A conversation with Phara Souffrant Forrest on housing, local politics, and why more nurses don’t (but should) run for office

Rachel Kauder Nalebuff
5 min readMay 28, 2020
Phara Souffrant Forrest for Assembly

RACHEL KAUDER NALEBUFF: What do you do as a nurse?

PHARA SOUFFRANT FORREST: I’m a maternal child health field nurse. My job involves a lot of travel around Brooklyn — I visit patients in their homes before and after they give birth. I make sure that the mothers are recovering and I check in on babies to make sure they’re healthy.

A big part of my job is also educational — I provide instructions to the family around infant care and breastfeeding.

What has working as a nurse illuminated for you about the political change that is needed in New York and in the 57th assembly district?

As a field nurse, you get a big picture view of a patient’s life. One of my patients was a new mother struggling with diabetes and fearful that her immigration status will be discovered. She has to balance multiple jobs to avoid the eviction of her family from their studio apartment. I can see her moldy apartment, her work uniform, her bills piling up. You see that there’s only so much you can do as a nurse. You see that what we need is really a complete political transformation of our society.

What insights would your experience as a nurse offer you as an elected official?

Being a nurse affects the way you think. As a nurse, you learn to assess patients to determine the severity of their condition and prioritize who’s going to get immediate attention. This training really helps me make sense of this crisis where there are so many problems — healthcare workers without protective equipment, millions unemployed, and no money for rent.

Are there any other politicians in the country who started out as healthcare workers? Do you feel any kinship?

There are only ​16 elected officials​, on the state and federal level, across the entire country who are registered nurses. It makes sense that we don’t see more nurses in politics because of barriers to working class people running for office. But more nurses ​should ​be running for office. Nurses get that we need transform our healthcare system and make free healthcare a human right.

One of those 16 officials is from New York and represents the 87th district in the Bronx, Karines Reyes. She went back to work in a hospital while patients were flooding in with COVID-19. As a nurse, I respect her for that.

What issue is at the top of your mind today?

Protective equipment for healthcare workers.

How has this been magnified by COVID-19?

Many of our hospitals — especially safety net hospitals — have been underfunded, under equipped, and understaffed for a long time. But it’s gotten much worse. Nurses were using a single N-95 mask for a whole week. And Cuomo cut billions from our healthcare budget.

There have been some improvements with protective equipment, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. We need to make sure that we never deal with a situation like this one again. That will take people who actually are willing to stand up to our leadership in Albany and the austerity they’re pushing.

I want to talk about tenants rights with you, since you transitioned into politics through organizing tenants in your building, and most recently have been a part of the movement to pressure Albany to instate rent moratoriums. What is your short-term and long-term hope for renters in New York?

Short term — I am worried about the rent. We needed to cancel the rent YESTERDAY. I hope the state legislature and governor cancel rent payments during this crisis. And if they won’t, I hope the rent strikes we’ve been seeing across this city continue to grow and get the attention of lawmakers in Albany.

Longterm — we need to think about social housing. Social housing is when we all democratically control where we live, rather than private ownership where a landlord is getting rich off of what should be a human right. We need to make sure we promote social housing in this crisis, not bail out landlords.

How could renters play more of a role in local politics? I’ve found that the frequent transience that comes with renting makes it hard to grow roots and get invested in local politics. And that it’s also easy to feel disempowered. What could change, politically and culturally, to get out of this cycle?

The first step to acting politically as a renter is to talk to your neighbors. We all have problems as tenants — maybe the rent is too high, maybe your landlord is trying to evict you, maybe you can’t get repairs and your ceiling is leaking. Whatever it is, we need unity in our buildings, neighborhoods, and across the city.

And if you’re not interested in building this unity, you should know one thing: your landlord definitely is. Landlords are talking to one another in groups like REBNY, thinking about how to make sure our rents stay high and tenants don’t get their rent cancelled. So we need to get organizing.

What else do you think is holding people back from getting involved in local politics?

For years, we’ve had a politics that revolves around money, not people. Many politicians promise a lot, but at the end of the day not much changes. A main reason there’s not change is that politicians are taking money from the real estate industry and corporations. We need an alternative that is based on the power of people, not on corporations. We need to put people over profits.

How do people vote for you if they feel unsafe going to the polls in June?

Because of Covid-19 anyone can request an absentee ballot online. ​You’ll get a ballot in the mail. The latest it can be mailed back is June 16. To request a ballot go to: https://nycabsentee.com/absentee/

How can people, who are excited about your platforms but aren’t eligible to vote for you, support your campaign?

The most important thing anyone can do is join a phonebank! We are calling every day. It’s actually really rewarding to talk to our fellow New Yorkers, especially when we are talking about issues that are so important for everyone who’s struggling right now. Here’s the link if you want to join: bit.ly/volunteerforphara

Anything else you’d like to say, especially to the many people reading this who are working writers and teachers living in Brooklyn?

This is is such a difficult time so I want to say thank you. The recent budget and what we’re hearing around “reimagining education” from Albany is an insult. Our public school teachers deserve so much more. And to writers, thank you for documenting what we’re seeing in this historic time. It’s a hard task.

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Rachel Kauder Nalebuff

Rachel Kauder Nalebuff is the author of “Stages” (Thick Press, 2020), a hybrid collection of writing and interviews with end-of-life care workers.