Strictly Business — Women of Influence

Joyce Linehan, Chief of Policy for Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh

Artists For Humanity
Mar 1, 2016 · 21 min read

As a building, Boston City Hall is a conversation starter. Some love its concrete details, while others are viscerally offended by it. Regardless of your taste in architecture, the space is open to all, both literally and metaphorically.

Notebooks, pens, and questions in hand, we sighed relief as we entered the air-conditioned space, thankful for the respite from the oppressive Boston summer heat. Escorted into Joyce Linehan’s office, we were welcomed by an exquisite view of Faneuil Hall and a genuinely warm smile. Ushering us to take a seat at the table, it felt as if we were family and Sunday dinner would soon be served.

A native Bostonian hailing from Dorchester, Joyce is living proof of the quintessentially Boston trait of banding communities together to effect social change. She exemplifies the grit of the working class, the loyalty of community, and the bravery of the pioneers born out of this city.

Not bred to follow her political path, her journey began in the mosh pits of the local punk rock scene. Working for the legendary record label, Sub Pop, Linehan organized and implemented countless concerts and art events, leading her to open her own arts promotion company.

As an active member of the community, she often hosted local politicians’ meetings in her house, which is how her foray into politics began and how she earned the nickname “The Decider.” Now her political savviness born from grassroots organizing has turned into a full time job.

In our hour interview with her, we talk about the art of politics, the significance of advocacy and giving advocates a platform, and the importance of being multi-faceted — along with asking about the most memorable moments she had working alongside famous musicians like Courtney Love and Elliott Smith.

We left feeling like we had just been backstage with a famous rock star and they invited us to the after party — special, pumped with adrenaline, and talking all at once.

Considering your academic and professional background, how did you end up in politics?

I took a pretty non-traditional route to politics. I went to college right after high school and flunked out of college. Then I worked for a few years in the music industry, managing bands, putting on shows and things like that. I went back to college later. I went to UMass Boston basically one class at a time and eventually got a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree over the course of about 20 years, which is a short amount of time for some UMass Boston graduates, but a long amount of time for other people.

In the meantime, I worked all along the way. I worked in a lot of different places. My work study job when I first got to UMass was at the Strand; probably some of you guys know it — in Uphams Corner. I was the marketing and PR person there. I didn’t know how to do that, but that was the job that was open so I learned that and that was where I initially learned my trade. I spent a few years doing work like that, booking clubs and managing bands. I managed a couple of bands that maybe people have heard of — I’m not sure — The Smithereens and the Lemonheads have both had some success over the years — and a lot of bands that nobody ever heard of, in the 90s.

I went to work for a label called Sub Pop, which was a music label most famous for Nirvana.

At any given day in my house, which was in the Neponset area of Dorchester, Eddie Vedder or Elliott Smith or somebody else might be staying there. It was a lot of fun. It was great.

In the meantime, I was also — kind of — volunteering in political campaigns. I worked on Governor Patrick’s first and second campaigns, worked on the President’s [President Obama’s] first and second campaigns and worked Elizabeth Warren’s campaign — the folklore around that is not all true. The first house party that she had when she was trying to decide whether or not she was going to run for office was actually at my house in Dorchester. And that, as the story goes, is the night she decided she was going to run, after meeting about 70 of my friends who were begging her to please run for office.

I knew him [Mayor Walsh] through that work because he is also in recovery and has been very open about the fact that he’s been in recovery for about 17 years now. He was always the guy you went to in the legislature when you were advocating for more funding, for instance, in substance abuse programs. So he decided to run for Mayor and I was in the room on the first day of his campaign, which was great. There were five or six of us there. I eventually became his Policy Director on the campaign.

We weren’t supposed to win, but we did.

So I did that. I was lucky. I found a woman about 10 years younger than me, with very much the same background, to run my company. So she’s now doing it and running the whole thing; I don’t have to think about it at all. But it still exists — I was worried about leaving my clients like Arts Emerson and Boston Book in the lurch without a PR person, but she’s doing that, which is great. And I’m here as the Chief of Policy so that’s the story — a long answer to a very short question.

What are the similarities between the two fields? You’ve had a lot of experience in both, obviously.

People kind of laugh about that because it is a ridiculous path to take to City Hall. It’s absurd, but,

I always say that my involvement in arts and music was the thing that politicized me.

I feel like that — they call it the DIY ethic, or Do It Yourself — really lead to my ability. Whatever skills I have in community organizing come directly from that culture. I feel like those skills translated really well.

Who better to talk to about policy issues than people who are actually working or affected by it.

We had academics; we had practitioners; we had all kinds of people who helped us develop that. And it’s great because it’s kind of a big responsibility, because then we have this transition plan that has all of these ideas — this road map for what we needed to do when we got here. That was my job to try to figure out how to make the transition recommendations into policy and that’s what I continue to do here.

