Latino and Asian campaign workers and volunteers for a celebration of their newfound political clout.

“We are very happy and we owe a great debt to the candidate Deval Patrick,” said state Sen. Jarrett Barrios, a co-founder of the Commonwealth Legislative Seminar. “And also to all those who made sure his message was heard throughout the Commonwealth.”

The Commonwealth Legislative Seminar is a six-week program that introduces community activists to the workings of the state Legislature.

The program has given scores of black, Latino and Asian activists a view of the inner workings of the state’s political system, but there’s nothing like a hotly contested campaign to give political operatives valuable experience.

While Patrick campaign deputy manager Lily Mendez Morgan had worked on political campaigns in the past, neither Richard Chacon, who left his post as ombudsman at the Boston Globe, nor Ron Bell, who led Dunk the Vote, had ever worked on a partisan campaign.

All three spoke of how inspiring Patrick’s campaign was to ordinary citizens.

“This campaign made it very clear that black people and Latinos are smart voters,” Bell said. “We vote when we have something to vote for.”

Bell pointed out that when strategists in Patrick’s campaign made plans for traditionally low-voting precincts in Boston, they expected to get 35,000 votes.

But when the numbers came in from the Nov. 7 election, they found those precincts had yielded 50,000 votes for Patrick. The increased turnout in those predominantly black and Latino precincts is what Mendez Morgan says is the result of a perfect storm.

Patrick’s campaign benefited from years of get-out-the-vote work in communities of color as well as from his charisma as a candidate able to connect with voters, according to Mendez Morgan.

“In this work, we’ve always said [that] people will vote if you give them a candidate to vote for,” she said. “Here we had a candidate who spoke to our issues running a campaign that involved us from the beginning.”

While the campaign’s statewide headquarters was located in an industrial area of Charlestown, Patrick opened offices in the heart of some of the state’s lower income areas, including Springfield and Grove Hall, Bell noted.

Mendez Morgan said Patrick’s campaign was diverse enough so it could reach out to voters in Spanish, Haitian Creole (Kreyòl), Cape Verdean Creole (Crioulo), Portuguese and other languages. The candidate’s willingness to support immigrant’s issues also helped boost turnout in communities of color, she noted.

“When his opponents tried to use immigration as a wedge issue, we used it as a catalyst to boost turnout,” she said.

Patrick easily defeated Lt. Gov. Kerry Healy, ending a 16-year Republican reign in the corner office.

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Legislative Seminar brings the people to the State House
Bay State Banner
Thursday, July 20, 2006 by Vidya Rao

State Rep. Byron Rushing chose his words carefully.

“Democracy does not mean voting,” he said. “Democracy does not mean certain people have rights. It’s the ‘everybody’ in democracy that makes it a democracy.”

Rushing’s words were part of his keynote address last week at the graduation ceremony of the Commonwealth Legislative Seminar’s eighth class.

“We want to create a democracy that is active, vibrant and involves people in our community,” says Joel Barrera, who co-founded the seminar program with state senator Jarret Barrios.

With 40 new graduates, and 300 graduates in all, the seminar is well on its way to fulfilling its mission.

The six-week program serves as a “how to” guide for participants to get a foot in the door of local and state politics. The core seminar, which meets once a week, includes topics such as how the legislature works, what a lobbyist does, the role of the media and other behind-the-scenes information about the political process.

The program has also had numerous guest speakers, including Senate President Robert Travaglini and his aide David Morales, state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and state Rep. Marie St. Fleur.

While Barerra worked as a senior policy aide at the State House, he recognized the need for more diverse leadership in Massachusetts.

“In an orientation for new employees,” he says, “there were only two minorities in a group of 50 or 60 people. Being from Texas, I was shocked and realized that things needed to change.”

Barrera found a kindred spirit in Barrios, and with the support of the Boston Foundation, they decided to create an organization that would not only provide legislative training to women, people of color and anyone else who is looking to access the political realm, but also to provide a space for networking and community building.

“The networking opportunity was as important for me as the information in the trainings,” explains Lynson Beaulieu, the director of programs and strategic leadership for the Schott Foundation and a recent graduate from the seminar. “To do my job, I needed a sense of how policy works. This was a very informational program, and I learned a great deal about the workings of state government.”

Another graduate, 20-year-old Joceline DePina, agrees.

