The life (and death) stories that drive Andrea Campbell
Boston city council president has turned incredible adversity into strength
ANDREA CAMPBELL’S TWIN BROTHER Andre died seven years ago while awaiting trial in the custody of the state Department of Correction, and she says that has everything to do with how she wound up on the Boston City Council.
The 36-year-old Mattapan resident says government needs to share more stories. By that she means we can often gain greater clarity about how to approach public policy issues through stories that put a human face on the often dry matters of city and state. Campbell, who is starting her second year as City Council president, leads by example and unspools some of her own life story on this week’s Codcast.
It is, by turns, both heart-wrenching and inspiring, and when you hear it it’s easy to see how she connects her life experience with the issues that drive her work as a Boston city councilor. Campbell has been a relentless advocate for public schools – and for ensuring all students get the sort of education she received at Boston Latin School. She’s been outspoken on criminal justice reform issues and, most recently, on the need for greater diversity in the city’s police and fire departments.
Campbell’s life growing up in Roxbury and the South End was one of almost constant upheaval and trauma. But if there’s one moment in all of it that drove her to run for office and remains her North Star now that she’s there, it’s the death of her twin brother.
While Andre and an older brother both cycled in and out of the criminal justice system, as their father had before them, Campbell’s life trajectory could not be more different. After graduating from Boston Latin, she went on to Princeton for undergraduate studies, and got a law degree from UCLA.
The hurdles she and her brothers faced came early. When she and Andre were eight months old, their mother was killed in an auto accident on her way to visit their father in prison. He wound up serving eight years behind bars, so Campbell’s first years were spent bouncing between relatives and foster homes, without a mother she never really knew and with a father behind bars.
While she found refuge and lots of mentoring and support through the Boston Public Schools she attended, Andre had a very different experience before his life came to a tragically early end in state custody at age 29.
“So the question that fuels my work every day is, how do two twins in this city have such different life outcomes?” Campbell asks during our conversation.
She hasn’t figured out all the answers, but Campbell says she’s piecing together the story.
“Growing up, I would just often look at my brothers and say, get it together and go to school,” she says. “I almost felt as if I was a mother figure. Do your work. It was more complex than that, and you don’t see that until you gain some level of maturity.”
With that maturity she says, “I no longer blame individual people. I look at systems as a whole” and “how they don’t show up for the most vulnerable, and the inequities in those systems. And I try to peel that apart a little bit, using not just my story but the stories of many others in the communities I serve.”
In the case of Andre and her older brother, Campbell says she saw how their experience as black boys growing up in Boston differed from hers. “I wasn’t stopped by the police on the way home from school. I remember that happening to my brothers even though they were not involved in anything,” she says.
Having a gun pulled on him on the streets, getting stopped by the police, the anger he felt from their father – it all added up to a level of trauma for Andre that Campbell says the system never adequately helped her brother deal with.
“I use my stories and others to highlight those inequities and then push the system to show up differently with respect not just to those families that feel left out, but all of us. Because if the system is failing some of us, it’s failing all of us, and we should all either be ashamed or grapple with that,” she says.Campbell has quickly impressed political watchers, starting with her defeat of 32-year incumbent Charles Yancey in 2015 to win the District 4 seat representing Mattapan and parts of Dorchester. As for the coming chapters of her story, Campbell’s name pops up in any discussion of potential mayoral aspirants, something she bats away – but doesn’t write off.
“I see a lot of work right here that I need to focus on,” Campbell says, pointing out she’s up for reelection this fall along with all of the council. “If there’s something else down the line, I’m not closed to it. I’m just not setting my intention there just yet.”