Phara Souffrant Forrest is a maternal health nurse and tenants’ organizer who decided to run for New York State Assembly in Central Brooklyn’s District 57 after taking part in a civil disobedience while organizing her tenant association against a luxury condo conversion. Outraged by the violence of the police during the civil disobedience, and the failure of the politicians in Albany to stand with the protestors, Souffrant decided to run for office. She quickly got involved with the Brooklyn chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America to run a people-powered campaign centered on tackling the range of issues creating severe inequalities in the state. 

Her campaign manager, Tascha Van Auken, has been working on campaigns since Obama’s 2008 race. The co-chair of Brooklyn DSA’s electoral working group, Van Auken also served as the campaign manager for Julia Salazer’s successful 2018 New York State Senate race. Souffrant and Van Auken each sat down to talk with The Forge about how their campaign strategies have shifted over the course of a tumultuous spring, what they hope to achieve through electoral politics, and why they see investing in a robust field operation as critical to building the long-term strength of the movement. 

Below is our interview with Souffrant, which has been edited and condensed. Click here to read our interview with Van Auken. 

 

What led you to run for State Assembly?

I was born and raised in Crown Heights. And I still live in the same apartment, actually. When I look at my background, my parents are Haitian, and growing up in a working-class family, both my biological parents were union workers, and my dad has been a taxi driver for the past 30 something years. They've just instilled in me this idea that work is very valuable. The idea that someone can sit aside and not work is very... It's not right, you know? Your hands have to do something. Your hands have to produce something. And so that's one way that they influenced me.

My dad got me involved in politics at an early age. My first protest was protesting police brutalization of Abner Louima, back in 1997, so marching with my dad, attending debates, from a young age [was very influential on me]. It's not just about democracy. It can't be democratic if no one's able to speak. Coming from Haitian politics, where we've had our fair share of dictators, formed in my mind that, if we don't have a society that's by the people, for the people, then we really aren't doing much to address the majority of people, which are working people.

That's my family upbringing. I went to public schools. And it was through public schools that I was introduced to the tenants' movement. I started organizing with the Pratt Area Community Council in 2004/2005, and I was spreading awareness about lead-based poisoning in homes along Myrtle Avenue that were occupied by monolingual Latina and immigrants and low-income Black and brown people.

I organized my tenant association to fight against luxury condo conversion. I was in Albany with the tenants' movement getting arrested, which was planned, but what was not planned was the violence. And I looked around and was like, “Why are we alone here?” We're here just to say that, when we pay the rent, we demand a little respect. Can we get some legislators to stand behind us, can we get legislators to do more than just sign on? And so that's when I was like, “You know what? Fuck it. I'm going to do it myself. Somebody has to stand up, and so I'm standing up. Who's with me?” And it's been amazing. Look at the community. Coalitions here, endorsements there, people backing me up. It's crazy. So we're here now.

 

Tell me about the volunteers who have come out for your campaign.

The people came out the woodwork. People are in tune to politics. [They] aren't just down and out. People are in tune to what our issues in the community [are]. And they're looking for solutions. And that's why I feel like the campaign is so special. There's a Haitian saying that says: If you're looking for it, you will find it. And to be part of the movement and to be born out of the movement and then be a solution for the movement, the working people movement, it's just been amazing. I wasn't necessarily up-to-date with all rent laws when I did my tenant association. But there was this transformative leadership that I came out of. And you see that with a lot of people. We have a lot of activists that were homeless and there was a space created for them to speak and to organize and thus now they're out on CNN, or they're out on magazines and whatever. And it's people power, basically.

 

So many of the issues that you've been tackling for the last ten years – as a tenants’ organizer and as a nurse – are really on display right now. I’m thinking particularly about the severe inequalities around housing and health care that COVID-19 makes all too apparent. How do you see your campaign as an avenue for addressing those kinds of systemic inequities?

Before I became a nurse, I worked in education. And I've had so many odd jobs, like a driver, I was a maid, I was a restaurant worker. And all of these experiences, in addition to being now a field nurse, have just taught me that ... you can't just separate healthcare from housing, economic justice, climate change. You can't separate the topics, because when we look at our most vulnerable community, Black and brown women, these topics intersect at so many different places, right? Where it's impossible to break apart and bring about real solutions. So that's why I have a problem when I see legislators are single issue legislators. Because you cannot tackle one issue and say that the job's done. Look at my platform: Free healthcare. Education needs to be emphasized. We need better job training, better work protections on the job. And then climate change, a Green New Deal for New York. This is all about bringing about justice for our most disenfranchised, our most vulnerable communities, because they need it the most.

