A month ago, John FitzGerald and Enrique Pepén took the oath of office and started their first terms as city councillors. Within days, the men also took on temporary roles as substitute teachers, police officers, and crossing guards as a way to experience first-hand what fellow city workers are doing every day across the city. It’s their way of learning the ropes of their own jobs while gaining an appreciation for the challenges facing their colleagues in other public service roles, said FitzGerald, who represents Dorchester’s District 3.
“When you’re out there and you meet the people and you do the work yourself, you realize how much of an uphill battle some of these folks are facing. It only inspires me to want to help them more and give them the support they need. We’ve got good people doing good things and they need more support, and they need more help. Rather than be critical, let’s be supportive.”
Pepén, who resides in Roslindale and represents District 5, wants the daily effort of city workers to be recognized. “I’m going to try to do my best in making sure that they get the credit when things get solved, making sure that if a constituent reaches out, they know that it’s code enforcement taking care of it, it’s the police, it’s the parks department,” he said.
“Then, doing my due diligence, making sure that if there are job openings, [we] host a job fair in my district and bring awareness to the positions and make sure that they’re fully staffed.”
Last week, Pepén volunteered to put in time as a crossing guard at the Charles Sumner School in Roslindale. In an interview with the Reporter, he explained that there are more than 30 open positions for crossing guards throughout the city.
“It was such a great opportunity to be out there and learn firsthand about the importance of the job. So many kids cross Washington Street and I was able to see that when there is a person there the kids feel safer, the parents feel safer, and the drivers do slow down,” Pepén said. “But there are still a lot of openings. It’s such an important job. It’s a union job, so it is a good opportunity as well for residents.”
While Pepén was helping students make it into school safely, FitzGerald was taking charge in a classroom. On Mon., Jan. 22, the councillor was a substitute teacher for a sixth-grade ELA class at the Thomas J. Kenny School on Oakton Ave. in Dorchester, the school that two of his children attend.
“There was a teacher that was coming in half a day, so I was there from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., from bell to bell,” said FitzGerald. “I covered the class for the first half of the day and then the teacher arrived, and I observed.” Amidst taking attendance and helping students with classwork, he asked the 11- and 12-year-olds if they had suggestions on how to improve their school.
“A small group of them wrote down and signed their signatures and everything, saying they would like more clubs,” said the councillor. “One kid said, ‘When I get home I’m bored, there’s not much to do, so I’d like to have something after school and perhaps transportation to help stay later, and then get home.’”
The students requested theatre, visual arts, writing, and cooking clubs and expressed their desires for an auditorium and gymnasium.
“I feel great about the direction of the Kenny School,” said FitzGerald, adding that being in a classroom there for a day “gave me an appreciation of what those teachers go through every day. There’s a smart community there and I’m proud that my kids are part of it.”
Pepén, a father to two children not yet old enough for school, noted his appreciation for the work done to keep their neighborhood up to city standards, including the efforts of the Boston Code Enforcement Police.
“People don’t think about code enforcement [officials] a lot, they don’t know they exist until they show up. It’s such an important piece of the city’s system,” he said about a district that includes parts of Mattapan, Hyde Park, and Roslindale.
“They’re the ones that make sure that business owners take care of their surroundings, that residents shovel their streets, that people just do the right thing.”
Enforcement officers also prevent the illegal postings of signs, deter illegal street vendors, and get owners to deal with their trash.
“The reason why I decided to shadow code enforcement is because there’s a lot of requests in Mattapan,” Pepén explained. “There’s a lot of illegal dumping that happens behind businesses. Many times, it’s people that live outside of the city that come and dump in the big trash cans or the bins.”
FitzGerald also took to the streets with employees from Boston Public Works in Districts 3 and 7. “I went through and just talked to the group and asked them how they felt and thanked them for doing their job of keeping the city clean and doing the sort of nitty-gritty work. They don’t get thanked enough and it’s really the important stuff in keeping the city moving,” he said.
District 3 councillor John FitzGerald collected discarded needles alongside workers from the Boston Public Health Commission near South Bay last week. Photo courtesy Councillor FitzGerald’s office
While these workers are responsible for ensuring that Boston’s streets, sidewalks, and bridges are cared for, it’s up to the Police Department to keep these same areas safe.
To learn more about BPD work on the ground, FitzGerald went to the District C-11 stationhouse on Gibson Street on Jan 23 and addressed officers during their afternoon “roll call,” explaining that he was there to learn from “the eyes and ears of the city.”
Afterward, he renewed associations with some familiar faces such as Officer James Hosea. “I know these people. There are families behind these faces and these badges and that brings a lot more to what they do every day and I really appreciate what they do,” said FitzGerald. The councillor also formed new relationships and spent the afternoon on patrol with Officer Laquane Bradham.
While most people do their best to stay out of a cop car, FitzGerald enthusiastically climbed into the passenger seat of Bradham’s cruiser and joined him for part of his 4 p.m. to midnight shift on the streets of Dorchester.
In the two hours FitzGerald spent riding shotgun, he learned about the mental capacity it takes to be an officer, the camaraderie that exists at C-11, and the ten-code used by the officers. He also witnessed various calls and visited several crime scenes.
Minutes after he buckled his seat belt and Bradham pulled out of the station, they were summoned to a report of a domestic incident not far from Fields Corner. “You have to immerse yourself in this whole experience to understand what they’re going through,” FitzGerald said. “They’re good people working hard, trying to stay patient in the face of a lot of adversity and dealing with the worst stuff that’s going on around the city. I already had a tremendous amount of respect for the police force but watching the couple of calls they went to - these guys do this every day.”
When observing the police, FitzGerald asked himself: “What would this do to me? What would my mindset be? At what point would my patience run out?”
He and Pepén will continue to ask themselves these questions as they meet up with more city workers in the coming weeks, including stints with the Boston Public Health Commission and the City of Boston Transportation Enforcement Team.
“We consider these employees the backbones of the city. They are the ones that keep our city running on a day-to-day basis,” said Pepén. “We’re bringing the spotlight to them now.”
FitzGerald and Pepén say they will put their experiences with their city worker colleagues into play in their work with colleagues on the city council.
“We’re learning from each other and we’re going to sit down when he’s done, and I’ll get his experiences and I’ll tell him about mine,” said FitzGerald. “We can see where it applies to our own districts and how it affects the city overall. Then we can start to really effect some change in doing the job that we have.”