At-Large Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia describes herself as a “movement building official.” Mejia builds such movements with an emphasis on being deeply involved in communities across Boston while using her personal and professional life to guide her.
Mejia grew up in Dorchester after immigrating from the Dominican Republic when she was five. At the age of nine, she started fighting for her community, Mejia said. In 2019, she became the first Latina elected to the Boston City Council.
She used the story of visiting a welfare office with her mom as a child–where she served as the translator between the “incredibly mean” case manager and her mom–as a defining moment in her leadership career.
“I knew then that I was going to be a fighter, and I haven’t stopped fighting since,” said Mejia.
Mejia went to work for MTV and covered the 2000 elections as a reporter. After her time with MTV, “I came back to Boston and I realized that my people were in the same place that I left them in 10 years later,” Mejia said.
Mejia immersed herself in community organizing in Boston. She started a nonprofit education network and frequently did civic engagement volunteer work. While volunteering for Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley’s congressional campaign, Mejia noted how Pressley inspired her to run for Boston City Council.
“I’m a single mom, I’m an immigrant, I dropped out of high school, I went back. I’m not your stereotypical politician. I didn’t run to just win, I really wanted to change the conversation in those [grassroots] spaces,” Mejia said. “I always used to say, I would rather lose and uplift my people, than neglect us and win.”
Mejia’s campaign office was in Jamaica Plain, a location sentimental to her as she first lived in Jamaica Plain for “a hot second” after immigrating to Boston, she said. “To have my campaign office in the hub of where so many Dominicans come, it was a big deal.”
After she was elected, that’s when the “real work” began.
“I think that there is a misconception about how I should show up because now all of a sudden I have a title. I’m a rebel. I’m an agitator. I want to disrupt the norm. I want to disrupt the way people perceive what leadership looks like,” said Mejia.
Growing up in poverty informs her on the type of things that need to be done differently to help alleviate issues of poverty.
She calls herself a public servant, not a politician.
“More importantly I want to move within the spirit of leading without fear because the only ones who can take me out are the ones that put me in, which gives me the flexibility to be loud, to be more aggressive, and to show up the way that I do because I’m going to do this work whether I’m this office or not,” said Mejia.
Increasing Vaccination Rates in Black and Latinx Communities
Mejia addressed the lower COVID vaccination rates amongst Black and Latinx children in comparison to white children of the same age.
She explained that a historical lack of trust in government among communities of color, as well as a lack of accessibility to vaccination sites, contribute to this gap.
To help address the issue of low vaccination rates in Black and Latinx communities, Mejia partnered up with the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition last year, which had just opened one of its vaccination sites at the time.
“Within three to four weeks, my office alone was able to get 3,000 people vaccinated,” she said.
Mejia and her office sent out a Google Form notifying “all of our businesses, the bodegas, the barber shops, the immigrant-owned businesses, the people who clean, everybody and their mother” about where to get vaccinated, she explained.
“People knew [the vaccine information] was coming from my office… so it’s also about who you trust. I think that that was why we were able to get such an uptick in communities of color was through this initiative we were able to be a part of,” Mejia said.
Mejia also created pop-up vaccination sites in hair salons and barber shops.
In addition to helping people get vaccinated, Mejia also started The Bodega Project in 2020 “...where we supported bodegas and people were able to go shop right around the corner from where they lived for the things that they wanted,” she said. “It was culturally competent and [people] were able to shop with dignity.”
The project was prompted by a call Mejia received from an undocumented mother who was apprehensive about going to a food pantry 20 minutes away from her home at the height of COVID. “I said to her, ‘well what’s the closest bodega in your neighborhood? I’ll call them and I’ll pay for you to go there and you can go get whatever you want,’” Mejia said.
Brockton has replicated the project’s model and Boston has modified the project to continue to provide food access through supporting bodegas.
City Council Committee Work
Mejia serves as the Chair of Education; Chair of Workforce Development, Labor, and Economic Empowerment; and Chair of Government Accountability, Transparency, and Accessibility.