“The seminar helped me understand how Massachusetts’ politics works and gave me ideas on who to contact if I wanted the state to take up an issue that affected my community,” says DePina, who currently interns in City Councilor Chuck Turner’s office. “But what I valued most was the contacts I was able to set up from the other graduates of the class.”

Over the last few sessions, word has spread about the seminar and the program has gained a solid reputation within the community. Beaulieu heard about the seminar from her boss and says that she will tell others about it as well.

Barrera is not surprised.

“We have tapped into a hunger for knowledge, involvement and power,” says Barerra. “The seminar fills up very quickly and people send their employees, friends and family to us.”

It also serves as a testament to the organization that some of the first graduates include City Councilor Sam Yoon and Quincy mayor aide Diana Ong. Barrera expects to have many more success stories.

“Over the course of the next six to seven years, we want to have trained a whole generation of leaders, weaving across gender, ethnic and municipal boundaries,” says Barerra.

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From the State House News
March 16, 2006


“You must be one of tomorrow’s leaders,” Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral said. “If it isn’t you, who will it be? And will you be satisfied with the job that person does?” Addressing the graduating class of the
Commonwealth Legislative Seminar, a training program in legislative advocacy for people of color and immigrants, Cabral urged the politicians-in-training to become part of “the process,” and run for office.

Founded by Sen. Jarrett Barrios (D-Cambridge) and Joel Barrera, a former aide to former Sen. Cheryl Jacques, the seminar produces candidates, lobbyists, and policy specialists. Noting that the six-week program holds its graduation ceremonies in the Senate Reading Room, Barrios said, “It is very important that we meet here, in the halls of power – not out there somewhere.”

Senate President Robert Travaglini told the 40 graduates to ignore the popular notion that politics is a dishonorable profession. “Whenever people get in trouble, the first two people they call are a lawyer and a politician. And those are the two practices held in the least esteem. How ironic,” Travaglini said. He went on: “I’m not afraid to have a conversation with [anyone] about anything. You want to know why? Because I’ve been sick. I’ve had cancer and heart disease, so anything that happens in this building is theater to me.” Urging involvement, he said, “What we do every day is make decisions for you in your absence. That’s big
medicine, is what I tell my colleagues. Big medicine.”

Barrera, a project director at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said alumni have been landing jobs, pointing to a recent hire in Quincy City Hall as a special assistant to the mayor, Diana Ong, and a newly elected member of the school committee in Lexington, Ravi Sakhuja, both graduates of last fall’s seminar.

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Wiley: When competence meets compassion
By Miryam Wiley / In America
Saturday, March 4, 2006

She was poised, direct, informed and humble.

The woman who is vying for the office of the attorney general -- or trying to be "The Top Cop," as put by Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, D-Boston, who introduced her, is obviously out to create a culture of inclusion to embrace a large population of immigrants in the state of Massachusetts.

"I really want to do the job to make a difference," District Attorney Martha Coakley told a diverse group of about 100 gathered Thursday at Suffolk University. The event was co-sponsored by the Commonwealth Legislative Seminars and the Program for Women in Politics and Public Policy, of UMass/Boston.

Coakley talked about the importance of making sure that government is accessible and promised to work for that. "The office (of the attorney general) has to be diverse to represent the community," she said, immediately pondering: "Easier said than done."

For women in Massachusetts, this is history in the making. Before Coakley spoke, PWPPP Director Carol Hardy-Fanta reminded everyone that a woman in elected office is still a rarity in modern America.

"Massachusetts has never elected a woman to the U.S. Senate," she said. "No woman (from Massachusetts) has served in the U.S. House of Representatives in over 20 years. Only four women have ever served in statewide elected office, and just 25 percent of the state Legislature is female. Finally, only 17 percent of Massachusetts city/town councilors, selectmen or aldermen are women."

Coakley talked about her drive to defend fairness and her interest in advocating for victims or "people who didn’t have a voice" since her early days as a recent graduate of Boston University Law School. To that she later added her experience as a prosecutor where, "We had to make sure that justice is done."

When pondering about her qualities as a public official, she spoke of her drive for compassion and courage.

"You have to care," she said, but "you have to know the law to enforce the statutes," so that you can do it "fairly and constitutionally."

Coakley hopes to tackle issues such as safety, homeland security, consumer rights, safety for elders, education, safety in schools and civil rights, to name a few. And she promises to go deeply into the issues to do what is right.

