Twenty-eight-year-old Shane Burgo is going to be a city councilor like few we have seen in New Bedford.

The son of two parents who lost their lives to the throes of drug addiction, he watched as his family lost ownership of its Purchase Street home and he ended up being raised by his grandmother. He has talked of his older brother being stopped by police for suspiciously walking home from football practice on Hawthorn Street until he was rescued by a parent.

In an interview with The New Bedford Light about his goals for the council, the newly elected Burgo said he intends to remain devoted to the matters he raised when other candidates were talking about high taxes and allegedly out-of-control crime in the city.

“I think we’re gonna still stay true to our campaign priorities,” he said. “Which were focused around the opioid crisis, and affordable housing — gentrification is the biggest one, constituent services and government transparency.”

Burgo said he actually decided to run for the council during the 2019 council campaign when none of the candidates were talking about the opioid crisis. Even though two years later he ran a serious campaign — raising money and knocking on doors — he never expected to win. Now that he has, he said he feels it is important for him to succeed. His road to the council is so unusual that he believes he just has to be effective.

“It’s very scary for me, because I feel like I have so much to lose because I don’t want to let people down,” he said. “I feel like I have to be good at this because if I mess this up, I think about all the people coming up behind me that I don’t want to disappoint or don’t want to mess up for them when they decide to finally run.”

There is no doubt that Burgo is going to be a witness to a lived New Bedford life that is not often seen or heard first-hand in the corridors of city power. For instance, he said he has witnessed the toll of substance abuse right outside his own home across from the Verdean Veterans Hall on Purchase Street near the downtown.

“Many a night, when I park right across the street, I’ve seen people passed out, maybe across the street on the steps of the Vets, even in all their clothes — or even on my own front porch,” he said.

It has given him, he said, a unique insight into the “NIMBY” resistance to locating drug treatment centers in some city neighborhoods and the lack of understanding about substance abuse treatment.

“So, when we talk about not in my backyard, that’s where the problem is right on our front porches. In our pocket parks, in our schools,” he said. “So, this is where the issue is, so we can’t continue pretending that it doesn’t exist and ignoring it.” 

Burgo takes a moment to stress that he is not in favor of high taxes and absolutely wants the police to respond to crime. He understands the concerns of the councilors representing those constituencies and said he intends to represent all the people as a councilor-at-large. Still, he wants to talk about matters he thinks others have not talked about enough in New Bedford.

It took a long time for him to get to this point, he said, explaining that there is a lot of shame and stigma to drug addiction in New Bedford that often prevents people from seeking the treatment they need. For example, in his own case, when he was young he was told that his mother had died of cancer and not AIDS, which was what really led to her death.

“I’m glad there is a campaign here in Massachusetts to stop the stigma,” he said. “Because I think that contributes a lot to the deaths that we see here. People are less likely to seek the help or resources that we have here in Massachusetts, because they feel as though they’re going to be judged, or criticized, or called names … because they already feel as though they’re less than, or that they’re not worthy to seek treatment.”

New Bedford Light columnist Jack Spillane talks with New Bedford City Councilor-elect Shane Burgo.

Burgo, a program coordinator with the Department of Transitional Assistance in Boston, stresses that we have an abundance of resources to address the opioid crisis in New Bedford and Massachusetts. 

“But the issue that we have is accessibility,” he said, explaining that people who have the problem are not always eligible for the treatment they need.

The rapid rise in housing costs, and the effect of gentrification in some New Bedford neighborhoods, is another issue Burgo will be able to speak to from first-hand experience. 

He and his loved ones lost their family home and now rent from a family friend who he said has been very fair and equitable to them. “But that is a very unique situation in New Bedford,” he said. “That is not always the case here in New Bedford.”

He is looking toward changes in the city’s zoning ordinance to allow for more units of affordable housing. “We need to look at our mixed-use properties,” he said. “We need to look at development here in New Bedford.”

Burgo said he does not think the simple economics of supply and demand is going to solve the problem when 200-plus people are applying for the same apartment because it’s all that is available in their price range.

“That’s why the landlord is able to say OK, I need first, last, security, I need a pint of blood,” he said. “And you know, I need your credit score to be this, and all these outrageous things that we might not have originally asked for. But now they’re able to be very selective.”

Burgo also shared his thoughts on criticism that the New Bedford Police Department has targeted minority youth in its interactions.

On the campaign trail, he said, he was often painted as anti-police and he feels that is harmful in a way. “I feel like it’s a tactic to try to hurt me,” he said.

He is a supporter of the police, he said, even though he feels there are issues with police interactions that need to be discussed.

“I want to be very clear that I’m not anti-police,” he said. “I believe that police are very essential to the fabric of a community.”

When he was younger, his home was broken into, he said, and the first people he called was the police. “They are very important people, especially in a crisis.”

Burgo said he believes the New Bedford department has made a lot of progress in recent years and that he himself has not experienced the stereotyping that his older brother did. He noted that the department has eliminated its “meet and greet” program, which he described as just another variation of “stop and frisk.” The Shannon grant programs have also helped with education and the recent revision of the point system for labeling gang members, as well as the requirement to inform individuals identified as gang members, are improvements, he said.

“I think the relationships over the years have built up …  especially when we have things like National Night Out, better community policing,” he said.

But we need to “unlearn” a belief that if we haven’t experienced racial profiling, it doesn’t exist, he said.

“That was what was interesting with the We Are the Prey report, which is what sparked this kind of conversation,” he said. “It was testimony from some children, youth that we have in our school, saying that they felt that they are the prey. So, we have more work to do.”

Burgo said he is a firm supporter of the necessity of a civilian review board to review police actions.

“I want to be able to be lifting up my community and showing our youth especially, that we have power in numbers. Because we want to move from protesting to power to policy.”

He noted that the police motto is “protect and serve.” 

“I feel as though if you’re protecting and serving us, we shouldn’t have an element where we’re unable to review any misconduct because we can’t just have a situation where police are reviewing (themselves), you know, police are investigating themselves. There has to be a civilian element to make sure that all parties are held accountable.”

Burgo references longtime incumbent City Councilor Linda Morad’s message that there is only so much a city councilor can do legislatively. Its powers are limited to things like cutting the budget, confirming appointments and passing ordinances. He said he believes Morad is right but that he believes councilors can use their positions to raise the consciousness of city residents.

“We have a platform to lift our voices in or use our voices to lift up other voices, and that’s the role I see as myself as a city councilor,” he said. “I don’t want to be a city councilor just approving a budget, and you know, pushing paper,” he said. “I want to be able to be lifting up my community and showing our youth especially, that we have power in numbers. Because we want to move from protesting to power to policy.”

Burgo grew emotional talking about being elected to the council and the back-handed compliments sometimes people gave him, telling him he’s come a long way considering his background. He feels for those similar to himself who have not had the family and church support he has had.

“It was so powerful for me because there were times when I was younger that I always wondered, you know, would it get any better? Is there more out there for us?” he said.

He is doing the work he does “empowering low-income individuals to self-sufficency” because he personally knows how hard it is, he said. 

“It’s personal for me because I know it’s personal for so many other people in New Bedford.”

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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