On this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D). Elected in 2020, he beat a long-entrenched Democratic incumbent, like his fellow Squad member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
He shares with us how his background as a public elementary school teacher and middle school principal shaped his policy views on issues like standardized testing, curriculum, school funding, and the federal role in all aspects of education policy.
While acknowledging the possibility of Republicans taking control of Congress in November, Bowman shares his dreams about taking money out of politics, reforming the Electoral College, eliminating student debt, building more affordable housing, and enforcing greater police accountability.
Despite worrying that our democracy is imperiled, he believes in the power of mass movements to bring about real change, even while he sees the threat of violence in the near future.
His underlying optimism rests on his reading of American history: how the country has found ways — in the face of deep-seated opposition — to end slavery, extend civil and voting rights, give women the vote, and institute same-sex marriage.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host Jeff Schechtman. While the country battles for the preservation of democracy itself, we can’t lose sight of the fundamental ideological debates that have shaped the country for 246 years. Before the crazies, before the threats of fascism, arguments between liberals and progressives and conservatives have been the cornerstone of what our republic is about. The pendulum has shifted back and forth. Policies have been debated, and we have moved forward as a nation. We can’t lose sight of this.
Even amidst the unwill we may feel at the moment, we have to dig into the policies that impact people’s lives and that can shape the future we will inevitably have. One of those leading the charge on the progressive side today is my guest, New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman. Congressman Bowman represents New York’s 16th congressional district, which includes the Northern Bronx and parts of Westchester County. However, I checked this morning, he doesn’t represent Yankee Stadium. Congressman Bowman began his career as a crisis intervention teacher in the Bronx. He’s earned both master’s and doctorate degrees.
He was the founder and principal of Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, a Bronx middle school focused on unlocking the brilliance of children through a holistic curriculum. He was elected to Congress defeating a long-time incumbent in 2020 and as a member of a group of progressive legislators that have come to be known as ‘The Squad.’ It is my pleasure to welcome Congressman Jamaal Bowman here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.
Jamaal Bowman: Of course. Thank you for having me.
Jeff: Well, it’s a delight to have you here. First of all, before we get into the nitty-gritty of so many important issues, tell us a little bit about how you came to Congress. You were in the education world, as I mentioned in the introduction, for a long time. What was it that drove you to want to get involved in politics?
Jamaal: So prior to running for office, I worked in public education for 20 years. [I] started my career as an elementary school teacher in the South Bronx before becoming a high school guidance counselor and dean of students before realizing that the education system was not doing enough to really tap into the unlimited potential and brilliance of our kids, and in many ways, was doing more to criminalize them than to educate them. So I wrote a proposal for a new district public middle school that I would open up to serve kids in Title 1 redline communities and give them a robust holistic curriculum, the same sort of curriculum that kids in privileged schools have.
So I submitted the proposal. We opened in 2009, and we did tremendous work in that school. But the kids still had to go home to their communities. These are communities that were food insecure, where housing was an insecurity, where clean water was to be desired, where many family members were criminal justice entangled, and poverty was rampant, and where I saw a rise in mental health challenges with my students. Many kids committing self-harm. So I didn’t see this conversation front and center in our political arena, and that’s what made me decide to run for office, because if we don’t take care of our kids and we don’t center education, we do not have a democracy. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s hanging by a thread right now.
Jeff: In fact, so much of education policy, and we hear this over and over again, is locally-based, and that it’s local communities that want to be involved in education. We’ve heard so many arguments lately about school boards and people running for school boards. What did you think that by being in Congress that you could do with respect to education?
Jamaal: Well, federal funding really matters in education, and the Title 1 program was put in place to make sure poor school districts could be funded at a more equitable level. Obviously, the poor school districts are still way behind, because to your point, local property taxes dictate how public schools are funded. And, if you have a system that is designed around segregation, both economically and racially, you’re going to have wealthier, often White schools getting more money than poorer Black and Brown redline schools, and that’s completely unacceptable.
So part of my fight since I’ve gotten here is to increase the amount of Title 1 funding that goes to our schools so that they could be funded in a more equitable way and to write policy that ensures we fund schools based on poverty and not based on just local property taxes and wealth, which is inherently discriminatory. Also at a federal level, the federal government authorizes the implementation of annual standardized tests in schools throughout the country and ties Title 1 funding to the administration of those tests.
And what research continues to show time and time again is annual standardized tests do not close the achievement gap in and of themselves and do more harm in the education system than good, and it’s very wasteful. So I am also working to end annual standardized tests as we know it and focus our curriculum more on the well-being and the unique potential of individual students within social environments like school and their community.
