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Phara Souffrant Forrest: Using Elected Office to Build Community Power

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Nurses poses with city street traffic in background

“It just comes down to simply: what can we do to solve the issues that need to be solved?”

Phara Souffrant Forrest—a nurse, a tenant organizer, and a member of Democratic Socialists of America—was elected to the New York State Assembly from the 57th district, in Brooklyn on November 3, 2020. Organizing Upgrade editor Luke Elliott-Negri sat down with Forrest after the primary election but before the general.

Luke Elliott-Negri: You are a tenant organizer. Was that your first engagement with organizing and politics, or was there something before that?

Phara Souffrant Forrest: Well, I’ve been lobbying since I was 16. I’ve done conferences and facilitation around healthcare and environmental justice from high school. And in college, I got involved with the community on various topics, most notably traveling to Haiti and working on the ground there.

After I graduated from college, I worked with a youth advocacy group, working with inner-city youth to make sure they understand their place in the world and fight back against injustices. So, I’ve worked around issues, but the issue got personal for me when my building was going condo. And so that was when I personally was like, “Yeah, this is about me and my tenants.” But as far as advocacy and organizing, that’s been since I was a kid.

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Elliott-Negri: So your building moved politics from something more abstract to something more personal and immediate that you felt you had to organize around?

Forrest: Mm-hm, mm-hm.

Elliott-Negri: And so you were part of a slate of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidates. So, at some point you joined that organization. Can you tell me when that happened, and how you decided to run with DSA?

Forrest: Right. So in general, the ideology behind socialism has been something that I ascribe to. I do believe that power needs to be in the hands of many, and especially in terms of labor. I mean, you put in eight, sometimes more hours a day into work, and to think that we’re so cut off from the things that we’re producing, the society that we’re building, because we’re simply not the 1%. So I’ve always ascribed to that.

How I got into DSA was really through the housing organizing work that I was doing. I joined Crown Heights Tenant Union [CHTU] and then, later on, the Housing Justice for All coalition. So I’m meeting people, and they’re like, “Oh, I’m part of this group, I’m part of that group.” And then someone approached me about running for office and I was like, “Mm, no, not really, I’m good. I’m happy being a nurse.” They were like, “No, but I’m part of DSA!” I’m like, “What’s the DSA, guys? What is that?” So I said, “Yo, you know, this cat said something about DSA.” He said, “Oh, I’m part of DSA too!” I’m like, “What? You too?” I mean, it’s like, “Girl, you too?” So it was a bunch of people! [Laughs.]

The thing that people don’t understand is that DSA is very much in the very coalitions that we’re building. They’re in PSC [Professional Staff Congress], they’re in NYSNA [New York State Nurses Association], they’re in DC37 [AFSCME], they’re in CHTU! So I was like, “Well, I guess I’m in DSA too! By association!” So I joined, which was cool.

Jumping into politics

Elliott-Negri: Got it, that’s great. So you don’t have to say if you don’t want, but I’m curious who first asked you to run when you said no. And by the way, I think people who say no the first time someone asks them to run, they’re the good ones. They’re the ones you want to run for office. If someone says yes the first time you ask them, you know you’ve found a bad candidate, but if they say no, you know this is a good candidate! So who was it? What was the relationship?

Forrest: So with CHTU I organized a lot with Joseph Loonam, who at the time was working at UHAB. So he reached out to me not once, not twice, but three times. [Laughs.] So by the last time I was like, “I’ll think about it,” and I finally responded in June. Now he’s at VOCAL. He’s an organizer.

Elliott-Negri: So you ran this race and you won the primary. I’m curious, Carl Heastie, who’s the Assembly speaker, poured some money into supporting the person you challenged, as well as the other folks that they were challenging. I’m curious if you’ve engaged with him since you won. Is there a relationship emerging with the Speaker of the Assembly, and how is it going?

Forrest: I am enjoying building the relationship with my colleague, and I hope that we can work together along with other assembly men and women to address the issues that are pressing both our committees.

Elliott-Negri: But people with your politics—you’ve described your version of socialism, you come from this orbit of folks—are not in the majority in Albany. You all are in the minority, even though the Democrats control the chamber. And so this poses a whole bunch of issues for advancing the kind of policies that you want to move when you’re up there, right? I’ve seen you up there saying you fundamentally don’t believe in rent, period.

You’re not there in the chamber yet, but I want to know how you think about and how you all, the crew of you, are talking about moving your policy goals inside of the Assembly and in the state in general, given that you’re in the minority politically speaking. What’s the theory of how you approach Albany once you’re in office?

