As a Brooklyn, New York native and nurse, Phara Souffrant Forrest, who was recently elected to represent the 57th district in the New York State Assembly, knows the needs of her community.
Three years ago, when her landlord informed her and her neighbors that their rent-stabilized apartment building in Crown Heights, Brooklyn was being turned into luxury condos, Forrest fought back and implemented change. "I knew that our tenants, and me, would be subject to harassment and evictions," the 31-year-old tells CNBC Make It. "And I saw our power."
She and a few of her neighbors formed a tenants union for their building and Forrest joined the Crown Heights Tenant Union for further guidance on how to legally protect their rights. It was then when she realized that there were many other tenants in her neighborhood who were also using collective action to fight against displacement.
In June 2019, she fought alongside the Housing Justice For All campaign in Albany, New York, helping to win a landmark agreement to strengthen New York City's rent and tenant protection laws. Some of the changes she and the Housing Justice For All campaign fought for included getting rid of rules that allowed building owners to deregulate apartments and closing any loopholes that allowed landlords to substantially raise rent.
"So that was just like the pushing point for me," says Forrest, who lives with her parents and husband in the same Crown Heights apartment she grew up in. "I realized, this is how we get things done."
In October 2019, Forrest, a Democrat, officially launched her campaign against Democrat Assembly member Walter Mosley, who, for seven years, had represented New York's 57th district that includes the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights and parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. Her campaign was supported by the Democratic Socialists of America, a nonprofit organization made up of socialists and labor-oriented members who also supported Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's election.
As a political newcomer who was running for office for the first time, Forrest says she ran a grassroots campaign that was funded solely by the community, without any help from corporate or real estate dollars. She built her platform around education, tenant rights, immigration rights, climate change, health care and safe community policing, all of which are issues she says she personally relates to as a nurse with Haitian immigrant parents.
The structure of her campaign, she says, was very basic with her, her campaign manager and deputy campaign manager working together to handle all the finances and recruit volunteers. Before the pandemic, she says roughly 700 volunteers had worked with her campaign to get the word out about her running for New York State Assembly. By the time her primary race came in June, she said more than 1,000 volunteers had worked with her, even as they campaigned remotely due to the pandemic.
During her run, Forrest also worked as a union nurse for the New York State Nurses Association, where she visited homes to take care of patients who were pregnant or in the postpartum stage. Though she was always aware of the many different challenges that working class families faced, she says her experience as a nurse really opened up her eyes to how deep these challenges were.
"I was a maternal child health nurse," she explains, "and while I was there to take care of the baby and the mom, I was seeing horrible living conditions." In some of the homes, Forrest says she saw parents working multiple jobs to try and make ends meet. In other homes, she says parents were faced with ongoing unemployment, a problem that has now been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
"It was just a lot to see what our patients were going through," she says, while adding that in her job she talked to patients about healthy eating, food options and preeclampsia, which is a pregnancy condition characterized by high blood pressure that disproportionately affects Black women. "But if you don't have healthy food in the kitchen, or if you're living in a food desert like in certain parts of central Brooklyn, then I could tell you this information but it won't matter because basic human rights aren't being met."
Forrest, who defeated Mosley in June's primary race, was officially elected to the New York State Assembly after the Nov. 3 election. She has since left her job as a union nurse to focus full-time on her work as a state assembly member, where she says she will work on ensuring that all residents in her district have access to affordable health care and that more workers have access to paid parental leave, paid sick leave and access to unions so they can negotiate better wages, benefits and on-the-job protections.
"Before I became a nurse, I worked as an Uber driver, in kitchens, and in hospitality," she writes on her website. "Without a union, I had to deal with sexual harassment, abusive supervisors, dangerous workplaces, and arbitrary scheduling." Like many workers in these jobs, Forrest says she knows that she "could have been fired for speaking up and fighting back," which is why it's critical to unionize workplaces so that employees are protected when they demand better working conditions.
Looking back, the 31-year-old says she's proud of the campaign she ran and the victory she secured. She says she hopes that her win will inspire other young leaders who are thinking about running for office to run on a platform that speaks truly to who they are as a person and a leader.
"You just have to speak your truth at all times," she says. "And when you speak your truth, you'd be surprised by the support, the listeners and the people who will back you and even relate to your story."
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