Jeff: Talk about, absent standardized testing, how you see some metrics by which we can see how much progress is being made as in fact a reason to encourage more funding, particularly on the federal level?
Jamaal: There’s no need to test all kids annually from grades three through eight. There’s no need to do that. You could do sample matrix testing, or you could do grade band testing, which is once in elementary, once in middle school, and once in high school. So either one of those approaches can show us how kids are doing and progressing within the school district while also showing us where to invest additional resources based on need. It’s the annual part of it that is not necessary. So states require that data, and the federal government wants that data. It could be done via matrix sampling or grade band testing.
What’s more key is what curriculum are we teaching, how are kids being taught, how are we ensuring we’re meeting the unique differences of kids, and how are we creating a culture and climate for them to thrive, and also how are we communicating that to parents on a consistent basis. And we do that through quizzes. We do that through midterms. We do that through finals, and we do that through progress reports, and report cards at the local level.
Jeff: What are your specific concerns with respect to the way that curriculum today is becoming so politicized like so much else in our society?
Jamaal: Well, I’m worried that we are not– Because the education system for so long has been only rooted in academic performance and what your grade is and what score you could get on the standardized tests, critical thinking and creativity has been extracted from curriculum for a very long time. And, because we haven’t been taught how to critically think in many of our school systems or how to creatively think, we see a lot of fear-based fearmongering and fear-based approaches to discussing curriculum. We’re more afraid of it than engaging in it critically as we should. And that’s why you see states taking the approach of even banning certain books.
And you see the fear of critical race theory, which is not even taught in K-12 schools, but you see the fearmongering around critical race theory because we haven’t implemented a curriculum that really told the truth about our history ever, and that’s what we need more than anything. We need the truth so that we can evolve into the multiracial democracy we’re supposed to be.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the frustrations that you have felt as a member of Congress, given that so much legislation – things that you’ve been supportive of, that the Progressive Caucus that you’re part of has been supportive of – has really not gone anywhere. A lot of things have been passed in the House and have just stayed there.
Jamaal: It surprises me and frustrates me how much Congress doesn’t function. And people often argue with me about doing more to collaborate with Republicans, but it’s hard to collaborate with a group of people who don’t want to collaborate with you. Now, because we have the majority in the House, we’re able to get bills through the House but in the Senate, you need 10 Republicans. You can’t pass the law with a simple majority because of a discriminatory practice called the filibuster that happens in the Senate.
So what blows me away is we have issues of poverty, of child hunger, of lack of access to health care, of wealth and gender inequality, of voting rights. You have these issues that are wildly popular, but you have a Senate that doesn’t need to respond to the popularity across the country because the filibuster is in place, but also because you have a minority of senators holding as much power as the majority of the American people. And that is a problematic circumstance there. And that’s something that we need to look at as well, and that’s related to not just the filibuster but the Electoral College.
Jeff: Realistically, though, talk a little bit about next session of Congress when, in all likelihood, the Democrats will not even be in control in the House of Representatives, [it] may not be as wild as some people had originally anticipated, but certainly by all accounts it looks like that control won’t be there anymore. Talk about what you imagine for the coming years, given that series of events.
Jamaal: I’m not conceiving that by any stretch. Once I’m done with my primary, I plan to hit the road to do everything in my power to make sure Democrats maintain control in the House. I also plan to hit the road to see if we can gather or gain a few additional Senate seats so that we can become Joe Manchin-proof and work around the filibuster to pass legislation that we know the American people want.
I’m not conceiving a loss. I’m going to do the work and my colleagues are going to do the work to make sure that we can do as well as we can in November, and hopefully maintain the House while gaining a couple additional seats in the Senate.
Jeff: Talk a little bit, though, about what the other possibility is, what the other alternative is. In fact, looking at the polls today, it’s possible that the Senate could improve for Democrats, but the House not so much. Talk about how you envision working in that kind of environment.
Jamaal: Well, I’m on the Education and Labor Committee and the Science, Space, and Tech Committee. The Education and Labor Committee will be tough because oftentimes Republicans do not want to work in collaboration with us on education policy. Having said that, the Science, Space and Tech Committee works very well in a collaborative way, and many of my amendments that passed out of the committee were bipartisan amendments.
At the end of the day, if we have more seats in the Senate but less seats in the House, that we don’t have the majority in the House, Republicans will still have the frustration of dealing with a Democratic-controlled Senate that probably won’t move their legislation forward either. So it’s really important for us to get as far away from the previous president as possible, as far away from January 6th as possible. And I ask that my Republican colleagues become more principled in really securing our democracy in the way that works for everyone so that we can work together and get stuff done.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about money. You are part of a group that doesn’t spend a huge amount of time dealing with looking for money. How much does that free you up to do the work that you were sent there for?
