This year’s government day examined politics closer to home as we visited with elected officials in New Bedford and Fall River. It was our first local government day and we learned about what goes on behind the scenes in our cities and towns from the mayors, town and city council members, and local political science educators who represent municipalities and educate residents about how politics work. We also learned about the roles and responsibilities of elected officials.
Our day began at the New Bedford Public Library with Mayor Jon Mitchell. Mitchell, the three-term incumbent who’s running for re-election this fall, spoke with the class about what’s happening in New Bedford from economic development to progress taking place in the school district’s reform strategy.
We also heard from City Council President and Ward 6 Councilor Joe Lopes, a long-time community leader who spoke about what motivates him to be a public official. Lopes passionately explained that there’s no manual on how to be a City Councilor, but if you have the drive to reach out to other local officials for help and mentoring, and you have the commitment, anyone can be successful in the job.
Likewise, at Government Center in Fall River, we heard from the City’s youngest mayor, Jasiel Correia, and three city council members including Stephen Long, Joseph Camara, and Steven Camara on how they work together. Correia is also running for re-election this fall after serving his first term as mayor. They’re all passionate about their roles and they echoed mutual respect for one another, even though they don’t always see eye to eye on the common goal.
After lunch, we heard from Shana Shufelt, Vice Chair of Westport’s Board of Selectmen, who discussed distinctions between city and town government and her work in the Town of Westport advocating for animal abuse prevention and connecting local to regional work with SRPEDD, the Southeastern Regional Planning & Economic Developmen District. She’s amazed at the talent in Westport and values that she gets to talk to really interesting people as a result of her role and tries to make positive changes. “We’re helping real people and making their lives better,” says Shufelt. They’re “cool little wins” as she puts it.
Our last activity of the day was a presentation on the mechanics of state and local government by Shannon Jenkins, Associate Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at UMass Dartmouth. Later, Shannon facilitated a legislative session simulation in which class members had to play the role of district representatives from Massachusetts and create and advocate for legislative bills. It’s harder than it sounds when you consider how you need to maintain your constituents’ interests and convince your peers that they should align with your platform when they have their own district’s interests to protect! Part of the exercise revisited our work with Positive Leadership and re-examined the capacity of advocacy.
Effective advocacy was a resounding theme throughout the day from all of our speakers. Says Shufelt: “Don’t just bring me a problem. I want people to come to me with suggestions or possible solutions to help fix that problem. Some of the most effective advocates have done a lot of research on what other towns have done in a particular instance. If you can do background work, it’s easier to act on your behalf.” Jenkins reminded the class that passion and authenticity have to be coupled with effective messaging framed to appeal to stakeholders. She adds, “Effective advocacy requires realism. Where is the person coming from that you’re trying to convince? You need to appeal to them.”
A few of our class members were able to contribute directly to the day’s discussion: Bob Espindola (Fairhaven Selectmen), Josh Amaral (New Bedford School Committee), and Kathleen Amaral (Dartmouth School Committee) presently hold town office or school committee positions. Many thanks to our government day presenters for sharing their expertise and to Bristol Community College’s Center for Workforce Education for hosting our afternoon activities.