Jen Fries’ vision for justice and equal opportunity

Building a fairer, greener, and more compassionate society is positive sum. That’s Jen Fries’ vision of where we need to go. The society we live in today is the product of really narrow assumptions about what is possible and whose voices are worth listening to. Jen is challenging those assumptions to build better public transit, lower carbon emissions, and stand up for people who aren’t being heard today.

Visit her website to get involved at https://www.jenniferfries.com/

The transcript below was edited for length and clarity. To hear the audio, check out the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or other apps!

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Sunrise Boston

Jen Fries, thanks so much for talking with us!

Jen Fries
It’s my pleasure, thanks for having me.

Sunrise Boston
So you’ve done a ton in the public sector and in nonprofits, what led you to a career in public service?

Jen Fries
I started out as a volunteer on a suicide hotline, run by a group called Samaritans. I found that I was hearing from a lot of people who were suicidal because they’ve experienced sexual abuse or domestic violence. And I ended up volunteering then at the women’s center in Providence, Rhode Island.

I was a public policy undergrad, and I wrote my thesis on the prosecution of domestic violence misdemeanors in the case where the victim is reluctant. So there was this idea that we can’t really pursue these cases because the victims don’t want us to. And therefore we have to dismiss these cases. What I found in my research is that the attitude of the prosecutor makes a huge difference in whether or not the victim feels comfortable going forward. And I was able to classify prosecutors based on how they acted. That led to me working for a long time in programs too end intimate partner violence, and also to just help victims who are in those situations.

What I found in my research is that the attitude of the prosecutor makes a huge difference in whether or not the victim feels comfortable going forward.

Sunrise Boston
I feel like that’s so common. What you’re saying about prosecutors, that if someone in a position of power or someone embedded in the system is on your side, then you’re much better able to advocate for yourself and the system works for you. But it’s just not set up to provide that to everyone equally.

Jen Fries
And that is even more so in sexual assault cases. There’s a really small percentage of sexual assault cases that go to conviction or that even go to court. And there are a whole lot of reasons that is the case, but it has a lot to do with just who is privileged and [how the system handles] accusations against people. [For example,] if they are well known community members. We’ve seen some of this happening with Me Too, but there’s so much that we don’t see.

Sunrise Boston
A lot of people are struggling right now with COVID and the economic fallout related to COVID. What should we be doing right now to help people out?

Jen Fries
There’s a need to be sure that we are supporting people so that they don’t feel they have to be driven out to work and spread the disease and catch it themselves. So we shouldn’t be cutting off unemployment at a time when people need either unemployment or to work to survive. And so I want to lift those voices up and make sure that people who are essential workers are protected and people who are not essential workers can afford to stay home.

Healthcare of course, is a huge issue. Making sure people have access to sufficient sick leave, because COVID leaves you ill for a long time. We have some fairly new sick leave laws here in the state, but they are probably insufficient for COVID.I’m proud of Massachusetts on what we’ve achieved and how far ahead we’ve been in terms of healthcare coverage. But there’s so much more that we can and should do.

I do support Medicare for all. It is a federal policy, but we could be doing similar things here where we decouple health insurance from working. For so many people, whether they be freelancers or people who are moving between jobs or people who just feel like they can’t leave a job because they need their healthcare. That’s separate from COVID, but during COVID it’s so much more vital that people have healthcare?

I think Massachusetts is doing really well. Comparatively. I mean, I don’t want to discount that. There have been some really good things done with contact tracing and testing, and also just everyone stepping up. However, two areas where we’ve really fallen down are nursing homes and prisons.

If you went to jail for some minor crime, that should not be a death sentence. So if we can’t do distancing, then we need to let some people out and monitor them in a different way, so that our prisons are not a place where people are just dying en masse. And I am really worried from the statistics I’ve seen so far in our district.

Also our nursing homes were hit really hard. I worked in a nursing home when I was a kid. I was a nurse’s aid. And again, it shouldn’t be a death sentence for the staff and they should have what they need to stay safe. And many of the staff caught the infection too.

