The Brown Girls Guide to Politics is proud to partner with the State Innovation Exchange’s (SiX) Reproductive Freedom Leadership Council and Democracy Project to bring you a spotlight on six women of color state legislators who navigated the unprecedented influx of racist, anti-democratic, anti-abortion, and anti-transgender legislation introduced this year.
Today, we are spotlighting Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas (New York).
What was the moment that made you fall in love with politics?
For me, I was always interested in the conditions of people's lives, believing that people deserve health opportunities, and recognizing and learning about policies to create systemic change.
My first kind of real interaction with politics was through an internship at Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez's office, which was really exciting because she was the first Puerto Rican woman in Congress, and I got the opportunity through the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).
Really falling in love with politics was seeing a bold, powerful, unapologetic, Puerto Rican woman fight for so many issues that impact our district. But what really moved me was her fight for Puerto Rico. When Vieques was being bombed by the US military, and seeing her stand up and rally and say, “¡Ni una bomba más!” was beautiful, powerful and inspiring, because politics never really looked like me. It never looked like so many people in my life and to see this amazing woman of color, a Puerto Rican woman, a New Yorker stand up and fight with such force and such power made me feel in awe of her and the power of politics, particularly for women of color.
What made you decide to run for office?
I've always been interested in systemic change. I have been doing organizing and advocacy work for decades now and really understanding that a lot of power lies within the kind of policies and laws that are being raised and implemented, and understanding the ways in which those laws impact people's lives. And I love, love, love doing advocacy and organizing and building power amongst the community. But ultimately, a lot of that was in order to influence those who represent us and who are at the decision-making tables.
It wasn't until 2018 when we saw the sweep in western Queens. My Congressmember became Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez. My neighboring Assemblywoman was the first dreamer in office. My state senator who was elected that year was a young Latina labor organizer. The following year was a district attorney race with a queer, young Latina abolitionist. We were just seeing this wave of progressive change led by women of color.
And people started talking, turning to me and saying, “Is that guy who's been there for 12 years -- You know, pale, male and stale -- Is he still there?” And like, “Wow, how did he survive this change?” And people started saying, “You should run! You should run!”
And it's statistically true that women need seven-plus times to be asked to run before they actually consider it. And I'm a statistic there! But after hearing it many times, I started really thinking about it, because while I love advocacy and I always considered myself an advocate, the opportunity to actually lead and be able to implement that systemic change that I always fought for felt really exciting and powerful. So, I raised my hand and the rest is history.
This year we saw an unprecedented number of racist, anti-democratic, anti-abortion, and anti-transgender bills introduced. How did witnessing those bills pass in other states impact the way you governed?
New York is different. In New York, we actually have the opportunity to be the beacon of progressive change. We have the opportunity to pass bolder and stronger and more progressive legislation. So I'm really proud, but it's almost in response to what is happening across the country. We want to make sure that while we're seeing hateful, anti-woman, anti-queer, anti-immigrant, misogynistic policies across the country, we have an opportunity to actually push the envelope the other way. And yet, it's still a fight.
Even in a state like New York, that's a progressive state, there's still a battle that we have, even in a majority democratic conference, where not everyone's with us. So I feel like, while we're seeing the hate that's happening across the country, New York has a real opportunity to show what it's like to possibly be a beacon of hope, at this moment.
I'm really proud to have introduced and now have passed a few bills that reflect that. So while there are these anti-trans bills happening in places like Arkansas, I introduced a piece of legislation that would prohibit non-essential travel to places like Arkansas that have anti-trans policies. That was a statement to say, “We don't tolerate that type of behavior and policies, and we stand against it.”
But I also passed a bill that would require municipalities, utility companies, and waterworks to use the name and gender pronouns that a customer uses. It sounds simple. But in order to fight for dignity, we need to pass these types of laws to ensure that all these entities are respectful of people's identity.
And we also passed the Gender Recognition Act, which allows people to select M, F, or X gender markers on New York State-issued driver’s licenses, state IDs, and birth certificates, without these really traumatic rules that used to be in place.
What were your biggest lessons learned as a state legislator this year?
It takes coalitions and campaigns and advocates to help move the needle. While you need good legislators in office, we can't do it alone. We need community, we need people, we need activists, and sometimes we need drastic action.
We passed the Excluded Workers Fund and got $2.1 billion allocated for a fund for most undocumented people who are excluded from any other form of COVID relief. But it took a hunger strike by a group of undocumented people who did not eat food for 23 days. It took legislators like me to join them for 24 hours, it took nonstop advocacy, marching, writing letters to the editor, op-eds, and lobbying. And again, that's as a legislator, and working in tandem with the community.
It's hard. You could dream big and introduce exciting policy, but it doesn't move without the support of the community. And that's very real and exciting because we have powerful grassroots movements, but it's exhausting, right? Every fight has to be a huge coalition campaign. But that's what it's going to take to get the really exciting, big bold ideas through.
Why is it so critical, now more than ever, for women of color to get involved in politics and stand up for reproductive freedom and democracy?
Oh, it matters who's in office! It really does!
The forces that you are up against are very real. We need people like us in those positions of power, that understand the lived experiences of the community, that feel connected to the day-to-day challenges that people face and their lived realities. We're going to continue to see terrible laws passed if we don't have that change of the representative body. And, you know, statistically women, particularly women of color, are better legislators because we are more effective, we reach across the aisle, we're willing to elevate certain issues, stories, and communities, and willing to address and work in ways to get to solutions, which is not always the case when you're dealing with egos. In terms of trying to work to get things done, it is women who have been on the frontlines of really effective policymaking, and we need more of us there.
This past March SiX and NOBEL Women released a report entitled No Democracy Without Black Women, highlighting the underrepresentation of Black Women in state legislatures. How can we move Black women’s voices to be elevated in state legislatures?
It's literally creating or supporting platforms for them. On the more political side, Black women need money, they need people on the ground, volunteers, they need support, if they are parents, they need childcare.
But also, we need spaces that are going to elevate Black women’s voices and stories, getting their voices out there, whether it's op-eds or spots on news programs. We have to create that space for Black women because they're on the front lines, they understand the struggles that communities are experiencing, they are the most powerful voices for their communities.
In New York, we have some badass, amazing Black women who are on the front lines of the legislature, and it's really exciting. And so New York is a bit of a special place, but I think, across the country, you need to create more of those opportunities, but it takes investment - it literally takes investment in their lives and believing in them and that's something that we need to invest in.
Even though women of color are leading these fights, we know that this work is not BIPOC women’s work alone and that it’s not “our” responsibility to fix the problem. What advice would you give to those looking to advance democracy and reproductive freedom?
It is listening to BIPOC women and trans communities. It's investing in those communities. It's recognizing that running for office is a very lonely endeavor, and seeking out the support that you would need if you're a person of color, or a woman of color, thinking about running.
I feel the most important thing is thinking about what you have to offer to a movement. It doesn't always mean running for office. There are so many roles in which we can create change. And I've underscored how important advocacy is, how important and critical it is, and if you're ready to run, recognize that there will be deep disappointments, and there will be high joys of the experience, and it's an emotional roller coaster. But it's worth it in the end.