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Natalie Higgins: Public Servant for the People

Rappaport Fellow, MA State Representative, & Leominster Native Natalie Higgins Stays True to Her Roots.

Massachusetts State Rep. and Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy Alum Natalie Higgins has always stayed true to her roots. And her roots are firmly planted in Leominster, MA,

where she lives on the same street she grew up, in a home once owned by her great-grandparents. Her parents and brother live in adjacent homes. A 2006 graduate of Leominster High School, Natalie proudly serves as a State Representative for the 4th Worcester District (Leominster).

A fierce defender of the working class, survivors of sexual violence, and all those looking to pursue a debt-free education, Natalie is driven by her conviction that government should provide a safety net for all its citizens. She is loyal and dogged in her determination to fight for her constituents and those who may not have a voice in government.

Growing up, Natalie’s parents were dedicated to ensuring she and her brother were given every opportunity, including being the first generation to attend college. “My dad has a ninth-grade education and is a small business owner. He worked his way up from pumping gas to a mechanic, to working as an auto parts store delivery driver, then as a manager, and eventually bought the store from his old boss. His is the success story we hope we can all achieve in the United States. My parents worked hard to ensure my brother and I had more opportunities than they did and that we knew college was an option for us.”

As a high school senior at Leominster High studying AP Government, Natalie met State Rep. Jennifer Flanagan. This encounter would inspire Natalie to pursue a degree in political science at UMass Amherst. “I was participating in this afterschool program called STAMP, Students Taking Action in Massachusetts Politics. For me, it was great to see this young, elected woman who had one foot in her community and one foot in state government. I wanted to learn how to make government work better. I’ve always believed that government should provide a basic social safety net. And so, I pursued a degree in political science, and my first internship was in the office of Jennifer Flanagan!”

While getting accepted into college was not a challenge for the honor student, figuring out how to pay for it was. “We had no idea how much college was actually going to cost. It was a hard reality check.”

This reality check stayed with Natalie and continued to be a driving force in her professional and political career.

As a student at UMass, Natalie participated in the Citizen’s Scholar Program (now known as the Community Scholars Program), a two-year academic, civic engagement, and leadership program where students work with community organizations throughout Western Massachusetts. For her CSP program, Natalie completed 80 hours of training as a rape crisis counselor at the Center for Women and Community in Amherst, MA, where she saw first-hand how the legislative process worked.

“In 2009, the year I graduated from UMass, Massachusetts still didn’t have the 258 E Harassment Prevention Order in place, meaning survivors of sexual violence couldn’t get a restraining order. That was a huge gap in the law. I participated in an organizing campaign for the Center for Women and Community. I did outreach to state legislators. Sexual violence advocates had been working on this legislation for a decade. I got to come in at the end and watch the bill go through.”

After graduating from UMass, Natalie was hired as a teen counselor at Pathways for Change, a rape crisis program in Worcester County, serving 47 cities and towns. Natalie worked with a caseload of 15 teen survivors of sexual violence. She also conducted workshops on sexual violence prevention, education, and consent, and what it means to be in a healthy relationship for middle and high school students.

“Working with my teen survivors reaffirmed my desire to go to law school. The legal system was not a place where they were getting any closure or a place to heal. A two-year case dragged on way too long for a fifteen-year-old. A lot of my teens just wanted it to stop. I applied to law school and got into Northeastern University. I wanted to figure out how to make these laws work better for our community. How do we make sure that they truly protect women?”

Natalie learned about the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy Fellowship as a first-year law student and was immediately interested. “As a working-class graduate student, finding out there was a paid opportunity to do public service work was intriguing. I wanted my Fellowship to focus on sexual violence. I remember the person who oversaw the program at Northeastern said, ‘I don’t know that they’ve ever funded a pitch like this before. I was accepted and placed in Governor Deval Patrick’s office with the Governor’s Council to Address Sexual and Domestic Violence.”

“My Fellowship took place around the time of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. We realized there’s a lot of liability and exposure for minors on college campuses. The Council wanted to address how to protect these minors and everyone who comes on the grounds of our public university campuses. My supervisors were from the Office of Cabinet Affairs. I got to see the Governor and Lieutenant Governor in action; I regularly attended the Governor’s Council, so I got to see, behind the scenes, just how difficult some of these laws can be to implement.”

