Rita Lara Interview - Full Transcript

March 21

May 4, 2021

What comes to mind when you think about a just and equitable recovery?

I don’t know where the starting line is for the recovery, but I suppose the vaccine rollout could be considered a starting point. It hasn’t been very equitable and I’m so disappointed in it.

We could have done it in some other ways. We could have said, “Let’s look at where the problem is and start there. Let’s look at the most vulnerable communities. Or they could have alternated, starting with the hardest hit communities and then fanning out. Essential workers come right after health workers in terms of exposure. We included first responders, but then we didn’t include the essential workers who were out there doing the work when everyone was shuttered in. Why not use the call centers, which are already on the ground in trusted institutions?

We’ve been running food since a year ago March and none of the frontline people doing that work were qualified for the vaccine. Things that are so obvious to us just aren’t obvious to decision makers and it’s just so frustrating.

I’ve been thinking about the rollout; I’ve been thinking about health. People are struggling with the impact of COVID, the impact of the mental health fallout from isolation. The first people I thought of were those we did a housing assessment with: We narrowed in on the people who have a significant amount of debt and are likely to get evicted. And we’re looking at about 50 people who have a cumulative debt of $200,000—so what happens to them? They’re probably getting evicted and when they look at housing, their credit is going to be shot. Per person, you’re looking at someone who owes $9,000. It’s a large debt that they owe, not to mention the fact that they’re going into a system that is not prepared to handle them. It’s a system that doesn’t provide housing first. People will be made to jump through hoops. Where do they end up? We had the motel system in Massachusetts., which was horrible, and doesn’t exist anymore. So, where will families go? You can’t send a whole family to Pine Street Inn.

We did set up a Defense Station, a coalition, here that’s working on that. It’s a computer platform with a printing station that provides access to MADE (Mass Defense for Eviction), which is a multi-language eviction defense program. We have one of the first here in East Boston.

Does housing come up for you as the highest priority for the recovery?

Health Care and Housing are among the highest priorities. There’s also a lot of built-in racism in the system and even the inequitable rollout was because of patterns of racism and ways that we look at problems, which are not inclusive of everyone. It’s really unfortunate. 

I think there are some very real motivators around how we solve problems and they’re entrenched in racism; they’re entrenched in approaches that de-prioritize people who are poor, people who are Black and Brown and how do you change that? That’s very systemic and I think it’s political. How do you approach that? 

Housing is something that concerns me. And the amount of debt that people are accumulating. Are they going to be able to secure housing after they lose their housing? Already there are severe economic inequities.  There is a need for more opportunities for people to generate income, especially here in East Boston, an immigrant community that struggles with worker eligibility due to their immigration status. 

Say you don’t have workforce eligibility, but there are many ways to earn an income. One is entrepreneurial. All you need is a taxpayer ID. You can be the owner of an LLP. There are workarounds that some of us were pursuing pre-pandemic, such as helping people to get EIN numbers (Employer Identification Numbers), and ITIN numbers (Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers) so that they can begin to legitimize their income by being able to report it. That definitely helps with their pathway to citizenship too; documenting income in this country. 

But we haven’t supported some of those mechanisms. This is an issue of federal advocacy at the IRS. We need to start expediting the whole EIN and ITIN process. Pre-pandemic, those were taking anywhere from two to three months. Post pandemic, it’s something like seven to nine months. Well, now is when people really need to make money.

That’s actually a piece of advocacy that I started working on. There’s a woman here who runs an organization called Center for Immigrant Organizing and they’ve supported a number of cooperatives that have sprung up, but the EIN and ITIN process is really holding them back. It’s taking forever to process those.

The whole PPP process was also a nightmare; it certainly didn’t help many small businesses. The latest round is more targeted, but to be frank, I’m kind of skeptical about what’s happening around recovery, because I don’t think it is very inclusive. There are people making the decisions that don’t even know what they need to be doing because the conversations are so removed between the people on the top and the people on the ground who know what the barriers are. I see that as problematic. There’s a lack of communication between the people who know what is needed and those making the decisions. 

Systems are one of the greatest barriers. If you conceive of all organizations as institutions with their own systems within a larger system … even the nonprofit institutions operate in a way that is really focused on sustaining and supporting our own system. We’re all very focused on economies of scale. We build and we grow and we need to support that growth. But that isn’t being community responsive. That’s being institutionally responsive. So, I think that if we could take a moment to stop, to really stop, and think about how to rebuild in a way that is more community responsive, I think we’d come up with different answers and solutions.

I don’t want to be a Pollyanna about it. We need those institutions to thrive, so I see it almost like a venn diagram. There’s the institutional/organization level and then there’s the community level and there’s an overlap where the sweet spot is in the middle, right? Where you’re really putting community needs first, or you’re trying to do that... I don’t think we do that enough of that at all.

