Jahana Hayes is the first African American ever nominated to Congress by Democrats in Connecticut. Six days out from the election, the former history teacher is poised to become one of only two African Americans representing states in New England, along with Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts.
But Hayes’s candidacy is an unusual one in another way as well: If elected, she will become one of the few members of Congress from a low-income background. Hayes grew up in poverty, living in public housing with her grandmother while her mother struggled with addiction. At the age of 17, she gave birth to her daughter.
Only 2 percent of members of Congress are working-class—an imbalance that has significant policy consequences, with studies showing clear differences in the legislative records of politicians from different class backgrounds. As a result, economic policy tends to skew toward the interests of the wealthy, while the minimum wage remains stuck at a poverty wage, health care and housing are increasingly unaffordable, and people who turn to public assistance are demonized. In this context, Hayes’s journey from single motherhood to becoming the National Teacher of the Year in 2016 to now being on the cusp of election to the House of Representatives is particularly compelling.
I spoke to Hayes about her candidacy, poverty in America, and her vision as she prepares to serve her district. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Greg Kaufmann: At a moment when we’re seeing widespread voter suppression, and a racist, sexist, and xenophobic Trump administration—what does it mean to you to be the only African American ever nominated to Congress by Connecticut Democrats and potentially the only African American representing any state in New England?
Jahana Hayes: When I entered this race, it had never crossed my mind. The first time I saw it in print, it really hit me. And as I campaigned throughout the district and state, I realized how important it is to so many people—not only African Americans, but people from Muslim, Jewish, Hispanic communities—who really believe that it’s a first step to opening the electorate. Representation matters. I don’t think that it’s reflective of the state that I live in that the Democrats have not sent an African American to Congress and we feel like we have to do better.
GK: Another thing that is unique about your candidacy is that you grew up in poverty. Talk a little about your formative experiences and how they have informed your leadership, your candidacy, and your policy ideas today.
JH: I grew up in a community where I encountered people with so many challenges but I also learned that you get to know people and you realize that their struggle or situation does not define them. And you don’t forget those things. So when people are talking about policies, I have the stories of a family playing in the back of my mind, or I know how people are affected, how families are broken apart when they can’t get access to the things they need. It has grounded my decision-making and framed everything I do because I know how bad it can be—but I also know how good it can be when people get the help that they need and work their way through their situations.
GK: You were a single mother, 17 when your daughter was born. Can you talk about what we need to do to better understand the experiences of single mothers who are routinely demonized in our politics and—along the lines of what you said—defined solely by their situation?
JH: Single mothers deserve to be represented, they deserve to have their voices heard. And what I know is that this moment is not the end of their story. There are multiple pathways to success. This idea that everything happens in perfect order and that people are perfect—I think I have showed people that it’s okay to be imperfect.
I used to say to my students—“What? So what? Now what?”—and I think too often we give up on people instead of saying, “Now what?” How do we look at this differently? What do you need to be successful? I think there are so many people in that situation right now and they can’t see the other side of it—and I represent the idea that you can change the outcome of this. In eight years, I went from being the first person in my family to graduate college to us being a second-generation college-educated family, because my daughter also got her master’s degree and is a teacher as well.
GK: With regard to education and changing outcomes—you were a teacher in high-poverty schools and recognized as the National Teacher of the Year in 2016. There are ongoing debates on how to best help students in poverty learn and thrive. As someone who has lived this experience as both a student and a teacher, what are some of the fundamental things we need to do to help students’ chances for academic and life success?
JH: One of the first things that I did is realize that this is a partnership, that my work did not end at 2 o’clock when the school day was over. I partnered with families, with communities, and really just met people where they are. I would go into the community and have an open house at the laundromat or the community center, because I recognized that many of my parents did not drive, or did not have cars. This idea that just because a parent doesn’t attend an open house they don’t care about what’s going on with their child—many of our parents don’t know how to advocate. And I remember in my own family: I struggled [as a student] with this idea that just because my mother is not here doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be successful.
One thing I did with my students is to help them realize that, even though most of them had spent most of their time on the receiving end of aid, they still had the capacity to give. I really doubled down on service projects and engaging them in their community, and teaching them that even at a young age they could be a part of the solution.
GK: And when students were engaged in that way—what did you see happen?
JH: You see them come to life and begin to experience the world differently. There is this self-motivation, and their confidence just continues to go up. There is something incredibly demeaning and devaluing when you feel like you have nothing to give. You see them find their voices and learn how to advocate and speak up for other people, and that just translates into so many different things. They become leaders in their class, and go onto college, and become very successful, because they have a sense of self-worth.
GK: And that service-learning curriculum is something you developed at your school, right?
JH: Yes, I went to my administrators and was initially told that there was no time in the day for it. So I started a club after school called the HOPE Club—which stood for Helping Out People Everywhere. You had to find a problem in the community and then we’d work together to figure out how we as a student body could address it.
