‘I’m a Nurse Who Ran for Public Office and Won—Here’s What I’m Fighting For’

Photo: Phara Souffrant Forrest / W+G Creative
When union nurse, tenant activist, and New York assembly member-elect Phara Souffrant Forrest goes to Albany in January, it won't be the first time she's advocated for her community. She's spent years fighting to expand access to our country's (frequently elusive) basics, like housing and health care. She plans to promote policies that uplift the collective versus the individual. And she's ready to get to work.

"The African proverb says 'it takes a village to raise a child,'" says Forrest. "The way I look at policy, the way I shape and push policy, is to push back on the idea that it's all about the individual. It's about us growing and maintaining together. And it's very clear that when stuff happens—Hurricane Sandy, the floods in Louisiana, all of that—it took a village for people to survive. So how come we keep forgetting that in our daily lives?"

Experts In This Article
  • Phara Souffrant Forrest, Assemblymember-elect Phara Souffrant Forrest is a union nurse, tenant activist, and life-long resident of Crown Heights.

Forrest will represent New York Assembly District 57, encompassing the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and parts of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant. It is a predominantly Black district; and though its median household income is about 10 percent higher than the state average, nearly 19 percent of its residents live below the poverty line—1.3 times greater than the state average. Forrest was raised by Haitian immigrants in Crown Heights, where she experienced first-hand how policy (or lack thereof) impacts her community. Representing her neighbors feels like a dream come true.

"This has been what the community has been wanting," says Forrest. "It's not something that I'm forcing down their throat. It's not something that the concept is new to them. I think what concept is new, is that you have a legislator that's actually going to try to do it."

As a nurse, Forrest knows how to support those she's responsible for. "Nurses are trained public advocates," she says. "When we take an oath, we are taking the oath to advocate." Through policy, she's ready to fight for everything that encompasses well-being.

"This is an awesome opportunity for people to see that nursing is more than just putting band-aids on boo-boos. It's putting people—humans, the humanity within us—first, above all. Well-being, above all," says Forrest. "Mental health is part of your well-being. Preventative care is well-being. Your housing is well-being. Whether you can feel safe or not to walk down the street without being shot by a cop is part of your well-being."

A community approach to policy

Forrest's platform focuses on community care. "We're working-class people," she says. "And we understand that when you can't clock that 9-to-5, you're in trouble. To know that there might be a safety net for you, people are ready for it, they're excited about it, and I think they're ready to go bat for it, too."

By zeroing in on criminal justice reform, tenant rights, and health care, Forrest hopes to foster a safe and healthy community.

"Criminal justice is tied to racial justice," says Forrest. "And how do we restore all the wrong stuff that's been done to our community? By providing social services that are critical to the well-being of people in my community." In addition to redirecting police funding to social services like education and mental health responders, Forrest will also defend the rights of protesters and work to pass the Safer NY Act, a package of bills that would help increase police transparency.

To ensure the well-being of her constituents (and that they remain a part of her community), Forrest seeks solutions for access to affordable housing. "If you cannot [afford to] live in the district, you can't be part of the community," says Forrest. "A house isn't just where you live, it's where you build and grow." She's fighting to create universal rent stabilization, to invest $3 billion in public housing, and to fund 20,000 units of supportive housing for those leaving the shelter system.

Perhaps her loftiest goal for public health is to pass a form of universal health care through the New York Health Act.

"I want guaranteed universal healthcare for everyone. That means that everyone pays their fair share," she says. "If you make less than $25,000, you are supposed to be supported by somebody who makes $500,000—that's community care. By participating in a system that supports everyone, that's you saying that you care–we're beyond philanthropy, beyond Christmas Coat Drives."

If that doesn't work out, she's also behind Coverage for All, a statewide health insurance product for New Yorkers who are excluded from eligibility for coverage because of their immigration status. "There's other things we can do to make sure that hospitals don't charge very ambiguous, astronomical facility fees," says Forrest. "There's a lot that we can do that will bring meaningful changes for the people in my community."

Becoming a politician her constituents can trust

"Before I was a politician, I was a nurse," says Forrest. It's a profession that has been rated by Americans as the most trustworthy profession for the past 18 years. For a politician, a background in health care is especially salient given that we're in the midst of a pandemic with wide-spread access to a vaccine just months away. On top of being a nurse, she's a Black woman, something she hopes will allow others who look like her to see her as a trusted messenger.

"I will always push straight facts, reputable facts, to educate my community," says Forrest. "I will give my constituents the best information I have to make educated choices for themselves."

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