Sunrise Boston
What you said about companies having sick leave policies that let people take time off just makes so much sense. When someone feels sick and they have to choose between getting better or putting food on the table, they’re going to go in to work. And that’s a disaster just for spreading COVID. It feels like in a lot of places there wasn’t slack in the system before because the entire economy is just kind of over optimized. And so people don’t have sick leave, they don’t have savings and then they don’t have anything to fall back on when something like this that’s really bad and unexpected goes down.

Jen Fries
A lot of the people who work in nursing homes work in more than one home because they can’t put enough income together working in one place. The nursing homes are sort of set up with this model of as few hours as possible. So a lot of people are part time. And so they’re spreading it from one nursing home to another.

Sunrise Boston
One of the things that you’ve spoken a lot about in your campaign is fixing our public transit system. Can you talk a little bit about why that’s such an important and personal issue for you?

Jen Fries
So I was a newly divorced single mom about 10 years ago. My daughter was in kindergarten and I was working downtown in Boston. And when I took the job, I though, great. I’ had done this commute when I was the associate director at the MA legal assistance corporation, which is a quasi state agency that funds legal services for low income people. So I said to myself, this is going to be fine. I didn’t even have to transfer. It was one train. Perfect. What I’ve found is I could not reliably get on the T and know when I was going to be home to pick up my daughter at afterschool. I would constantly find myself where I thought I had left plenty of time but the Red line would stop underground. They would make an announcement about signaling problems. And you didn’t know how long you’re going to be stuck there. Sometimes the lights went out too. That was fun. You didn’t know, was it going to start again in 30 seconds, or would you be sitting there for 10, 20 minutes? It was just a nightmare. And so finally, I was already looking around for different job. And I said I’m only applying in Arlington, Somerville and Cambridge because I needed to know that I could get to my kid and pick her up.

It’s only gotten worse since then. After that they were the derailments, so we’ve had now safety issues on the T. The red line train that derailed is older than I am. I’m 50 years old, and the red line train that derailed was put online before I was born. I say that running for office is my midlife crisis.

So now we have issues of safety, as well as reliability. And now with COVID we have the issue of hygiene. So when I talk about what we need to do on the T, those are the things we need to address: reliability, safety, and hygiene. And then I’ll add a fourth, one affordability. You want people to say to themselves, ‘Why would I ever drive? Of course I’ll take the T.’

Sunrise Boston
Yeah. It’s so frustrating when the T stops because of signaling problems. And you’re like, what the hell do you mean by signaling problems? I have 4G wireless. Whatever this is, it seems like we had the technology to solve it in like 1990.

But also holding on talking about the T for a minute, where should the funding for a better and more affordable T come from?

Jen Fries
I think that we are at a place now where we can go to some of the major companies and they’re actually really worried about how can they get people to work. They are having trouble hiring people because people don’t want to be in that kind of traffic. And corporate taxes are extremely low right now. I think we can go to them and to the people in general and make a case that they can take up more of the slack.

I also believe in the Fair Share Amendment to tax people who have higher income. Those people are usually really benefiting from our economy working well, and this is something where we can make the economy work a lot better if we just pitch in a little more.

The most regressive way that you could fix, it might be the gas tax. There is a good argument for that for climate reasons, which is that we use less gas when it’s taxed. It puts some of the externalities back on people and helps them make better choices. However, gas taxes tend to hit lower income people harder. And so I think if we do a gas tax, we need to take a look at our earned income tax credit or other things to make sure that people who are at the bottom of the income spectrum are getting some extra support. You can definitely structure it in ways that are not regressive. I just think we need to be careful about that.

Again, I’m open to any fix to the revenue of the T and I’m interested in building a coalition. I don’t want to come in and say I have the one solution. I just know I have the will to get it done.

Sunrise Boston
Yeah. That the point you made really resonates about going to wealthy people and companies and making the case that they need to take up the slack on this stuff. If you’re doing really well, you’re doing well, at least partially because of the economy as a whole. And you’d probably do a lot better if we fixed some of these public infrastructure and other social problems.

