Just a note – you may want to find somewhere comfortable to read this letter, it’s a long one and it might take you a while!
2020 has been challenging and painful, and that’s the least we could say. As I reflect on this unprecedented year – a year that brought us a deadly pandemic, an historic and divisive presidential election and a racial reckoning – I realize that even through the pain and grief we are collectively experiencing, I am profoundly touched by a deep sense of gratitude. I am grateful to be home with my family even when it’s hard. I am honored and thankful to be able to continue serving you in the Legislature, even when it has felt overwhelming. I am tired and looking forward to better days that are safer for all of us.
I also know that I have been steeped in gratitude and in awe of so many in our community who have stepped up to try and help meet the need and urgency of this moment. I continually find myself spellbound by how many people have come forward to serve our community and help each other. I am truly nurtured by the determination of authentic love and sense of obligation so many in our community have felt and responded to this moment of need – a moment when our federal and state government have failed to appropriately respond or respond with the urgency to meet the immediacy of the suffering. So many of you have reached out to your neighbor and more often to strangers whom you will never meet.
It is hard to believe that it has been over ten months since the world changed for all of us and we were forced to pivot and rethink how we do the most basic things. I’ve watched in amazement at how resilient people are and how businesses have adjusted to keep their doors open. I am so thankful for all of the essential workers who never stopped working since the pandemic started to make sure that we have necessities like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, food and much more. I am thankful as well for the first responders and healthcare workers who continue to risk their own safety every day.
On March 14, Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders, a Cambridge resident, was asked by Governor Baker to take on the additional role of leading the COVID-19 Response Command Center. She has been tireless in her efforts to lead the state’s response to the urgency of this crisis. Secretary Sudders is an experienced social worker who understands how social determinants of health impact who needs additional resources and wrap-around support systems. This is an invaluable perspective.
Considering her decades of public service, management experience and public record of values, I could not think of a more qualified person to meet this moment. She has been leading, shaping and advocating for an inclusive response to the emergency at hand with the goal of a just recovery, all while continuing her important responsibilities as Secretary of Health Human Services. I will thank Governor Baker for his wisdom in choosing her, but I will credit her with all of the important work that has helped mitigate the suffering of those who have been the hardest hit.
I’d also like to give credit and a special thank you to the Cambridge City Council, Mayor Siddiqui, City Manager Louie Depasquale, Chief Public Health Officer Claude Jacob, Police Commissioner Bard, Fire Chief Gerry Mahoney and Health Commissioner Dr. Assaad Sayah for their leadership. It has been unparalleled to any other community in the Commonwealth during this pandemic. Leadership in a time of crisis is having the pulse of the diverse community needs and quickly responding to those needs by being decisive and then willing and able to reevaluate them and adjust as time and data show the needs changing or not being met at full capacity. If you haven’t had a chance yet, consider sending them a note of thanks.
City of Cambridge
One of Cambridge’s earliest actions in response to the emerging public health crisis was activating the Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund to provide emergency assistance to individuals and families in Cambridge experiencing extreme financial hardship. Since March, more than $4.7 million in donations have been received from hundreds of generous residents and local corporations. The City also provided more than $3 million in grants to small businesses.
The City also converted the War Memorial Recreation Center into a temporary residence for houseless individuals. At its height, more than 100 people used the Field House while 15 individuals used the quarantine/isolation space staged in the garage beneath the War Memorial site while awaiting the results of their test.
I’d like to send a special thank you to ProEMS, led by President & CEO Bill Mergendahl, whose support and partnership to the city has been invaluable. Together with ProEMS and The Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, along with the help of Cambridge Police and Fire departments as well as financial support from the City, Cambridge Public Health Department began COVID-19 testing on April 9 with a first of its kind Rapid Pilot for Surveillance Testing program in skilled nursing and long term care facilities. This testing model was replicated across the Commonwealth. CPHD’s testing program has continued to grow and now offers free testing seven days a week.
The Cambridge Fire Department helped expand the initiative to homeless shelters, senior housing, and neighborhoods that were experiencing higher rates of COVID-19. Cambridge Firefighters, EMTs & Paramedics performed 31,015 free tests for the public in 2020 & hundreds more within the Fire Department. Testing was done at various locations across the city. It’s important to note that this is not happening in other communities. Please be sure to thank these folks if you have the opportunity.
