In Your Neighborhood

One-on-one with Sen. Tiara Mack

The strategy behind building a new, inclusive coalition fighting for better housing, food policy and climate justice

Photo courtesy of Sen. Mack's website

State Sen. Tiara Mack

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/25/21
State Sen. Tiara Mack talks about the strategy and the import of a new legislative package to support a coalition-driven effort to connect housing, food, and racial justice issues around climate change in Rhode Island.
What will it take for political reporters in Rhode Island to cover the efforts of Renew RI to change the policy landscape in the R.I. General Assembly to bend the arc toward addressing climate change? Will the Biden administration respond to the Renew RI coalition in ways that are more responsive than the outgoing Raimondo administration has been? How will the efforts of bottom-up innovation at the community level be highlighted in the new McKee administration? What kind of new investments is the Rhode Island Foundation willing to make to support local news enterprises?
Years ago, when I lived for a winter in a cabin in the woods in Massachusetts, where the only running water was a hand pump that froze up during a cold January freeze, it required hauling water from the nearby stream when the early morning temperatures hovered at near minus 20 degrees. To reach the water, I had to take a pick-axe and break through a foot newly formed ice, haul the water up the bank, repeat the trek two or three times, and then heat the water in a big soup cauldron on the wood stove, waiting for the water to boil as the sun rose so I could wash up.
To go off to work, I had to maneuver down a half-mile trail cut into the forest so I could reach my car, parked near the road, saying a silent prayer that the battery would turn over. The choices I made about what clothing to wear were never about fashion; they were about layers and warmth, from socks to scarves to long underwear and insulated boots.
The memes about Sen. Bernie Sanders mittens, as humorous as they may appear to be in placing the Senator, appearing “grumpy,” in numerous unlikely settings, were irritating, but it took me a while to figure out why. The connections between warmth, water, energy, and comfort were not theoretical constructs when I lived in the woods. Rather, they were practical facts of a daily existence that required paying attention to the world around me. I understood exactly what hot water in the morning meant – and what mittens were to my hands to protect against the bitter cold.

PART TWO

PROVIDENCE – The process of asking questions, of engaging with neighbors – and listening to what they have to say – was the successful strategy that helped to propel state Sen. Tiara Mack to victory on Nov. 3.

Now, she has helped to organize a strategy to package proposed legislation that looks at affordable housing, food insecurity, and climate justice in a comprehensive, coherent fashion, amplifying the voices of people who have often been ignored and left out of the political decision-making.

A virtual Zoom launch of the Renew RI initiative drew more than 500 participants last week, which was followed soon afterward by a long Twitter thread by Mack offering the details of what will be contained in the legislative proposals. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Warning: Ignore at your own risk.”]

The strategy of using the social media platform of Twitter as an organizing tool is a new kind of savvy approach in building a political coalition, made more relevant by the disruption that has been caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

ConvergenceRI recently spoke with Sen. Tiara Mack to better understand how the strategy is being planned and implemented.

ConvergenceRI: Can you describe the working coalition that Renew RI is a participant in?
MACK: Renew New England is a coalition of different partners. We had our Renew RI launch last week. I was one of the speakers, and I did an overview of all of the intersectional policies that we have.

It was a condensed version of our one-hour Zoom that we had at our regional launch, which I then condensed into a bunch of tweets.

ConvergenceRI: I have not seen the strategy of your Twitter thread used before in Rhode Island in promoting a legislative package. Were you aware of a similar strategy that had been done?
MACK: No, I don’t think so. But it had been used by some of the other groups like Sunrise. They have had some success with that. So it was modeled off of other successful Twitter threads.

ConvergenceRI: It was fairly succinct and comprehensive and well written.
MACK: The thread [addressed] the legislative package that will be introduced in the next few weeks. We’re spending as much time as possible talking about how this package really needs to be passed all together; that has been our biggest goal.

We had about 500 people who joined for our kickoff last week. We have mobilized volunteers. We had about 60 people doing phone banking

ConvergenceRI: What has been the response to your thread? Has there been a positive response? Have you been trolled?
MACK: Unfortunately, because I am a Black, queer woman, I always have a couple of trolls on my account.