Jen Fries
I think that people assume that everybody is out for just themselves. That can be the default, but I think there is an argument to be made that we’re all in this together. Let’s have a good society that works. We can.

Sunrise Boston
How do you think the public discourse on climate change has shifted recently?

Jen Fries
What I think Sunrise has done really successfully [is to make] people realize how soon we have to act, that we don’t have time. That’s amazing and really important because the clock is ticking. If we want to make changes in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we do need to act extremely quickly.

What I think Sunrise has done really successfully [is to make] people realize how soon we have to act, that we don’t have time.

Can I give you an example of a win-win about energy use? If you use natural gas in your home, you pay not only for the gas that you use, but you pay a lot of money for leaks in the system. The system has holes and leaks throughout it, and they try to patch the most dangerous ones, but they don’t even get all of those. There was a terrible gas explosion on the North [not too long ago]. But the other thing that does happen is that they charge consumers for every bit of gas that goes out into the air. Periodically there’s the smell of gas outside my house. We call and they come, and they do something, but it comes back and I’m being charged for that.

One of the really great bills that’s under consideration right now is Rep. Lori Ehrlich, who is awesome. She has a bill called the FUTURE Act, which is moving toward renewable energy more quickly. But another piece of that is about the safety of the natural gas grid and the fact that the utilities would not be allowed to charge for gas you didn’t use.

When people realize that they’re like, “I’m paying for that?” It’s not just that it’s unpleasant to go outside your door and smell it. You’re paying for it too. I think that when we can talk to voters about these kinds of things, they are definitely motivated to make changes.

Sunrise Boston
That’s such a good example of a situation where even though utilities are highly regulated, their market incentives are still out of whack. And you need to step in and fix that.

Who in your district is most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and what should we be doing to reduce that burden? And what should we be doing to make your district more resilient?

Jen Fries
The district is the 24th Middlesex. It includes affordable housing right across from Alewife station. That is a fairly low lying area. It will be in a flood plan during these hundred year storms that we’re expecting more frequently. They’re no longer coming once every hundred years.

There needs to be planning to be sure that systems are raised up, that people are not living in basement apartments. And we need to make sure as we build new buildings, that they are built to a code that is higher in terms of protecting people in general people living in poverty.

Black and Brown people are much more likely to be exposed to pollution and to be in danger due to climate change. We saw this during hurricane Katrina, we saw this in Houston when, people who live near oil refineries that were overflowing with polluted water during storms were trying to evacuate through floodwater that included toxic chemicals of all kinds. There were also chemical companies there. Where things get sited has to do with who has power and who can push back. So I want to lift up the voices of people who will be impacted by these [projects] and make sure that they are safe and they have a right to live a life that is safe.

Sunrise Boston
So much polluting infrastructure is bad enough when it’s working the way it’s intended to. And then when something goes wrong, it’s an immediate threat to everyone nearby. I think people don’t realize how so many of these facilities aren’t robust to things like floods or hurricanes, which just makes them super dangerous. [Editor’s note: a major example of polluting infrastructure that’s likely not robust to storms is the Exxon facility on the Mystic river, close to Boston]

So sort of on that note and rebuilding and building things better than they’re built today, what would a green new deal look like in your district?

Jen Fries

The district includes a lot of people who work in research. There are a ton of amazing and interesting jobs to do. First of all, the research and development of new green technologies, as well as the jobs that have to do with implementing those technologies and making sure that they are widely distributed. The subsidies that up until now we have been putting into fossil fuels [need to] shift to be at the same scale for green and renewable energy.

[Editor’s note: Trillions of dollars a year are spent on subsidies for fossil fuel companies. The actions of the US and other governments deliberately tilt the playing field in favor of technologies that are detrimental to human health and cause climate change. The fact that this is happening is not controversial; the piece linked above is from the IMF and Forbes. The whole point of the GND is to reverse these subsidies and tilt the playing field in favor of technologies that will support our way of life instead of posing an existential threat to it.]