Jamaal: To me, my job is to serve the constituents. So I have to be in the community, listening, learning, and engaging as much as possible. That’s my goal. So I don’t take corporate PAC money. I don’t meet with lobbyists. When I do call time, I’m usually calling small-dollar donors and getting support from them. Because I don’t take corporate PAC money, I’m not beholden to corporations, I’m beholden to the people in my district who I serve.
And that’s why it’s important for us to get big money out of politics because we need everyone in Washington to be beholden to the people they serve, not lobbies and large corporations. Our democracy is hanging by a thread because too many of my colleagues have given their power to lobbies and large corporations, and that absolutely needs to change and change as soon as possible.
Jeff: What do you see is the state of our democracy now?
Jamaal: It’s fragile. It’s fragile. We have a Supreme Court who are no longer just interpreting the law but making law. When you see the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the striking down of New York’s concealed-carry law, and you see the attack on Miranda rights, it’s democracy hanging by a thread when the Supreme Court is behaving this way, because it’s an attack on our civil rights and our human rights, and if we don’t have that, we don’t have a democracy. But this is decades in the making. And I would also argue [that] when we made the decision to treat corporations as people and money as free speech, we gave our democracy away, the fascism beginning then.
And again, because we have systems in place like the filibuster in the Electoral College, where presidents can win the Electoral College but not the popular vote and just appoint Supreme Court justices for life on that system, is another example of why we need a fresh look at our democracy and democracy reform in a variety of areas. So it’s time to evolve and we need everyone at the table in that evolution, not just able-bodied, property-owning White males.
Jeff: What realistic chance do you see, though, for any of that reform to happen? We see over and over again, the efforts of you and many of your colleagues thwarted, as I mentioned earlier. Realistically, what are the chances of anything happening?
Jamaal: Well, very realistic. What this country has shown is its ability to evolve over time. We no longer have slavery. Women now have the right to vote, and work, and travel, even though their reproductive rights are just taken away. And that’s why we’ve got to fight because some of that other stuff could be taken away as well. We have same-sex marriage. We have interracial marriage and many other things in place. Affirmative action and the like.
So the country has shown an ability to grow and evolve. We have to continue to grow and evolve, and I think it’s going to take a mass movement to do so. And we’ve had mass movements in America before, and we need another one now.
Jeff: Are you concerned of violence coming to these issues? There’s been a lot of talk lately about the threat of violence.
Jamaal: Somewhat because, unfortunately, throughout American history, when we have social progress, it’s responded to with violence. January 5th, , Georgia elected a Jewish Senator and a Black Senator, and the next day white supremacists attacked the Capital. So that often happens. What I would love to see is more coordinated efforts from law enforcement to thwart the rise in white nationalism, and nativism, and white supremacy.
The FBI and other law enforcement agencies have a lot of information regarding the rise of these nationalist groups. That information needs to be shared and acted upon so that the chance of violence is hopefully decreased as much as possible. But it’s always a concern. I’m a Black man in America and I’ve very aware of Black men and Black people speaking out and being slaughtered, and lynched, and killed throughout our country’s history. So it’s always, I mean constantly, in the back of my mind as I engage in this work. But that’s the price we have to pay, and I’m hoping that at some point throughout our country’s history, hopefully soon, I, as a Black man, don’t have to worry about being killed because of my beliefs.
Jeff: Do you think the Department of Justice, the current regime, is doing all that it can do in these areas?
Jamaal: Yes. I think we have to do a lot more around police accountability with regard to– there’s been some work on chokeholds. There’s not been enough work in terms of the killing of unarmed people. Not enough work in terms of a database. Not enough work in terms of the culture and climate of policing in so many parts of this country. The Jayland Walker incident is the most recent incident of a Black man running from police officers unarmed and being gunned down with almost 60 bullets tearing through his flesh. It’s just unspeakable how this is continuing to happen. And we need the DOJ to do thorough investigations into local law enforcement to figure out how to reform that system as well so that it could be more just.
Jeff: You mentioned educational issues before. One of the things that has been percolating as a major issue with respect to education for a while now, is the notion of student debt relief. And I know you’ve spoken out quite a bit on that. Talk a little bit about your views on it and where you see it going at this point.