But, I think overall, most people are excited about the idea, A lot of the sponsors [of the legislation] are new young people of color in office. We’re not just talking about the environment; we’re talking about all of the different intersections on food, on housing on racial justice.

I think that is a part of the conversation that a lot of our communities have been left out of. To put it in a “novel” form on Twitter makes it that much easier to digest for people.

ConvergenceRI: Has Twitter, then, become a better way to reach people with political messaging these days – as differentiated from the old days when folks would place an op-ed in The Providence Journal?
MACK: I think Twitter and social media, especially in times of COVID, is [more effective]. You can’t gather people outside; you can’t have as many meetings. Lots of people are “Zoomed out,” but a lot of people are still spending time on their phones, on social media.

It’s a great way to get people’s attention. Twitter is also pretty bite-size. You can get a lot of big ideas out in a few words, because people’s attention spans are small.

Which makes this a super easy to do on Twitter. Get your main ideas out there. And, it’s also a little easier [than trying] to sift through Facebook, Facebook is posts and ads and pictures – all these different things that are flooding your timeline

So, I think the combination of being in a pandemic, as well as people being Zoom-fatigued. They are not ready to get on another Zoom [session]. But they are open to read up on things that they are interested in. I think it makes Twitter a great way to reach out to people.

ConvergenceRI: That makes sense. How important is it for the legislative leaders to feel the pressure from the public to be able to advance this legislative strategy?
MACK: It’s really important. For a long time, many people in our state haven’t felt like they had a voice in politics. That’s one of the reasons why I ran [for office]. I didn’t see people who looked like me making decisions for communities like the one I lived in.

I think getting people engaged – having 500 people come to a [virtual] launch of our policy was crazy and insane, [more than] 500 people came just to hear about a bold Green New Deal legislation [in Rhode Island], and they stayed on through the whole thing. And, then some signed up to make phone calls and to email their legislators.

I think it is a good way to show that people are actually paying attention to politics right now. These issues are super important, particularly in light of the pandemic.

Everything – from the environment to our health to what jobs are available – are all connected.

ConvergenceRI: Have you had a chance to sit down and talk with any of the legislative leaders? Have you had a chance to talk with the Senate President, for instance, or any key committee chairs?
MACK: We have not filed the legislation yet. I did, at the beginning of the session, have a conversation with [Senate President] Ruggerio about my biggest priorities for this session, and what I was hoping to get done. I’m excited to keep those conversations going.

There were also a few legislators that were on that Zoom call among the 500 participants for the launch. I think there is a lot of buzz and interest around what’s going on and who’s [participating] in these conversations.

It’s kind of hard to ignore when you have hundreds of emails coming in from constituents all across your district about the same topics.

I think they are all interested. They want to see what the legislation looks like on paper, when we get that to them in a couple of weeks

ConvergenceRI: Your strategy seems to directed changing the way that politics are practiced in Rhode Island, giving voice to people who have often been left out of the conversation. Are you creating a new narrative, if that is the right way to phrase it?
MACK: We have one of the most diverse [group] of legislators in the General Assembly right now. There is a lot of momentum around social issues. It’s really hard to hide behind a wall, because people have more time to get engaged.

They don’t have to worry about parking at the State House. They don’t have to worry about finding the correct room, or figuring out when things are going to happen.

Everything is happening virtually now. So, there are a lot more people who are able to get involved and get plugged in than there have been previously. I think that’s super key to how things are going to work.

Also, nationally people are able to tap into conversations that are happening around climate justice.

President Biden, in one of his first executive orders, halted the Keystone XL Pipeline. It’s giving people [the opportunity] to say: “Hey this is cool, and it is happening outside of my state, but what is happening inside my state?”

Then, when they see that there are all these energetic organizations, like Sunrise, like Renew RI, like the Rhode Island Political Coop, they can rally behind and get involved with in their own communities.

I think it’s putting a lot of power in people’s hands, for the first time.