That way we can make sure that people have good, hopefully good union jobs, in these industries. And also to have a fair and just transition for people [Editor’s note: “just transition” means help people who currently have jobs in fossil fuels to find new green jobs that don’t harm themselves and others]. And I would love to see Massachusetts be a leader and reap the benefits from being out in front on these things.

Sunrise Boston
Public education has also been a huge focus of your campaign. Can you talk something about the CHERISH Act and how that would help us maintain the UMass system?

Jen Fries
The UMass system ought to be, in my opinion, the crown jewel of our educational system. I want it to be that if you’re an in state student and you choose to go to UMass you can get an excellent education and come out of that education debt free. So the CHERISH Act is an act to increase funding significantly for the UMass system. The system [currently] has a lot more students, but is funded at the level that was there for many fewer students. That means that the system has had to cut corners all different kinds of ways, and raised tuition and fees on students as it went along.

It’s not just students, although they’re obviously the main group, but the other group of people that I’ve talked to a lot adjunct professors. There’s this belief that professors get a lot of money. And I think it’s typically a livable wage if you are a full time tenured professor, but most people are not that. Even if they’re working full time, it’s considered cobbling together different adjuncts. There are people who are teaching multiple courses and are still eligible for food stamps. That’s really common. You might make $8,000 a course. So it’s nearly impossible to make a living wage and to pay for educational debt that you may have as an adjunct. I think that some of the pressures on higher education that lead to more and more adjuncts are related to underfunding of our public university system. I would like to see that change.

Let’s keep the smartest kids in Massachusetts because they say again, ‘Oh, why wouldn’t I go to UMass? It’s great education. And I can go for free or maybe I have to take a work study job or serve as a TA.’ I think that’s fair. You should be able to get out of it and then pursue your career. Because again, our society pays when people can’t do this.

People may feel [pejoratively] like that’s a free ride or something like that. But what people don’t understand is the amount of debt kids come out of college with now is just so wildly out of whack with what even people my age may remember. They may have this belief that you can work in the summer and that’ll pay your tuition or something. Whereas in reality, people might come out with $50,000 — $60,000 or, if they’re low income, $80,000 — $90,000 in debt.

There’s all these articles written asking why don’t millennials, who are in their thirties by their way they’re not that young, why don’t they buy houses? Why don’t they want to have children? They can’t buy houses because they have a student loan payment that is equal to what you pay in your mortgage. That’s it’s not that crazy. It makes sense. And if they choose to have children, they’re going to have childcare expenses that are again, equal to a mortgage. So many people are realizing that they can’t can’t have children. They can’t afford it.

Sunrise Boston
Yeah, we have over a trillion dollars of student debt, something like that. And the country and people wonder why millennials don’t live lives more similar to the life their grandparents led. And the reason is it just doesn’t numerically pencil out, right? Like you’re saying.

Jen Fries
I mean, it’s not because they’re not working. They are. The jobs that they’re working are not the jobs that our parents remember in terms of being able to get a job and pay for everything. It’s just not the case.

[Editor’s note: the decoupling of median from average household income over the past 30 years strongly supports this point. Prices are going up and wages for most people aren’t. Again, this isn’t controversial. Link is from the Federal Reserve bank of St. Louis.]

Sunrise Boston
FDR had this great quote when he was talking to activists, he said, “you’ve convinced me, now make me do it.” I think that really speaks to how, in order to create political change, you need to play both an inside game and an outside game. The outside game is sort of creating the political conditions for the thing that you want to happen. You’ve managed this really effectively when you’ve advocated for more funding for legal services. What’s the story there?

Jen Fries
To be clear, it wasn’t just me, but I was part of a core group that worked on this. We were at a point where legal service programs had been level funded for many years. We had a conservative speaker of the house - sound a little familiar? - and his name was Tom Finneran and he hated legal services.

With Finneran and today, we have had leadership that is relatively conservative.

