Current Affairs

Congressional Candidate Jamaal Bowman on Education, Socialism, Poverty, and Peace

The candidate for New York’s 16th district discusses his approach to education, poverty, peace, and more…

Current Affairs Managing Editor Lyta Gold sat down, back in December 2019, with Congressional candidate Jamaal Bowman in New York’s 16th District to discuss his work as a principal, how he differs from his opponent, Rep. Eliot Engel, who voted for the Iraq war, whether he identifies as a socialist, and more. The conversation can be heard in full on the Current Affairs podcast. Transcription by Rachel Calvert.

Lyta Gold:

Hello and welcome to the Current Affairs podcast. This is Lyta Gold, your Amusements and Managing Editor. I have an extremely special guest with me today. It’s Jamaal Bowman, who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives in New York’s 16th District. Jamaal, thanks for joining me. 

Jamaal Bowman:

Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

LG:

Jamaal, you’re a member of this really exciting new generation of left candidates we’ve all been hearing so much about, much like McKayla Wilkes who we interviewed in a previous episode. And your district, New York 16, is very close to AOC’s. You’ve been endorsed by the Justice Dems just like her. Your background is really interesting. That’s kind of where I want to start today. You are a professional educator, and for the past 10 years you’ve been a middle school principal. And this is a job title which I imagine might fill a lot of our listeners with anxiety, because we probably all remember these terrifying disciplinarians, but that’s not your speed at all, and I’m really interested in your approach, to start off, just as a principal. 

JB:

Yeah, I mean, hopefully this doesn’t sound too cliche, but first and foremost, I love the children that I serve, and I love the community that I serve. We engage in a pedagogy of love where it’s not just about academic performance and academic achievement, and one-upping or beating your peer or your colleague. It’s about how do we collectively create the most ambitious, loving, caring learning environment for ourselves as individuals and for our peers, and for our parents, and for our community? I’ve always had a community school vision, and I’ve always looked at the school as the heartbeat of the community, so the place the kind of can drive—again, not just academic outcomes, but social outcomes, emotional outcomes, and really provide a transformative space to right the wrongs of history. So I’ve been very clear from the beginning of my career 20 years ago, in 1999, I started teaching in the south Bronx. I’ve been very clear on my role as a male educator, as a Black male educator, particularly for Black and Brown children. I did not grow up with a father, so I unfortunately encounter many students who shared similar experiences. So I knew I was more than a teacher to them. I knew I was a father figure, and I knew that I was someone—that my job was more than just providing academic space, but a social space, and emotional space, a spiritual space for us to deal with our shared experiences, deal with our history very honestly and openly, and use the space, again, to empower, to transform, and as a space for self-love. So, that’s how I’ve always approached this work as an educator, and that’s how I continue to approach it to this day. 

LG:

So, you founded your own school 10 years ago. You were the founding principal of this school. It is CASA, the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action. Can you tell us more about—I mean, what you just said is of course part of your approach, but specifically what you focus on, what you teach, what you offer. 

JB:

So I started teaching in 1999 in an elementary school. And I worked there for five years. I taught fourth grade, taught math, taught crisis intervention, did a lot of different things. After that, I worked at the high school level for three years, serving as a dean of students and guidance counselor, always taking a restorative approach to the work. At that point, I decided that, you know what, I wanted to try to have a larger impact, so let me look at school administration as a possibility. I got into an amazing program, and while I was in that program, I was given the option to take over an existing district school, write a proposal for a charter school, or write a proposal for a public school. I decided to write a proposal for a public school, because I believed in the neighborhood community school model much more than I did the charter school model. And this was even before I realized that the charter school model was more around for profit, hedge fund investments, and de-unionizing our teacher labor force. This is before I even knew that. And I still just gravitated toward the community school, district school model. And at that point, I decided not to write a proposal for an elementary school or a high school, but I chose a middle school in particular because I remember how influential that time of my life was— growing up, sort of coming of age, pre-adolescence, all of the wild, untamed energy that comes with that period. 

[Both laugh]

But all the uncertainty, and if you’re able to create a healthy learning environment at the middle school level, children begin to connect more with learning spaces beyond middle school. It’s a time of growth. It’s a time of identity. It’s a time to go back to what we started as a crossroads, right, where you can really gravitate towards one positive direction in education or negative, depending on your experience. So I chose middle school for those reasons, and I’m glad I did.