I had seven students in one class who had lost a parent to cancer, including a girl who had lost her father in January and in October her mother was in hospice. So the kids started a Relay for Life team and raised over $120,000 for the American Cancer Society. I had a student whose family was living in a shelter, and that’s how we got involved with Habitat for Humanity. I wanted him to see that although your family doesn’t have a home now, we’re gonna help someone else build, and one day it will be your turn. Over eight years, we traveled all over the country building with Habitat for Humanity. We worked with the Children’s Dyslexia Center, because I had a student whose brother was diagnosed with dyslexia, and that was the project he wanted to do. We created an LLC called Citywide for Porch Cleanup, because I had a student who literally did not want to play sports and have to get rides home because she was embarrassed of where she lived. So we worked with local hardware stores and got paint and flowers and did this whole beautification where we went to different neighborhoods and just painted everybody’s porches.
GK: So conservatives might hear about this great work and say, “See, the problems in schools and communities aren’t about money.” But when we see such inequity in terms of the conditions of schools and facilities, or extracurriculars, or staffing, or teachers’ salaries—isn’t funding a key part of the conversation as well?
JH: Absolutely. We cannot ignore the fact that there are some glaring disparities—there are gaps in resources and support. Stark differences from community to community—and it takes money. That is not the only answer to the problem—we have to make sure we have the most highly qualified educators in front of young people, that they are adequately prepared to meet the challenges that they will face in the classroom; that we are providing opportunities for kids in our most challenging districts. These things do absolutely take money, and we have to look at education as an investment because everything grows out of that. And if we’re not looking at it in that way then we are doing a disservice not only to our children but also to our future.
I also recognize that for some kids, the school on the corner is their only option. Their families can’t move to a different district or transfer them to a different school, or enroll them in private boarding school. That’s their only option, so it has to be a good school.
GK: And in your experience, if there isn’t stable affordable housing, if a kid is hungry—
JH: They can’t learn. I’ve seen this so many times where kids come in and their heads are on the desk, because they have been up all night, because they don’t have stable housing. They are walking to school on the coldest day of the year and don’t have a coat. I had a kid who was hospitalized because of a toothache that got so bad that he had a blood clot in his leg and he almost had to have it amputated. We talk about having access to the Internet, but we have kids who don’t have lights at home—or who stay after school until 6, 7 at night because there is no heat in their house so they want to stay as long as they can. All of these things find their way into your classroom, and all of them are interconnected. We can’t look at them in silos—we need to look at the whole child, whole family, and whole community.
GK: Why do you think poverty and these kinds of struggles continue to not be much a part of the national conversation and what do you think we can do about that?
JH: I think one of the ways we start is looking at raising the minimum wage, paying people living wages; stable housing in communities; health care. Help people have healthy, productive lives, and that bleeds over into every part of our community. I think more importantly, it has to matter. You have to first care about people. You have to first be concerned with the fact that people are struggling. You have to have some civility, and some humanity, and some understanding that people have value. If you don’t value people from marginalized communities, then you are not going to work hard for them.
GK: On that point of valuing marginalized communities—our elected officials are mostly wealthy white men. What are some of the things that helped you to break through as a working-class candidate? Were there particular networks or mentorship?
JH: I got support from people who are not similarly situated, who do not look like me, who do not share my background or experiences. But we share a fundamental belief in the purpose of government, and the possibilities of our communities, and I think that really has propelled my candidacy. There are people in my district who, even though they are not directly affected by a lot of what is happening, they are sickened by it. There is a basic human thread that binds us together.
I really think that we have to expand our electorate. Our representation needs to more accurately reflect our communities—whether that be diversity of background, diversity of experience, of race, ethnicity, religion, culture—so that when we are having these conversations we can make sure we’re not leaving anyone out.
GK: What about the money—the costs of the campaigning. Doesn’t that prevent working-class people from running?
JH: Definitely. The amount it takes to run a campaign is obscene. I had no idea how I was going to raise the money. I said either by design or default this system eliminates someone like me. We started with small-dollar donations. As we gained momentum, we started to raise more money. But I see how it would deter many people who would be effective leaders from even attempting to do this because it’s daunting—the idea of how much it costs. And the amount of money you raise should not determine your viability as a candidate.
GK: As you potentially enter Congress, do you feel a great sense of pressure as one of the only African-American representatives from New England, and as an African-American woman? If so, what do you do with that pressure?
JH: I haven’t thought beyond the election. I do feel a great sense of pressure now because my Republican opponent and I are so fundamentally different. I feel like I have to win in order to stand up for the values that so many people in this district and in this community have told me are important to them. I think if I were to make it into Congress—I’ve spent much of my time being “the only one,” or “the first one”—the only one in my class, the only one in my family—I’m comfortable going into areas that were pretty much foreign to me, and just navigating those areas by working with people, by seeking advice, by listening to people. So that is something that I’m used to. But I also have this willingness to collaborate. We have to get our country moving forward, so whatever it takes to make that happen, I’m up for that.