District B Candidate Q&A: Tiffany York

Tiffany York (in pink) is running for District B Town Councilor.

Tell people about your background — family, professional background, volunteering, government, activism — and how that will help you as a Town Councilor.

I grew up in Carrollton, Texas, a small suburban city. I attended a very strict private school where I never learned (for myself or taught by my teachers) the reality of colonization, genocide, and oppression which birthed our country. My family lived outside our means in order to fit in; debt crippled my family but was never talked about. I learned of my Mexican heritage through stories from my Abuela, “Nani”. She would tell me stories of picking the cotton as she tenderly ran her fingers up and down her enlarged joints and sun wrinkled skin. I also learned of her and my Abuelo’s services to the United States during the war, and how, despite their sacrifices, they would not qualify for the GI bill because of the color of their skin.

Throughout high school, college, and my professional career at Travelers, I spearheaded volunteer efforts with Habitat for Humanity, donation drives, and access to employment and career opportunities for the employee resource groups in my community. I believe it’s this part of my heart and career that eventually led me to advocacy, activism, and a career in Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. My recent co-leadership of Watertown’s first Juneteenth learning event was the true definition of community, a feeling and representation I had not been a part of in my 11 years living in Watertown. I hope these spaces will become a way of being in Watertown, where people feel safe, honored, and fulfilled at Watertown community events.

The skill sets that I will bring with me to the councilor seat are attention to detail, passion for people and planning, creativity, ability to multitask, and negotiation. Coupled with my training as a mental health first aider, perinatal mental health advocate, and lived experience of postpartum depression and chronic depression; this moment is mine to serve, support, and be an accountability partner to the Town Council, specifically District B, as we tackle complex issues together. I believe we can do more with more – we can do more with more voices, more identities, and more resources focused on abundance not scarcity.

It’s important now more than ever to have Watertown councilors who represent diversity of race and culture in our residents, so residents can see themselves and their experiences at the decision table.

My upbringing and journey as a practicing ally helps me to be fearless in advocating for those in need, ready for pushback and disagreements, inviting feedback, and transparent in all personal and professional communications.

The pandemic has created some trying and difficult times for residents and along with that for local government, and in other towns elected and hired officials have stepped down. Why during these challenging times did you decide to run for office? And with a robust group of candidates running in 2021, why do you think Watertown has so many people stepping forward to serve?

I believe Watertown has so many residents and organizations stepping forward because they feel unheard, confused, and disempowered by the access and decision-making procedures as a resident. Additionally, I think the pandemic has forced people with power and privilege to look within themselves and their biases, which has created a group of people who now feel a complex set of emotions without resources to guide their understanding of racism and other isms. I will bring my background as a consultant to facilitate, listen and then do better within District B and Town Council. No one can ever know everything there is to know about race and oppression — that is why the Town Council needs me and other practicing allies who will offer compassion, accountability, and spaces for councillors to honestly reflect and become accountable to our constituents. This generation of candidates, advocates, and policy makers are the change makers that our local government needs in order to work toward equity and true democracy.

Being a new town manager is difficult enough, but following such a long-term and successful Town Manager will be a tough task. What do you look for in the new manager and how will you, as a councilor, help the new Town Manager get established and be successful?

I think the number one way I can support and hold our town manager accountable is by asking questions about the status quo and bringing voices and experiences to the decision table. Here are some examples of questions and frames I will help the Town Manager navigate. It’s not an easy task or balance but a town manager must be willing focus tough questions and find solutions with the departments, people, and residents of Watertown,

  • What will you do to ensure that the city’s ordinances for building, historic preservation, and environmental protections are enforced?
  • How can we work together to reject false binary choices?
  • How should the city government address the sometimes conflicting interests of residents, small businesses, unions, and large corporations?
  • Are you willing to work toward a vision and implementation of a public safety plan where the community is empowered and engaged in contributing to conditions of safety, health, and healing?