So, I wrote a proposal with other educators, and other parents, and other students around just cutting-edge research in education, so 21st century skills, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, cooperation, diversity, social justice, social action. So, our school is rooted in those pillars, and social action is actually the name of the school: Cornerstone Academy for Social Action. So, that’s what we’re all about, and our curriculum is interdisciplinary. It’s project-based.  We have innovative programs like computer science, but we also have social justice programs where we don’t just teach Black history during the month of February, or Latinx history during the month of October. We teach it all year round, because, again, we want our students to know their history, know their culture, be proud, love themselves, and be empowered to be transformative. 

LG:

And your school has been really, really successful too. 

JB:

It’s done okay, yeah. 

[Both laugh]

Well, I mean, there have been years where we have been recognized for our outstanding academic growth on state standardized tests. We’re proud of that, and we’re thankful for that. But I always tell people, “Let’s not go too far in celebrating that, because we’re not a test-prep school.” We don’t exist to just prepare kids to do well on a standardized test. We educate the whole child. Again, it’s all about community empowerment, community development through the education of individual students and creating a sense of community and justice. So, we’re as proud of or more proud of those other things than we are of the standardized test scores. 

LG:

So, you have been part of the opt-out movement, in fact, opting out of standardized testing. Is that still something that you’re doing? How are you feeling about standardized testing at this time?

JB:

So, as a school principal, I am not allowed to advocate for opting out or tell parents that they should opt out. I am not allowed to do that. What I do is I give parents the information. And my door is always open for them to ask questions, and when they ask questions I give honest answers. So, during this time when the opt-out movement began, the state and the federal government imposed a curriculum onto school districts throughout the country. And that was problematic because many parents weren’t consulted, and weren’t a part of the conversation as to why we’re changing the curriculum, why we’re changing testing, how’s that going to impact my child, why are teachers feeling so much anxiety around this? Because what happened was the federal government and state governments, they imposed new standards. They imposed new testing, and they connected standards in testing to teacher evaluations. And they did it all at once. So it was a horrible rollout, horrible implementation, and parents began to push back. So initially, it was considered a white, liberal, suburban movement and conversation, but very quickly people understood that, no, parents from every community were concerned about how these standards were going to impact their children—their children not just academically, but emotionally. So, parents in the Bronx, just like parents everywhere else, started to ask questions, and I just try to be someone who can answer those questions very honestly. And then, in my spare time outside of work, I began to be very vocal against the overuse, and misuse, and what I call the weaponization of standardized testing, because standardized testing ever since No Child Left Behind has been used to fire teachers, to close public schools, to segregate children into gifted and talented classes, to segregate them into charter schools and other schools. It goes against everything that I believe and that research shows is best for kids. So, I began to become very vocal against the weaponization of standardized tests. 

LG:

Weaponization is a really good phrase to use there, because it really is utilized to keep people down in some really significant ways. To segue from your point on segregation, one thing that I think a lot of people who live outside New York don’t understand is that New York City schools are super segregated. They’re really, really bad. How would you go about fixing this problem, because it’s a pretty significant one for the city?

JB:

Yeah, I mean, we need to integrate neighborhoods first. Might be one of the problems is our neighborhoods and our communities are segregated, and they have been segregated since the inception of America, right? I mean, and by design, like government policy. Redlining allowed segregation to continue and because of that we have segregated schools. Now one of the ways people go about desegregating schools is to implement bussing to take children from one community to another. I’m not against bussing, but what I like to point out is it’s always Black and Brown children being bussed from their communities into the white communities. And what’s implanted there subconsciously is something is wrong with your community, and something is wrong with your school, so you need to go to this school across town in this white neighborhood in order to get a good education. And I denounce that. I don’t agree with that belief and that way of looking at it. I think we should have integrated neighborhoods, integrated communities. That’s why part of our housing policy fights for 50 percent rent stabilization in any new construction, so that if you want to include 50 percent market rate apartments so you can make your profit, fine. But the other 50 percent has to be rent stabilized for teachers and working class people, so that we can all live together. I think as a country we’ve been segregated and separated for far too long, and moving forward it’s time that we begin to live together, and go to school together, learn from one another, and create a healthy democracy that we all claim that we want, but a lot of us aren’t really fighting for in the way the progressive left is fighting for it. 

LG:

So, rent control is personal to you, right? Because you lived in rent control housing for a while. 

