For Pressley, her work has only just begun

By 
Sue Asci, Special to the Reporter
Nov. 5, 2009

By 8 a.m., 232 people had voted at the Holy Name Parish Hall in West Roxbury and Dorchester resident Ayanna Pressley had greeted most of them in her bid for an at-large seat on the Boston City Council. And that total nearly doubled to 439 voters by 9 a.m.

Despite weeks of long days of campaigning citywide, from the early morning hours of greeting people at MBTA stations to listening to their concerns at community meetings into the night, Pressley was just as enthusiastic as the day she announced her first-ever campaign for public office on April 28.

“This is great training for the office,” Pressley said. “I keep focused on the work. It’s about the people and their stories. When I’m tired, I say this is what you signed up for. If you get the honor of becoming a city councilor, you won’t get to stop, because the need doesn’t stop.”

The countless residents she has met throughout the city have continued to motivate this 35-year-old candidate who is eager to serve. “I am chomping at the bit to do this work,” she said. “I carry their stories with me. I don’t want to let anybody down.”

In the preliminary election, Pressley captured fourth place among the candidates with nearly 17,000 votes. “I just wrote the total down on an envelope and stared at it,” she recalled. “I couldn’t even celebrate. I was just so struck by that sense of responsibility.”

Her energy has also been fueled by that sense of responsibility to serve which her mother, Sandy Pressley, instilled in her at a young age.

Pressley grew up as an only child near the north side of Chicago in a family that included a drug-addicted father, who spent time in and out of prison. As a result, her mother was a single parent. Pressley recalls growing up in a neighborhood that only had a corner store instead of a supermarket and check cashing businesses instead of banks.

Despite the family’s challenges, her mother worked as a community organizer for the Urban League, trying to improve the quality of life for others.

“She is my ‘hero,’ my best friend and my bedrock,” Pressley said. “I grew up going to community meetings and went with her when she voted. I have such a reverence for this work.”

Not surprisingly, her mother has been traveling periodically from Chicago to help Pressley out on the campaign trail. And she was there last night, along with Pressley’s staff, when she learned that her daughter had been elected.

Sharing her challenges during the campaign illuminated the fact that she is not alone, said Pressley. “The things I have overcome in life are neighborhood transcendental,” she said. “Heads nod in the neighborhoods – in Eastie, Southie, and Charlestown – when I talk about my drug-addicted father. I am not an anomaly. The only thing that is unique about me is that I tell my story. Challenges exist for everyone. But I also know success and triumph. And that’s why I do this; so everybody can know this success.”

Although new to being a candidate, Pressley has worked behind the scenes in the political world for 16 years. She has been with Senator John Kerry for the past 11 years, serving most recently as political director. Prior to that, she worked for Senator Edward Kennedy for four years. Pressley decided to run after realizing that “public service is not what I do, it’s who I am,” she said.

She first came to Boston as a student at Boston University. Now a homeowner in Dorchester, she feels very much a Bostonian.

She also sits on several boards, including the UMass Boston Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy, the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, and Emerge Massachusetts. “I think that work enables me to work collaboratively and build coalitions in neighborhoods throughout the city,” she said. “The only way we’ll get through this tough [economic] time is through community partnerships.”

Looking to after the election, she said youth issues and housing are among her priorities. “Housing is linked to transportation. We can create jobs, but people have to be able to get to them. I’d like to work closely with the Legislature to ensure equity in transportation. We need real community input in the process. We also need to move towards more smart growth development in the city. We are losing our families and we need affordable housing.”

The issue of talented workers leaving the city is also a concern. “We attract some of the best minds in the world, but because they city is not affordable, we are losing them,” she said.

While her passion is public service, Pressley describes her mission as the work that she does with girls and women on issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. She said she is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.

“Sometimes advocacy begins just by naming it,” Pressley said. “We’ve got to break the cycle of violence.”

Pressley chose Holy Name to start off her Election Day because that’s where she began her day in the primary election, she said. “Also the people in West Roxbury are among the most ardent activists,” she said. “The response has been warm.”