Thanks for checking out our elections coverage. We try to cover at least one race a year in an in-depth, meaningful way, and 2019 finds us at it again. The only difference is that James Kennedy, artist and founder of the much-loved “Unsung Eats” column here at the Glass, has wrested control of the interview-ometer away from the editors this time around. In an act of tremendous ambition (or lunacy) he committed to interviewing ALL the candidates for North Adams City Council (assuming they all got back to him). We hope you enjoy this campaign season series, brought to you as a service to the democratic process and the peaceful transition of power.
Editor’s Note: This conversation has been abridged for space and clarity. No information provided by the candidate has been checked for accuracy.
Tell us about yourself (bio supplied).
Jess Sweeney, a native of Western Mass, moved to North Adams in 2007 to pursue a degree in Fine and Performing Arts at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Jess has a strong passion for community development and has selflessly led grassroots efforts for many projects throughout North Adams.
After college she moved to Hadley, MA for a year where she discovered her love for North Adams and quickly made arrangements to move back. Upon her arrival she began to lead efforts to start Common Folk Artist Collective, who now has a retail and studio space on Main Street in North Adams. Simultaneously, she started working at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition (nbCC) in their youth development and neighborhood development programs. It was through her work at nbCC that she helped to organize the Youth Center Task Force, which helped to write the initial grant to kickstart ROOTS Teen Center, a place for people ages 14-22 to be heard, encouraged, and empowered. After 2 years with nbCC, she resigned from her position to become the founding Director at ROOTS.
Currently, Sweeney is a board member for nbCC and has left her position at ROOTS to pursue the further development of Common Folk on Main Street and to explore building a consulting practice to help people launch their own grassroots initiatives in the Northern Berkshires.
2019 Elections — North Adams City Council,
Be sure to read all the interviews that James Kennedy conducted with the candidates as they’re published:
Lisa Blackmer • Keith Bona • Robert Cardimino • Roger Eurbin • Marie Harpin • Paul Hopkins • Jason LaForest • Benjamin Lamb • Robert Moulton, Jr. • Pete Oleskiewicz • Bryan Sapienza • Ronald Sheldon • Jessica Sweeney
Why did you decide to run for North Adams City Council and what is it that you think separates you from the other candidates?
I ran because I felt a sense of obligation and duty to run. I feel like I am so deeply embedded in what is happening in North Adams. I have worked in so many places and have made so many strong connections that I feel at this point in my time in North Adams I feel like I can represent a voice that needs to be represented. This shifts into what I feel I have to offer that sets me apart from the other candidates. I feel like all the candidates are very involved in North Adams but I think what sets me apart is that I’m very connected to a younger demographic in the city. Between my work with Roots and, my work with Common Folk, I really think I have the ears and the voices of folks who are under the age of 35 and are looking for jobs here or trying to figure out how to live here or answer the questions that people in their teens or early twenties have. What do I do post-college? Do I stay in North Adams or do I go? I feel like I have an opportunity to encourage those folks to participate in their local government. And that’s sort of the biggest reason why I wanted to run. My hope is to influence that demographic to be more engaged in local politics because that is important, but I also hope to promote and be an advocate for that group.
I don’t think there are a lot of people that are connected to a younger demographic on the current council running and I feel like these folks need a voice. I’ve done a lot of work particularly with the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition in different neighborhoods throughout the city and I see a lot of the challenges that people face here and I see a lot of successes that people face here, and as much as I hope to be a voice and advocate for the younger demographic, I hope to be a voice for the folks who may be struggling. Also, I am a woman and there aren’t that many women running, so that sets me apart.
What do you regard as the most important issue facing North Adams today and do you have a particular issue that you will be running on?
This is a complex issue for me. I think every city faces its challenges and struggles. I’m always someone who sees the glass as half full. North Adams is thriving right now. I think we are on an upward trend and we are growing and we need to maintain that growth, and make sure that the growth is equitable to everyone in our community; to all walks of life. I also do recognize that there are some challenges that are hard to talk about for a lot of folks. I think we struggle here with equity and diversity issues. I see a lot of racial issues popping up in our community that go relatively unaddressed, and that’s hard for a lot of people in our community to tackle and grasp. I think the struggle we face here is that we are a predominately white community and the demographics of the college are very different from that. We have a world class museum that attracts a different set of demographics to our community so when people visit here, or even with people living here, I think it can be challenging for people to find their place here. I, as a human being, want to challenge our community to think a little bit more about that. I want to help more people feel a sense of belonging and in how we make our community a welcoming place for everybody and not just a certain demographic. And that can be really tricky to talk about. I don’t necessarily think that this is what I want to focus my work on as a city councilor because I think that’s work we should all be doing as individuals. My goal if I am elected as a city councilor is to listen to the community. I’m new to this and have never run for office. Like I said before I feel this sense of obligation and duty because I’m such a part of the fabric of the community.