Jamaal: I think we’re in an unprecedented time because we’ve had over a million people die from a global pandemic, which is almost like war-time statistics. And when you’re recovering from wartime, you have to make somewhat radical economic decisions to help get the economy back on track. And one of those decisions that I believe need to be made is the cancellation of student debt. Student debt and many people acquire student debt, me being one of them, via predatory practices and lack of information and knowledge, not just the debt but the interest rates related to the debt.
And then many people come out of school and they’re unemployed or underemployed, often underemployed, and they pay off this debt for years and years, even decades, and they’re barely making a dent. That’s in general. Add to the hurt of the economy via COVID and the millions who have passed away, now is the time to do something big on the cancellation of student debt because when you do that then people can reinvest in the economy in ways that are actually healthy for the economy. Like home ownership, investments in real estate and small businesses, even the market if you choose to, and starting a family. So we need to look at it in the context of a global pandemic, more than a million dead [and the] economy suffering, how can I provide relief.
Jeff: Would you be in favor of interest relief eliminating interest on student debt at this point?
Jamaal: Of course, I would absolutely be in favor of that. I don’t know if that goes far enough to provide the actual relief people need, but I would definitely be in favor of that. Yes.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about some of the other issues that you are focused on that you think some progress can be made in the next couple of years.
Jamaal: Expanding the Affordable Care Act to cover more individuals and cover seniors would be huge and that’s something that Senator Manchin seems to be on board with. So that’s something we absolutely should do. Senator Manchin also seems to be in favor of lowering prescription drug costs or allowing drug prices to be negotiated. That’s another thing that’s huge and that’s something I’m in favor of, but obviously, there’s a lot more to do. We have an affordable housing crisis in this country. We don’t have enough housing stock and we still treat housing as a commodity and not as a human right. That’s still a big issue.
We still have the issue of mental health in our country that was bad before COVID, but it’s gotten worse. And we really need a Whole-of-Government approach to respond to the mental health needs of adults and especially children in communities across the country. Not enough movement there, not enough movement on climate, obviously. I’m hoping that once resources start moving with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal that those resources are equitable and sustainable, but the bill in and of itself didn’t really call for equitability or sustainability.
And we have to push states and localities to make sure there’s investments in job-ready programs for people of color and investments in the infrastructure that is carbon-neutral or completely clean so that we can hopefully stem the tide of the climate catastrophe that we’re currently living in. And hopefully, once we get a few additional members in the Senate and keep the House, we can codify Roe v. Wade through the passing of the Women’s Health Protection Act.
Jeff: How do you view the debate that we hear a bit about within the Democratic Party between centrists and progressives?
Jamaal: It’s really a waste of time. I, myself, as a progressive, as a member of the ‘Squad’- and I put that in quotes because we don’t run around saying we are the ‘Squad.’
It’s just what people refer to us as. But I think it’s a waste of time because we all have to work together to serve the needs of the American people. And another thing that surprised me about Congress is how much progressives are blamed for things going wrong. It’s crazy. It’s like the infrastructure, and mainstream media, and on the Hill and in other spaces, because it’s more moderate, when something goes wrong, they turn [to] the progressives to blame us and I can’t for the life of me understand that.
And I can’t for the life of me understand why we continue to engage in this incrementalism that continues to allow people to die senselessly because they don’t have access to healthcare, or we continue to allow [the] mass incarceration system to exist that doesn’t rehabilitate anyone, or we continue to allow CEOs to make over 300 times what their workers make. And we continue to not support workers’ rights enough to help them form unions and earn a prevailing wage. It’s just crazy to me. How are we going to have a democracy without working on these things? We’re working on other issues related to the public good. I don’t know how that works, so it’s a waste of time. The way [usually] moderates attack us as progressives- it’s really a waste of time.
Jeff: And finally, Congressman, talk a little bit about representing New York, being part of a very blue state, and how you see that next to red America and the divide or this notion of two Americas that we seem to have today?
Jamaal: We don’t have two Americas, we have hundreds [laughs] of Americas because we have so much diversity and I think we have to embrace our diversity, our diversity of culture and ideas and we don’t do that. We still prop up one race, one gender, one religion, one class, one sexual orientation over the others. And as long as we continue this caste way of thinking I don’t see how we are going to move forward as a country. We’re not a binary nation even though we have Republicans and Democrats with a few independents and some other parties, we are [a] more diverse, robust, [and] magical nation, if we learn how to leverage the cultures that represent us. If we did that properly, we could do a lot more in a positive way, both in our country, but around the world.
Jeff: Congressman Jamaal Bowman, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Jamaal: No problem. Thank you for having me. You take care.
Jeff: You too. Thank you very much. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.