"It is hard for an elected official these days to take a stand to do what is the right thing to do; a position against what is otherwise popular," she said. "I’ve jokingly said that if you’re a really good attorney general, nobody is going to be happy with you." But she quickly added, "My experience has been that when you explain to people what you are doing is the right thing to do, they respect you."

Coakley expressed concern with the speed of things nowadays, where "information passes for knowledge and knowledge passes for wisdom."

Running unopposed, Coakley is bold in sharing her vision for a government that is fully accountable.

"The attorney general is responsible for representing the government, but what happens when the government itself is discriminatory?" she asked.

Never pretending to have all answers, she repeatedly invited her audience to teach her about their problems, the details she knows she is not yet educated about.

Some asked for support in dealing with drug issues and rehabilitation.

"I know we need more rehab, the state should be doing that," she said. "There are young kids getting addicted to prescription drugs. Our single most serious problem is drugs. I hear you."

She is also very interested in voter education.

"How do we make sure people have access to the ballots?" she asked. "How do you start to help people get access? I’m excited about this, but I’m still learning. We’re going to tackle these problems."

Coakley was reminded that Attorney General Tom Reilly defends workers’ rights and was asked if she will do the same for immigrants.

She confirmed that she’ll make sure everyone is being treated fairly.

Coakley worries about the people coming out of jail with no job skills. She is concerned about identity theft and wants to make sure consumer protection is done with translations to "different" languages to help everyone. The economy, of course, is also a priority.

"We have to be realistic: We need businesses to come in or we won’t have the tax dollars to spend," she said.

"We had one hour and a half of substance of conversation," said Joel Barrera, director of the Legislative Seminars. "An honest exchange between leaders she’ll have to work with. It’s not often that we can talk about substance in politics. This was not about issues of high profile, but issues that really matter."

"I’m really impressed," said Te Chen, a reporter with The Epoch Times, a Chinese newspaper with an office in Boston. "She mentioned about fairness, diversity and justice. As a minority, I am always very concerned about fairness in society. As a reporter, I’d like to be the bridge between East and West. I see everyone’s frustration. People often feel that they don’t have support. She recognizes that. She is a woman. I really think she will help people."

To reach Miryam Wiley, e-mail or write to 33 New York Ave., Framingham, MA 01701.

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Wiley: The State House is now our house
By Miryam Wiley / In America
Saturday, November 19, 2005

I thought he was going to talk serious politics. But when Senate President Robert Travaglini started to speak, he talked about his parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts.

"I listened attentively about the obstacles they encountered," he told a crowd of about 100 gathered at the Senate Reading Room at the State House. Their struggles, he said, stayed with him and meant a lot when he decided to get into politics. "The ideals don't change. They're constant and they are real."

Travaglini was talking to the graduates of the Fall 2005 class of the Commonwealth Legislative Seminar -- a six-week unique opportunity to engage in conversation with legislators and other professionals who work in government. I was among the students and nothing short of impressed with the process. It is indeed, democracy in the making.

According to Joel Barrera, who co-founded the Seminar with Sen. Jarret Barrios D-Cambridge, the idea is to attract people of color and immigrants to state government.

"We want to train a generation of activists, leaders, and candidates to destroy the disconnection between the diverse communities of Massachusetts and the places where decisions get made," said Barrera. "We want to weave together relationships across racial, ethnic, and regional boundaries to create a network of thousands of leaders who care about the broad vision of inclusive civic leadership."

Results are already coming in. Sam Yoon, the most recently elected Boston city councilor, is a graduate of the seminar.

The seminar was originally funded by the Boston Foundation and also receives funds from the Herman and Frieda L. Miller Foundation, Foley Hoag Foundation, and the Access Strategies Fund.

The fall 2005 class was no different than previous ones and had a good representation of the many groups that live in and around Boston. Those who attended praised coordinator Barrera.

"(The seminar) really begins to show the levels of which our progressive community leaders are undertaking to increase an understanding of our government and how it impacts our communities," said Katherine Oh Roof, of the Asian Community Development Corporation. "The seminar is an important step towards opening the doors of our government in the hopes of creating a more community-driven process, while continuing to build on voter education at a time when the Internet, some media groups and special interest groups continue to misinform our communities of the reality of what is and is not taking place in our government."

Carlos Mozes, of Portuguese descent, said: "The opportunity was amazing and good learning experience. I would recommend it to everyone who wants to be in Politics," as he said he does.

Claudia Tamsky, of Brazil, said she found it interesting to realize that "any of us, simple human beings, have the power to participate in the political process and have our voices heard if we organize ourselves this inspired me to work even more as an organizer for my community," she said.