JB:

Yeah, and that gave me the opportunity to grow up in a diverse community, to go to diverse schools. I am not uncomfortable speaking to students from different cultures, different races, different religions, and different backgrounds because I grew up with them. We are friends to this day regardless if they’re Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, male, female, no matter how they look or what holidays they celebrate, we’ve been family ever since I was eight years old and allowed to go outside on my own. The cultural richness of my experience growing up shaped me into the person I am today, and I want that and wish that for everyone. 

LG:

That’s lovely. Do you define yourself as a socialist?

JB:

I’m starting to. 

LG:

You don’t have to, that’s not a trick question. 

JB:

No, no, the reason why I answer that way is because I define myself as an educator. I define myself as a father, as a husband, as a son, as a Black man in America, but it seems like the more that I share in my thinking, and my vision, and my policies, people ask that question all the time. “Are you a socialist?” What I like to say is what’s true is that single payer universal healthcare, universal childcare, wanting free public education, wanting people to live together in harmony without war and with peace, if that makes me a socialist, then I’m a socialist. It’s crazy how, I tweet about this as well, how socialism is like a bad word in some circles. 

JB:

And how socialism is not for America, and all of this. I’m like, “Listen. Let’s put the labels aside, okay?” We boast of being the wealthiest country in the world, but we have 40 million people living in poverty. Those people aren’t living in poverty because they don’t work hard. They work their asses off, okay? It’s just there’s been poverty built into the system. It’s built into our policy, and it’s even seeped into the way some people think about themselves, and think about the world. And as a result, that poverty persists over generations, right? So, call it whatever you want, what we have now is not working for all people. And we need something new and something different so that it can work for everyone. Having 15.5 million children living in poverty in this country is unacceptable, or any country is unacceptable. Having people work multiple jobs and still struggle to survive is unacceptable. So call it whatever you want, something needs to be done differently than what’s being done right now. 

LG:

In terms of your other policies, you’re in favor of Medicare for All. You’re in favor of a Green New Deal, and free public college, and universal childcare, and criminal justice reform. I imagine that you see this as all part of one holistic approach to ending poverty. 

JB:

I mean, absolutely. I’m in favor of humanity. I’m in favor of morality. We are all created equal, everyone, right? No matter how you identify in terms of your gender, no matter if you’re a woman, no matter if you’re a person of color, we are all equal, right? Therefore, we have the legal right and responsibility, the human right, the God-given right—not to upset some of my religious people out there. I’m not religious. We have the right to exist, and be free, and have opportunities that everyone else has. That’s the bottom line, and unfortunately, that’s not the case. And I’m running for office because for the last 20 years I’ve worked in public education with some of our most disenfranchised children and families. And I’ve seen the impact. I’ve seen children as young as 11 years old present with suicidal ideation. I’ve had children in my office afraid to roll up their sleeves of their shirt because they’ve been self-mutilating and they are embarrassed by that. In 2017, September, 2017, a young girl right across the street here in City, right after school, a ninth grader went to the top of the building and jumped off, right after school. So we have a society where children are hurting. Families are hurting. And it seems like all we can talk about is GDP, and Wall Street, and weapons, and war, and ignoring what’s happening right in front of us, right, in front of our eyes, and I hope to bring that empathy back, the passion, the urgency for our children to Congress. 

LG:

So your opponent, the incumbent, he’s been with Congress for 30 years, Eliot Engel. And he supported the Iraq War. He supported Wall Street. So you see yourself as very much offering an alternative to what he has been doing for 30 years. 

JB:

Yes, and also, re-engaging disenfranchised people and communities in the democratic process. I know how many, many people feel. They feel that this country isn’t for them. They feel that their voices do not matter. And as a Black man in America for my entire life, there are many times where I felt that as well. I haven’t seen, or didn’t see an elected official or candidate speaking to my real world experiences. So many have disengaged. I often talk about how the last primary in this district, only about 7 percent of the electorate voted. 

And in primaries across the country, voter turnout is usually quite low because there are rarely challengers, and if there is a challenger, it’s still very low. Because many people don’t think our politicians work for them, and many don’t trust politicians, and I hope to give them someone, an educator who’s worked in the community for 20 years, who’s lived in the community 20 years prior to that. I hope to give them an option that they can see, that they can feel that they can connect with, and so they can believe in themselves, and in their power, and in their voice, and in our democracy again. If we can do that, which is what we’ve been doing throughout this campaign, we can build the movement of consistently engaged citizens from different backgrounds who will be a part of democracy for generations to come. That’s something that Elliot Engel has not done throughout his career. He is not doing now, and it’s something we need more than ever, not just because of Donald Trump, but because of the entire corporate oligarchy both in America and across the world. We need a democratic movement of working people, of poor people coming together in unity and realizing the power of their voice. 

