Jahana Hayes on Her Improbable Road to Congress
“I never expected to win,” says Jahana Hayes, the first African-American woman to represent Connecticut in Congress. “I thought it would be a damn good try, and people would get encouraged, and then the next time someone else would do it.” In fact, when the mother of four and 2016 National Teacher of the Year — who grew up impoverished in public housing, was a single, teen mom and worked three jobs while putting herself through school — was approached by Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy about running for office in the state’s majority-white 5th District, Hayes, 45, initially responded, “Absolutely not. I don’t know how to raise the money. I don’t even know what running would look like.”
But Hayes’ effectiveness as a teacher in a low-income school had long been rooted in the idea that “hopelessness is a feeling before it’s an action,” she says. “I saw kids who were feeling sorry for themselves, complaining about the hand that life had dealt them.” Hayes had wanted to reverse these roles, to show kids who had long been on the receiving end of aid how fulfilling it could be to be the giver. And so it was on a service trip — in which Hayes had students who lived in public housing or even shelters volunteering with Habitat for Humanity — that her mind was changed. “I’m thinking, I have these kids with no money, who receive free or reduced lunch, live in public housing, and they are here to help someone else. And we have adults who are saying, ‘It’s not my problem to help you. I don’t want my tax money to go to help you’. I said, ‘I’m going to run.’”
Every politician credits their life experience with why they’re in politics, but that’s especially true in your case. What was a particularly difficult time for you?
In sixth grade, I remember coming home and the sheriff was putting our furniture out. And from the time I was in sixth grade through high school, my mom never had an apartment again.
Your mom struggled with addiction?
Right. The funny thing is, my mom was a really good mom until she was not, so I understand the thief that is addiction.
When you found out that you were pregnant at 16, who did you tell first?
I told one of my best friends. It wasn’t that big a deal when I was 16. Where I live, everyone had babies. A lot of my friends had kids. It wasn’t until I left my neighborhood that I realized it’s a big deal.
You weren’t able to continue with school, were you?
No, I could not attend school pregnant. We had a program called the Teenage Career Program. It was in the basement of City Hall. And that to me was so devaluing, because I was always a really good student. I carried that with me into my work as a teacher, because I recognize that being smart is not enough. If you’re worried about where you’re going to sleep or where you’re going to eat or taking care of a baby, it doesn’t matter how smart you are.
We have this national narrative of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.
You cannot pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you do not have any boots. That creates this idea that “all you have to do is work harder,” almost like it’s your fault. And that’s not always true. I wish I were the rule, but I recognize that I’m the exception.
You’re a former teacher — what has Education Secretary Betsy DeVos done that’s concerned you?
Some of the nonstarters for me were the conversations about arming teachers, some of the provisions about campus sexual assaults, the conversation about the Americans With Disabilities Act and students with special needs. Every time I would hear a policy decision come up, I would say, “I know what you think you’re doing, but that’s not what it looks like by the time it gets to me. For the one kid that you think you’re protecting, 1,000 kids will be disproportionately impacted.” We have to make sure that we’re talking about both urban and suburban communities — not just mass shootings but the kid who is in their home and a bullet comes through their window.
Did a bullet come through your window?
Absolutely. As a kid, there was a shooting in the common area of our building and someone got killed. The next morning, I remember my grandmother pouring water and sweeping the blood out so that we could play there.
When was the last time you experienced sexism?
All the time. Even when we came to new member orientation, my husband was here with me, and everyone was addressing my husband. I said, “I’m actually the member.”
Would you vote to impeach Trump?
Today, I would not, because we have a process. We can be as angry as we want, but we operate in facts. I tell people, “Be careful. Don’t let a genie out of the bottle. He will not always be president. If you can remove the name and say, ‘I would have done the exact same thing if it were Bush, Clinton, Obama, Carter,’ then that’s fine. But don’t change policy for people, because the people will leave, and the policy will stay.”
But what about all the anger out there?
Adults deal with anger differently — that’s the most valuable lesson I learned from working with teenagers. I would never allow my students to treat each other the way that I’ve seen some of our elected officials behave. I would never allow kids to say some of the things that are being said on social media. They would be disciplined.
So Trump should be suspended?
Do not let this psycho steal your joy. We are at an intersection in history, and 20 years from now, it’s going to be the millennials and the students and the women and the single moms and the outliers who came in and restored faith in government. It’s happening.