In July, as the city began to reopen, the Cambridge Community Corps (C3) trained community members to educate and support healthy behaviors for residents while utilizing City parks, tot lots, basketball courts and the like. The Corps is a grassroots approach to building a bottom-up culture of resilience in Cambridge. The creation of the Corps was a recognition by the City leadership that we needed to have public health enforcement other than the police department.
The City also created a food program using local restaurants; created a daily newsletter with City and State updates; developed and distributed a comprehensive resource guide for service providers and survivors of domestic and sexual abuse; followed up with hundreds of seniors by phone to ensure their well being and to offer any support; and formed a new partnership with Biobot Analytics, Inc. and the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority to track COVID-19 outbreaks by analyzing wastewater. Wastewater data will serve as an early warning system of increased COVID-19 infections. In addition, police officers distributed tens of thousands of face coverings. Officers, in cars, on foot and on bikes distributed the masks throughout the city.
Cambridge Health Alliance
And as COVID ravaged our city and state, the Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA) was there for us. CHA is a safety net healthcare system at the forefront of caring for many of the COVID-19 cases in our district and also serves surrounding areas that are home to some of the most vulnerable neighborhoods in our region’s hardest hit communities like Revere, Chelsea and Everett. They had the early foresight to contract out to a COVID testing manufacturer while our Governor waited for a CDC approved test.
During the height of the initial COVID-19 surge, CHA established the first drive-through testing location for COVID in Massachusetts and continues to operate multiple test sites to spearhead the public health effort to test any resident with or without symptoms in all the communities it serves. They also rededicated several clinics to treating only respiratory issues, managed a Tufts University dormitory for patients in COVID-19 recovery, and led the City of Cambridge’s medical response for its houseless residents.
CHA continues to lead our community’s COVID-19 response. Examples include providing gift cards, food and emergency funds for those ineligible for government benefits because of their immigration status to distributing PPE in our communities to help fight the spread of the virus. Each CHA mask comes in a kit with instructions for use in five languages as well as toiletries and a magnet with immigration resources. They are also supporting family health beyond clinical care: CHA’s free produce market has been serving twice as many families since COVID and also distributes food to patients through its primary care providers, at their COVID-19 testing sites, and works with Off Their Plates in all communities to provide meals for the food insecure.
CHA’s Community Health Improvement department provides health and wellness outreach education in multiple languages, and on a variety of social media platforms, to help their communities keep informed about COVID safety procedures, testing, treatment, flu vaccines and the upcoming COVID vaccines. CHA also delivers information about COVID-19 prevention, symptoms, and treatment in various languages via radio, TV and Zoom.
Which brings me to CHA’s CEO, Dr. Assaad Sayah. Dr. Sayah brings over 20 years of experience working for CHA but had been at the helm for less than two months when this crisis hit. I am thankful for his unflagging efforts as CEO and as chair of the State’s Health Equity commission. The commission was established in response to the pandemic in order to evaluate and make recommendations to the Commonwealth on how to address the ongoing disparity of health outcomes and COVID-19 risk.
School Committee, Teachers, and Administrators
I am also thankful for the School Committee for basically building the plane while flying it. It is an incredibly difficult job to manage how to shut schools down with 48 hours’ notice and still deliver education while balancing the public health, mental health and educational needs of all of our students. Five of our seven school committee members had been sworn in less than twelve weeks before the pandemic landed on our community. It takes time and experiences to build working relationships, to develop trust and establish good lines of communication as colleagues as well as with the community. They have not flinched (most of them have not slept) since balancing the needs of our students while also experiencing the pandemic and leading at the same time.
And speaking of people who have not rested, a special thank you to more of our essential workers: our teachers and administrators who have faced uncertainty. Many of them are teaching our kids while their own kids are also home learning remotely in another room. Cambridge Public Schools and partners organized and hosted a total of eight Family Resource Fairs throughout Cambridge between August 22, 2020 – November 14, 2020 and provided professional interpreters at each site. CPS successfully served over 500 families by providing information about back-to-school options and community resources, assistance in filling out important forms, addressing technology issues, and giving out free backpacks, school supplies, books and snacks.