Do you think there is something about this moment in time that gives us the opportunity to do something big?

I absolutely think so. I think we’re already seeing it happening locally. When I think of the landscape, even just in my sector, it has really changed here. The grassroots organizing here was always strong, but now it’s even stronger. We’re seeing emergent new responses, such as the whole mutual aid phenomenon. People coming out and forming networks with other people. That’s a resilient response to what’s happening. As someone who’s running an organization, I think it’s really important for me to understand this new system and to work with this new system and to figure out how we can work together—take advantage of the benefit of now.

Not only are we seeing new emergent responses, but we have to recognize them as such and not decide that we don’t need this kind of response anymore; we’re going back to the old ways of doing things. Now is the opportunity to actually support these emergent responses as we rebuild. We have to build new ways of operating. And I would say for us at the institutional level, I see that we need to grow and rebuild in a way that is even more responsive to community and find ways to sustain that response, rather than operating in silos. We can’t operate in silos anymore. We just can’t. I think there is a whole swath of people who want to just go back to the way it was.

Do you think that advocacy will be an important part of this?

Yes, definitely. We’re engaging in more advocacy now than we ever have. And it’s not even in our mission! Some of it’s hyper-local, such as taking on a local advisory group that really engages in racist behavior and blocks new and diverse East Boston residents from having a voice. That’s a hyper-local response—coming forward to force this advisory mechanism to change because they get to decide what all of our MassPort parks here in East Boston look like. Well, why shouldn’t we all get to decide? 

Other advocacy that is happening locally: We put out a piece on prioritizing food workers and I know there’s a growing coalition of vaccine equity that isn’t coming out of East Boston, but that has a lot of support in East Boston. And then there is advocacy around expediting EIN applications. That’s a federal issue. It’s about getting information out to the right people and getting friends to join with you. It’s a very hard thing to do at the local level, but it’s important because I think we see important pieces of advocacy that need to take place but we don’t have the ability to marshal he resources for that advocacy.

Now we have an opportunity to build new structures. This is an optimal building time! I’m interested in seeing more localized production. I’m interested in seeing more local food and actual product production. If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it was that we couldn’t even call on people to wear masks because we didn’t have enough masks.

The $15 minimum wage is systems change. We’re on our way to that anyway; I think we’re at $13.50 now, so Massachusetts will get there. But I think that would make a huge impact. Even $15 is still not enough to live in the Boston area.

I actually think that when it comes to systemic reform, we need reform on just about every level of government and of our own sector… There are so many policy reforms that need to happen way above my pay grade. 

In the area of housing, for instance: Most of the housing developments have been privatized over the last 30 odd years and the problem with that has been that when these developments are redeveloped, they’re built as one-story townhouses, so maybe that is better than the tall towers that are deemed indefensible space, with people lurking in hallways. It’s supposed to be optimal living because you have your own point of entry into your home. The problem with that is that it has resulted in two things. I think the people who created this new kind of housing thought that if we created side-by-side housing, magically people’s lives will be improved. In fact, that doesn’t happen. Ultimately, the tradeoff was a lot of affordable housing for less, nicer, housing. All of the affordable housing stock that has been lost—not just here in Boston, but all over the country—is because they wanted to move away from indefensible space structures to these little one point of entry townhomes. And now we’re really feeling how much affordable housing has been lost. And now we’re at a crisis point. 

Honestly, the first thing I thought of when everything happened last March was “this is the time to build.” We didn’t even have a food program here. I could barely get an apple that first week and now we’re moving over 50 pounds of food every month with four or five different partners. It was the perfect landscape for scaling that up because there were no barriers. You could just build what you needed to be built.

As a final note, I do think we need to explore other models to fund the work we do within our sector specifically. I do like enterprising models. I think they’re a way to potentially feed more than one bird with one stone. For example, we’ve developed these journals out of our teen-maker space. We were working on scaling that out and then the pandemic hit. But we’re back here now and we’ve reworked the covers so that they can be sewn. Yesterday I had a woman who used to be in restaurant work and lost her job, but she sews. So we’re going to develop a sewing cooperative. If I could sell corporate-branded swag; if I could convince one of these companies that hasn’t been affected by the pandemic—meaning that they’re strong—to invest in the idea of encouraging people not to buy their swag overseas but buy it here. It’s made locally. It’s sewn by people who live here. That would redirect dollars to a community setting for people. The money is out there. We just have to figure out how to redirect it. It doesn’t even have to be charity. It can be an investment that sees a return. You get this product and we make you look good. It could be a win/win. 

But how do you break through with the really smart solutions? That’s really hard to do. We need to start talking about how to do those kinds of things together. 

The edited version of this interview appears in the Spring 2021 TBF News as part of a story about local leaders stepping up during the pandemic.