Digna Scott praised the course and the opportunity, because without it " most of us would go through life and wouldn't set foot in the State House," she said.

David Halbert, an African-American leader, said that he appreciated the seminar because, while being in it, "the first thing that comes to you is perspective," he said. "We should all interact and work together. Deep down inside, we're all the same."

The seminar included a select group of speakers, among them several legislators who spoke candidly about the far away idea of running for office and the satisfaction of getting there. The lessons included details of the state budget, the process to approve bills, the work of lobbyists, the many responsibilities of legislative aides and Barrera's own list of 10 rules for working with the Legislature, including the importance of thank you notes and recognition of good players.

Inspired by a bright daylight coming into the room during graduation, Barrera said that, a few years ago, Barrios mentioned that when he was first elected, he was struck by the fact that almost no immigrants or minorities were in the State House, but people of color came in after 5 p.m. to clean offices and bathrooms.

"It's a terrific thing that we are here in the bright day," Barreras said, his emotion heard in his voice.

The seminar honored Travaglini with the "Opening the Doors of Government Award."

Travaglini's final message of encouragement to the new leaders was clear.

"The only difference between you and me is time," he said.

To learn more about the Commonwealth Legislative Seminar and you can be a part of it, go to

To reach Miryam Wiley, e-mail or write to 33 New York Ave., Framingham, MA 01702.

Copyright of CNC and Herald Interactive Advertising Systems, Inc.

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State House program encourages involvement

By: Helen Y. Wong/Boston Banner - May 12, 2005

Forty or so community leaders and representatives from social service agencies and grassroots organizations that work with immigrants and communities of color gathered at the State House this past Monday for an opportunity to meet and listen to some of the most progressive elected officials in the Commonwealth. 

At the luncheon hosted by the Commonwealth Legislative Seminar, the diverse crowd was first welcomed to the event by the co-founders, Senator Jarrett Barrios and Joel Barrera. 

Barrios and Barrera found that while the Commonwealth’s demographics are changing rapidly and becoming increasingly diverse, recent immigrants and communities of color are still under-represented in state government.  The seminar program was founded to address this troubling dilemma. 

The six-week program is designed to educate leaders from these under-represented communities about the legislative process and introduce them to some of the key public officials in the legislature.  Organizers hope that graduates of the program are provided with the knowledge and resources to become effective advocates for themselves and their communities. 

“You need to learn about the process and government in order to affect changes,” Barrios said.   

Introduced by her mentor, Charlotte Golar Richie, director of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, newly elected state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry addressed the audience with great enthusiasm. 

Attributing her recent victory to a platform advocating for inclusion and coalition-building among the diverse communities in her district, Dorcena Forry shared with the audience all the hard work that was put into her campaign. 

In addition to praising the program’s ability to bring members from immigrant and colored communities together, Dorcena Forry also stressed that “it’s important to learn and get involved in our communities, to listen to people’s concerns and issues, and to get a sense of how the legislative process works.”    

Representing one of the Commonwealth’s most diverse districts with over  635,000 constituents, Congressman Michael Capuano also spoke candidly to the audience about how government works and the dynamics of politics. 

“People don’t have time to learn and worry about every issue on a daily basis, and that’s why you need to elect good people - people who listen and care,” he said.  “It bothers me when people blame the public officials about certain things, because they were the ones who elected these people into office.” 

The congressman further emphasized that it is critical to build alliances with other public officials and that political compromise is often times necessary.  Using the current transportation bill as an example of what it entails to “grab a bigger piece of the pie” for Massachusetts, Capuano explained that contrary to the general public’s assumption that a good argument would suffice, it all really boils down to politics. 

In this case, if the bill passes, over $5 billion in federal transportation funding will be allocated to the Commonwealth over the next five years.  In addition to providing much-needed funding for road and transit projects and overall infrastructure improvements, the legislation would also create at least 40,000 jobs per year in Massachusetts with 7,500 of those being new employment opportunities. 

Though quick to add that he won’t support “horrendous things,” the congressman made it clear that it is crucial to reach out and work with his colleagues, as well as supporting their issues if he wants to win their votes. 

The event ended with a question and answer session during which the attendees asked Capuano his views regarding issues such as funding cuts to women’s shelters, the importation of prescription drugs from Canada, nuclear plants, homeland security, and immigration reform.         