I am incredibly grateful for essential service workers, especially those at Harvard who continue to face an uncertain future and the additional Harvard staff who are seeing a reduction in hours and wages. I want to recognize the union leaders who are standing up for their colleagues in 32BJ SEIU and UNITE HERE Local 26 HUCTW.
Of course, my gratitude extends to all of those in the hospitality industry, custodians everywhere and all of the people who have been recognized as essential to helping us access groceries, transportation and health care, but are still not provided with the full protection and support that they should be entitled to.
Community Nonprofits and Businesses
Our nonprofits and businesses, many struggling themselves, have also stepped up to provide tremendous support throughout the city. There are so many people and organizations I want to thank, please forgive me for not being able to mention them all. Here are a few that I would like to highlight.
Food for Free
One good example is Food For Free’s (FFF) partnership with the schools. I of course have to give a shout out to CPS food service staff along with Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon – who also serves as the founding director of the weekend backpack project. From March through June Food For Free distributed over 1.7 million pounds of food versus .7 million the same time in 2019.
On March 17th, they launched a food distribution program, leveraging volunteers to pack bags of food and deliver them safely to people’s doors. At its peak, that program was serving over 2,000 households. They staffed all the free lunch sites in Cambridge, distributing 70,000 breakfasts and lunches from March to June, then continued to help support the free lunch distribution through the summer and now into this school year.
Over the summer Food For Free also held 60 free markets across 9 locations in Cambridge, distributing almost 2,500 boxes of fresh produce (versus 9 markets at 6 locations last summer. This while expanding their Home Delivery program, which brings twice monthly boxes of groceries to homebound seniors and people with disabilities. The program has expanded from 160 households in June to now almost 390.
Cambridge Community Television (CCTV)
As things worsened during this crisis, many of us turned to Cambridge Community Television to stay informed. Throughout the course of the pandemic, CCTV aired and assisted with 15 town halls that I organized around different pandemic-related issues. I am grateful that we were able to bring on experts from a variety of areas to notify the Cambridge area about the ever evolving situation with CCTV’s help.
In addition, CCTV has done a series called Black Cambridge & COVID-19, hosted by Councillor Denise Simmons and School Committee member Manikka Bowman. It also hosted the River Festival in June and is currently hosting the Cambridge Artist Open Studios for the Arts Council. CCTV’s 30th Summer Media Institute for Teens was held virtually, and the School Year Program has continued virtually, as well. It’s also great to see that people are producing Live shows from their homes.
I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge Susan Fleischmann, who is retiring from CCTV after joining the staff when they opened in 1988 and serving as the Executive Director since 1993. Susan has always done exemplary work at CCTV but has really outdone herself during the pandemic. I wish her all the best.
The Central Square Business Improvement District (BID)
Under the incredible leadership of Michael Monestine, the Central Square BID has helped to preserve access to the arts and supported small businesses in Cambridge throughout the pandemic. The creation of Starlight Square has ensured that there is a safe outdoor space in Central Square and our community as a whole for performances and programming, and the outdoor Popportunity Market recently hosted its last weekend after providing a weekly space for small businesses and local vendors to sell their goods in a safe way.
The BID teamed up with the Cambridge Community Center to fund the Food & Supply Pantry (see below), partnered with Central Square chefs to create Off Their Plate, a nonprofit feeding the frontlines and restoring restaurant jobs, and collaborated with Community Art Center, Margaret Fuller House, and Tutoring Plus of Cambridge to raise money for their art and supply kits, an initiative that mailed creativity kits to young learners needing support processing the pandemic through art-making and self-expression.
Cambridge Community Center
A special thank you to Darrin Korte, the Executive Director of the Cambridge Community Center–his rise from staffer to ED ensured that he had his pulse on the urgency of the moment and with his incredible team they have accomplished a great deal. On April 7th, in collaboration with the Central Square BID, they launched the Food & Supply Pantry in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Open four days per week, their pantry has grown to become one of the largest in the area, providing fresh produce, meats, dairy products, and non-perishable items including face masks to around 800 households each week.
The teen programs The Hip Hop Transformation (THHT) and the Mental Health ACCESS (Advancement of Culturally Competent Education to Stop Stigma) Program both transitioned to a virtual delivery model, and did so flawlessly. Through Zoom meetings, teens in THHT were able to collaborate to record an entire full-length hip hop album, as well as produce and execute a virtual experience showcasing their work.
