Sen. Edwards looks back on the diversity of Massachusetts’ leadership and Sen. Bill Owens’ legacy

By Arun Rath and Matt Baskin January 27, 2022 All Things Considered Click to LISTEN to Sen. Lydia Edwards on ATC | Jan.27, 2022
Photogtaphed in 2019, Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards at Boston City Hall in Boston, Massachusetts. Meredith Nierman / GBH News
Photogtaphed in 2019, Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards at Boston City Hall in Boston, Massachusetts. Meredith Nierman / GBH News

Massachusetts lost a trailblazing leader over the weekend. Bill Owens, the first Black person ever elected to the state Senate, died Saturday at the age of 84, according to his family. His health had been in decline, and he'd recently tested positive for COVID-19.


State Senator and Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards joined Arun Rath on GBH’s All Things Considered to discuss Owens’ legacy, the status of reparations legislation in Boston and diversity in Massachusetts government. What follows is a lightly edited interview.


Arun Rath: Senator, thanks for joining us.


Lydia Edwards: Hi, I'm excited to be here and thank you for this opportunity.


Rath: So Senator Owens served in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, so your terms have not overlapped. You were just sworn into office this month. But his legacy must be very much alive in Massachusetts, right?


Edwards: It very much is. And no, I could not have served with him. I was born in the ’80s, so it took me 41 years to get here, but I know his legacy and anybody else who broke down barriers, I'm a direct descendant of that.


Though he and I never served together, his service is directly connected to my ability to serve, and that we lost him means, I think, even more so, that we need to remind ourselves of how far we've come. I think that, in his lifetime, he has seen a Black president, he's seen a Black governor, he's seen, now, three Black women, be state senators. I think, I hope that he's smiling down on us, and while we still have a ways to go, I do hope he understands the trail was easier because he broke it for us. He broke trail for us.


BOSTON, MA - JULY 1: Senator Bill Owens and Mayor Kevin White appear during a press conference outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston on Jul. 1, 1980. They urged Governor Edward J. King to sign a $30 million appropriation for construction of a new Roxbury Community College. (Photo by John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
BOSTON, MA - JULY 1: Senator Bill Owens and Mayor Kevin White appear during a press conference outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston on Jul. 1, 1980. They urged Governor Edward J. King to sign a $30 million appropriation for construction of a new Roxbury Community College. (Photo by John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Rath: When talking about all of the things that he took on — and especially thinking intergenerationally, the way that you're talking — one of the things that strikes me is... For people of our generation, I remember, like, when I was a kid, the idea of reparations, it was like a punch line. People talked about that as a joke when it came up, if ever. And to think about Senator Owens and where we are now with that, that he has to be able to take credit for that becoming a real part of the conversation in America, right?


Edwards: Of course. I mean, he, again, by virtue of him being present, being at the table and starting conversations — a conversation — we now are able to have that real conversation about reparations. Because I'm sure, without a doubt, he spoke up and may have been laughed about, or may have been laughed at. But, at the end of the day, people are having serious understandings about the word, about its implications and, again, he just made it easier for me and other people to at least have the conversation.


Rath: And just speaking of reparations, that's something the Boston City Council, where you have a seat, has looked at in recent months. Could you give us an update on that?


Edwards: Yes. Councilors [Kenzie] Bok and [Julia] Mejia both introduced it as a, I think, a good conversation starter to understanding the deep wounds of racial discrimination in Boston, but also ways in which that healing can come about. And that's how I've defined reparations. It's about really being honest about what we have done as a government, and I have inherited that legacy as a government official — the good, the bad and the ugly.


And we need to be honest about that. That we weren't passive actors in how we've gotten today. And we do have a highly segregated city. We do have a huge wealth gap. And government was part of that. Government was absolutely part of that. And acknowledging that as government officials, and then wondering and being creative in how we deal with the deep healing that comes about from it.


And I think it's great that the... I really I think it's great — excuse me — that my colleagues are starting that conversation and really asking ourselves to look deeper.


Rath: And another area of thinking that Senator Owens was instrumental in: trying to boost minority-owned businesses. Could you talk about that? And again, like, how that legacy extends to what's happening right now?


Edwards: Well we are, in some cases, still dealing with that huge gap in funding that we found with the report that, at the time, Mayor [Michelle] Wu — Councilor at the time — now-Mayor Wu had commissioned with the Councilor [Kim] Janey. And they basically asked for the city to be transparent about where the money was going.


And I think they found out that less than 1% of the contracts in the city of Boston were going to women and people of color. And that prompted, I think, a protracted, prolonged conversation that now Segun Idowu, head of economic development for the city of Boston, is committed to bringing about true equity in that. And I really am excited for his leadership.


But that also still looks to statewide and state contracts. I know Massport has done a lot of work in making sure that who it's hiring and the contractors that it has, that they are also looking for diversity and making sure that the people who are receiving state dollars reflect the state of Massachusetts.

“His service is directly connected to my ability to serve, and that we lost him means, I think, even more so, that we need to remind ourselves of how far we've come.”

Rath: Senator Owens was the first Black person elected to the Massachusetts Senate. You are the most recently elected Black person in the Senate. In fact, you're the only Black person in the state Senate, right?


Edwards: Correct.


Rath: That feels still disappointing to me to say that. What does that say to you about the state of equality and equity in Massachusetts right now?




Edwards: Well, I'm hopeful in that, because I've won. And I won a district that doesn't have a very large population of African Americans or people of color. I'm hopeful because of that. At the same time, it is, I'm sure, disappointing that, since the '70s, we've really only had one Black person serve at a time in the Senate.

So there’s Bill Owens, there's Dianne Wilkerson, then there was probably a gap, then Linda Dorcena Forry, before then the gap of four years and now me.

At the same time, I do know that, due to the redistricting, there's a very likelihood that another Black, very likely woman will join us in next year. And we very well could see other people of color winning in Senate districts as well. So it could be, it could very well be, that we're going to see a deluge of people of color coming in — which is exciting! And and I think we will start to increasingly reflect the beautiful diversity of our state.



Rath: And we're seeing that in the race for governor right now in a pretty exciting way, as well, in terms of the diversity of the field — on the Democratic side, at least.


Edwards: On the Democratic side, but I mean, on the very-likely-to-be-governor's side, too, where I'm very confident — I say this now, on the 27th of January, we're going to have a woman governor. I'm excited! I say that now. I'm calling it.



Rath: Well, Senator Edwards, it's nice to end this on a bright note, and reflecting on such a bright and wonderful life. Thank you for taking the time. We appreciate it.

Edwards: Thank you.


Rath: That state senator and Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, reflecting on a legacy of late State Senator Bill Owens, the first Black person ever elected to the Massachusetts Senate. Owens died last weekend at the age of 84. This is GBH’s All Things Considered.

 
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