Did anything stand out in the transition from going from the music industry to politics?

Honestly my head is still spinning. I went from being a person who basically, for most of my life, worked at home. I never had to get dressed up to come to work — dog at my feet. I was always at the house. Now I come here every day. I never really had a boss before because even when I worked for the record label I was running the Boston office. My boss was in Seattle but I was managing people here so this is a very new thing. I have a boss. I have to go buy clothes — this is so not me.

I normally look like somebody who grew up in the punk rock world of the 70s and 80s and now I have to buy clothes.

Did you face any difficulties being a woman as Chief of Policy?

I never thought I did until I realized… I’ll tell you story that I told a group of women who work in the building. When we first were getting ready to come in here — so back in December 2013, January ’14. The Mayor said, “I want you to come work for me. What are you making now? Let’s see what we can do.” So I talked to him about money, and he said, “Okay, we can do that; we can match what you’re making now.” He came back a couple of weeks later and said, “You know, the budget’s not what we thought it was. I need you to come in for a little bit less for now and we’ll fix it later” and I, being a team player, said “Okay, I can do that.” I was lucky; I had bought my house in 1992 in Dorchester when they were practically given away. I don’t have kids and I went to UMass, which means I’m not carrying an enormous student debt. So I said, “Yeah, I can do that.”

Well, come to find out he’d had the same conversation with the guys and the guys pushed back. I didn’t. Women don’t push back; you’re just a team player; you kind of take one for the team.

That was a real eye-opener. He did eventually come back and fixed it later, basically after taking a step back and looking at the pay equity issue in City Hall in general, and said, “Yeah, we need to fix this.”

It’s a lesson I want to pass on to other women because I think it’s really important that you stand your ground and talk about what you’re worth is in dollars as you’re negotiating your salary.

Not only with the public but also with the people in your office, how do you deal with criticism?

Criticism is important. A lot of times it’s activism, which I respect a lot. There are people who are out there who are advocating for a particular cause which is really important to them and you need to step back and listen to them…you need to hear what they’re saying. I also know or am getting to know — the more I learn the less I know — how government works. The pace of government can be glacial. I’ve never seen people run around so quickly to move so slowly. It’s like the ultimate paradox.

So you try to make them understand how best to advocate for what they’re trying to advocate for in a way that is going to be palatable to the people you need inside to move whatever policy it is you’re trying to move.

Has the way you make your decisions changed over the years based on the criticism you have received?

I’m not sure if it’s based on criticism. I don’t have enough experience here to really answer that. I’ve really only been here for 16 months now…17 months, so I don’t really have an answer to that. I will say that the advocates on the outside who know how to work us, who know how to present their cases in a way that makes sense to us and present real solutions to problems that are going on, they do very, very well. You go a lot further if you approach it not so much from a criticism point, but if you’re collaborative.

If you try to bring solutions along with your criticism you get a lot further.

You have strong commitment to the arts. Which challenges do you face in getting people within the administration on board with making the arts such an integral part of the City of Boston?

I’ll tell you, it feels right now as if it’s a lot easier than it has ever been before because I’ve been doing this from the outside for a long time and I’ve been an arts advocate for a very, very long time.

It feels like we’re at a moment where people really understand the value of the arts and not just in an economic development way.

He [my boss] was very touched by a program called Medicine Wheel, which you might be familiar with because it’s in Southie, and works with kids who have been through a lot of trauma, a lot of times affected by substance abuse. He tells a really compelling story about seeing these kids discover communicating for the very first time. They don’t have a lot of verbal skills so they are communicating through their art. And he tells really compelling stories about seeing kids kind of realize for the first time that they just communicated something and what that means to him.

He sees the value of the arts in recovery and trauma treatment and things like that, which is really a kind of revolutionary approach to the arts.

We had this really great situation a few months ago where somebody in the Public Works Department called me and told me that this crosswalk that’s right here on Congress Street — the one you can see out of the mayor’s window — needs to be redone. She said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we put a piece of art there” and I said, “Oh, my god, that’s a great idea. What did you have in mind?” She said, “I was thinking Paul Revere.” “No. No, no.”

But awesome concept, so we decided to commission an artist to do a piece. I wanted something that was contemporary because it seemed to me that the juxtaposition of Faneuil Hall and something contemporary would be pretty interesting. We did all this stuff and we got this really great piece and we’re all set to lay it down and the Feds came along and said, “You can’t do that; it doesn’t meet federal highway guideline standards.”

So we’re still working through that one. We will figure it out; we will get that installed somehow. But it’s really interesting the ways you can try to integrate the arts into things you don’t necessarily think that you’d want to integrate them into, but also get people you don’t think of as your advocates to actually advocate for you. The fact that she came to me and said this is a good idea; that was a huge win. She’s starting to think about other infrastructure pieces involving public works; she’ll be thinking in those terms too.