For people who don’t know, what I’m talking about here is civil legal services for low income people. So if you are a victim of domestic violence and you want to file for custody of your kids, or get a restraining order, or if you are being evicted and you need representation, if you’re denied a government benefit to which you should be eligible, legal services might help you. So I’m not talking about criminal cases.

One of the things that we decided to do was we contacted lawyers who worked in private firms because many of them had gone to school thinking they were going to do public service. And, again, because of the law school debt can’t afford to. Ironically, people from low income backgrounds are the least likely to go into a lot of these public service law jobs, because they don’t pay very well at all. And they had a lot of law school debt. So they may care a lot about the issue, but they took a law firm job anyway. So there’s a lot of people in law firms who care about the issue of access to justice. And we realized that the speaker cared about them. Their voices mattered to him. So we could bring up victims of domestic violence, but who would actually get a meeting would be lawyers from a private firm.

So we created Walk to the Hill for legal aid. Private attorneys were asked to come this one day and lobby their legislature about the importance of legal aid funding. At the same time, we coordinated with the corporate councils of major companies that were based in Massachusetts. They did a press conference about the importance [of this issue] that we were able to attach all these company names to, because the lawyer who was the in-house counsel for that company was making a statement about the importance of access to justice.

And we also coordinated with retired judges. Sitting judges can’t make political statements, but retired judges might be able to. We had a whole campaign and we were successful in breaking the log jam. We got a $1 million increase, which at the time was a 25% increase in funding for general civil legal aid for low income people. Those things make a real difference when you are a victim of domestic violence and you’re afraid, and your abuser has said to you ‘I’m going to get custody of the kids.’ To know that you have a lawyer just changes the game in terms of that person’s ability to say, ‘no, I can leave this situation.’

Sunrise Boston
What is the Safe Communities Act and how does it make us all safer?

Jen Fries
If you go into court to testify for a case, the Safe Communities Act says you can’t be grabbed there and deported. It sets boundaries on cooperation between the state and immigration. It doesn’t rule out cooperation, but it sets boundaries so that if someone’s coming in to testify as a witness in a crime, they can do that without worrying about being deported as a result. Again, I’m not talking about the person who was even accused of the crime. I’m talking about a witness. So the Safe Communities Act makes sure that those kinds of things can proceed and that witnesses or victims can call the police and that the police won’t grab them and give them to immigration. You don’t want [police] showing up in a sexual assault case and arresting the victim. But that is what happens sometimes.

You don’t want [police] showing up in a sexual assault case and arresting the victim. But that is what happens sometimes.

People who are bad actors, people who are abusive, violent, sexual assaulters, or sexual harassers, people who withhold paychecks, all of these people will use the fact that their victim is undocumented as a way to get the victim to withdraw charges or to not make charges at all. I saw this directly working with victims of domestic violence all the time. The abuser would threaten that he was going to get her deported. Often they had children together and he would threaten her that he’s going to keep the kids. Not that he had any interest in having the kids generally, but that was a way he knew would get to her. A way to control the victim and keep her from leaving him.

One of the things I think is really important to point out to voters is that these people, in many cases were eligible to become green card holders and American citizens because they were married to American citizens. It’s just that the American citizens were not good people. So they were abusive and they were using her status against her. They deliberately did not file the paperwork for her to become a citizen. I saw that over and over again. But whether or not the person was eligible, that is a tactic that was used against people. It’s also used against people in other kinds of cases, too. Every once in a while, you hear about a case where someone’s brought over to be an in-house au pair or house cleaner or something. And they steal their passport, use their status against them. If we want to stop these people from doing these crimes over and over again, we have to make sure the courts are open everyone. The same people who are abusive to their wives are abusive to other people out in the world.

The same people who are abusive to their wives are abusive to other people out in the world.

So even if it’s not you directly — I say it should matter to you if it’s happening to your neighbor — but even if you don’t care about that, that’s not someone that you want out in the world because they could be a threatened to you. Violent people are not great neighbors.

The safe communities act is absolutely a public safety issue. And we need to pass it yesterday.

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