By Natasha Ambriz-Villela | Yale Broads | June 10, 2020
Justin Farmer, Hamden city councilman and Connecticut state Senate hopeful, sat down with me (virtually) to talk about his experience with direct action, the COVID-19 pandemic, and his campaign. The primary for Connecticut’s 17th state senate district will take place on August 11th, in which Farmer will face fellow Democrat Jorge Cabrera in hopes of moving on to the general election on November 3rd. The 25-year-old councilman and community organizer is currently finishing his undergraduate education at Southern Connecticut State University, where he studies marine biology. Farmer’s family immigrated from Jamaica before he was born, and he was raised by a single mother. Being forced to advocate for himself at an early age, Farmer decided to get more involved in his community, eventually prompting him to seek political office.
BR: I was reading a little bit about you and other interviews you’ve done, and I know that you’ve been pretty outspoken about your experience with Tourette’s syndrome. How has this shaped your approach to community engagement and political activism, if at all?
JF: I think it’s probably the pinnacle of my activism… I had learning disabilities throughout school. It’s kind of funny now because most people are like “Yeah, I know Justin. He’s such a great guy; he connects,” but for the longest time, I didn’t really make a lot of connections with people. I kind of isolated myself. It wasn’t until I got sick in high school, probably my sophomore or junior year… I couldn’t figure out what was going on with me. I asked the school to do a ton of tests, but they were kind of reluctant… I ended up seizing almost every time [the fire alarm went off] until I figured out putting on the noise-cancelling headphones. I ended up getting disability advocacy [and] lawyers from the state, getting the school district to pay for some college classes. It was that experience of figuring out how to navigate the education system, how to advocate for myself because my mom as an immigrant wasn’t familiar with the process… Up until that point of getting sick, my thought process was “I’m going to study fish, I’m going to play with fish, I’m going to get paid for it, and that’s gonna be my contribution. I’m going to help out the environment but I’m not really going to deal with people.”
Initially after getting sick—this is right after Treyvon Martin and Mike Brown—[I worried about] being a young Black man with a movement disorder. My body moves, without the headphones, twenty to sixty times a minute without my permission. I would always get nervous. Then I just got out and started doing activism with labor unions. Then I worked with undocumented communities. Then I ended up being an intern for Planned Parenthood. I ended up running for office. So it went from “I’m just about the environment” to “Because I had this experience I’m going to get involved.” I just ended up being in the community all the time. Now most people forget that I have a disability, and most people now think “Oh, it’s the guy with the headphones.” No one really asks anymore. BR: Prior to running for councilman, what community organizations were you involved with, and are you still involved with any of those organizations?
JF: I feel like I’m a floating activist. I work in conjunction with a lot of groups. I was formerly a part of [Planned Parenthood] because of the internship, and I mostly worked on affordable housing and other reproductive justice issues: paid family leave, access to birth dulas, protecting Title X. In terms of other organizations, I’ve worked a lot with [Unidad Latina en Acción] in terms of direct action [and] People Against Police Brutality on numerous occasions [even] before the police shooting in Hamden. I’ve supported the CT Bail Fund. I’ve worked with tons of other college groups between Southern and Yale [including] Fossil Free Yale—I’ve taken arrest with them three times.
BR: Wow, that’s a lot of involvement. You became a Hamden councilman as a college student. How did your young age affect your approach to politics and the way you were perceived among your peers? Can you just talk about getting involved at such a young age and what that looked like?
JF: Yeah. It’s weird because I’m starting to feel old enough where I think I’m an adult-adult. It’s also still weird because I can probably be in the room for another fifteen years and still be young by most standards, at least ten to fifteen years younger than other leaders in the room. In some rooms, the age gap between me and another leader is like forty years.
BR: What issues are the most important to you within your Hamden community?
JF: Creating good jobs, mostly because the town right now is in an economical crisis because we didn’t pay our pensions for twenty years. We’re basically perpetually thirty million dollars behind where we’re supposed to be. I know how institutions work and how systematic oppression works: [it] affects the poorest people in my community… Despite the town being thirty percent people of color, eighty, ninety percent of the workforce is white. That immediately is the biggest thing, just empowering people.
BR: You’ve already kind of talked about your involvement with the Yale community and how you’ve been involved with Fossil Free Yale. You mentioned the [police] shooting [of Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon] that happened last year, so how were you involved with [the response]?
JF: Paul Witherspoon’s mom and her partner are my constituents… The shooting happened probably eight blocks from my house in my immediate community, in this weird junction between Hamden and New Haven. In terms of how I got involved, through Kerry Ellington. I knew Kerry from [the 2015 shooting of Ra’Shamel Rogers in Waterbury] and a couple of other things… It was a budget season as well. Finals, budget season, and then this. I was thinking “Institutional racism is real. I’m in no mood to bullcrap you; you don’t pay me enough to talk flowery about systematic oppression.” It became this weird position where as a city councilor, I had to be careful about what I said, but then I also have my own personal politics and beliefs and constituents to advocate for. I became a liaison between the council, the mayor’s office, and advocacy groups like the ACLU.
