"If we're not at the table then decisions are not going to be made for us or our interests," warns Central Falls City Council President Jessica Vega ’10.
When it comes to political engagement, people tend to focus their energy around the big positions – governor, senator, president – but lower-level local politics, like city councils and school boards, often have a more direct and important impact on their lives and communities.
This is particularly true for populations that have been marginalized in society or underrepresented in government, like Latinos and women. Jessica Vega '10, for example (who appears on left in photo above), is the newly elected president of the Central Falls City Council, something she thought was impossible – until it happened. "It's happened pretty quickly," she notes. "This is only my second term in office."
Vega is a Dominican woman who came to the United States with her parents as a small child. She earned a degree in psychology from Rhode Island College and for more than a decade she was a social worker in the human services field. Her work was based on her belief that she could make a change from the inside.
"If we're not at the table then decisions are not going to be made for us or our interests," she cautions.
For her, being a Latina and the City Council president is an important responsibility. She believes that politicians need to make sure that they are listening to and speaking up to advocate for their communities.
"Regardless of where you are in the community, there's just a universal language of being a human. Everyone has those basic needs: we need a home, a sense of belonging, and food on our tables," she says. "It's about talking to people and making connections, making sure that you're listening to them. People want to know that they're being validated, and that you can see them beyond just their generation, race, or status in life."
That same vocation drives Cranston City Councilwoman Lammis Vargas '10, who was recently re-elected for a second term (appears on right in photo above). She is a proud daughter of immigrant parents from Colombia and the first Latina councilperson in the City of Cranston. She obtained a bachelor's degree in criminal justice at Rhode Island College, but found her calling at a much younger age.
"I was probably about 12 years old," she recalls. "It was my first visit to the State House." There, she learned that she had that right to speak up on issues related to her immigrant roots.
While growing up she became involved with a local nonprofit organization in Central Falls, Progreso Latino, where she had the opportunity to advocate through the organization's youth program for those without a voice. Years later, she was admitted to RIC through PEP (Preparatory Enrollment Program for first-generation students) and became a member of Harambee and later the President of LASO (Latin-American Student Organization). In that role she put together a fundraiser to donate toys during the holidays to Nickerson House Community Center, which serves local families.
"I started engaging with the college campus community, leading educational student forums, which created the spark to extend my activism off-campus and be involved with various communities here in our state," she recalls. "Being raised in a low-income working family, a humble household, being involved on campus, being a young women of color, living in a community with limited access, it kindled my desire to work with everyone for a positive change – not just for my family, but the community as a whole."
As a city councilwoman, Vargas wants to impact the ward and city that she represents, making sure that every single person has a community where they feel welcome and included.
"One of the reasons I decided to run is that we didn't have representation on the council level," she explains. "I felt that there were so many voices that weren't being heard. I have the ability to engage with the Latino, Black and brown communities overall, but I also bring to the council the perspective of a mother of two children who attend Cranston public schools, the viewpoint of a woman and my professional experience and competencies."
Vega believes that people can get involved with all the processes of city government by reaching out to their local officials and going to council and committee meetings.
"Write to them and demand more from them. Demand that they come to your door and respond to your letters. You have every right to do it," she advises, adding, "You voted me here so I am responsible to you."
Vargas recalls that back in Colombia her parents did not have that direct accessibility to council members. It's a big reason why now, as a council member, she believes in approachability and taking the opportunity to talk with Cranston residents and address their needs.
"We have that direct impact. We know what the quality of life is like for a resident, and what is affecting them directly," she says. "It's extremely important for me as a councilperson to interact with my community and tell them what's happening at the council and at the state level."
Vega tries to include the community in some of the city's decision making. "We are trying to enact participatory budgeting (PB) at the city level in Central Falls, where people in the community can decide on how to spend a hundred-thousand dollars," she explains. "We want to make sure that everyone in the community has a say. We want the PB process to be open to everyone, documented or undocumented. Conversations are happening, and I want to make sure that people in our community know that they have a voice."
Vargas thinks having a role in the council gives her the power to work for greater diversity in government. "We have our first black woman as a municipal judge in the City of Cranston. We made history in the United States having the first woman of color vice president who was sworn in by the first Latina United States Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor," she notes. "Having representation matters and I work to represent everyone."
That representation – for both Latinas and Rhode Island College alumni – is increasing at the municipal level throughout the state. Sabina Matos '01, who recently became our first Latina lieutenant governor after being nominated by Governor Dan McKee, previously made history as the first Latina city council president in Providence. Suzy Alba '05 is the current president of the Smithfield Town Council.
All of these women have the passion and desire to help their communities. For Vega and Vargas, it was inspired by their role models. Vargas cites her parents, who always told her that education was essential: "My parents were always telling me that college wasn't really an option for me – it was a must – even if they had to work multiple jobs to get my sister and I through college." She adds, "Education was extremely important for my parents, who have always motivated, supported and believe in me. They have always been my biggest cheerleaders through it all."
Vega recalls how her grandmother served her community without any judgements. "My grandma is my hero," she says. "She was the first social worker I knew. She had no formal training, but everyone in the community used to come to her, so I grew up serving."