Natalie’s Rappaport Fellowship provided her with access to Massachusetts state government in a way she had never dreamed possible. She attended cabinet meetings and legislative sessions and networked with a wide variety of elected officials. “The sessions with different state leaders helped break down the different parts of government for me. As someone who hadn’t had access to government in ways many other folks do. It made me feel welcome. This was a world where I could exist and work. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity the Rappaport Foundation gave me in law school. It’s a formative part of my time in college and helped me on my path to being a state representative.”

Upon graduation from Northeastern, Natalie was named Executive Director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM). A nonprofit advocating for high-quality, debt-free public education. “The Massachusetts Public Higher Education system has 29 campuses across the state. PHENOM brings students, staff, faculty, and administrations together to speak with one voice. It was a great experience from a community-organizing lens.”

For Natalie, working for PHENOM was a labor of love.

“I was born in 1988, the year that state funding for public higher education started to get cut in Massachusetts. Over time, we cut investments in public higher education institutions by a third and financial aid by a third. We’ve ended up with a system where it’s entirely normal for someone to go to a four-year public university and take out $35,000 in loans. A generation before that wasn’t the reality. We want the same opportunities our parents’ generation had. More than half of Massachusetts residents have a bachelor’s degree. In my community, it’s less than a third. In most gateway cities, it’s less than a quarter. By making college affordable, we can level the playing field and create an economy that works for everyone. “

“I wanted to learn how to make government work better. I've always believed that government should provide a basic social safety net.”

Natalie Higgins, Massachusetts State Representative

Running for Office
In February 2016, Natalie saw an announcement in her local paper that her state representative would not be seeking reelection. After mulling it over, she called her parents and boyfriend and asked if they would support her if she decided to run. Natalie had their full support but had no idea how to launch and manage a political campaign. She enrolled in EMERGE, a program that has trained more than 4,000 women to run for office nationwide since 2002. At the same time, Natalie’s family registered for Mass Alliance, a grassroots campaign training program that took place over a weekend.

Natalie’s campaign was off and running. “We worked our butts off for six months. I was a first-time candidate running against a 20 year sitting city councilor, the city council president, and the person who ran the Johnny Appleseed Festival, the largest festival in Leominster. At 27, I don’t think I appreciated what a David and Goliath set up that was. I thought it’s an open seat; lots of people will run. It ended up being just the two of us in the primary.”

Natalie won the race by 37 votes. For Natalie, this was an affirmation that every vote truly matters. “Every person who we were able to convince to get out of their pjs between 7:00 -8:00 pm and head down to their polling place to cast their ballot played a vital role in that win. I ran as a proud, progressive Democrat in a seat that has historically elected moderate Democrats. My message was that government is not working for our families, and it’s not accessible, but it should be there when you need help. There should be a basic safety net for folks.”

Natalie feels incredibly grateful to her parents when she reflects on her one percent win over her opponent. “They never questioned my decision to run. They just said, ‘We’re going to figure this out. We’re going to go knocking on doors with you. We’re going to help you with phone banking.’ After they worked a full day at the store and I worked a full day at PHENOM, I wasn’t super pumped about knocking on doors. My dad would say ‘Come on, I’m driving you’. It was very much a family affair.”

In Office
Today, Natalie serves on the House Ways and Means Committee and is Vice Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Service. She also serves on the Joint Committee for Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities and the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery. “This is my fourth term on the Mental Health, Substance Use, and Recovery Committee. I think we’ve come a long way when talking about addiction and the need to treat it as a public health crisis. I still don’t think we’ve cracked the stigma around mental health in our communities and making sure that folks feel supported. Mental health is just as important as physical health.”

Like most voters, Natalie’s constituents are focused on the economy, housing, and access to health care. “COVID has fast-forwarded the gentrification of Leominster. A third of our jobs are in low-wage manufacturing, but we’re watching rent double overnight. Because COVID has opened the doors to a more flexible work schedule and Leominster is on the commuter rail, folks from Greater Boston are moving here. They can get a lot more bang for their buck here while remaining connected to Boston. We’re figuring out how to keep our community whole, while welcoming all of these new people at the same time. As someone who grew up in Leominster, I want everyone who finds their way here to be able to call it home. That’s why investing in debt-free higher education and ensuring everyone can earn a degree or certificate is crucial. We should be making that investment in all of our communities.”