The School-age Out-of-School Time Program adapted to provide full day in-person support for remote learners in Cambridge. The program provides academic support, as well as social-emotional support and opportunities for children to interact with their peers in a socially-distanced environment.
Finally, the Cambridge Community Center partnered with the Green Soul Community Development Foundation to host a Turkey Giveaway, which distributed over 250 turkeys and vegetables throughout our community.
Serving people of all ages, Transition House helps to address domestic and gender-based violence through intervention and prevention. Transition House has been at the forefront for 40 years providing a safe space, shelter and resources. During this pandemic they have experienced a 40% increase in demand for their services. This is a disturbing trend around the country with rising incidents of domestic violence. In Cambridge this is also documented in the rising calls the Cambridge Police Department has received.
Life Sciences Industry
I could not be more thankful for Cambridge’s own Eric Lander and all of those at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard who have played an incredible role in testing, pivoting from DNA analysis to COVID-19 testing over a matter of days in mid-March. They have since scaled up from running over 1,000 tests per day in their first week to a high of over 100,000 tests on one day in November.
I would also like to thank those in industry who have helped us to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Early on, The Massachusetts BioTechnology Council (located in Cambridge) and its CEO Bob Coughlin, MassMEDIC, MHA, and COBTH launched the Massachusetts Life Sciences Emergency SupplyHub. By doing so, they coordinated the donations of additional supplies and PPE to our state’s healthcare system. Many companies across the state donated critical supplies to the COVID-19 response through the Life Sciences Emergency SupplyHub.
I would also add a shout-out to the efforts of other life science companies, from donating to the mayor’s fund to working towards a vaccine. Many of them helped us raise almost an additional $1 million so that Cambridge Health Alliance could quickly buy additional PPE and testing supplies. Of course, we can’t forget to thank those who have been able to continue with important life saving research that is not Covid-19 related.
My Brother’s Keeper
What would we do without important programs like My Brother’s Keeper? This group has been busy, especially during the summer. They organized rallies to speak up and speak out against systemic racism and police brutality. They also hosted a summer Summer Empowerment program to support youth ages 16-18 with critical thinking, team building, financial literacy, and mental and physical wellbeing as well as hosting voter registration drives, census information sessions, and a youth book drive.
My Brother’s Keeper further assisted Cambridge families around resuming school in the age of Covid age by holding weekly calls and weekly meetings with community stakeholders and content experts. In addition, they launched Liberation Libraries, an intergenerational reading program that amplifies the voices of BIPOC communities, and developed innovative partnerships and executed programming with the MIT Job Connector and Massachusetts General Hospital.
The Boys to Men Monologues at Starlight Square
Performance artist, teacher, and trauma survivor Keith Mascoll created an innovative virtual inner monologue and sneaker art project for the Boys to Men mentoring program. The young men wrote their own monologue led by Keith including their thoughts about manhood, mental health, being Black and Brown during the BLM movement, and being resilient in their lives. They picked a resonating line from their monologue plus 3 words that defined them and wrote that on a pair of custom sneakers.
Friday Night Hype
Friday Night Hype is another jewel to be thankful for. This mentoring program has been working in overdrive.The team held two in person events before schools closed for Covid-19. In June, following the death of George Floyd and a rise in racial injustices, the team and their mentors came together to hold their first virtual event; “FNH’s Youth Forum on Race.” Scholars were provided with a safe space to talk about and process what they had been seeing and hearing on the news, social media, and amongst their peers given in the current social climate. That event sparked their Summer Series. Scholars voiced their need and desire to be able to interact with the police and bridge the gap and tension. During the FNH Summer Series, scholars and mentors participated in socially distanced activities as well as had group discussions with the Cambridge Police Department.
The Cambridge Community Foundation
This year, in addition to distributing grants to 150 nonprofits serving the Cambridge community involved in human services, workforce training, housing, hunger, homelessness, elder services, youth and early childhood services, education, the Cambridge Community Foundation has raised and distributed over $2 million in COVID-19 relief funds. Its initiative Feeding Our Hometown Heroes funded the delivery of over 4,000 local, nutritious restaurant meals to overworked frontline hospital staff in spring 2020, while supporting restaurant workers affected by COVID-19. The Foundation is now focused on funding nonprofits continuing to respond to the pandemic’s effects on our area and has also partnered with the mayor’s fund to support artists.