I've walked into patients’ houses where it's a new mom with her baby, but she's living five people in a studio apartment, or you have a child with asthma living in a home with black mold. Healthcare is housing. And even now, during COVID-19, you see the upcoming evictions, or the threat of evictions. If you kick somebody out right now and expose them to the elements, that's literally the difference between life and death. Someone who's already battling diabetes or heart disease. Being evicted right now is literally subjecting them to the risk of contracting COVID-19 and then dying from COVID-19. So, I can't separate the topics. I've just gotten to the point where I cannot talk about green new jobs and not talk about economic justice or racial justice. It's impossible.

 

Since you launched your campaign, the political moment has changed a few times — from the Bernie moment to COVID and now we’re in the middle of a mass protest movement for Black lives. How have you been thinking about your own campaign strategy and tactics as what's possible politically has shifted around you?

When I first started organizing my campaign, I remember sitting down with DSA's electoral group, and they were like, "Phara, no matter what, voter contact, that's important. No matter what they write in the paper, who endorses you, the point is, the way we win is through voter contact." In the beginning, we were talking about the issues. When volunteers knocked on the doors, they didn't necessarily lead with, "Here's the candidate." They led with, "Here's the issue." And so when COVID-19 hit and we [were] forced to shut down at least the physical portion of our field operation, we were thinking to ourselves, "How do we keep to the point, which is voter contact?" And we got on the phones, and we just talked about the issues. “Are you okay? Are you getting the help that you need? Are you hungry? Did you speak to somebody? Are you unable to contact family?” And so that has helped people understand that they're still human. Their sense of humanity, one human calling another human.

And now we have police brutality. I go to protests and it's voter contact, but voter contact on the issues. Police brutality is wrong. I've been marching about this since I was eight years old. Twenty-three years later, I'm still marching about the same thing until we find a solution. There's no point where my campaign separates from the issues that our movement is based on.

 

What can the state legislature do to address police brutality?

I think that [the current state government is] very good at giving platitudes or saying, "Oh, I hate..." When Governor Cuomo was talking about, "Oh, well this is a chapter in a series of issues between people and the police." Well my question is, so when is the last chapter? When will this book end? When will it end? Because when Abner Louima got, he was sodomized [by the police]. Amadou Diallo was shot. Eric Garner was choked out by five police officers. But here we see a man with just a knee kill another man. Somebody asked me, "Did it get worse?" I said, "Yeah it got worse.” Because we still got people that are playing bullshit. Same bullshit. Don't make no type of sense.

Come on now, stop it. It's very clear. We have to repeal 50-a that covers these police officers, particularly in NYPD. We can't see who the bad cops are so we can get them out. And then we need to defund the police. It makes absolutely no sense that you have 400 million dollars cut from a healthcare budget, during a pandemic, 20% of education cut, when children need the most help right now, but yet you have, just in NYPD alone, 6.9 billion dollars untouched, non-negotiable budget. NYPD has its own foreign intelligence unit. For what? It's like, how souped up do we have to be? Crime has actually been at an all-time low. Had you listened when Colin Kaepernick was talking about it on a knee, had you listened when we was talking about it real quiet and gentle, then maybe this wouldn't have happened. But now people are here in the streets. So instead of talking about this "new chapter" let's talk about closing the book.

 

What have you been hearing from the people in your district?

Fed up. Tired. They understand. They understand. When I first was calling people, I was like, "Oh my God, these little old ladies are going to be upset that I'm calling out police brutality." But they're like, "Yeah, yeah that's crazy!" Because at the end of the day, it's their Black and brown children. Every Black mother worries for their son and daughter. I mean me, I don't have children yet, but I have to calculate where I'm going to raise my little brown chocolate drop because I'm not going to set it up for NYPD to shoot him down.

 

The thing that is really powerful about the progressive electoral movement and what I hear in what you're saying, too, is that you're not just a politician but you're organizing your district. And you're building something, building power among the people in your district. 

I'm only a politician as far as politicizing the issues that my community faces. That is as far as a politician as I am, I'll ever be. I will fight for as long as I can. Wherever I need to be to bring about change, I'll be. I did nursing, and I was like, "Something's off still. So let me go here to the Assembly and see how I can do there." But I'll only go as far as my people need me to go.

 

Can you talk about the organizing structures that you've built through your campaign and how you're thinking about building organization and building leadership in your district.

My main thing [is], come through. See what you want to see, see what you want to be. When it comes down to volunteers, they come from everywhere. They literally come from the coalitions that are backing me up.

 

Do you imagine being able to continue having a volunteer network and organization when you're in office?

Because it's so based on the movement and the coalition [with other members of the DSA electoral slate], DSA's numbers have only grown. Sunrise has only grown. New York Community For Change has only grown. It's not necessarily that they're joining Phara’s campaign, they're joining the movement. As long as I always come back to the coalitions, the on-the-ground people, it will only grow them. Because they'll see that they're directly tied to what is going on in Albany.



 

 

 

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