The next round of Legislative Seminar classes will be held from June 9 to July 14.  Those interested in participating should send an application form (downloaded from by Tuesday, May 17 at 5:00 p.m.  For more information, contact Joel Barrera at or 508-740-1078.

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Group encourages diversity in politics

By Jennifer Kavanaugh / Daily News Staff - Metrowest Daily News
Sunday, March 13, 2005

FRAMINGHAM -- A few dozen adults braved a snowstorm and got a special civics lesson yesterday, as several state legislators explained how a bill becomes a law and how average people can work the system to create change.

The Commonwealth Legislative Seminar, a privately funded effort to encourage greater political participation by people of color and recent immigrants, hosted a seminar at the Framingham Public Library downtown.

"Because of the demographics of our state, it's important to give civic lessons to people who may not have had civics classes in their high schools, or people who may not even have had democracy in their home countries, to show them how the system works here," said Joel Barrera, the program's coordinator and co-founder. The seminar attracted a diverse crowd that represented different ethnic and racial groups, as well as community leaders who reach out to people of color and recent immigrants.

"We're very interested in meeting our legislators," said Framingham resident Paulina Volovich. She originally came from St. Petersburg, Russia, and is a member of Jewish Family Services of MetroWest. "We want to tell our community what's going on."

The program's other co-founder, State Sen. Jarrett Barrios, D-Cambridge, explained how a bill works its way through both houses of the Legislature, and shared some lawmakers' jargon to help explain how a piece of legislation is faring. For example, putting a bill "out to study" bodes ominously for its chances.

"I want to give you this language so you can understand the words, the vocabulary that is used on Beacon Hill, because as I said, knowledge is power," Barrios said. "I want you to understand these words to better push, to better lobby for your issues."

Edna Smith said she was there to represent the MetroWest Community Health Care Foundation the New Vision Foundation, an offshoot of the Greater Framingham Community Church and link to the area's African-American community. Smith said she wanted to learn about how to get more involved. People of color do face barriers to political participation, she said.  

"I think there's a certain amount of apathy, not feeling like they can actually go out and do it and get support," Smith said before the seminar started.

After hearing details about the wheeling and dealing that takes place in the State House, Smith told legislators that the insight was a bit disheartening.

"There are so many things you have to go through that has nothing to do with the merits of the bill," Smith said. "I think that's very frustrating for the public to learn, that the merits of the bill have nothing to do with whether your bill succeeds."

This private seminar, the first for the first time took place somewhere other than Beacon Hill, is different from the Citizen's Legislative Seminar, which is run through the state Senate.

Before the meeting, Jim Rizoli, a selectmen hopeful and co-founder of Concerned Citizens and Friends of Illegal Immigration Law Enforcement, had applied to participate in the seminar. The group, which opposes illegal immigration, has found itself at odds with immigrant advocacy groups on various issues.

Rizoli received a letter saying he could not officially participate in the seminar because he did not to any of the groups targeted by the project. The letter said he could attend, but mentioned that organizers would ask anyone who disrupted the proceedings. Rizoli said he took exception to that sentence.

"Why would they say that to me?" said Rizoli, who did attend with a few friends. "I've never been disruptive."

During the seminar, Rizoli and others asked a couple of questions about "illegal immigrants." One audience member objected to that term, asking that they instead say, "undocumented immigrants," but that appeared to be the extent of any outward disagreement yesterday.

Debra Freed, a member of the Framingham Disability Commission, said she wanted to learn how to advocate more forcefully for people with disabilities. She said politicians can lose sight of those issues.

"If it's not happening to them, or if they don't have a family member (who's disabled), we fall by the wayside," Freed said. "We need to stay in the forefront, because you never know what's going to happen."

State Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, talked about how she started off as an Ashland town volunteer before joining the School Committee and then joined the state Legislature first as a representative, now as a senator. She said people should start locally.

"Local politics, as crazy as it may seem -- and each town has its own craziness -- it's a wonderful way to get involved," Spilka said.

State Rep. Deborah Blumer, D-Framingham, said the system benefits with greater diversity of people and opions.

"We want people to have some understanding that the political process is open and accessible, and it's easy to participate, especially at the local level, and at the state level," Blumer said. "It's important we really need to have all of the voices at the table, to be constructive, to be thoughtful in making changes."

