By Peg Lopata, Contributing writer
Cambridge – Have you ever wanted to know how cities work? Perhaps being a member of the city council would be the way to learn about this. That’s what Jan Devereux, 59, found out when she worked as both a member of the city council and vice-mayor for Cambridge.
“Being a councilor was a unique opportunity to drink from the firehose of information about how cities work. My four years at this work were the equivalent of a graduate degree in urban planning, housing and transportation policy, and human psychology,” she explained. “As a life-long learner, I was constantly stimulated by the chance to absorb new information and gain new perspectives.”
While some may be daunted by working in the political realm, Devereux, though she never saw herself as a career politician or really a politician at all, was motivated to run to bring about changes she saw as important for Cambridge.
“I was initially inspired to run in 2015 by what I perceived as a lack of civic engagement among many residents and by the perception that the council had become an old boy’s club. I wanted to get involved to show that you didn’t need to be a typical ‘politico’ to step up and serve,” she said. “There was only one woman councilor at the time. It seemed to me that the council was not working very hard to involve residents in decisions.”
Devereux admits her civic work was very demanding at times.
“The volume of email can be overwhelming,” she said. “When I ran I said I would make it my full-time job and I did, but I had trouble setting boundaries and it became a job that felt as if there was always something more I could be doing.”
But she has no regrets that she worked hard on behalf of Cambridge.
“I’m proud of the progress we made on bike safety and reducing speed limits throughout the city. I’m also proud of launching the Urban Forest Master Plan task force process and raising awareness that we need stronger protections for mature trees on both public and private property, as well as much greater public investment in tree planting and care,” she said.
Complaining about the way things are may be the way some people deal with what’s happening around them that they don’t like.
“After living in Cambridge for 20 years and not really taking much interest in local politics, I found myself complaining about city decisions and decided that if I wanted to change that conversation I needed to step up myself,” she noted.
She also recalled her undergraduate college’s motto: “Princeton in the nation’s service”. For Dereveux that motto became more than just words.
In addition to her now former political life, Devereux continues to enjoy writing. She has written a novel for children called “Poe, the Crow”, personal essays, and opinion columns. She also wrote a weekly e-newsletter when she was a councilor.
“I explained complex issues and highlighted public meetings and events. When I announced I’d not be running again, I received countless emails from people saying my newsletter had helped them feel engaged and informed about local issues. It made a difference in their lives and that makes me feel proud,” said Devereux.
Devereux is not sure what’s next for her. She admits she’s not a big goal-setter.
But, as she noted, “I want to remain useful, challenged, and productive in my work life and have more time for my friends, family, and creative interests.”
She’s an environmentalist, activist, mother, writer and community advocate so she’s not without many paths to choose to work on. But it’s hard to predict these things. Devereux herself didn’t end up doing what she thought she’d do. When she was young, athletics were her focus. But she credits her years playing competitive tennis beginning at age 12 with part of who she is today.
“Those years of practice, persistence, and stamina required to become a top player has served me well in lots of ways,” she said.