“Why not here? Why not now?” says Tiara Mack. “We are consistently waiting for the world to change for us and we are not being the people to put forth the action to let the world change.”
Election Day 2020 is still 14 months away, but some candidates are already getting started. Reproductive justice activist Tiara Mack is running for state senate in District 6. She’s a community organizer, educator, has testified in support for the doula bill and both bills that codified Roe rights, and sits on the board of Women’s Health & Education fund. District 6 is a little unusually gerrymandered. It contains south Providence, Downtown and through a little sliver of Canal Street gets connected to Mt Hope and the East Side.
The seat is currently occupied by Harold Metts. Metts is president pro tempore of the state senate, and has served in some capacity in the state legislature since 1985. The Reproductive Health Act was famously killed in committee the first time earlier this spring. Metts was one of the ones who voted against it, citing that abortion wasn’t a case of “biblical morality” before going on to quote … you guessed it, the Bible. “Seeing who the people were who we aren’t voting for it and why, and seeing one of those people was in my district was really hard to see,” says Mack.
Part of that is culture shock. Mack grew up in rural Georgia, just north of Atlanta. She attended high school in South Carolina before attending her dream college, Brown. Politics are a little different down south. “Even being super close to the capital, we didn’t know the governor or our representatives,” says Mack. “We never ran into them; we never saw them out and about… It was so much more of, not a profession, but an elite status where they aren’t part of the real world.” And while RI is the world’s biggest small town in deep-blue New England, a lot of its elected officials are more conservative than Mack was expecting.
In university, Mack majored in public health and went on to work in education. These two first melded for her in her sophomore year, when an opportunity arose to teach sexual health to students at the Met high school. It’s also where Mack got her start in political advocacy. “I think that was how I became aware of how to take personal agency, of not just my body but other rights,” says Mack. “If something as deep and personal as your body can be regulated by the state, what else can they can they regulate?” She went on to work for Planned Parenthood in 2014 as an intern and volunteer for a number of campaigns.
After college, Mack continued to work in education, teaching sexual education at Hope High School and math at New Bedford High School for two years. But she wanted to return to the city she fell in love with in college and took an opportunity with a charter school: Achievement First. “A lot of students look like me, but don’t have a lot of teachers that look like me,” says Mack. “Five percent of teachers in Providence are persons of color, 95% are white. Being able to recruit teachers to a school that reflects its students was a great opportunity.” Coming from a family of educators, working for a charter didn’t reflect Mack’s personal beliefs. She currently teaches teenagers political organizing in Providence.
Like many other candidates and elected officials, Mack has reservations about the state take-over. She’s looking for more. “The answer isn’t taking over the schools and hoping for the best,” says Mack. “What did the report say? Our concerns aren’t heard. Diversify our teacher pool. What does it look like to repair parent-teacher communication? What does it look like to have buildings that are healthy and safe for students to learn in?” Charters are not the solution, according to Mack, because every public school student should have the right to a great education. Not just the 1,300 who manage to get into a charter.
Other issues Mack is keenly interested in as she runs for office are wealth inequality and the historical damage done to Providence’s marginalized communities. “There are so many different ways that black and brown communities are affected, that’s what I want to have a part in,” says Mack. “We can talk about criminal justice reform and housing, but the legislation I advocate is gonna be centered around who’s been left out of the conversation.” She brings up the wealth inequality in her own district, and the effects of gentrification as historically POC communities get priced out of their own homes.
NARAL has given RI an F on our reproductive health in the past, and has noted we have the most restrictive access to abortion in New England. “If we look at our neighboring states, there is medicaid coverage of abortion, there is access for non-doctors (registered nurse practitioners among others) to perform these procedures,” says Mack. RI only follows the federal standard of funding medically necessary abortion procedures, defined as cases of rape, incest or life endangerment. It does not provide funding for abortions out of Medicaid for any other reasons. One of the largest employers in the state is the state government. The basic state employee insurance plan does not cover abortions or any related health services.
Still, in some ways, RI is more democratic. “It’s different than when I was growing up,” she says about running for office. “You had to be an insider, you had to have a family member, you had to be a lawyer. It had to be passed down from a family member. I know who all my elected officials are. It takes away the veil of mystery and it doesn’t seem so untouchable and it doesn’t seem like this world outside of the world where I grew up.” Whether it’s education, reproductive justice or social inequality, Mack is hoping to bridge that gap.