LG:

And Engel has, in the past, taken quite a bit of corporate PAC money. He’s taken money from Northrop Grumman. He’s taken from Raytheon. And you’ve promised to absolutely not take any corporate PAC money. 

JB:

Zero!

LG:

Zero. 

[Both laugh]

JB:

Zero dollars. We’ve seen how big money has corrupted our politics, right? We’ve seen it. We live it everyday. The fact that I gotta go home and do call time after this interview is an example of that, right? It’s funny, that part of the campaign has been super inspiring because I’ve met people over the phone, and I met people in person that want to see change, that want to get involved, and want to do something. So they’ll donate $5 to the campaign monthly just to help us out. That’s empowering. That’s amazing. That’s people power. And that’s what democracy is all about. Not the money part, but the engagement part. And we want to continue that, but we also hope that people are excited about being re-engaged in our democracy and getting involved in our campaign from a door knocking perspective, a phone banking perspective, spreading the word, leaning in, learning, listening, sharing their views, sharing their opinions. We hope to have that happen as well, and it has been happening so far. 

LG:

And that’s how AOC won, is she was able to get out people who normally didn’t vote, and get them excited, and engaged, and organized, and to help her out. 

JB:

Yeah, she spoke to their lived reality, their lived experiences because they were her lived experiences, and she’s an amazing leader, an amazing speaker, an amazing organizer. And again, it’s all about dual power. It’s all about reminding the people that you are incredibly powerful, you are incredibly important, your voice matters, and we need you to take this ride with us, and I’ve been blessed to do that in education, in public education as part of the opt-out movement, as part of fighting against age-inappropriate standards, fighting for more funding, fighting the school-to-prison pipeline. We’ve been able to do that here at CASA, something I hope to continue in Congress. 

LG:

So, while we’re all certainly rooting for you, and we’re hoping your campaign goes a lot like AOC’s, it’s true that the democratic machine—political machine, is really tough to fight. And what we saw with Tiffany Cabán is that they kind of cheated, and she didn’t win even though she really should have. Are you concerned about that happening to you? I know Justice Dems is helping. What steps are you taking towards that?

JB:

No, I’m not concerned. The people are more powerful than the machine, and the machine has led people to believe that they have no power. And part of this campaign and part of the progressive movement that’s happening across the country is all about reminding people of their power. As people continue to be reminded of their power, and as people continue to become engaged regardless of race, regardless of class, and once we are reminded that this is our country that we share together, and it’s our job together to take care of it, the machine or whatever you want to call them, they will lose. And they will continue to lose. So no, I’m not concerned about them. I mean, it’s a democracy. Everyone can have their opinion, and support whoever they would like to support. I’m excited and inspired by people I’ve met throughout this campaign, I know people I’m going to meet, and they’re inspired by me. And I think together we can make miracles, and I think we will. 

LG:

You and I were talking a little bit before we started recording, and you seemed very optimistic generally that this new wave of leftist candidates is really gonna win, that you really think we are going to win. I believe you, or want to believe you. What gives you so much hope? [laughs]

JB:

I think social media is helping because it’s given a platform for everyone to have voice. I think that’s why the Time’s Up movement and the Me Too movement has exploded in the way it has, because it gave people a platform to share experiences and have a voice in that.  That’s been incredibly powerful. I think we saw that with the Black Lives Matter movement as well. If we look at the last 10 years, I mean, we had Occupy Wall Street, we had Black Lives Matter, we had the Me Too movement, we had the ending of Obama, and the beginning of Trump, and even though that is horrible on so many levels, part of me believes that we need to go through this to get to where we need to get to after Trump, right? So after we defeat and destroy him, and destroy and defeat others who believe like him, then our country will be able to be what it’s capable of being. I’m super optimistic. I mean, everyday I go on social media, and I see people from all over the country mounting challenges for the Senate and for Congress, trying to push out corporate Dems and push out Republicans where they don’t belong. I know it’s gonna happen. I’m not even optimistic. 