Her education work is focused on “building infrastructure for real family and community engagement, so that things are not being done to us, without us." This means looking at issues surrounding English language learners, special education, transparency, and accessibility to ensure Boston Public Schools “is leading with the community and that issues of equity are front and center in the education space,” Mejia explained.
As chair of Workforce Development, Labor, and Economic Empowerment she wants to make sure that city employees have ways to move up. She also focuses on building workforce pipelines for recent graduates not able to attend college, 19- to 24-year-olds aging out of foster care, non-traditional learners in alternative high school settings, and immigrants.
Mejia said a new line item in the city budget was added for jobs for 19- to 24-year-olds last year, and this year new stipends were secured in the operating budget for rental assistance for 19 to 24-year-olds.
She said the Government Accountability, Transparency, and Accessibility Committee founded a language access ordinance which makes it a law that any information and resources that are released to the public in English, are also released in multiple languages the same day.
She is also focused on holding systems accountable, such as the Boston Police Department (BPD) and Boston Public Schools (BPS).
“We filed a hearing order around the fact that the BPD used civil forfeiture assets to purchase equipment and they did so without our approval,” she said.
What's Coming Up In The Future
Future hearing orders are focused on English language learners, transportation, and special education. Mejia aims to gather data on such systems “so as we continue to support and push for policies… that helps us hold BPS accountable,” she said.
Outside of her committees, Mejia is passionate about mental health and wellness, civic engagement, and helping young people.
Last summer, Mejia started an initiative with hair salons and barbershops, in which stylists were trained on how to identify mental health triggers in clients and themselves. “So literally the concept is while you’re getting your hair done, you’re getting your head fixed,” Mejia said.
Using this initiative as a model, Mejia also created a program in some schools where students are trained mental health ambassadors and connect peers in need to support services.
Mejia has “continued to work in deep partnership” with youth, despite their inability to vote.
“A lot of the communities that I uplift are people who don’t vote, who can’t vote because of their status, or who will never vote. Just because they don’t vote doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t matter,” Mejia added. She works to represent pockets of non-voters “because they’re the ones who need it most.”
For the future, Mejia has several projects and policy goals she is planning to launch. She said that “a lot of my programming ideas fall within some of my issues that I deeply care about but they also address systemic racism.”
Getting Opposites to Know Each Other at Jamaica Pond
In October, Mejia will be starting her Meet Me Half Way (a working title) initiative. This initiative will bring intentional groups of people–from opposite sides of the city and the political spectrum–together for dinners hosted across from Jamaica Pond. At these dinners, guests will bring elements of their community with them to share, whether that be food from their favorite local restaurant or recommendations for the best things to do in their community.
The first dinner will be on October 20. Some dinners will also be in partnership with district councilors.
Mejia chose to host the dinners in Jamaica Plain, as she feels it is “the center of the city in many ways.”
Some groups she plans to pair together include residents from Beacon Hill and Mission Hill, the South End and North End, Charlestown and Mattapan, and Dorchester and Hyde Park.
“There’s a lot of tension, racial tension in particular, in the city of Boston,” Mejia said. “The goal is to start building relationships with people who live outside of your neighborhood because what we want to do is build relationships across our differences… I believe that…then only then collectively can we move together.”
With these dinners, Mejia wants to have a safe space for creating “a little bit of discomfort” while “breaking bread and building relationships with people who you normally would not interact with,” she said. The vision for the long term is that people will be more involved in each other’s communities in positive ways.
Mejia also discussed the way she made efforts to include the voices of motorbike riders when residents were bothered by their noise last summer.
“I wanted to create space for them to have a voice. Because if they’re the ones who are causing the chaos, they should be part of the solution. And we need to hear what was happening for them,” she said.
When speaking to the motorbike riders, Mejia said a lot of them were unaware of existing noise ordinances. “Through creating those spaces, it wasn’t just about getting them to stop the behavior, but it was also an opportunity to educate and help people understand the impact that they were having on others. Also to help them understand what the law was and the impact they can make on themselves,” Mejia said.
With her focus on being involved in communities across Boston, Mejia said, “I always say that this is heart work, not hard work. When I come into these spaces, it is with my full heart.”
She added, “Being who I am creates space for other people to be their full selves and be vulnerable and show up as they are.”