( Jennifer Kavanaugh can be reached at 508-626-4416 or at )

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Program to offer a closer look at state government

By Liz Mineo / News Staff Writer
Metrowest Daily News

Thursday, January 27, 2005

FRAMINGHAM -- After learning how legislators make laws and policy at a seminar at the State House, Laura Medrano and Jany Finkielsztein thought it would be a good idea for some people to learn about such matters outside the halls of Beacon Hill.

Both Medrano, a Framingham Latino community leader, and Finkielsztein, minority outreach director at Christa McAuliffe Regional Charter Public School in Framingham, knew many people who would like to attend the workshop, but for one reason or another could not make it to Boston.

So they suggested that organizers bring Beacon Hill to Framingham. And they will.

The program will be held March 12, from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the Framingham Library meeting room. It will be the first time the workshop will be held outside Boston since it was first offered in the fall of 2003 as a project to help open the doors of the State House to immigrant groups and minority communities.

Everybody is welcome to apply before Feb. 18. Candidates should have a basic understanding of state government and a record of community leadership. There are 25 spots available to MetroWest residents.  

Medrano and Finkielsztein, who attended the State House seminars in 2003 and 2004, respectively, encourage people to participate. The seminar, they said, teaches not only the basics of how bills are passed and how state budgets are put together, but also how to develop relationships with policymakers.

"You get to meet the people who are writing the laws," said Medrano, president of Framingham MetroWest Latin American Center. "You see them as real life people."

For Finkielsztein, who came from Colombia 16 years ago, the workshop gave her a chance to understand the U.S. political process and network with other people involved in helping immigrants and communities of diverse background.

"It made me feel empowered," said Finkielsztein. "It made me see that the political process is open to everyone and that the important thing is to be clear on the issues people want to advocate for."

Called the Commonwealth Legislative Seminar, the project was founded by state Sen. Jarret Barrios, D-Cambridge, and Joel Barrera, senior policy aide to former state Sen. Cheryl Jacques, D-Needham. It is offered at the State House as six-week seminars three times a year.

"One of the reasons why we started was the little presence of immigrants or communities of color in the State House," said Barrera, project coordinator. "We wanted to make them feel welcome and have a seat at the table. This is an invitation to take a seat."

At the seminar, participants learn the ropes of politics, and how to be better advocates, how to approach legislators, and how work with the media. They meet with state lawmakers, legislative staff and policymakers.

"We want to demystify state government," said Barrera. "We'll teach how the Legislature works, we'll introduce them to their legislators, and we'll discuss about the differences between local and state government. We want to make people comfortable with the power they hold in their hands."

Partners in the event are state Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Framingham, state Rep. Debby Blumer, D-Framingham, state Rep. Tom Sannicandro, D-Ashland, and the MetroWest Latin American Center and League of United Latin American Citizens-Northeast.

Those interested in participating should send an application form downloaded from by Feb. 18 at 5 p.m. For more information, contact Joel Barrera at or 508-740-1078.

( Liz Mineo can be reached at 508-626-3825 or )

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Giving minorities a political primer
Program aims to make government accessible

By Alison O'Leary Murray, Globe Correspondent  |  July 8, 2004

Since immigrating to the United States from Colombia 16 years ago, Jany Finkelstein has sought ways to aid other minority residents.

She put aside pursuing a PhD to teach science, then scaled back that responsibility to become minority outreach coordinator at the Framingham Community Charter School.

Earlier this year, she took the next step, becoming one of the first 100 graduates of a new six-week training session, the Commonwealth Legislative Seminar, that aims to make state government accessible to a more diverse population.

Getting help from a government official was unthinkable to most people in her native country, Finkelstein said. Here, her primer on Beacon Hill has buttressed a conviction that education is the best way for immigrants and minorities to succeed.

"Perhaps [the seminar] reinforced to me the importance of educating minorities, whether on political issues or the education of their children," said Finkelstein, of Newton.

The grant-funded seminar program is run by Natick resident Joel Barrera, an eight-year veteran of state politics who was an aide to then-state senator Cheryl Jacques.

When he arrived in Massachusetts in 1996, Barrera, a Mexican-American, remembers being one of only two nonwhites at a State House orientation for more than 60 new employees. Despite a growing minority population in Massachusetts, the State House continues to be dominated by white men, he said.

"Several cities and towns are very diverse, but the fact that it is not yet reflected in the establishment or in political stakeholders is shocking to me," he said.