The Margaret Fuller House
The Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House provided over 500 holiday baskets to feed thousands of low to moderate income families on the Thanksgiving holiday and has been holding their food pantry four days a week, hosting live after school sessions, providing virtual services to help people sign up for unemployment assistance, emergency relief funds, and SNAP benefits, and offering emergency relief funding for those who need help paying rent/ eviction notices, utilities, needed medications, and food.
The Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee (CEOC), led by Executive Director Tina Alu, has expanded its critical work in empowering people and fighting the causes and impacts of poverty. Since the pandemic hit, its food pantry has been serving people outdoors in heat, cold, rain, and snow. The CEOC has also helped residents apply for SNAP, unemployment and disaster relief while maintaining its other important services.
Other Community Efforts
The Cambridge Mutual Aid Network has helped uplift neighbors through remote connection, grocery shopping and delivery, and other forms of solidarity. They have raised more than $60,000 for the greater community, which has funded emergency microgrants and critical grocery deliveries. In another example of mutual aid, residents at Cambridge Cohousing on Richdale Ave have collected food and book donations for the Chelsea Food Collaborative throughout the pandemic.
In addition, Many Helping Hands 365 (founded and led by Lori Lander) has been raising COVID-19 emergency funds to support the most vulnerable members of our community, providing face masks to health workers and unhoused people, and continuing to fight against injustice and racism.
And then there is Cambridge resident Bruce Houghton (above), President of Houghton Chemical Corporation. In the first few weeks of the pandemic, when we were scrambling for hand sanitizer and PPE, our hospitals were also scrambling. Bruce reached out and offered to help supply our hospital as well as first responders with hand sanitizer. He was able to quickly secure federal and state support to repurpose his supply and produce badly needed sanitizer. Thank you, Bruce – you are one of my many reminders of how small our community can be and of our essence of being a village at its best. I first met Bruce when I knocked on his door, probably around age 9, and asked if he needed his yard to be raked. He “hired” me and I am sure he did not need my “help.” Thank you for always being there to help your community.
Also keeping our village strong are the students of CRLS, who launched the Instagram account @crlsmentalhealth. If you are on Instagram, check it out – this is a powerful page. As House Chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, I have been in awe of their effective messaging and their incredible example of mental health first aid and peer support.
Last but certainly not least, countless communities of faith in Cambridge have stepped up to provide spiritual, material, and social support to folks in and beyond their congregations.
Each of You
My final thank you is to all of you. To all of you who every day muster the strength and the courage to do your part in helping to keep yourself, family and community safety. To everyone who has been able to support local businesses and or make a donation to many of our non-profits. To anyone who has lost income, stability, security and loved ones, you are not alone in your grief. If my office can help, please reach out – you are not alone.
A final, final thank you is to my staff, who have helped me continue to advocate, legislate and respond to the needs of our community at this time. Special thanks go to my outgoing staff: Chief of Staff Akriti Bhambi and Legislative Director Alicia Bard. Thank you for helping us get on our feet so quickly. To my present staff, Sarah Nordberg, Elijah Booker, Amanda Graff and Kathleen Hornby – thank you for all of your effort, energy and incredible commitment to the people of Cambridge and the Commonwealth.
Tell Me Who I Missed!
I recognize that I am only capturing a snapshot of who is serving our community, focusing on people and organizations who are either based in or touch the lives of people living in the 25th Middlesex District. I invite you to share with me the names of people, organizations or initiatives that you know about. I will be sure to thank them on my social media platform. Gratitude continues to be a powerful emotion that helps make some of my darkest days feel brighter and lighter. Knowing there are more of us together rowing the lifeboats, I am proud to be a part of this community filled with all of you: the residents, organizations, businesses and elected officials, including my colleagues in the State House, for being considerate and compassionate during this difficult time. Sometimes it’s hard to see, but we all have reasons to be thankful. And as we celebrate the holiday season, I ask everyone to continue to be kind to one another and remember that we are all in this together.