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Gov. Healey talks language accessibility, MCAS, immigration, work of Latino council

Gov. Maura Healey joins other Massachusetts state officials and members of the Latino Empowerment Council to celebrate Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month at the State House on Sept. 13, 2023.
Joshua Qualls
/
Governor's Press Office
Gov. Maura Healey joins other state officials and members of the Latino Empowerment Council to celebrate Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month at the State House on Sept. 13, 2023.

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It's Hispanic Heritage Month — the first for Maura Healey as governor of Massachusetts. Among the many issues on Healey's plate — helping find shelter and other resources for the thousands of immigrant families arriving in the state, many but not all from Latin American countries. They are fleeing what Healey calls "unimaginable hardship and heartache."

"That's what has compelled them to come here, and to come here at great risk to themselves and their children in many instances," Healey said. "But here they are. And so, we are just trying to find a way to make all of this work. But it is going to require more direct intervention, immediate intervention by the federal government."

Healey's comments came during a wide-ranging interview at the Statehouse in Boston with NEPM's Elizabeth Román. Elizabeth began by asking Healey about her Council on Latino Empowerment — and what she wants its members to accomplish in her first term.

Gov. Maura Healey: One of the things that was really important to me was to make sure that we empower people and that we're working collaboratively with community. I set up the Latino Empowerment Council because I wanted people to understand that that's really what I was going for. Empowerment, right? And I wanted a council that was going to be willing to get out, have listening sessions and come back and bring to me, "Governor, here's what we need to do to create wealth in our community. Here's what we need to do to address a housing crisis. Here's what we need to do to close health disparities..."

I'm grateful to the members of our Latino Empowerment Council. I meet regularly with them. They presented me recently with recommendations, which I'm very much looking forward to implementing. So many good ideas about what we can do and make happen now. And so, that's the work of the council.

Let's dive a little bit into the language accessibility executive order that you signed recently. Obviously in Springfield and Holyoke, there's a large Latino population that's bilingual, but some of them are only Spanish-speaking. So talk a little bit about how that's going?

I issued an order, an executive order requiring all agencies to have language accessibility because we cannot do our job and serve the public unless we're there speaking their language. You know, it's just so basic. And as somebody who used to be a civil rights lawyer, I care so much about people's ability to access government and services. And sometimes there are different barriers, and one of the barriers can be language. Well, we just got to take that out of the equation.

At the same time, we also need to increase our language capacity on our teams, on our staff. It also means more representation. I'm proud of all of the Latinos we've brought into the administration working at all levels. So, so important because, you know, we're not going to have the policies and the laws and the actions that we need, that meet the moment and what we need to do to serve our communities, unless we have everyone represented at the table.

And so, language accessibility is basic. You're not going to be able to access a service if you can't understand the website, if you can't understand the form that you're supposed to fill out — it's as basic as that.

And let's switch gears to education, but it also has to do with accessibility and language. A lot of students, particularly in Holyoke, are only Spanish speaking. Attorney General Andrea Campbell has certified this potential ballot question that would eliminate the MCAS as a requirement for graduation. Do you think it's something that should be taken to the voters to decide or is it really a question for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and for individual school districts to continue to look at?

I think that if there are enough signatures collected, then it will be for the voters to decide. I think what's important, though, as governor, I want to make sure that what we're doing for our students is setting them up for success. I want to make sure that in Massachusetts, where we are proud to be home to the first public school in the country, we have a right to an education enshrined in our Constitution. We want to make sure that we are doing everything that we can for our students.

That's why... in my first budget, I funded fully the Student Opportunity Act. We made historic investments in K through 12 education. We supported, for example, educator diversity. We know that students do not do as well when they don't have a teacher and educator in the classroom who looks like them, who speaks their language. We have to work on educator diversity.

And with the MCAS, it's an assessment tool really. And the question for me and the conversations and the policy work that DESE and the government need to do is around — what is it we're assessing? What are the things that we aren't assessing that we should be assessing? Because we want to set our students up for success.

I never want a test to punish our students. Our job is to support students to meet them where they are, to help them grow, to help them learn. No matter what happens with a ballot question, that's the work that my administration is going to do.

We know that for students for whom English is not their first language, the MCAS or any test can present challenges if not done, if not presented, in a way that is fair and equitable. So, you know, we always want to remove biases from any program, any test included. And so these are some of the things that we're working on and looking at because it's a matter of fairness.

So the Farm Resiliency Fund, a lot of talk is focused on farmers themselves, which there are many Latino farmers... But I'm curious about the migrant workers that work on these farms, that travel with their families throughout different places. Can you talk about how these funds are helping those families and what you've heard from migrant families that depend on this [income]?

Well, it's absolutely devastating. The weather, the flooding that we saw, particularly in western and central Massachusetts that destroyed over 100 farms. And with that, the livelihoods of the workers. And so our team acted quickly. We sought $20 million from the Legislature, and we also stood up a migrant fund. And we were able to raise through philanthropy just over $3 million to go to these funds. Some of that money is going directly to workers, to help make a make a payroll.

It's really important that we take this moment to realize and to take action. These storms are the direct consequence of climate and failures in leadership to act when it comes to doing what we need to do to address climate change. We also need to think of the workforce, because it's always the case with weather and with the climate crisis we're in, it is communities of color and it is lower income people who are always disproportionately, adversely affected by these events. And so, we need to make sure that we're providing the support, we're strengthening that infrastructure.

We stand with the workers. We stand with migrant workers. We would not be able to have the economy that we have were it not for the contributions of our migrant workers.

Elizabeth Román edits daily news stories at NEPM as managing editor. She is working to expand the diversity of sources in our news coverage and is also exploring ways to create more Spanish-language news content.