In Conversation with Jamaal Bowman

By Lily Wolfson ’21 and Ryan Pelosky ’21

Democratic nominee for New York's 16th Congressional District, Jamaal Bowman (Photo Credit: The Atlantic)
Democratic nominee for New York's 16th Congressional District, Jamaal Bowman (Photo Credit: The Atlantic)

44-year-old native New Yorker Jamaal Bowman recently rose to national prominence as he defeated 16-term incumbent Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) in New York’s 16th District’s Congressional Primary.


The founder and former principal of the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action in the Bronx, Bowman has drawn comparisons to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) for his progressive policies—including support for the Green New Deal—and his unlikely victory. Having received endorsements from Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and former President Barack Obama, Bowman is considered a heavy favorite to win New York’s 16th District in November.



The Iris: You were a middle school principal and a teacher and have been a public school advocate for twenty years. What did you learn about kids as a principal and teacher that you would use to benefit the youth as a congressman?


Jamaal Bowman: Well, first of all, I used to be a kid, so I wasn’t born an adult, right? So, as an educator, I always drew on my personal experiences as a kid growing up. Growing up, I was raised by a single mom with my three sisters, I lived in public housing, I lived in rent-stabilized apartments. We didn’t have much money, but we were okay. I grew up in a very diverse community as well—I went to public schools my entire life that were very diverse, so I always had a passion for learning about other cultures and ethnic groups and religions. As an educator, I started my career in the South Bronx, and many of the stereotypes about the South Bronx are true—the neglect that’s happened in the Bronx over the years. And I say “neglect” as opposed to saying “low-income” because “low-income” sort of denotes blaming the people there; neglect blames the government for not bringing the right resources to bear. So, teaching in the South Bronx was really an eye-opener, just in terms of how under-resourced our schools are, and how neglected our communities are. But, the kids, despite all of that, came with joy and passion and excitement for learning. So, again, the stereotypes around low-income communities going through struggle are true, but despite that, kids come with a tremendous amount of excitement and passion for learning and they’re incredibly gifted and talented in many ways; it’s not just about academic excellence—that’s important—but tapping into a child’s creative abilities and communications skills and empathy and athletic ability. I mean, there are so many areas through which a child can express how brilliant they are. That’s just the kind of educator I tried to be. I tried to create a space where kids can express their brilliance in a variety of ways.


In terms of Congress, bringing that level of empathy to the policymaking arena is important, because now we aren’t just passing policies in education, for example, that says “you have to pass a test every year in grades three through eight to prove that you’re proficient.” It won’t focus just on that, but rather on the whole child and the holistic educational and learning experience. Also, I’ve learned, again through my own personal and professional experiences, that we need to focus on mental health support for our kids, and to me that happens through school psychologists, school counselors, social workers, even coaches and mentors—just adults who care about you beyond what you do in the classroom. You know, kids go through—regardless of race or class or other differences—kids go through different things with their families and in their neighborhoods, and just trying to fit in with your peer group—there’s a lot going on there. So, writing policies that understands that and invests more resources in our schools—which is essential—and in our neighborhoods, but investing in what we call “public health” holistically and understanding that school is just a larger part of our community and not in isolation in and of itself. So, public health policies around housing, food security, environmental justice, fully funding our public schools, jobs, sports, music, the arts, integrated schools—all of those things matter tremendously.


TI: How did you defeat Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, the longtime-serving and establishment-backed incumbent? Why do you feel you resonated with voters more so than Engel?


JB: There’s never one thing or two things or ten things that happen to win an election, you know, it’s like a hundred different things. For me, there were a few things: one, I’ve served this district as a middle school principal for ten years, so I had thousands of relationships with former students and families that I think really helped. So we came in with a certain level of name recognition. Second, we canvassed the entire district but we targeted neighborhoods and communities that had been left out of the democratic process over the years, so we went to public housing, we went to low-income communities, we went to Black and brown communities to knock on doors and introduce ourselves but also to bring them into the conversation. We wanted to listen and learn and really use their voices to shape how we were going to create policy platforms. Third, the endorsement at the beginning from the Justice Democrats. We were their first endorsement in New York since AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY)), they helped recruit and train AOC and they really helped her win, and now they’ve done the same thing for me. So that was huge as well. That brought national attention to the conversation, but they’re also part of a progressive movement, so their initial endorsement helped us get another 60 endorsements from other grassroot organizations across the city, state, and country, and these organizations work together in coalition to help us canvass the neighborhood, run a great campaign, and, ultimately, win. The fourth thing I want to say is our team—my internal sort of kitchen cabinet as well as our team—was incredibly strong—great campaign manager, field director, communications director, finance director. They were all second-to-none, and we all just did our jobs and worked very well together. The final thing is that Congressman Engel had a reputation for not being as present, as engaged, as active in the community and he has a reputation for not really fighting for what the district needed over the years. So, those five things in combination helped us pull it out, and another quick piece is that in the 2018 Congressional primary, there were a total of 30,000 votes and Congressman Engel received 22,000 of those. We came in with the belief that we could expand voter turnout and, ultimately, win. And that’s exactly what we did—we tripled voter turnout, tripled turnout amongst young people and people of color, and there was a certain excitement about this campaign, and we were able to pull it out.