But I’m also not just jumping into this campaign thinking like I know how things should be. There are things that I care about, like belonging, and those are challenges and issues that I see right now but I don’t know how I’m going to see them as differently, the same, or more strongly sitting as a city councilor. I see this as a two part question for me because I care about a lot of things but I’m not necessarily going to do that work my first term as a city councilor if I make it. I look at this opportunity as a long term opportunity. I’m not just jumping in to run for one term. Some of the things I am going to focus on if I make it there is really listening and understanding better the politics and the systems and how to encourage people to participate in that system before I really set my agenda.
I think budgets can be fixed and I think roads can be fixed and there are always going to be challenges around money, and those kinds of things, but whether or not people feel like they belong here is very important. So I want to make sure that we continue to maintain the welcoming atmosphere that we have but work a little deeper with folks who may not feel that way. We have a lot of new economic development which I am excited about but I guess you could say that it’s all about building community.
What is your opinion about the pros and cons of gentrification and what role do you see it playing today and in the future of North Adams?
I think that’s a really interesting question. I’m sitting on a group with the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, and this is a working group talking about gentrification and how we could be thinking more about inclusive development. On the plus side, we’re growing. There are more businesses now on Main Street than when I first moved here in 2007 to attend MCLA. At first I was like, what am I going to do here? It shocks me when people say there’s nothing to do here. There’s way more to do here than even five years ago. So, I think the economy is building here. I own a store on Main Street with Common Folk, which is an artist’s collective that I run. We sell clothing and art and we’re doing great. People are coming and shopping and enjoying our store.
I see a lot of our redevelopment happening in a pretty healthy way, and in a way that is inclusive. The northern Berkshire Community Coalition is doing a lot of good work right now and they are an amazing group of people. Their mission is to convene people from their community around challenges and issues in that community. They basically work to empower the communities to solve their issues which is a model that I think is incredible and so important. In the vein of talking about gentrification is what sets our community apart. I don’t think there are many communities that are facing gentrification that have something like the coalition that can identify the challenges and ask how we can do things differently, how we can do this together and how do we make sure that everyone is included in that process.
I think there is a perception about Mass MoCA, there is a piece of Mass MoCA that people don’t necessarily see. I happen to know a bunch of people who work on the production staff — that’s all manual labor. I know the guys that work in the maintenance department. So, there is a component of this thing that not a lot of people understand that is actually deeply tied to industry and labor and blue collar work. How do we get folks to understand that. There are welders who work full time at Mass MoCA to help build the art and the art itself is the thing that people might not understand. But if they were to take a deeper look at the staff and the people working there every day, in that factory, it is kind of fascinating how much that demographic is similar to the blue collar laborer. So I think there are more similarities there than we tend to notice. I think there will be a shift in demographics, but what’s the alternative? How do we build an economy and not shift demographics? We have to grow and we have to change and we have to adapt. We have to adapt otherwise we will crumble.
I don’t see us right now right now in a gentrification space, to be quite honest, but I do think we have to keep talking about it. We have to make sure, that in terms of community building, that there are people that are able to participate in the growth of the economy. And how do we do that? We have grassroots economic development. We have higher-end economic development. We have to have to have the whole spectrum happening at once so that everyone can dive in. So I think gentrification is a loaded word. I see and look into communities across the United States where people are intentionally kicking people out of their housing, but here in North Adams I’m seeing the investors getting involved in the local community grass roots stuff because we are talking about it through the coalition, and as a city, which is different. I don’t think that happens in other places.
Whether real or imagined, there is a perception that there is a water quality issue in North Adams. Do you believe there is a water quality problem, and if so, what solutions do you offer?
I honestly don’t know enough about the water quality issue but that’s definitely one of those things I hope to be able to listen and understand more about. I definitely have heard people bring it up and I think about what is happening at a national level and sometimes a global level. It’s something I’m certainly interested in. Where my voice can be of value I want to contribute but I don’t really know enough about this to offer a solution or even to give an opinion on it.
In order for many municipalities to balance their budgets, oftentimes larger infrastructure projects and investments get kicked down the road rather than raise property taxes. What is your plan for a balanced budget?
I’m always in the vein of creating new revenue but not necessarily through raising property taxes. I don’t think it’s about increasing the taxes of the people living here now. It’s about getting more businesses in here. It’s about getting more homeowners in here to increase the tax base instead of increasing the taxes. Look at the opportunities here. There’s plenty of open storefronts. We have plenty of room for more business and we have plenty of room for more people to buy more houses and hopefully have children in them and have their kids go to school here. At the end of the day it’s all about building the base. City budgets is one of those things that are new to me and I have my opinions about things but I haven’t stepped foot into City Hall. I actually have, but not as a city councilor. I’m going to have a different understanding and a different opinion on these things when I hopefully sit in that seat. I think a piece of the solution is in how we represent ourselves as a community and how we tell the story of North Adams outside the boundaries of North Adams. There is still a perception that North Adams is struggling and that is not happening as much anymore. So we need to tell the story that we’re thriving and growing and we have businesses moving here. It all comes down to marketing and building the base.
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