ConvergenceRI: How important to our strategy is it to show how policies are interconnected, creating a narrative around connecting housing, food policy, and racial justice issues?
MACK: It’s critical to what we are trying to accomplish. At the end of the day, if people don’t see how the policies impact everything from the air that we breathe to the quality of health care that we get to the food that we are able to purchase, they won’t feel compelled to act on these issues.

A lot of this is about story telling. It’s about telling the stories of the families that are directly impacted by poor air quality, [why] all of their children have asthma, and [why] they have hundreds of dollars in medical debt from children being hospitalized by asthma.

The element of story telling is about how much these issues are connected. Before, people haven’t had to think about them [as being connected]. There’s one organization that’s fights for clean water, there’s another organization that fights for clean air, and another organization that is fighting for urban farms.

But now, those organizations are all coming together to say: If a family doesn’t have fresh local produce, if they don’t’ have clean water, and if they don’t have clean air, they are not living in a community and environment that’s safe to raise their children.

At the end of the day, everyone can relate to wanting to have created or be part of a family that has all the resources they need to live in a safe, healthy and well-cared-for environment.

ConvergenceRI: In your campaign for Senate, you were very successful, in spite of the pandemic, by being able to go door-to-door and engage with folks. Do you see that as an important strategy about how to engage with people as part of this new campaign?
MACK: Yes. With the height of the pandemic that we’re in right now, it doesn’t’ feel as safe as it did during this summer, when the rates [of infection] were a little bit lower and it seemed [as if] we had a better handle on the virus.

But, I think, knocking on doors is definitely one of the ways; I don’t think I could ever go without knocking on doors again. Because you hear even more stories, you hear more about the direct impact [on people’s lives].

I know my story; I know my friends’ stories. I know the stories [of people who] are brave and bold enough to step forward. But knocking on someone’s door and asking them: “What is the impact of living a community which has poor air quality mean for you?” they are able to tell you that in their words.

They don’t see you as a senator; they see you as a neighbor coming to their door and asking a question, and genuinely caring about them, their families, and their well-being.

You hear so much. And, with that in-person contact, when you talk to someone face-to-face, of course you want to continue that conversation.

With the phone, you can kind of ignore it. It’s hard to ignore someone who is asking you really important questions about yourself.

ConvergenceRI: I’ve always believed in story telling. I believe that people’s personal stories are their most valuable possessions they have, and sharing those stories is what makes us more human.

With the new President and his administration, is there an opportunity to reach out and get national support and recognition for what Renew RI is doing?
MACK: The fact that this a whole New England coalition, it’s not just Rhode Island, it’s not just Rhode Island and Massachusetts, it’s Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, it’s a whole regional effort to make sure that we are doing the best to combat climate injustice.

It’s really easy to ignore the small underdog state with a million people, one that is a city-state. It’s really hard to ignore a network of six states that have all banded together with a similar vision and a similar mission to get real things done. I hope it is going to grab the attention of people who say: I want to replicate that in my region.

I do hope that it catches like wildfire, because at the end of the day, we want every single community across this nation, and in our world, to have better environmental practices and strong racial justice missions.

ConvergenceRI: How do you think the news media has to change in terms of how they report on this new coalition?
MACK: I think it’s really easy right now to dismiss it as a “Green New Deal,” because there are a lot of negative connotations that come with that.

And then you add in racial justice and a whole other audience stops listening, or comes with their own biases, so I think they really need to highlight how impactful this [package of legislation] will be, not just for now, but for the future.

It is great for union jobs; it’s great for laborers and the service industry; it’s going to increase wages, it’s going to rely on thinking about the future, and it’s going to rely on us changing the way we live our lives and how cities are made. And it’s going to change our future for the better.

I think the news media covering it as if it is just another green new deal, a radical left progressive plan, is not going to cut it, because it is much more than that. It’s about everyone, no matter what side of the political spectrum they are, getting the best future, the best livable future, out of these polices. At the end of the day, it’s only 2 percent of Rhode Island’s budget.

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