Working as a teacher and a principal for 20 years, Jamaal Bowman has met a lot of students and families — and he’s met the challenges those families face.
“We can’t look at education in isolation,” Bowman said. “It isn’t just about an individual child or an individual kid doing the best they can in school. But that one child has a lot of contexts that come with them in a school setting. They have a family. They live within a community. And if that community has been deprived of resources and neglected for decades, that’s going to impact how the family functions.”
Those resources can include a lack of stable housing or access to regular meals, and even access to health insurance and care. Bowman thinks schools should be able to work alongside health care providers, community organizations and elected officials to ensure students and families are getting their needs met outside of school, giving them a fighting chance.
How would all that happen? Funding, to start.
“Public schools across the state have been underfunded for decades,” Bowman said. “Right now I believe New York state schools are owed over $4 billion by the state. So we call for a quadrupling of funding for Title 1 schools at a federal level. We call for fully funding (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which is the law that provides resources for our students with special needs.”
Something else he values inside public schools is mental health support. He had students in the South Bronx who came in days after they had family members shot and killed over the weekend, and one parent association mom whose son was killed the same way.
Violent memories aren’t just a result of outside sources, Bowman said. Suicide and self-harm are serious concerns not only for schools in the Bronx, but in Westchester County as well.
“This trauma, and this secondary trauma that educators deal with, it happens on a regular basis,” Bowman said. “And it’s something that needs to be addressed within our schools through mental health support. But, again, it’s not just schools by themselves. It has to be a community effort.”
The systems needed to provide that support just don’t exist.
“We have 40,000 people who are severely rent-burdened in this district, which means they pay more than 50 percent of their salary toward rent,” Bowman said. “And we have four NYCHA developments in the district that have been disinvested and neglected by the federal government for 30 years and haven’t received a dime over the last 10 years.”
Bowman is backing former vice president Joe Biden in the presidential race, but he does support a platform idea from former presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren to invest $500 billion over 10 years to build new public housing and retrofit existing public housing to comply with green ideals, including those that are part of the New York City Housing Authority.
Increasing land trusts — where people have part ownership over their apartments — also is critical, Bowman said, especially in areas where policies like redlining have historically kept black people from owning homes.
Those policies also created high rates of asthma in some parts of the Bronx as people live with poor air and housing conditions. Moving between schools, Bowman said, asthma was the “norm,” but a norm that can have serious repercussions. A former student had a severe asthma attack in her home, but by the time ambulances arrived, she already had been unconscious for several minutes, losing oxygen to her brain and causing permanent damage.
“This is from an asthma attack of a girl who’s lived in the Bronx,” Bowman said, “where you are three times more likely to die of asthma to anywhere else in the country.”
Those conditions also contributed to the highest rates of coronavirus infections in the state as people dealt with existing health issues and poor health care infrastructure.
So, why run for the U.S. House of Representatives, rather than a position in state or city government?
“I’ve worked with state and local officials throughout the city on a variety of issues, you know, culturally responsive education, trauma-informed education, really pushing the envelope in these areas, education funding,” Bowman said. “And I consistently heard that their hands were tied because of federal policy. The lever is moved by federal policy.”
Of course, taking up the mantle federally means balancing the needs of the country and the needs of the district an elected official represents. Bowman said the 16th Congressional District could serve as a microcosm of issues all across the country.
“The fact that we have three Americans who own more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of this country, that’s an issue,” Bowman said. “And it’s an issue that has manifested itself in this district. We have some of the most expensive real estate in the country, and the highest number of WIC recipients in any congressional district in the country.”
Ultimately, many federal issues have manifested in the district, he said — even foreign policy, as directed by climate change standards present in the city.
“You know, I’m a member of this community,” Bowman said. “I’m a husband, I’m a father. I’m a homeowner now for the last three or four years. But I was a renter my whole life prior to that. I’m from this community. I’m from this district, like everyone else. I just want to make sure everyone in this district has an opportunity to not just survive, but thrive.”