As presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren drafted her ambitious universal child care legislation, among the experts her staff consulted was a young Massachusetts political figure with a famous last name.
No, not the Kennedy running for Senate. Warren’s staff connected with his wife, Lauren Birchfield Kennedy, a health policy lawyer who runs a nonprofit focused on improving child care, including pushing for universal, affordable high-quality care.
Kennedy was hardly the only expert the Warren team consulted. But the conversations she had with the team on details of the policy proposal show that the wife of Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III is a force in her own right, albeit one who has operated mostly outside the spotlight.
She’ll be in the glare more now that her husband has launched a high-profile primary challenge to Senator Edward J. Markey. Yet those around her expect Kennedy to remain focused on her own campaign to help families of young children, even as she spends more time stumping with her husband, whom she met in a contracts law class at Harvard Law School.
“I know a fighter when I see one — and that’s Lauren. Fiercely smart and incredibly determined, she was a terrific student,” said Warren, who taught both husband and wife in that class and has endorsed Markey in the primary race. “She knows what she believes in and goes after it.”
Born in Michigan, Kennedy, 35, moved to Southern California at a young age and grew up “solidly middle class,” she said. Her father is a Presbyterian minister, her mother a certified public accountant. She went to UCLA, then immediately headed to Cambridge. When she met her future husband back in 2006, she didn’t realize he was one of those Kennedys.
“You grow up in Southern California, in particular, and you learn about the Kennedy family through history books, not through media. So in meeting Joe, really, I did have the benefit of getting to know him in his own right,” Kennedy said in an interview with the Globe at the Epiphany Early Learning Center in Dorchester, one of the child care centers that has partnered with the nonprofit she cofounded.
Kennedy described her upbringing as more politically conservative than her husband’s family, but politics also wasn’t front and center, either.
“I think it was probably a surprising phone call to hear that I was dating somebody new, and that this was who it was,” she recalled of first telling her parents. “But they love Joe.”
The pair got engaged shortly before Joe Kennedy launched his first campaign for Congress in early 2012. They tied the knot in California that same December, weeks after he won. Her father, the Rev. Jim Birchfield, officiated.
Kennedy worked in the health policy field for about a decade, including as director of health policy at the National Partnership for Women & Families in Washington, D.C., a leading national women’s health and reproductive rights organization, during her husband’s first years in Congress.
She moved back to Boston when their first child, Eleanor, was born in 2015. Having a baby was an inflection point, she said, an experience that crystallized how little support this country provides its working parents, especially new mothers who may have to return to work within weeks of the birth of a child.
“The reality of American life today is that the cost of living continues to outpace our wages. So if I’m a parent, I have to be in the workforce. So what do you expect me to do, how can I be at work and at home at the same time? I can’t,’’ Kennedy said. “So when do we start thinking about investment in child care as just as important as any other economic justice initiative?”
She met another mother with a newborn, Sarah Siegel Muncey, a teacher and administrator at Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester. They bonded, in part, she said, over “a shared frustration over how, in today’s modern era could it still possibly be this hard to, as a woman, frankly just figure out how to go back to work, to say nothing of how do I ensure that I am still on track to achieve my career aspirations and potential.”
Together they founded Neighborhood Villages.
The nonprofit borrows an idea from health policy: locating crucial social services directly in hospitals, health centers, and doctors’ offices.
For its part, Neighborhood Villages offers resources for families of young children in child care centers — places parents go to drop off and pick up their kids.
At Epiphany, which serves low-income families in Dorchester and is one of two places where the nonprofit currently operates, Neighborhood Villages employs a “family support navigator.” She meets with parents and connects them to resources. Among its efforts, the nonprofit holds “parent cafes,” providing child care while mom and dad listen to presentations on yoga and the importance of reading to their kids. Partner organizations bring in fresh produce; another provides healthy cooking courses. All at the school, all free to the families.
Kennedy and her partners plan to replicate their model, which they see as a prototype that could work in other cities. But truly addressing the child care crisis — which research shows costs employers money by driving turnover and limiting productivity, among other problems, and keeps some women out of the workforce — will require significant policy changes and a commitment of public funds to help subsidize the cost, Kennedy said.
A big part of Kennedy’s role at the nonprofit is advocating for those very sorts of sweeping policy changes. Her evangelism has led to her involvement in a nascent coalition of business leaders and activists.
“She is a thoughtful, substantive, data-driven policy expert, first and foremost,” said JD Chesloff, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, one of the state’s most influential business lobbying groups. Chesloff has worked with Kennedy on the issue.
Chesloff said Kennedy is becoming well known as a go-to contributor on the issue because of the depth of her knowledge. “A lot of times, at these tables, people don’t know she’s married to Joe Kennedy.”
Her husband is not exempt from Kennedy’s advocacy. Joe Kennedy’s staff credit her with helping ensure that his congressional office is extremely family-friendly. “When Joe was elected I was like, well, guess what: You’re going to figure out how to give your staff members, not just your female staff members . . . paid family leave,” Kennedy recalled, noting that each member of Congress sets his or her own policy. “Because it’s more than just casting the right vote. It’s also showing what it looks like in practice.”
Her husband offers three months paid leave to new parents.
Kennedy plans to step up her presence on the campaign trail, just as soon as she and Joe figure out how exactly they pull that off, with two small children — 3-year-old Eleanor and 1-year-old James — and her full-time job, and his.
Part of the solution will be for the kids to come along. That is not just because it allows them to spend time as a family, but also, Kennedy said, because it is important for voters to see.
“It puts out front and center that this is what it looks like to run a campaign these days, and it’s not just going to be the women you see out on the campaign trail with their children,” she said. “It’s going to be Joe, too, because he’s just as much of a parent as I am.”
Reach Victoria McGrane at firstname.lastname@example.org.