In addition to prudent fiscal management, the new Town Manager also needs to have competency with hiring personnel and overseeing department heads. I would like to see a Town Manager who has an equity lens; in every situation or policy has the town manager seen, explored, and acknowledged those not at the decision table or most vulnerable in a certain context. An equity lens is also important when it comes to oversight and accountability of department heads. There is much transformation needed in town staffing to better reflect the demographic of this town. Given my experience with Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and relationship management, I could provide this kind of support to the new Town Manager as they advance important staffing and personnel infrastructures, investments, and policies.

Do you think the voters should pass the changes to the Town Charter? Explain why you feel that way.

Yes; in fact I am passionate about passing the changes! A lot of thoughtful consideration has gone into the proposed changes and it is time for Watertown to revise its Charter. It has been decades since so many voices of the people have influenced the direction of the vision of Watertown. There are many important updates, just two of which are the creation of a Human Rights Commission and the creation of a Community Engagement Officer position. A Human Rights Commission is critical infrastructure for the provision of feedback from residents without fear of reprisal. A Community Engagement Officer is a critical way Watertown can move toward deeper democracy by having strengthened mechanisms for input from residents about their hopes and concerns for Watertown.

Police funding and the services provided by the Watertown Police have become a big topic of discussion. Should the funding be increased, decreased or is it just about right? And, would you like to see how the Police in Watertown operate (please explain your answer)?

I think this question around police funding has layers of complexity, including systemic, historic, and current realities. Police Chief Lawn has stated that “every third call” involves mental health, and that 99% of their calls do not result in an arrest. Much of what they are currently tasked with does not involve law enforcement. Because of this, I would like a robust examination of the services that the WPD provides and thoughtful consideration of which services should be under the purview of law enforcement, and which services could be better handled by other trained professionals, such as mental health professionals.

I believe the funding allocated should match the services provided and the services should be provided by those best equipped to provide those services. The people who respond to crises in Watertown should be the people who are best equipped to deal with those crises, and that is not always law enforcement officers, even if historically the police officers of Watertown have tried their very best. Sometimes the people best equipped will be professionals such as mental health service providers or social workers. Sometimes the people best equipped will be victim/survivor advocates, religious leaders, neighbors and friends. Positioning people who are equipped to deal with a third of the calls to WPD will free the WPD to focus on more important tasks of law enforcement and public safety.

A lot of public tax dollars go to this department and residents deserve transparency and accountability for how their tax dollars are spent. Watertown police budget should be reviewed quarterly, annually, and reviewed in connection with performance reviews of all employed by Watertown Police. Then, as any budget and reviewer of a budget who is prudent and objective, funds should and can be reallocated to other departments with staff trained to provide mental health, substance abuse, and addiction services. I would particularly also like to see greater transparency with what bias training is provided to Watertown police officers and clear information about who oversees that bias training. I would also like better transparency with the data keeping and sharing with the public.

In general, I also support a reallocation of funds over time to redirect more funds from crisis management to crisis prevention. Many of the causes of theft, substance abuse, homelessness, and domestic violence are rooted in insecurity whether that is job insecurity, housing insecurity, food insecurity or another kind of inter-personal insecurity. The pandemic has increased all of these forms of insecurity, and we need a government that can provide support for addressing the drivers of the crisis through prevention.

What issue in Watertown that might not be getting enough attention would you want to work on as a councilor, and how would you like the Town government to address the issue?

I wish I could only name an issue that is not getting enough attention. I think there are a few and they are connected to the people and systems in Watertown. I would like to be at the table, as an advocate for the government of Watertown to dig deeper in reviews, budgets, conversations, and policies so that these issues may seem some light and attention.

I’ll start with IT/Personnel/Feedback Infrastructures which are lacking the staff and budgetary resources needed to provide Watertown residents and organizations with timely and clear information. A clear example is there are still no full Spanish translations on our website or meeting minutes, even though we have robust ESL and Spanish groups within the community. Another clear example is the minimal compensation for councilors while having to handle logistics, responses, and larger projects which are outside of the individual responsibilities.

