Update: Nearly a month after New York’s primary elections, and in a tight race in which every single vote mattered, Phara Souffrant Forrest has won the Democratic nomination for New York’s 57th State Assembly District, buoyed to victory by a flood of absentee ballots that gave her the edge over the incumbent candidate, Assemblyman Walter T. Mosley. To celebrate her victory and amplify the platform she’s run on — a platform designed to reform a broken political system and bring justice to underserved communities — we’re re-running our interview with Phara from early June.
Crown Heights native Phara Souffrant Forrest is not only joining the thousands gathered on the streets of New York protesting the latest injustices around police brutality and caring for her community in the middle of a pandemic — she’s also running to represent the 57th Assembly District in the New York Assembly. I had the opportunity to talk to her about her campaign, her experiences, and the issues that are meaningful to her.
As a leader within her community, tenant-rights activist, and a nurse, Phara is advocating on behalf of the lived experiences that shaped her upbringing and continue to echo throughout New York City. Running with a platform that centers free healthcare, universal rent control, housing protections, and stronger investments toward sustainability, she embodies a progressive mindset that speaks to solutions communities of color need more than ever. Just this week, her campaign won the endorsement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; like AOC, Phara is ready to stand up to the political establishment.
Living in a time where the Black Lives Matter movement has created a ripple effect throughout the world in response to the oppressive history against communities of color has fueled Phara to be the change needed within government spheres. Coming from a Haitian household in Crown Heights, it’s clear her experience growing up in what she describes as a tight-knit community has shaped the way she approaches politics and advocacy. “That identity has just made it very clear that America is a land of peoples that should be celebrated rather than squashed,” she explained.
We both agreed that, now more than ever, people are recognizing the importance of representation in politics, so I took the opportunity to ask what this means to her and her candidacy, and how her experiences inform her commitment towards her constituents.
“When I look at my background, I realize it prepared me to be a representative. Many of us are colonized people,” she explained. “So, when we talk about reparations, how do we repair the history that has stripped our people? It’s not enough to have a Black face, you need to talk Black too.”
“The person that represents us has to understand it’s not enough just to say ‘I’m sorry George Floyd died’ because they have to acknowledge that he died due to a history of brutality and violence that has never ceased to exist in the United States,” she continued. “Unless you’re a legislator talking like that, you’re not truly representing us. That’s why I need to make sure that I’m speaking the way I am now, so that people on all sides hear that the issues on the table are going to need to be solved.”
Carrying this deep contextual understanding throughout her campaign, Phara emphasized the interconnectedness of housing, healthcare, and sustainability. As a result, communities and their wellbeing are at the forefront of her motivations, especially when it comes to tenancy regulations that folks depend on to protect their livelihood.
“How do we build resilience in our communities?” she points out as she talks about the statistics that shed light on the struggles Black and brown communities are facing. Addressing studies that have shown that communities of color are more susceptible to higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, HIV, and other immuno-compromising illnesses, she highlighted that “healthcare is housing, and housing is healthcare.” Especially during times when COVID-19 is also threatening our most vulnerable populations.
“When they say they won’t cancel rent and that they’ll be subject to eviction as soon as the courts open, they’re telling people that they’ll die on the streets given that exposure to the virus is what kills. It’s sending the message that they don’t care about their story. This is why my housing platform is about life and death for me, and the people in my community.”
When I asked her how she intended to tackle this as a representative, she talked about the importance of examining people’s experience on a physiological level. “We definitely need to talk about improving the conditions people live in.” As the system becomes saturated with patients and hurdles, she highlights that examinations are currently conducted on a superficial level when it really needs to be looking at all the components that make up individuals’ day to day. Referencing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, she focused on the importance of asking about people’s sleeping and eating habits, housing situations, and their level of safety on the streets or at work in order to truly address the root of the issues.
“We need to create housing programs that meet their needs, and that provide mental, economic, and educational support. Otherwise, how do we make sure that we not only build a community for today but that it lasts for tomorrow?”
Healthcare in the Time of COVID-19
During this unique time to be both a candidate and a healthcare worker running for a legislative position, I was curious to learn how these times are shaping her views on how to address opportunities within the healthcare system.
“I’m currently working in the Administration of Children Services where we’re dealing with kids who have experienced trauma, have special needs, or are in transition for various reasons,” she explained. “What we’ve seen is that there are kids that test positive for the virus and, as a result, the parent or guardian kicks them out of the house.”
Alongside this disturbing reality, she explains that co-workers say they’re getting 10 masks a week and they’re seeing six times as many patients as they usually did. Supervisors are telling their employees to stretch out the use of their masks for the duration of the week, when before the pandemic it would’ve been unheard of to use it between patients. “What we’re creating both in hospitals and other facilities where nursing care happens is a breeding ground for COVID-19.”
As a mechanism to combat this, she emphasized the importance of halting the massive budget cuts currently plaguing the healthcare industry in New York State. Recognizing that these cuts don’t only affect doctors and nurses, we can see that people working as public allies to track illnesses within communities are also part of the equation. “We rely on them to help us follow up on our patients. Until we have a single-payer health insurance, we have to make sure that everyone is on deck to ensure our communities remain safe and healthy because otherwise you have people that go unchecked back into the community.”
Reforming the System
Alongside this unprecedented pandemic, communities from all sectors are taking to the streets to protest the history of violence against black bodies. One of Phara’s commitments is the redirection of funding from policing to the investment in communities. She points out that more access to fundamental resources could serve as a blueprint to build and protect civic life.
“When I talk to constituents in my district, I can tell who has heard Dr. Umar Johnson’s talks by the way they speak on the issues. They address things in a completely different way,” she explains while addressing the importance of education. Redistributing funds to build knowledge in neighborhoods allows for better choices that encourage civic autonomy. “That way we don’t have to wait for anybody else to do things for us because we can do it for ourselves.”
She also spoke about the importance of access to mental health services in communities that suffer from racial discrimination and economic injustice. “I came from a poor background and I’ve needed to see therapists because I need help coping with the trauma I faced growing up in Crown Heights. With everything a teenage girl already goes through, imagine going to an all-white school as a woman of color. Afterwards, interviewing for over 200 jobs and only getting one call back. That causes trauma.”
These demands for systemic reformation and justice are among the many factors that have led Phara to call to action, organize, and take to the streets during this time when George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and other black victims of police brutality are at the forefront of these conversations about oppression and violence. I asked her about how these manifestations have shaped her campaign.
“It just made it very clear what the messaging for my campaign is. If you look at other legislatives, they’re waiting for people to address them. I’m not waiting for anybody. I know what’s right based on the community I represent so when I go out and call people to action, I’m saying that this is something we’ve been having an issue with and that they need to come out and join us. They can join us by voting on June 23rd, but they can also join in on this protest now, they can join in on the phone banking to tell people that police brutalization is wrong. Call the people that can make a difference and don’t ask but tell them what they need to do for you.”
It’s clear that her efforts as an organizer and activist have shaped the foundations of her leadership. Striving to instill the sense of agency in individuals, amplify the realities within community experience, and drive change through collective action, she hopes for a future where transformative leadership can translate into opportunity.
“I’m only a leader because I was given a space within the movement, particularly the tenant movement, to grow. […] I want nurses, tenant activists, local plumbers, artists, and so many others to feel like they have a space to grow or to let their children grow into their full potential. Being able to recognize my potential to the point where I know I can serve my people in legislature is great. Imagine a community where everybody is living their potential.”