TI: Many students in NYC and around the country have taken to social media to express discontent with the prevalence of racism within their school communities. Have you seen these accounts? If so, do you think they are effective ways of addressing racism within schools?


JB: We have to understand that we’re dealing with 401 years of racism in this country, so it’s a huge monster and undertaking that we’re dealing with, and it’s not just racism in terms of color and skin color; it’s structural, it’s institutional, it’s psychological, it’s the belief, explicit and implicit, that white is superior, black is inferior, and that manifests in police reform, mass incarceration, education—so many areas. We have go at this and defeat it in a variety of different ways. So, social media, generally speaking, is a good platform to begin to speak truth to power, call out social injustice, organize and engage in dialogue on the issue of race. On social media, you’re also going to have bad actors who are going to continue to espouse racist thinking and ideology—that’s just going to happen. So, social media cannot be the only place, but it is an important place to engage. We also have to engage in town halls, assemblies, on school boards, and in county, city, and state government as well as the federal government, school curriculum has to be interrogated. Schools are such an essential area to tackle racism and the legacy of racism in this country. Just in terms of the curriculum, like what are kids reading in classrooms and what questions are they having? Are they reading Black and Latinx and Indigenous authors as well as white authors? Are they reading male and female authors? Are they reading non-binary authors? Schools need to be a place where we learn about our diversity and the power of our diversity if we’re able to integrate. So, social media is a good place, but it just needs to happen all throughout America’s institutions for us to really defeat once and for all.


TI: One of your policies is to decriminalize immigration to the United States and to place a moratorium on deportation. Why is this? What are your thoughts on how national security and the drug flow into the United States will change as a result?


JB: I’ve never been afraid of an immigrant in my life! So, when people say “national security,” I’m like, “what are you talking about?” When you look at Dylan Roof and others, domestic terrorism is a bigger deal, if not bigger than everything else. So, that’s really just a Republican and Conservative talking point, and I hate to lump all Republicans into one basket because there were more principled Republicans before Trump, but it’s gotten away from them in some ways.


Anyway, America has always been a nation of asylum, of asylum seekers—we’ve always opened our doors to anyone coming here seeking refuge, and when you consider how disruptive America’s military and imperialism has been on a world stage, we’ve disrupted so many political and economic systems in Central and South America. So there’s a reason why they’re coming here: because we’ve destroyed what’s in their home countries. So, it’s not criminal to come here seeking asylum. We should open our doors to that and should be trying harder to be in alignment with that, and we should be better with providing pathways to citizenship to immigrants all over the world. Our military has contributed to political and economic strife, as well as climate strife. We’ve contributed to the refugee crisis in all parts of the world that’s causing immigration crises in parts of Europe as well as here. I just always see it as a holistic issue, and we have to take responsibility and own what we’ve done wrong as a nation through a process of truth and reconciliation, and then we need to right the wrongs that we’ve been a part of, which is why I support a 21st-century Marshall Plan to become a humanitarian leader in the world or the humanitarian leader in the world by helping rebuild the economies that we have destroyed. The bottom line is, it’s the moral and humane thing to do. We are a human race, we share this planet together. How are we going to take care of the planet and each other together? That’s my foundational position when it comes to immigration reform, foreign policy, domestic policy.


TI: Just a quick follow up to that—we went through your website and all of your policies but couldn’t find an answer to this question: Are you in favor of legalizing marijuana?


