By Former Mayor Martin J. Walsh
I left Boston City Hall for the final time as mayor. I packed up the last of the photos on my desk, say goodnight to the security guards as I’ve done a thousand times before, and head home to Dorchester.
It’s been almost three months since I got the call from President Biden asking me to serve as secretary of labor, and the truth is I haven’t had much time to reflect. My team and I have continued working around the clock on the response to COVID-19 and coordinating with the incoming administration to make sure city operations continue seamlessly. But now the Senate has confirmed my nomination, and a new team of leaders, both new and familiar faces, will take the reins at City Hall. All that’s left to do now is to say goodbye and thank you.
I’ve been thinking about my mother, Mary, and my late father, John, who met in Boston after each immigrated from Ireland. They worked their entire adult lives to make a good life for my brother, Johnny, and me. They found friendship and solidarity among our neighbors in Dorchester, at St. Margaret’s Church, in the immigrant community, and in the labor community. And it was community that helped me survive childhood cancer and get into recovery for alcoholism as a young adult.
Boston taught me at a young age that a supportive community is the greatest blessing, and serving that community is both a responsibility and a privilege. That’s why I decided to run for mayor in 2013. After representing Dorchester for 16 years in the State House, and winning victories for marriage equality, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, disability rights, and immigrant rights, I knew that change was possible. I wanted to play a bigger role in making the American Dream a reality for more of my fellow Bostonians.
That’s what we’ve done, together, as a city.
We created 140,000 new, good-paying jobs, fought for workers’ rights, and built more pathways into the middle class. We invested more in public education than at any time in Boston’s history. We built record numbers of affordable homes. We fought the stigma around substance use disorder and got more people into treatment. We invested millions of dollars in arts and culture. We’ve risen as a national leader in environmental justice and women’s pay equity.
Over the last four years, especially, Boston has shown what we stand for. As the Trump administration launched attacks on immigrants, Muslims, and women, Boston made it clear that we reject racism, xenophobia, sexism, and bigotry. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Boston has rallied to support people in need and put public health first. And responding to calls for racial justice, Boston took action through powerful community investments, police reform, and cultural change. For all of this, I am tremendously proud and grateful.
If the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that we cannot be passive observers of history. We must never take for granted public health, human rights, and our very democracy. Unless we fight for these principles, we could lose them.
Now is the time to invest in community health and well-being. We must address the inequities that made some people more vulnerable to the health risks and the economic devastation of COVID-19. This is the only way to emerge from this crisis stronger than we were before.
We also need to increase civic engagement in all levels of government and decision-making. This past November, we saw record voter turnout, but those numbers should be higher. We need to end voter suppression and show people why their votes matter. And voting is only one piece of the puzzle.
Now is the time for everyone to consider how they can best serve their community and their nation, all year round. That doesn’t have to mean running for office necessarily; you can make just as much of an impact on your community by reaching out to your neighbor when they need it most, attending a community meeting to offer a fresh perspective, or becoming a positive influence on a young person’s life. Our nation needs more people from more backgrounds to share their ideas and their creativity as we work to build back better.
This is a commitment I will carry with me as secretary of labor. As I fight for the rights, protections, and dignity that all working people deserve, I will seek input from people of all backgrounds. I will continually work to become a better and more collaborative leader. I will also bring Boston’s values with me. I’ll fight for immigrants, for people struggling with addiction, and for young Americans who dream of a better future.
I may be heading to Washington, D.C., but Boston will always be my home, and my heart. I’ll be back often, but for now, I’ll just share some advice.
To all of Boston’s emerging leaders: In every decision you make, think about the impact it will have on the next generation, 10, 20, and 30 years from now. Always put the needs of the most vulnerable people first. Always ask yourself and other people in power, “Does this help everyone, or just the few?” And fight until the answer is everyone. Lifting up working people, and creating better opportunities for those who have the least, is the best way to create positive change. It will be hard; you’ll have to make very difficult decisions, and own the outcome, good or bad. A true leader learns, grows, and becomes more connected to the community they represent as time goes on.
To the young people of Boston: I honestly believe there is no limit to what your generation can achieve. I have learned so much from conversations I’ve had with young students about racial justice, climate action, LGBTQ rights, workers’ rights, and more. You have helped me grow as a leader and as a member of the community. You are the most passionate generation I’ve ever seen, and you’re challenging old notions of identity and societal roles. You have the power to change the world for the better. Focus on your education; trust your ability to make a difference; and be kind to yourself if you make mistakes or if life doesn’t go according to plan. I’m proof that there are many paths to success. Don’t let anyone tell you different.
Despite how difficult the past year has been, it also showed us how fast things can change, for better or for worse. Right now, we have an opportunity to enact swift, powerful, and positive change. The more people who are empowered to contribute, the more successful our recovery from COVID-19 will be. So this is my call to all Bostonians to consider how you will get involved in your community. Just as important, think about how you will encourage and empower others to get involved too. You can make a difference, so don’t hesitate. Just take it one day at a time.
The challenges before us at a national level are enormous. But Boston has taught me that nothing is impossible if we work together and open the door for more people to get involved.
From the bottom of my heart, Boston, thank you.
Martin J. Walsh is the former Mayor of Boston and the new U.S. Secretary of Labor.