I know it’s going to happen. It’s not gonna happen in one election cycle, right? So, in 20—2018, excuse me. Wow, it seems like AOC’s been around forever. 

LG:

I know, right? It’s really only been a year. 

[Both laugh]

JB:

It’s like a year! In 2018, we had AOC, Ilhan Omar, Rashia Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and others, right, that don’t get as much attention. Even prior to that, we have Maxine Waters, and Congresswoman Jayapal, and others pushing the agenda, right? So, there’ve been people around for decades doing this. AOC and the squad opened the door to an explosion. Bernie opened the door to an explosion. I think now, that’s why people like me are running. Would I be running if Hillary Clinton won? I don’t know. 

I think I would be, because I was kind of looking at this district critically even prior to Trump, because I’ve worked here for 10 years, so I believe I would have run. But would the hundreds of other people who are running, would they have run if Hillary would have won, right? So, we’re all here now, and I don’t think we’re going anywhere. We’re gonna run. We’re gonna win. And if we don’t win, we’re gonna run again. And if we don’t win again, someone else is gonna run who’s just like us, and they’re gonna win. We’re not gonna stop. We’re gonna be relentless, because that’s what we have to be to get things done. So, people are gonna begin to believe. We see it happening already. Everyday people—if they’re not running for Congress, they’ll do something else to get involved and leverage the power of their voice for our democracy. So, we’re going to get it done. 

LG:

[laughs] Tiffany Cabán has not given up in terms of activism. So yeah, I mean she’s a perfect example of what you’re talking about. 

JB:

That’s right. 

LG:

So, what can our listeners do to help you, to help your campaign, whether they live in your district or not?

JB:

Yeah, so go to Bowmanforcongress.com and click on “volunteer.” We would love for you to phone bank for us, knock on doors with us, shoot us an email, share thoughts, share ideas. We’re constantly learning. This is a learning campaign. As we go throughout the district, we listen. We learn. We have dialogue. We build policy and platform around what we learn from the people and from grassroots organizations, so please go to Bowmanforcongress.com. Click on “volunteer,” and volunteer for the campaign. You can also go to Bowmanforcongress.com, click on “donate” and contribute any amount you can afford.  Five, 10, 20 bucks—all of it matters. And continue to spread the word, spread the message. And also, do something in your community if you’re not close by. I mean, there’s something you can get involved in, you can get engaged in. Don’t be quiet. If something is unjust, something is wrong, say something about it. Speak up about it, because your voice matters. And we need every voice to take this country and this world where it needs to go. 

LG:

And I have one last question for you because I know you have to get to your calls, but sort of inspired by poor Bernie’s recent heart attack—he seems to be doing okay, but campaigning seems really, really difficult [laughs], and you are still working. You’re working full time as the principal, and you have your family, and I was wondering how you’re holding up. How’s it going? Are you alright? [laughs

JB:

Yeah, I mean first and foremost, sending a shout out to Bernie Sanders, shout out to him, love and strength to him, speedy recovery, get back on the campaign trail. We need you, Bernie. So that’s first and foremost. I am blessed and thankful that I even have the opportunity to do this, right? I’m inspired by the fact that I’m even running for office. So that helps. I have an amazing wife, children, mom, sisters, friends, family who just are super supportive, keep me grounded, and keep me balanced. One of my favorite things to do after call time, after a long day is to come home and just put my daughter on my lap, hug her, and kiss her a million times. That’s as important it is to me as it is for her. So I’m just staying balanced, drinking a lot of water, eating right, exercising, sleeping at night, doing all those things, and so far, so good. I feel good, feel strong. People like you keep me inspired too— 

LG:

Well, good.

JB:

—so keep it up. 

LG:

It’s been so wonderful to talk to you. I think you’re amazing. I’m very excited about this. 

JB:

Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. 

LG:

Yeah, thank you again for joining us. 

JB:

You’re in New York—come volunteer!

LG:

I should, I should. I’m in AOC’s district, but I can just come right up, yeah. 

JB:

Thank you so much. I’ll talk to you soon. 

LG:

Perfect, thanks. And thanks for listeners, subscribe if you haven’t already, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. You know what to do. Thanks, bye.

More In: 2020 Election

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

Spreading Sweetness and Light! Current Affairs takes on hellfire, why teens love socialism, the magic of Motown, and the legacy of Huey Long. Cover art by Aleksandra Waliszewska.

The Latest From Current Affairs