JB: Yes, I’m in favor of legalizing marijuana and decriminalizing drug use overall. No one should be in jail because they have a drug problem, so I’m in favor of that. Legalizing marijuana is important because we literally have people doing years in prison because of marijuana possession, which is insane, and they’re disproportionately Black and brown. So legalize it, profit off of it, invest the revenue in communities that have been destroyed. This also connects to a larger conversation about criminal justice reform overall. There are so many people in prison right now because of technical violations, because of B.S. charges, so we need to let people out of prison. If they need care at another type of facility, let’s provide that care and let’s take a public health and care approach overall to anyone who commits harm against the community.


TI: Your policies, when added together, call for hundreds of billions, if not trillions (when you include your support of the Green New Deal) of dollars in investment. Where do you plan to get this funding?


JB: The same place it comes from when we needed to bail out Wall Street when the coronavirus hit, or when we needed to bail out Wall Street during the 2008 Recession, or when we needed to go to war in Iraq or Afghanistan, or when we wanted to put a man on the moon, or when we implemented a New Deal during the Great Depression. The resources are there as we speak. They’re there right now. They’re there without even raising taxes on the wealthy. If we wanted to raise taxes on the wealthy—which we should, because they should pay their fair share—we can generate revenue that way. My point, though, is that when the United States Government authorizes spending, the money is provided and made available to spend in a particular area. The problem is that we depend on Wall Street to be the glue that holds our economy together, and that’s the wrong way to look at it. What holds our economy together is jobs and economic equality. So it’s the sharing of financial resources across the spectrum so that everyone has an opportunity to participate in our economy. You’re asking a question that people always ask, but what happens is that a fiscally conservative talking point like, “how are you going to pay for this,” has become mainstream, so we’re always talking about that while forgetting that we’ve paid of all of these other things when we wanted to do them. It wasn’t like we had to wait for taxes to come and we paid for it; we just paid for it. And the last thing I’ll say about this is, the Federal Government is not like a house budget or one of a company. A house or company budget has to look at checks and balances and needs to acquire money to spend money. The Federal Government creates and authorizes money, and that’s different. Homes and businesses don’t create money. The government does and can, but we just look more at deficits as a bad thing than we look at inflation, and inflation is what we should be measuring, not deficits.


TI: You said to CNN’s John Berman on “New Day”: “I'm right in alignment with Joe Biden in fighting those fights as well as fighting for racial and economic justice in all its forms." Many will say that Biden is moderate. Why do you trust him to listen to the more progressive members of the Democratic party if he were to be elected?


JB: I don’t know if trust is the word I would use. We’re both Democrats and in a position where we need to defeat Trump and flip the Senate, hopefully, so we need to work together. We need to collaborate, that’s important. It doesn’t mean we need to agree on 100 percent of things, or 90 percent, or 80, or even 75, but we do have to work together. So, when I see the Sanders-Biden coalition working together to create policies around child care and climate change, I’m seeing policies from Biden that I’ve never seen before. So we’re in alignment on those things. However, we have to hold him accountable and work with him to continue to push an agenda that the majority of the American people want. Right now, particularly as we deal with COVID, Americans are calling for a universal, single-payer healthcare system, calling for a Green New Deal and a federal jobs guarantee, fully funding public schools, racial and economic justice—everyone is demanding these things now. So it has to be his job, so it’s his job to respond, and his legacy is on the line as well, so that’s what I meant when I said that.


TI: Speaking of Joe Biden, who do you hope Biden will pick as his running mate?


JB: That’s a great question. I’d say I have a sort of list, which includes Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), Representative Karen Bass (D-CA), Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), those are like my top three. I would love for it to be a woman, and if it were to be a woman of color, I think that would be huge. I think just as important as his Vice President is his cabinet. Who’s going to his Treasury Secretary? That’s huge, because we need to dismantle the current economic system and rebuild it in a fashion that’s more equitable and equal. So, those are the three names that come to mind for me.


TI: Knowing what you know about our society and world, what would you tell yourself if you were seventeen today?


JB: I would tell myself to read more. Read more. When I was seventeen, I was an athlete, I had a girlfriend, I was all about sports, my girlfriend, clubs and parties, and hip-hop culture. I would do all of that and also read more. There’s just so much knowledge out there. It’s infinite. I wish I had some of that knowledge back then, and I probably would’ve read a lot more about economics and finance, because I’ve had to go through a lifetime of poor financial decisions, which I’m having to dig myself out from now. So, I probably would’ve read more. Other than that, just keep going, doing what I was doing at the time. Life is about learning and growing and evolving every day and sharpening your worldview. That’s kind of what I was doing then anyway, but I would definitely read more.


This transcript has been edited for concision and clarity.