The social worker and community organizer wants to bring systems level thinking to Northampton city government.
By Molly Keller
Emily “Lemy” Coffin has worked as a family therapist and social worker since getting their graduate degree from the Smith College School of Social Work in 2019. They also did outpatient work and worked at a therapeutic school while in graduate school, and have worked as a community organizer for over a decade. Now, Coffin wants to take the skills they’ve gained through this work to City Council, representing Ward 1.
Working with families, Coffin said, requires a person to see issues as “interconnected and relational rather than just internal or individual,” and this work has taught them to find creative solutions to overcome barriers and the relational dynamics behind them. In their time advocating around the Northampton budget, they have noticed how City Council members often blame technical barriers for inaction on issues they say matter to them. Coffin believes the ability to think systemically would be “uniquely beneficial” to City Council, so this fall, they are running for Ward 1 City Councilor against challenger Stanley Moulton, a former Gazette editor and member of the city’s Charter Review Committee.
Coffin’s inclination to view issues as interconnected and systemic has also drawn them to over a decade of community organizing work. As an undergrad at Smith College, Coffin was a member of the student-run organization Smith Q&A, who advocated for the admission of transgender women to the school. There, they came up against ideological barriers—administration believing transgender women didn’t belong in a historically womens’ college—as well as technical barriers like admissions paperwork and policies. Later at Smith they were involved in getting support for undocumented students. Through both undertakings, Coffin developed organizing skills like model policy writing, in which impacted people research and write the policy they’d like to see an institution implement. “When we encourage community members to really sit down and think about how they would write the policy if they were in that position, it can be so powerful, and I’ve seen that is where things change,” they said in an interview with The Shoestring.
After college, Coffin worked with a local chapter of the national group Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), where they strengthened the internal systems of the organization, tackling issues like “how do we create decision making processes that can be efficient and careful and cautious? And how can we be sustainable with an all volunteer group?” as well as the more technical issues, like learning how to open a bank account as a membership-based organization in order to get their reparations campaign off the ground. “I feel like I’ve always been asking, how do we work on this machine, or this system? Rather than try to just problem solve these tiny little fires that are going on, how do we get to the actual functions of any given system?”
More recently, they’ve organized around the Northampton budget with activist group Northampton Abolition Now. Coffin said that following the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings, it was hard to watch a group of City Councilors who wanted to act but didn’t know how. “It was a lot of, ‘we don’t have the power to do this,’ ‘We don’t have the power to do that,’” Coffin said. “I think a lot of the newer councilors were under the impression that they couldn’t change the budget at all. It was just a technical thing keeping them from doing something they wanted to do.” As City Councilor, Coffin would be most interested in addressing the question, “Can we at least work on the technical barriers so that we’re really breaking open the ideological barriers and naming them, and not letting them hide behind the systemic barriers?”
We asked Coffin how they would ensure they represented all Ward 1 residents, including BIPOC residents, renters, unhoused people, and other constituents who often feel ignored by city government. Coffin spoke to how they plan to directly engage with constituents using strategies like the ones they developed at Smith. “I think it’s this skill of identifying when things are coming down the pipe,” they said, “and taking note of what things might impact certain members of the community, and being sure to engage [them] beyond sort of traditional, generic open forums.” This would make it easier for constituents to have a say in issues that affect them, “especially constituents who might have less capacity to sort through all the muck in City Council.” They brought up the current discussion around banning broker fees for apartment rentals as an example, talking about how renters should be directly involved in the process (Coffin is a renter themself, and would be one of the only renters on City Council).
Coffin wants to base engagement with constituents in strong relationships rather than email lists and traditional open forums, and to reach out to impacted people proactively before making decisions. “I think we tend to rely on white people within city government to be the experts on certain issues rather than constituents,” they said, continuing, “I think meaningful accountability to the community is really identifying strengths and expertise that exist in the community and working to amplify those voices.” Furthermore, they said, it means strengthening participatory involvement in budget processes.
Coffin brought up the Resiliency Hub, which the Mayor developed using a survey he sent out to unhoused people. “But in terms of the final plans, there were no accountability systems to actually check in with those who are most impacted.” In a more participatory process, Coffin would want to identify stakeholders within Northampton’s different wards and communities, identify their priorities, and set the budget accordingly. When asked how they respond to the argument that budget decisions should be left to experts, they said, “I think our community has a lot of answers, and everyone is an expert on a budget. Sure, crunching the numbers at the end of the day takes some amount of technical skill, but we can separate out moral or philosophical decisions and technical skills. I think just because someone has the technical skill to write up a budget does not necessarily mean they have the expertise, or the ethic to truly define the priorities for a community.”
Moulton, who also served on 2019’s charter review committee and is a mayoral appointee to the board of Northampton Open Media, is amongst a cohort of late nominees to challenge insurgent candidates. We asked Coffin to discuss the challenge to their campaign from Moulton. “I think it will be really telling to see what voters really want. If voters want business as usual, I think Stan could win, but I think if voters are looking for really interesting and creative ways to imagine new possibilities for our city, I think I might be the better choice.” They talked about how Moulton spoke out against the proposal to review the city’s charter more frequently than once every 10 years, and said, “I think there are community members that feel good about the status quo and like living in Northampton as it is. There are also voters who are really frustrated and want these norms to shift. And as a family therapist, as an activist for over a decade, I have thought a lot about what it means to shift norms and to support people in identifying and naming norms and barriers for themselves.”
“I don’t want to have all the answers,” Coffin concluded. “I think that’s the biggest thing: I don’t want to be looked at to have all the answers, I want to support community members and residents to figure out the answers for themselves.”
Coffin will appear on the ballot for the November 2nd municipal election. They have been endorsed by Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore and Northampton Policing Review Commission Co-Chair Dan Cannity. You can find more information about them on their website at coffinforward1.com.
Molly Keller is a member writer at The Shoestring. She lives in Amherst.
The Shoestring is committed to bringing you ad-free content. We rely on readers to support our work! Please pay for The Shoestring on Patreon.