Last year, Barrera -- who also works as a project director at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional planning agency -- teamed up with state Senator Jarrett Barrios, who has spent six years in the State House as one of only a handful of minority legislators. Together, they launched the nonpartisan, twice-a-year seminar program, following a challenge by Boston Foundation president Paul Grogan, who provided start-up funding.

"He challenged me to think about ways to use my position as a bully pulpit to invite new groups into the State House, to have their values and interests reflected in public policy that is made on Beacon Hill," Barrios said of Grogan.

Barrios said simple knowledge of the political process was the most common obstacle to minority involvement, so he sought to create an educational program that could lead to any sort of participation -- from minority employment at the State House to more effective lobbying by advocacy groups devoted to everything from housing to health care.

"We hope this will be an entry point for minority residents to become legislative staffers and board members of organizations, to be welcomed into state-level politics," Barrera said. "We want them to take the feeling that the State House belongs to them and is not an intimidating place that is not accessible."

To that end, the State House seminar program opens up state politics by introducing participants to legislators, detailing how the budget works, and exposing them to the legislative process. At the end of the six-week session, graduates are invited to networking luncheons, where they connect with other advocates and continue to learn about issues that affect minority residents.

A similar program, called the Citizen Legislative Seminar, already exists, but Barrera said it presupposes involvement because it requires a senator's recommendation to attend. To take part in the Commonwealth Legislative Seminar, anyone can apply via the website (

A session planned for September is already filling; Barrera hopes to get more applicants from the western suburbs.

Ron Butler, a Hudson resident who has been involved in the Greater Framingham Community Church's Concerned Parents of Color Ministry, said the African-American community could use a program like this to help in the struggle to get the equal education mandated by the Brown v. Board of Education decision 50 years ago.

Butler keeps in contact with local legislators on a regular basis and was invited to testify about MCAS testing this year before the Legislature's Joint Education Committee.

"In that sense, I feel that's access," Butler said.

But Butler noted that he hadn't even heard of the new seminar program, which he said only proves that the minority community needs to be better connected.

"I also think there's a need for access to be improved," he said.

Finkelstein, a new board member at the MetroWest Latin American Center, said she is still digesting all of the information she gained. But she said her exposure to many other advocacy groups from around the state has introduced her to potential partners in the future. And she wants to apply the seminar model locally: The Framingham charter school plans to bring local minority leaders together in the fall.

"Part of what they're doing in the seminars, and what we're doing at the school, is helping minorities to realize what it means to be part of society and to understand all of the rights we have," Finkelstein said. "With this, people feel the political process is open to everybody."

Finkelstein also said she plans to use Barrera and Barrios as role models for her students, to show minority children that there are some in the State House who hail from backgrounds similar to their own.

Alison O'Leary Murray can be reached at  

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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Ethnic NewsWatch
Bay State Banner

December 4, 2003

By: Jeremy Schwab

When Ayanna Pressley worked in Congress alongside some of the most powerful people in the country, she had some strange encounters.

"One day, I was carrying my lunch on the elevator and one person asked me, 'What senator likes turkey sandwiches?,'" said Pressley, who was the only African American scheduler in the Senate at the time. "I said, 'Damned if I know, this is my lunch.'"

Chelsea native Leopard Wing also suffered mistaken identity when he worked as a staffer for Massachusetts Senate President Thomas Birmingham. "There really weren't any people of color on staff, or coming into the State House to talk about issues, or even for tours," said Wing. "One day I was getting ready to go home and a staffer said, 'Can you make sure my office is vacuumed?'"

Both Pressley and Wing addressed a class of 30-some Boston-area activists of color at the State House recently as part of a class on lobbying the Legislature.

The six-class series, funded by the Boston Foundation, is geared at people of color with some leadership experience. Topics include lobbying the legislature, understanding the legislative process, careers in public service and working with the press.

Organizers plan to hold two more rounds of classes, one likely beginning in March and one this summer.

"I hope our classes can give participants an in-depth knowledge of how things are done on Beacon Hill," said Joel Barrera, coordinator of the Boston Foundation's classes, dubbed the Commonwealth Legislative Seminar. "It is important to immigrants and minorities because a lot of the decisions that are made affect their families and when they are not represented it is to their detriment."

Both Pressley and Wing emphasized that there need to be more people of color operating the wheels of power from behind the scenes. Pressley blamed bias on the part of elected officials and other government and non-government employers.

"The onus is on organizations to cast their nets wide," said Pressley. "We know the talent exists, but we are very uncreative about bringing people in. People go to student government, but do they go to the Black Student Union?" Wing and Pressley told participants to form positive relationships with the staff of key legislators.

