An Interview with Senator Montgomery
Part II of a Continuing Our Time Press Series
OTP: When you first came into politics what were the main challenges you faced as a woman and particularly a black woman?
I always said I was a three- or four-way minority in the Senate. Being a woman, being an African-American and being a Democrat. The political environment was also different. I’ve never felt in this state that the political establishment supports and promotes women. Therefore, it’s rare that you find women moving up.
Fortunately, it’s much easier if women have money of their own. I say that because there is so much money required. And people who have money associate with other people who have money. That is a level of power that someone like me would never probably have because I don’t have the friends to promote that kind of thing. Unfortunately, that’s just a fact.
For me, it was always a challenge. Political culture doesn’t necessarily promote it. It is almost like if you’re being “political”, you are periled. It is anticipated that you will pay attention to certain things but not others (so) you are not taken seriously. I guess the other thing is that our community is not as politically engaged … in terms of strategy. So when they come to me or I go to them, they want me to define the issues, know the issues, and be able to tell them. For other groups, they … tell you what their needs are. Their definition of an elected official is very different.
In many instances, for our people, there is a lot of reverence; we function almost as an authority on things. Because they love us so much, they very often don’t hold us accountable. Even when they dislike some of the things we may be doing. The culture of our people is very polite, very forgiving and not always thinking about holding us, their leaders, accountable.
It’s sort of a joke of mine that you should not allow us to come and preach a sermon. We’re not ministers. You have people who preach a sermon on Sunday. If you’re invited to preach a sermon, that’s one thing. I’m talking about these people who come, make a speech, even on Sundays. I’m amazed.
OTP: It’s a speech, it’s not policy.
Ministers provide your spiritual food. But as politicians, our responsibility is not to provide spiritual food; we’re supposed to talk to people about what we’ve done to improve their lives, of their children, the community. What exactly are you able to do? So when we’re not required to be accountable in that way, you get into the mode of talking crazy talk.
OTP: You appear to be solution-driven, you don’t preach the problem. Where does that come from?
It’s hard to say, when I first started. My preparation was to be in politics. I had some mentors. I did community organizing. I worked and watched people, how we would go to City Hall, Borough Hall and negotiate with commissioners and people in government for the community and for children. Sometimes we would have demonstrations, but a lot of things happened when we went to sit down and really negotiate. We would plan before we went to the meetings.
OTP: Strategy sessions.
Exactly. I saw that as productive in terms of getting things done. By the time I ran for office, I had had all of this experience. Before I went into politics I had organized around children’s issues. It occurred to me that everybody came around saying how they loved children. It was some sort of a mantra. But nothing happened for the children. So I finally learned that there was a huge difference in having people who say they loved the children and people who actually made something happen. And I thought if I ever had an opportunity to get into a position where I could make a difference, I would want to be able to make a difference for children in terms of policy. And I didn’t buy this idea that just because you say you love the children, it defines what you do.
OTP: Don’t you see the same thing today with people saying they love the children but where is the action
We fought so hard for child care. And that was what I organized around. That’s what my degrees are related to. Early childhood and early education was my whole life. We fought to get child care on college campuses. We fought to prevent the closing of child care centers. We tried to build on what we had and say let’s extend that and support even more, in terms of having early comprehensive childhood programs that would be school, child care, community and after-school all in one. Communities build their whole lives around child care centers. It was so important because young parents could come in with their children and grow with them and they felt a sense of security that this is my child’s family when I’m away. Never have to worry. And they did things together and it was so important. Sometimes it would be the only place in the neighborhood that was safe.
After-school programs were part of the child-care so that in the afternoon when school was out people would meet the kids and walk them over to the center. That was the function of the center. Then (under the) Bloomberg Administration, it started to be dismantled. One piece at a time, it went. And watching that was so tragic. The taking away of programs. It was undermining the capacity of a community to support families. That’s big. Even before Bloomberg, we lost. Once upon a time in the housing projects, there were child care centers; a child health station. In NYCHA housing! Everybody in that development knew when you were going to have a baby, prenatal, postnatal, all the vaccinations — all taken care of right there.
They closed the health stations, then they started to dismantle the child care programs. All of these things are part of keeping and empowering families in their community. And a lot of our people worked in those places.
I go through this period of being so very disappointed. I’m not seeing us rebuild rapidly enough to keep families from falling through the cracks.
(The next section of our extensive interview with Senator Velmanette Montgomery will appear in the February 27 Our Time Press.)