Being from Dorchester, do you think it gives you a better understanding for what Boston needs now and in the future?

I’m not one that ascribes to that, “we were here first and therefore we know what’s better.” I feel like I just had the good luck to be born here. People who choose to come here — in some ways they get more points. They’re making a choice; they’re absolutely making a choice to be here. But I do think about growing up in Dorchester and my experience with a single mom.

My mother was widowed at 33 with three kids under five and didn’t have anything more than a high school diploma.

I do think that being from Dorchester, I have a really deep appreciation for community because I came from one.

You have hosted a lot of famous musicians, which we are sure has lead to some really interesting stories. Is there a particular experience that stands out to you?

I don’t think there was any one experience. The thing about the story is that it gets messed up — because never let the truth get in the way of a good story, right? So it’s actually been three houses over the course of time. Although everybody thinks it’s the house I’m in now. It’s the house where people play music and write poetry and talk about things and really have great interactions with other people that they might not have met otherwise if that house had not been there; that’s the piece of it that I find really appealing.

As the story goes, the song “Doll Parts” by Courtney Love was written in one of those houses. I wasn’t a part of that — I had nothing do with it — there’s nothing of me in that song. Just the fact that there was this place where that kind of activity could occur — I’m proud of that — very, very proud of it.

I was just talking about this yesterday. We don’t do as many events anymore because I’m here most of the time and also my political work is now limited. For instance, I can’t raise money anymore. I used to raise a fair amount of political money, but that’s against the rules because I’m a public employee. But yeah that’s what I like about the house; I want to do more of that. I want to do more of that so hopefully I can make time to do readings and things like that. The house I’m in now is a great house for that. I actually bought this two or three years ago and renovated it so that it was more for entertaining. I knocked down some walls and made a big space and it can fit about 100 people in the living room. I was not intending to be here [in City Hall] when I did that.

Have you read about John Michael Schert in Chicago? So Booth is the business school at University of Chicago — it’s about as far right as you can possibly go without bumping into the Koch brothers — and he is an artist. He’s a dancer actually by trade. He worked for American Ballet Theater for a while and then founded a company called Trey McIntyre Dance and moved it out to Boise, Idaho, of all places, and made this really, really great impact in Boise. But he has just been hired as the Artist-in-Residence at Booth. He’s got a couple of TED Talk things on the internet that you should hear. It’s pretty amazing to hear about how he’s integrating the arts into something that’s really traditionally seen as a very non-artistic endeavor. He’s really doing great work. I think he’s going to come back in September so I’ll have him over at the house and I’ll invite you guys too.

Jane Chu came to AFH recently. Have you ever thought about being head of the NEA?

I don’t know if you caught this, but a couple weeks ago — was it a Picasso? — a painting sold for 178 million dollars. Do you know that that’s more than the entire budget of the National Endowment of the Arts…more than the entire annual budget for the National Endowment of the Arts — for one painting; talk about income inequality.

Do you have any plans for after this?

I don’t know. I’m not that young and I don’t know; we’ll see. I’m living in the moment. I like think tanks. I like philanthropy. I would be a terrible teacher so I would never go into academia. I’d like to get a Ph.D. actually. I don’t have a Ph.D. I don’t know in what though.

Considering your background and your career, do you feel there’s a need for more artistic minds in the political and corporate worlds? What benefits would they bring to these industries?

I think all the benefits we talked about in terms of education and how it sort of molds critical thinking. But I’ll tell you, I think they’re already there.

When we first got here to the building after the Mayor was sworn in, all of a sudden all of these secret artists come up from every corner. “I’m in the transportation department and I play cello.” There’s a lot of people out there that do that kind of stuff so people can be very surprising if you allow them to express what it is they do other than the thing they’re supposed to be here doing. I think it’s great. If you look at things like Longwood Symphony, which is a bunch of doctors who got together and formed an orchestra, I think there’s a lot of that out there. Maybe I’m naïve but I’m optimistic about the infiltration that we have managed.

I’m not an artist and I also think you don’t have to be an artist. You can be somebody who supports that kind of activity and still be just as effective.

We are ending all of our interviews by asking if you had one piece of advice for young women, what would it be?

Don’t be pushed around.

Say what you mean, mean what you say.

You guys should continue to pursue your art. Not everybody’s going to be able to make a living doing art, but what you can bring to other things that you do will be very, very valuable. Be a part of your community as much as you possibly can.

There was this really interesting article in The New York Times on Sunday. It was an opinion piece about people who experience awe have empathy and they’re altruistic.

People who experience any kind of awe are better able to relate to other people.

If you’re like me and get sort of overcome when you see something that is particularly great. For me if I see a drum-line that’s really good, I’m like “Oh my God…” I could practically break down in tears.

There’s that moment when you think this is the best thing that you’ve ever seen.

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