BR: On the subject of Yale, given the current pandemic, what do you see Yale’s responsibility to the New Haven community being? What do you see Yale’s role being, and what do we owe to the greater New Haven community? JF: Part of my bafflement and frustration is that you have some experts in epidemiology at Yale, and you had a symposium about a month before the virus really hit the US talking about how bad it would be, and yet that information wasn’t really shared with the greater New Haven community. It was an academic thing that was just talked about in echo chambers rather than sharing and preparing and educating people.
My university, Southern, offered to open up its dorms and allow our first responders to use it so that they could keep their families safe… [Yale] had to be shamed into doing that. The University of New Haven gladly offered to open up its dorms [as well]. To see Yale [say that they] hit hard times [but] make ten million dollars a day on the endowment. You’re asking for money, and you’re not willing to show up in the community. Having the Payne Whitney Gym be a facility overflow for COVID [but only] for Yale people. It’s not just the monetary resources the university has, but it’s the educational capital that should be shared with the greater New Haven community. That’s where I feel the university fails.
BR: Switching gears a little bit, you are affiliated with the Democratic party, and there’s lots of things going on right now on the national scale and the Democratic party. How would you describe your relationship to the party, and has your view of the party as an institution changed as you’ve become more involved with politics?
JF: I often say to people I don’t believe in electoral politics but I’m elected. I’m very intentional about telling people that I’m an activist elected official. Activism comes first. People that are closest to the problems are closest to the solutions. And when we empower people to give their voice to something, we’re better for it. Being an elected official is being a modern day switchboard. Really, we’re just supposed to be hearing what’s going on in different communities and saying “I’m going to plug you in with this person or with this organization or put you in this committee so that we have the best perspective on how to advocate.”
In terms of my relationship to the party, I have always been an outsider and I probably always will be… I was supporting Bernie in the primary, and if it wasn’t for Bernie running four years ago then a school project of having to work on a campaign, I probably would’ve never been elected, let alone run for state senate.
BR: Ideologically, how do you compare to your opponent [for the state senate primary]? What key differences should voters know about?
JF: I laugh because my opponent says we’re very similar, [but] no, that’s not possible. One of the hardest things for me is I truly care about a lot of issues, so it’s not just me paying lip service to it. I read about this, I study this, I think about it. [For example] reproductive justice is protecting women’s right to choose and healthcare, but it’s also housing, and if you don’t get that, you haven’t really read feminist literature or really understand the broader context. My opponent is more of a standard Democratic candidate who is going to vote with leadership for the basic Democratic things, which is great but the party often has to be pushed. Right now we’re dealing with prisoners who are incarcerated with COVID… [We] have about 1500 people who have less than a year left in their sentence and who have been in good standing, who are at risk of contracting this disease. We’re not talking about this from a public health standpoint or from a morality standpoint, but we’re talking about it from a carceral sense of punishment and not really talking about restorative justice and what that looks like.
My opponent works for a labor union, will vote for basic decent things, but he will not be arrested at the Yale-Harvard game to say we need to cancel Puerto Rican debt and shy away from commitments to fossil fuels.
BR: I was reading a little bit about the district that you’re running in, and your opponent actually lost to the conservative candidate. What’s your approach and plan to appeal to the more conservative voters in the area?
JF: By being myself… The other day I was on a talk radio show, and one of the radio managers—he’s a conservative guy and supports Trump—said “I think you’re the real deal. Don’t sell out.” He knows where my politics are, so we can win over people if they feel that we’re being honest and that we really truly mean what we say.
The two most popular people this election cycle for the Democratic party were Elizabeth Warren, who was [formerly] a Republican… Then Bernie Sanders who is an independent. Two people who are not Democrats were the most popular Democrats. So for me, it’s talking to the voters… If we say “we need to win, and these are our issues, and we’re excited about the work,” it doesn’t really matter who’s on the ballot. People will come out for those issues. BR: What are your long-term goals for the future? I know you’re studying marine biology, but do you see yourself considering a possibility of continuing in the political arena professionally?
JF: I want to play with fish and get paid for it. That is my life goal and aspiration, that has not changed. I will always organize and do activism… I’m just playing it as it goes… You cannot study and prepare to be in office because as much as you can deal with policy and other bureaucrats, you have a constituency. You can always vote your conscience, but you also have to vote your community, and your community might take you somewhere completely different from where you want to be working or what you want to be talking about. If it were up to me, we’d be talking more about overfishing, but that’s not happening. I’m driven to other issues. That’s a long way to say I don’t know, and I’m figuring it out.
BR: That’s the way most of us are. Is there anything else you want to add?
JF: I feel I need to do a PSA: be sure to wear your face masks when you’re out, wash your hands as often as you can. Me wearing a mask has nothing to do for me and protecting me, it’s about protecting other people… Just put on a face mask. It’s not that hard.