“When I started teaching, it was in the South Bronx—the poster child for urban decay—so very early on, I took a social-justice position as a Teacher,” said Jamaal Bowman, 44, the Democratic nominee for New York's 16th Congressional District, who defeated the 16-term incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel in the primary. “I wanted to empower black and brown students to make change in their communities in a way that I was never empowered. That perspective has followed me throughout my congressional run.”
Mr. Bowman, who lives in Yonkers with his wife and three children, has dedicated the past two decades to helping educate and inspire city public-school students. On July 17, he was officially declared winner of the June 23 primary with 55 percent of the vote after absentee ballots were counted. His success, alongside a win by 33-year-old attorney Mondaire Jones, who pulled ahead of seven candidates to replace retiring Rep. Nita Lowey, marked victories for progressive Democrats.
'Fell in Love' in System
Raised in a public-housing development in East Harlem until his grandmother’s death when he was eight years old, Mr. Bowman moved with his mother to the Upper East Side and later, Sayreville, New Jersey.
He studied sports management and played football at the University of New Haven, “but I wasn’t a superstar player,” he said in a phone interview. A friend whose mother worked for the Department of Education recommended that he join the public-school system, which he did in 1999.
“It wasn’t the plan. But I fell in love with it,” Mr. Bowman said.
Despite the efforts of programs such as NYC Men Teach, which recruits men of color to become Teachers in city schools, less than 4 percent of the city’s 70,000 Teachers are black men. More than a quarter of city public-school students are black.
Because of his position as a black male educator, “I always knew from a beginning that I was more than a Teacher: I was a father-figure, a mentor, a confidante and a big brother,” Mr. Bowman said. “And with the parents, we grew up in the same generation, in the same city. The relationships were more intimate because of our shared experiences.”
Unsuited for Dean's Role
But in 2008, after working for three years as Dean of Students at the High School of Arts and Technology, he began to feel as though his duties monitoring metal detectors and detaining tardy students opposed his goal to help black and brown students.
“I felt more like a Corrections Officer,” he said.
That conflict, along with concerns about racism he saw within the school system, led to him organizing with parents and students to write a proposal to open a new middle school in the Eastchester section of The Bronx. In 2009, Mr. Bowman became the founding Principal of Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School, which uses a restorative-justice model that teaches conflict-resolution tactics in lieu of handing out harsh punishments such as suspensions.
Mr. Bowman said that his work as an education organizer was meant to encourage students and parents to speak out against policies that hurt education and push for a more-culturally-responsive curriculum.
The protests around the country sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis marked an “exciting” and important moment, he said. One of the reforms advocates pushed for was a complete overhaul to school safety that would remove police from schools. As part of the budget deal announced at the end of June, the training and oversight of School Safety Agents will shift from the Police Department to the DOE as part of a multi-year plan, a plan that has sparked criticism from both advocates and those who opposed the move, including Teamsters Local 237.
Bypasses 'Underlying Cause'
Mr. Bowman said he supported the shift, but that the move “doesn’t address the underlying cause” of black and brown students being disproportionately suspended and arrested.
“We have to look at the ideology of discipline in schools. Many Teachers have a punitive mindset; it’s not just the NYPD,” he said. “It also speaks to schools being under-resourced—we need more social workers, sports programs, creative arts, guidance counselors—we need more of all these things.”
After spending years at Cornerstone Academy, the 2017-2018 school year, during which 34 students in The Bronx died, including 17 who had committed suicide, sparked a change in Mr. Bowman.
“That was the tipping point that pushed me to run for Congress. It was a very challenging year and it just seemed like our elected officials had no vision,” he said.
The DOE’s anti-bullying and safety policies came under intense scrutiny after one high-profile incident—the death of 15-year-old Matthew McCree, who was stabbed by 18-year-old Abel Cedeno during a history class at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx in September 2017. The tragedy marked the the first death of a student in a city public school since 1993.
Shoo-In in November?
Now Mr. Bowman, who does not have a Republican challenger in the November election, faces the challenge of helping residents in communities that have struggled to access coronavirus testing and were among the first in the state to see an outbreak of cases. He called his victory against Mr. Engel, who has represented the North Bronx, Yonkers, Mount Vernon and New Rochelle for 31 years, “very humbling.”
“I haven’t even had a chance to process it yet,” he said.
He also encouraged other municipal workers to run for public office. Although Mr. Bowman never saw himself becoming a Congressman when he was younger, “I felt that I had something to contribute and that’s what drew me to education in the first place. That just happened to evolve into running for Congress.”
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