Another gap I see is within the accountability and policy making procedures. Many cities across the Commonwealth have provided insights to Watertown government of the benefits of working together as school and government and sharing resources, communication tactics, and support for residents. And I’d like to see improvement in Watertown along the same lines.

Then I want to uplift the opportunity of crisis response education, awareness and programming. As for how this town provides crisis response, there are important ways that funding could be reallocated over time such as through the creation of a mental health mobile crisis response team. Some other towns, such as neighboring Cambridge are investigating and investing in creating mobile crisis response teams that can better respond to mental health crises with trained professionals rather than expecting law enforcement officers to do more than they should have to do. This is a time when COVID-19 relief monies could be used to pilot such programs and explore what options can best meet the needs of the residents of Watertown.

Affordable Housing continues to be at the forefront in Watertown’s vision and I believe we have some amazing personnel and direction to continue our work to meet the goals and funding for increased affordable housing for the elderly. I would like to see exclusionary zoning eliminated as it is a practice localities use to limit the supply of available housing units, prohibiting multi-family residential dwellings in specific communities. This practice has been used throughout history to ensure that middle and upper-class neighborhoods remain white and affluent. As a result, families suffer, the housing market suffers, and children suffer.

Watertown has taken a lot of steps to become more green and to address climate change. Do you think the Town has done enough, or would you like more to be done — if so what would you like to see?

When one talks about sustainability, justice, equity and leaving spaces in better condition than one finds them … the work is never done. And Watertown groups continue to offer their time, labor, and passions to keep Watertown as a leader, creator, and committed city in addressing climate change. As noted by community organizations dedicated to climate resilience and sustainability, Watertown needs to continue taking bold action. The Resilient Watertown draft Climate and Energy Plan is a step in the right direction. I believe the Watertown council can support these initiatives through ordinances, zoning, and community conversations. I support increasing financial resources and staffing and the energy management department needs to be expanded to include local Watertown groups at the decision table. With regard to buildings, the town should work with the state to allow it to ban new fossil fuel infrastructure as soon as possible. I also echo and would help implement a justice framework for climate conversations. Candidate for Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, in Fighting for environmental justice notes, “[c]ommunities of color, low-income and working-class families, and immigrant communities are more likely to see environmental hazards and face exposure to pollution, urban heat island effect, flooding, and other impacts of climate change. Policies to combat environmental racism and ensure resiliency must focus on community stabilization to ensure people benefit from green investments in their neighborhoods without fear of displacement. As we take action on climate change … decision-makers must adopt a procedural justice framework that lifts up the voices, ideas and power of historically marginalized communities into processes for setting agendas and implementing policies.”

What is something that people may not know about you that residents would find interesting?

I am a high school and college athlete. Cross-country and track became my family, my health, and where I nurtured my competitive spirit. I then transitioned to 5k, 10k and half marathons with my family across the states. I have run in Illinois, California, Michigan, Texas, Virginia, Maryland, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Hawaii, and hope to put a few more states on this list in 2022.

My favorite words of affirmation are “you are a force.”

The hardest moments of my life have come in grief, marriage, and learning under Black women, and I am a better human for these trials and opportunities.

I am also now the biggest empath I know, so I also cry at all Huggies, Disney, and Hallmark channel movies.

I’d like to leave you with a few quotes, people, and frames that are at the forefront of my heart and mind as we lead up to voting day:

“At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.”

– Frida Kahlo

“We must never lose sight of the people. Ultimately, infrastructure are the things essential to the functioning and thriving of our society (paid leave, childcare, etc). There isn’t a deficit of resources, only in empathy. ”

– Ayanna Presley, MA Congressman, October 2021*paraphrased from https://www.msnbc.com/zerlina/watch/ayanna-pressley-the-plot-is-the-pe ople-124401733697?cid=sm_npd_ms_tw_ma*