"The staff are the eyes and the ears of the legislator," cautioned Wing. "They can advocate for or against your issue."

The two staffers advised that advocates suggest to staffers a window of time in which they are available to meet, and then arrive en masse rather than setting individual appointments. That way, staffers are less inconvenienced and a group's message is delivered more forcefully.

"Meet with more senior staff people," suggested Pressley. "And remember, scheduling is fluid. When you begin to lobby at the federal level, you can get your request in six days in advance or two days in advance and it doesn't increase your likelihood of getting heard."

The Boston Foundation-funded classes are just one way in which people of color are working to gain more political clout and know-how.

People of color in Boston turned out to vote in higher numbers this fall than in the previous year in which there was a city council election without a mayoral election.

The high turnout helped re-elect Latino City Councilor Felix Arroyo, an incumbent many had pegged for defeat. Arroyo placed a surprising second out of the four at-large seats.

The increase in turnout among people of color can be attributed to sustained, comprehensive get-out-the-vote efforts by nonprofits in Jamaica Plain, Chinatown and other neighborhoods in recent years. Get-out-the-vote work and advocacy work on the myriad issues affecting people of color takes trained advocates.

Applications for the next round of Legislative Seminar classes will be accepted beginning in mid-January. Requests for applications can be sent to, or call 508-740-1078.

Article copyright: The Bay State Banner.

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Barrera is making himself right at home
By Charlie Breitrose/ Staff Writer - Natick Bulletin & TAB
Friday, March 3, 2006

Massachusetts and Texas may be on different ends of the political spectrum these days, but Joel Barrera feels right at home on Beacon Hill, and in Natick, after moving north from the Lone Star State.

Barrera got a good education about what Natick is like by working for state Sen. Cheryl Jacques for several.

"I worked at the State House, but any constituent from Natick who called, any municipal issues, whether it was the golf course or TCAN, you name it, I was the one who took care of it for Sen. Jacques," Barrera said.

Barrera moved with his wife Mari Brennan Barrera and their children Mila, 7, and James, 5, to be closer to Mari's family in Connecticut.

"(Natick) is a very different place," said Barrera, who grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas. "But I have gone to school at Princeton, and lived in England - I went to graduate school in Oxford. This wasn't my first time out of Texas."

The Barreras settled quickly into Natick, and should make it their home for some time to come.

"My wife found an apartment (in Natick), and we ended up loving the town center," Barrera said. "We liked the area so much that we bought a house almost across the street from the apartment building. Our children are in school now."

After working for Jacques, Barrera moved on to a job with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, in Boston, where much of his work focuses on dealing with mayors in the state.

He works with leaders of larger cities, such as Boston, Cambridge and Chelsea, but he found that their concerns are quite similar to those of a smaller community like Natick.

A recent report created by the MAPC, called Local Communities at Risk, showed that all cities and towns are suffering financial troubles, and lack sufficient local aid from the state level.

"I think what was really interesting, is it brought people together from eastern Massachusetts and western Massachusetts, people form small communities and big cities," Barrera said. "As far as the structural issues, we are more in this together than not. (The report) didn't point fingers and wasn't based on cheap anecdotes."
All municipalities would benefit from a funding system that does not depend so heavily on local property taxes, Barrera said.

"At end of the day, we have to have structures in place so can have vibrant communities," Barrera said. "We all want good schools, we all want trash picked up, we want all kinds of services for towns. The finances need to be there to support that, and we can't just keep pushing that on to property tax."

Along with his work with the mayors, Barrera is in charge of the Massachusetts Commonwealth Legislative Seminar, which trains potential leaders to work in state politics. Graduates of the six-week courses have gone on to become chiefs of staff for state legislators, candidates at the local level and lobbyists.

The group targets people from groups that may not be represented in state politics, including people from immigrant communities, people of color. All kinds of people have been involved with the coalition in its first couple years, Barrera said.

"They are diverse leaders, in some cases as young as high school students or as old as 78 years old," Barrera said. "All the people are involved in the community, campaign type experience, or involved in a particular ethnic group or particular community."

In the program, participants learn about how the state budget works and how it is created, and how to get a meeting with politicians in the state house.

"We want to open the doors of the State House," Barrera said. "The basic goal is bring talented people in and demystify the way the Legislature works and how legislation is made."

Charlie Breitrose can be reached at 508-626-4407 or

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