Phara Souffrant Forrest is a 31-year-old union nurse, daughter of Haitian immigrants, and CUNY and SUNY graduate. She is a tenants rights activist and life-long Crown Heights resident who ran a people-powered campaign free from real estate or corporate dollars. Phara was endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and former Gubernatorial candidate, Cynthia Nixon.
What prompted you to get into politics?
When I was young, I had a very cynical view of politics so I was politically aware but wasn’t really involved. This was in part because growing up in Crown Heights I saw politician after politician fail to lift up my community but also because my dad, who’s a pretty radical guy, was always telling me “not to trust the system”. But the older I got, the more involved I became. I protested against police brutality at city hall (with dad!), talked to my neighbors about lead poisoning, and before I ran I even helped organize my building! I’m still cynical about the process in a lot of ways, but over the years politics has become really personal as members of my community, and myself, have been impacted by issues I really care about like health care and housing. It’s one thing not to trust the people in charge, but I’ve learned if you want to make real changes you need to get involved. I saw people lose their homes, get sick and struggle through our healthcare bureaucracy, as well as get stuck in our horrific criminal justice system with no help in sight. There was no one moment where I was like “I need to get involved”, but there were a number of instances where I had to stand up for myself or someone I knew.
What inspired you to run for office?
I went up to Albany last June to protest for the new rent laws and was arrested with my fellow tenants. The whole peaceful protest and staged arrest was planned out you know to the tee. But what was not planned was the violence, the kicking, the pulling, the choking, the stress. When I was being taken away, I looked out to the crowd and only saw a single elected official (shout out Assemblywoman Dianna Richardson) standing with the tenants of this state. On the ride home, I was so proud of what our coalition had accomplished that day; but when I reflected on the violence that we had faced to guarantee our neighbors a home, I was brought to tears. I knew the working people of this state needed an ally, who knows the struggle, who comes from their struggle, and that the people of my district needed a representative who would actually stand up with them. I decided then that if our Assemblymember wouldn’t be that ally, then I would stand up and become the ally the working people in my district need.
How did you cast your vote in the June Primary? (early voting, vote-by-mail/absentee, or IRL on Election Day?)
I voted early at the Brooklyn museum. It was super quick and easy! If you can’t get your ballot mailed to you, I recommend voting early.
Why did you decide to run for this particular role?
So I didn’t have some longtime dream of running, but I was approached by people in the Crown Heights Tenant Union about it early last year. It was awesome that people in my community were like “Oh Phara, she should run” – it was a real confidence boost to realize people thought that highly of me! But anyway they approached me about running and then we talked about what I could run for. I really gravitated toward state politics because all the issues I really care about (housing and healthcare) are handled by the state. I also have lived upstate for a bit so I really felt like I could be an agent of change not just for people in New York City but for everyone in New York.
What have you learned from this process?
Honestly, that we can accomplish anything when we work together. We ran a great campaign, but if you would have told me I was going to win by 11% in the middle of a pandemic I would have thought you were crazy. We might have been outraised – but we sure as hell outworked the competition. Everyone who helped our campaign made our victory possible and every day I am still in awe of what we did. Another thing I learned through all of this is that at the end of the day, people are just people. No one is too big or powerful to sit down and chat with you – we’re all driven by mostly the same motivations.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get involved in politics?
Announce early. Don’t hide your ambition. It doesn’t benefit anyone to hide your passion to change the world. If you want to run – do it. If you want to work for someone who’s running – find them and straight up ask them.
What does it mean to vote during a pandemic?
Voting isn’t everything right now – but it sure as hell is important. Now more than ever, we need to let the people in charge know that they need to put people before profit. I mean right now there are lobbyists out there advocating for more corporate tax breaks and to end the eviction moratorium in the middle of a pandemic! We need to make sure our voices are heard because the other side sure as hell is!
How does your activism for tenants’ rights prepare you for politics? As well as your career as a field-nurse?
Tenant organizing really taught me that you need to be talking to people on the ground to find out not just what’s going on but how to fix it. But, I really think nursing is what has prepared me most for politics. As a nurse, whenever I am faced with a problem, I evaluate, assess, and intervene. It is a standard practice we use in almost every situation and it’s how we treat everything from a broken arm to pneumonia. This is how I will approach politics when I get to Albany. Whatever it is, I’ll evaluate the problem, assess the root causes, and intervene with the right solution. It hasn’t failed me as a nurse and I know it will come in handy when I’m legislating next year.
What have you gleaned about these fields during the pandemic?
That no one can work in isolation. We all need to be working together, but not just together in a top-down sense, but democratically. This has been great in the political spaces I’m in and I think it’s something that nursing and tenant organizing could use more of. We have some of it already in nursing and tenant organizing, but in a true socialist fashion I’m always looking to make my spaces more democratic.
In the midst of it all, and running in the Primary, what elements of self-care did you practice?
I know it sounds silly but honestly it was the little things like that that helped me. Whether it was showering or just scheduling 30 minutes for a quick nap, I made sure that if it was my time then it was non-negotiable no matter how little time it was. I was being pulled a million different ways from work to the campaign so I needed me time that couldn’t be rescheduled.
What do you find unique about NYC? (Unique enough to run for office)
Everything is in one place. Whatever you want in NYC, you can get it. I know it’s corny, but it’s the whole world in one city. It’s the best place on Earth hands down.
What is an issue that needs more attention from New Yorkers? How can we get more involved?
Point blank – the New York Health Act. I know Medicare For All is the sexy bill right now but I’m serious when I tell you that we can have universal healthcare right here in New York and the best part is that we’re only a few votes short. I’m not joking. People who aren’t in the fight, especially after the presidential primary, think we’re decades away from universal healthcare but here in New York we are just a few years if we keep the pressure up. The bill has passed the Assembly for years and now that we have Democrats in control of all three branches – this isn’t a matter of flipping red seats anymore but pressuring blue ones. Call your state reps TODAY and tell them we need the New York Health Act! We can be a model for the country on how to make universal healthcare work. It can all start right here in New York!
What would you say to someone that is hesitant to vote or feels their vote doesn’t matter?
Look I get it. A lot of politics is broken and sometimes our choices suck – but your vote matters! Even if you don’t like the choices at the top of the ticket, there are bound to be some races on your ballot that your one vote could change. We vote for half a dozen things each time we come out so don’t sit out an election because you don’t like some of your options. Also, if you really don’t like anyone who’s running, then get it together and work so we have better ones in the future! I know this was a hard election year in a lot of ways but we can’t stop fighting just because we’re tired. Rest up. Get Organized. Keep fighting!
What do you listen to in the mornings?
Silence. The morning is the only time I can get some peace and quiet so I cherish it. I need that early morning zen before everything starts going crazy.
Who is your dream collaborator? (Perhaps it’s a musician for a campaign song or visual artist for a logo/advertisement, local hero?)
Shirley Chilsholm. I don’t know it would really be collaborating, but if she was still around and active in politics that’s who I would want to work with. We can do a rally, a speech, or just a walk in the park – I just want a chance to talk with her. If that’s not enough then I’d like Lanston Hughes to write my bio – but it’s not finished so it would need to be a few years from now!