‘How can we solve the issues that need solving?’

Forrest: Okay, let me preface this. I think a lot of people are confused about how DSA does its things and how democratic it is. It feels so good to be able to say that as a DSA-backed candidate, and now soon-to-be elected official, that it’s not about my ego, it’s really about the mandate. The platform is our mandate. And that includes Jabari [Brisport]’s mandate, Marcela [Mitaynes]’ mandate, all of us.

So when you take out the ego from the calculation, the political move, the legislative priorities, then it just comes down to simply: what can we do to solve the issues that need to be solved? You don’t have to like me, you don’t have to even respect me, but you have to understand that I was elected purely on the basis of what needs to be done. So I think that savvy politicians will understand that this is an opportunity for them to also take out the fear of being reelected or, “Oh, what kind of policy should I back up because I don’t want to offend my donors.” No! If you really focus on healthcare for all, housing justice, environmental justice, then it kind of gets simple to, say, well, “I’m for the majority, and the majority always wins.”

So that’s the basis that I want to start off the relationships that I will begin to create or have already created. When I call electeds, it’s very clear. “Did you not read my platform? There’s no secret about me. That’s me. Free housing, that’s me. So you want to talk about it or not?”

Elliott-Negri: I’m trying to think practically. Do you and Zohran [Mamdani] and Marcela [Mitaynes] all plan to caucus together up there? Will you have your own crew? Will you recruit others to that crew who did not necessarily come in on a DSA platform? Basically, do you have organizational plans for the chamber itself, for the Democratic delegation?

Forrest: I mean, the plan, even before running, was always to expand socialism to those who are not participants. Like, socialists, we do it in groups. [Laughs.] So we can’t limit it to five people. So unlike other groups, some others, we’re not here to divide. We’re actually trying to be as inclusive as possible. So any bill or any legislative priority, agenda, that really tries to focus on people, we will uplift that.

So I know we have the People’s Agenda that will be stated after the Governor’s budget priorities will be set. I will be there fully supporting that too, if it’s about the people. If it’s truly about the people. So I don’t see us thinking, “Oh, this is the five socialists and this is it,” or, “You have to say you’re a socialist to be a part of this club.” No. It would be lovely. I do think we will have a caucus. But it’s not the caucus that you think of, where it’s exclusive. It’s actually quite inclusive, you know? We’re very nonbinary, I guess you could say. [Laughs.]

Relating to DSA

Elliott-Negri: Yeah. And these are tough questions because you’re not there in office yet. So it sounds like you do plan to have a caucus, but you also plan to recruit others to it, or at least be actively engaged and bring them in.

So what are your plans in terms of relating to DSA while you’re in office? Really as a practical matter, you and your crew, who came in on the DSA platform, will you meet regularly with the elected leadership of DSA? What’s the organizational relationship that you imagine between this group that you’re a part of, that worked with you on your campaign and ran it, and then with you, when you’re in office?

Forrest: Again, I would like to preface that. DSA was one part of the multitude of groups and people that supported me in my candidacy. I will work with my constituents. If you happen to be DSA in my district, I love you, come on. If you are part of any other groups, I love you too, come on. Again, I am a member of DSA, but I joined DSA because I realized that it touched and members touched every aspect that I cared about. So it’s a membership group, but that doesn’t mean that it is a particular political club or end-all be-all affiliation. So I would like to think that anyone who thinks that they want to come to my office should be very welcome to come to my office.

Elliott-Negri: That makes sense. I guess I’m asking the same question a second time. You’re an elected official and you’re accountable ultimately to the people in your district who voted you into office. That makes sense and I agree with it, of course. That’s what democracy is. And I feel like there’s this long history, really for left political organizations, of putting people into office and then feeling like those elected officials are above them, operate completely independently of the organization from which they come—and granted, it’s not the only organization, but an important one. So I’m thinking about how you relate to that organization when you’re in office. Even if you go into the European political parties, they’ve put people in office who just then go off and do their own thing, and they say, jeez, “how do we relate to this person once they have that amount of power?”

Forrest: I can’t separate the two. I am a member of DSA. I am an active member of DSA. I am part of working groups. I partake in electoral processes. So of course I’m going to be in communication directly with leadership, and they’ll be in everything. And plus, [laughs], all my comrades are DSA members as well! So DSA will always have a presence in my office.

That cannot be separated, you know? Even right now, we are pushing for the New York Health Act in the community. DSA is leading an assessment tool to then gauge the responses of constituents to the New York Health Act, understanding how they respond to the healthcare system. And then also not even just that, but do they even believe in universal healthcare?

