The newly elected leader on a historic turning point in Somerville’s government
(Somerville Wire) – Mayor-elect and City Councilor Katjana Ballantyne knows what it means to see things from the other side of the fence. As an orphan born in Greece, she was adopted by a Scottish man and a Czech and German woman, and she immigrated to the United States when she was four years old. Even as a young child, she perceived herself as different from the people around her, noticing small dissimilarities in customs, traditions, and habits.
“At four years old, when I emigrated to the United States, I knew whether people liked us or not,” said Ballantyne. “You feel it as a four-year-old. … It could be your accent, it could be your food, it could simply be your culture. But I’ll tell you, any immigrant groups or immigrants that I talk to know it.” She added, “Why is this important to me? Because I want to make sure that people feel included. I’ve never been part of cliques. I view things from the outside. Just make people feel welcome—how hard is that? It’s basic respect, and that comes with ideas too.”
Ballantyne’s upbringing has influenced her leadership style today, she said, as her vision of Somerville is one of a city that is equitable and diverse. Succeeding current Mayor Joe Curtatone, who has been in office for almost 18 years, Ballantyne will be the second woman elected to lead Somerville. This year, more than 30% of registered voters turned out to cast votes, with 18,167 ballots cast. Ballantyne won the race over her colleague, City Councilor Will Mbah, by 3,271 votes. The election saw the highest number of ballots cast over the past four years. For a city that has been operating under the same administration for almost two decades, Ballantyne’s election signals a historic moment of change.
One of the most pressing responsibilities that Ballantyne will be tasked with carrying will be guiding Somerville through the coronavirus pandemic and toward recovery. She has pledged to take “decisive action” to support families, workers and local businesses, students and teachers, and other vulnerable populations. A priority of Ballantyne’s is to make sure that families have a safe place where they can send their children, so that they can work. Universal pre-k and after school programs will offer these spaces to families with kids. Ballantyne also intends to implement a food security plan, and in the past, she created a program that distributed grocery store gift cards in one neighborhood, an initiative that she hopes to expand on. Some of her first steps as mayor will be to address the many different facets of life that have been impacted by the coronavirus.
“What we need to do now is to help workers, families, and children to recover from the pandemic,” said Ballantyne. “How do we do that? We do that with housing stability, we do that with food security, we do that with education recovery, the small business stimulus, working on climate. That’s the short term, but it also dovetails nicely into the longer term. We do need more affordable housing. We know that. We know we need to end food insecurity in our city. And we know we need to help families.”
The housing crisis is another focal point for Ballantyne, who has said that she will work to address evictions and homelessness in the city. She explained that foreclosure assistance and the extension of the eviction moratorium go hand in hand. Ballantyne emphasized that creating more jobs will address root causes of the housing situation, as many people have had trouble paying rent due to their loss of employment during the pandemic. Another area of importance for Ballantyne is responding to climate change, and she said that she has always been very environmentally conscious. She hopes to see Somerville become carbon negative by 2050, and she also authored Somerville’s Green New Deal in 2019. She will aim to encourage the development of “Fifteen Minute Neighborhoods,” with car-free access to basic needs, such as grocery stores and local businesses. She said that with an electrical grid transitioning the city away from the use of fossil fuels, government should do everything that it can to encourage that shift. Embracing renewable energy remains a key part of her vision.
Ballantyne said that she has always supported the advancement of racial and social justice. It is not always necessary to have police respond to different emergencies, and that is why we have social workers, she said, a conclusion that leaders in Somerville reached a long time ago. She has also been supportive of civilian oversight of police, as a way of holding that department accountable, in a “transparent, respectful way.” Finally, she said that it has been important to her to uplift the perspectives of women of color.
“I was the strongest advocate of making sure that women and women of color’s voices around the table [were heard], because over in Ward 4 and also in Ward 7, that has been where the high violence has happened, more in Ward 4. And you ask yourself, who lives there?” said Ballantyne. “Which neighborhood is it in? And when you hear the loudest voices, they aren’t necessarily representative of the people who are most affected by the high violence. When Director Denise Molina Capers came on board, I went on … about making sure these women have an opportunity to have their voices heard.”
Ballantyne added that she sees our understanding of public safety as something that will continue to evolve.
“What I’ve learned in my adult life is that we evolve,” said Ballantyne. “We’re not static. We’re dynamic. We’re dynamic as a city, as individuals, and we learn, we grow. I can only imagine that how we view public safety will grow too.”
Ballantyne said that she was inspired by hearing people on the campaign trail talk about their dreams and aspirations, as Somerville residents. Many businesses said that they want to be in Somerville, and not in a neighborhood like the Seaport, because of the vibrancy and collaborative efforts they’ve seen. For Ballantyne, she is excited about the culture of inclusion that she would like to continue to bring to the city.
“I will use this Greek analogy … I was talking to Father Anthony of the Greek Orthodox church, and he was talking about community, and they do this open table. I said, you should do Greek dancing. Just open it up for everybody. Just do it,” said Ballantyne. She added, “You’re not paired off with a partner. You can be an odd number of friends or a ‘girls’ night out.’ And the circle is never closed. It’s line dancing. The idea of it is that everyone can join in. If you close the circle, then you’re excluding somebody. It’s just, keep it open. … I’d rather see people happy, that they feel that they’re a part of something. … It certainly goes back to the experiences you have in life.”
This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service of the Somerville News Garden project of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.