I can’t lead that conversation alone, and people are in the community that are DSA members are leading this cause with me. So no, it’s inseparable. It’s inseparable, and it’s a good tie. I mean, for Pete’s sake, I’m going to be a part of a socialist caucus!? [Laughs.]

Encouraging community leadership

Elliott-Negri: Got it. Thanks. All right, you’re a leader in your community. And one theory from segments on the left—not necessarily one I agree with, but one theory—is that we take someone like you who’s a great leader in the community, you go into elected office, and that kind of drains our capacity on the ground. We take a great leader and all of a sudden they’re going to Albany, they’re out of here.

What can you tell me about how you plan to use the platform of being in office not just to move legislation but as a bully pulpit? To fire up movements in the community? How do you envision using elected office for more than just legislation?

Forrest: Oh! I am so excited you asked me that question, because that’s the meat and juice of what I want to do while in office, is to encourage more leadership in the community!

When I first was coming up as president of the Tenant Association, if it wasn’t for a group like Crown Heights Tenants Union, we would probably be either (a) evicted or (b) harassed into eviction. So having a group like CHTU is so important. But why isn’t that used as a tool for community organizing? I don’t know. Right?

In the time that I was at CHTU, for about two or three years, there was only one time—and this was after the fact, I think I had announced at that point—that Walter Mosley sent a representative to a meeting. Mind you, we were dealing with real issues. Tenants were seriously having issues in the community, up and down the housing spectrum. And there was only one time that I went there and there was a representative from Walter Mosley’s office. Not even City Council, not State Senate. Walter Mosley sent one, one time. And that’s unfortunate.

We can really use these groups as elected officials to continue to build power in the community. Now I’m clearly an elected official. One person who’s running for city council actually lives in my building. And he came up through CHTU too! And now he’s jumping off the platform, and he has transformed from someone that completely was different! But that’s what leadership positions do. They transform you.

And that’s why in my office we will have working groups to not only tell tenants that they have a space to organize within the office, but then to point them toward resources to build that leadership out, and then to practice that leadership. And to see where they can take themselves and their families and the community. So I do not see myself separating from organizing.

And the people I hired to be in my office are going to be organizers. Not Harvard graduates, political science, not economic masters, whatever. Trust me, it will be people from the community that care about and that have worked on the ground and that will continue to do so.

Elliott-Negri: Thanks. I wish I’d asked you that question first. You got fired up for that one!

So just let me do one follow-up. I heard you saying there that you plan to have working groups in the office, and I think I heard you saying that you plan on doing tenant organizing out of your district office. So I would love to just hear a little bit more in detail about concretely how you’re imagining using your district office as an organizing hub.

Forrest: So one thing that the Assembly does not really set you up with is a large budget. So we are limited in staff. So when it comes down to how we’re going to get people moving in the community or fixing the issues, we’re going to have these working groups.

So a person comes in. “Assemblywoman Forrest, I am having issues with my…” Let’s not even put it housing. “I’m having issues with unemployment.” No problem. Okay. What’s the issue? If it’s regarding, “I want to start a small business,” okay, I got you. Somebody in the community does that already, so what we’ll do, we’ll invite you to this meeting, in addition to connecting you with the Small Business Association. In addition to connecting you to the SBA, in addition to connecting you to the Brooklyn Public Library—Central Brooklyn has an awesome business center, that [Winnie Seco] is doing an amazing job with—but also making sure that you’re able to feed your family. You need the SNAP benefits, we’ll connect you with that. If you need public housing, public assistance to hold you over, we got you with that.

But then what I really want you to do is now learn how to fish, so that way you can feed yourself for the next day. So I’m going to tell you, “You know what, we set you up. Can you trust us to lead you on to the next level? Please come to this working group. We got people that went through the same thing you went through, and now have found success at multiple levels. Come through. Or some people that are struggling just like you, or who haven’t even been to the SNAP benefit office yet. Please come join us and let’s commune together, so that way we all can see that it’s not just you, but it’s all of us that need to work to get through together.”

And that’s the beauty of these working groups. Because then we’ll have people who want to open up their own small businesses, revitalizing the community, but then we’ll have people that literally can testify that it’s okay to be on SNAP. It’s okay. And that’s me saying that. I was on SNAP. Very uncomfortable on SNAP. But regardless of where you want to be, that unemployment can be a point where you can transform your whole life.

Elliott-Negri: That’s really great.

Forrest: I know it sounds crazy. But it really is that simple! We about to make some church up in here, you understand what I’m saying?