Last month, leadership of the New York state Senate’s Committee on Children and Families, passed to one of its newest senators, Jabari Brisport — who was born two years after his predecessor, Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, began her tenure in the statehouse. In a phone interview with The Imprint, Brisport shared how his years teaching in Crown Heights ignited his passion for ensuring children are given the foundation for a stable life, including quality education and a safe place to call home.
The latest in a wave of young leftists arriving in Albany, Brisport, 33, represents a diverse swath of Central and South Brooklyn, spanning high-rise public housing developments, wealthy brownstone enclaves, and working-class and immigrant neighborhoods where gentrification has pushed rents up by nearly 50% in the last decade.
Brisport grew up in a Caribbean neighborhood in Central Brooklyn; his parents have roots in Guyana. He won admission to the selective Prep for Prep scholarship program, which sends high-achieving students of color to private high schools, then studied drama at NYU and Yale before returning to Brooklyn. His early activism centered on a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, and he later protested in support of Black Lives Matter.
Brisport first ran for office in 2017, mounting a long-shot campaign for New York City Council as a member of the Green Party. A member of the Democratic Socialists of America, he has been an outspoken proponent of universal health care, tenant protections and raising taxes on the wealthy, and earned endorsements from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I). Earlier month, he was one of 14 Democratic state senators who joined a bipartisan effort to rescind emergency powers granted to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) in the early days of the pandemic. In a email statement to The Imprint, Brisport said his decision was influenced by the governor’s history of “systematically” cutting funding for services communities need and recent effort to “hide the facts” about deaths in nursing homes.
As he convened his first virtual meeting of the Committee on Children and Families earlier this month, Brisport — the first Black, openly gay member of the state Legislature — acknowledged that government policy has not supported all families, and in some cases has been actively harmful.
“This committee gives us an opportunity to think critically about the pernicious and sometimes subtle ways our current system stands between marginalized New Yorkers and their human right to a healthy stable family,” he said. As examples, he offered both historic and present-day injustices: Black families torn apart during slavery and recent efforts to bar LGBTQ parents from fostering and adopting children.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did your experience growing up in Central Brooklyn and teaching school there shape your understanding of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems?
I recognized there’s really a separate system for children, especially Black and brown children, where they have less access to resources. As a kid, I remember wondering why our local playground was a little bit rundown, and as a public school teacher, there wasn’t enough funding to ensure my students could get textbooks or that there was always a bathroom for them. It was very clear to me that we do not believe in our kids enough, and it’s important to ensure that we make budgetary decisions and political decisions that guarantee good quality of life for children.
What will be your legislative priorities for the Committee on Children and Families this session?
Making sure that we have much more equity in the juvenile justice system — for example, raising the minimum age at which a child can be arrested from 7 to 12. Also, making sure that we continually have funding for foster services and also for preventive care for a child before coming into the foster system, and ensuring that there are no budget cuts to social services for children, especially for Black and brown youth who are marginalized or disadvantaged.
The number of children in foster care across New York has dropped about 40% over the last decade, and even more in New York City. What kind of policies should the state pursue to help more children remain safely with their families?
We should ensure that there are robust services available for parents to begin with. For example, if students are having trouble logging into online class too many times, it becomes an absence issue and then that potentially becomes a child welfare case. I have students who can’t get online because of their home situation, and that’s not their parents’ fault, it’s that our government failed to ensure that there was a device for the child and enough quality broadband. So, we need to invest in education in such a way that things that are truly the fault of government don’t end up being branded as the fault of the parent and leading to a child protective case.
Are there other things you have in mind as being the fault of the government?
Our inability to ensure that there is quality housing for every child and every family, which has a ripple effect. A child may be continuously tired because she doesn’t have stable housing, sometimes she’s sleeping at a different family member’s place — maybe she’s at her grandparents one night, then her cousin’s the next night. That’s not because of neglect or lack of love from our families, that’s because the government failed to ensure that everyone who needs a home has one that they call their own.
As you mentioned, the pandemic and the serious recession have intensified the financial stress on families, and there is research that shows that families living in higher levels of poverty also have higher levels of child welfare involvement. How should New York support families at this particularly difficult time?
We need to ensure that the social and institutional safety net is robust. We have threats of budget cuts coming — I was speaking with childcare providers who have been very severely impacted by the governor’s withholding 20% to local agencies. Our social safety net is already not strong enough as it is and it’s going to be a domino effect if we don’t ensure that people who are doing their best to bring stability to working class people, especially working class people of color, are able to maintain the work they’re doing. Otherwise, there will be a very, very troubling ripple effect throughout New York State.
The recent stimulus bill requires states to allow foster youth to remain in the system past age 21 during the pandemic. Do you think New York should make this change permanent?
We haven’t made a decision on that but it is important that, during the pandemic and moving forward, that people are not thrown out in the cold or having their services disrupted before they’re ready. I’ve worked with other legislators to really do our best to address this budgetary crisis by taxing the wealthy to increase revenue, and it is important to me that we have the funding to extend services if we need to.
Aside from allowing young people to remain in foster care, what other changes would you propose to support young people aging out?
Part of our housing platform is calling for more deeply investing in supportive housing to really ensure that people are able to get into housing where there is a support network, social services and help finding employment. I think that will be critical for a significant number of New Yorkers, but especially those who are transitioning into adulthood.
We recently reported that the cost of operating New York’s youth prisons is approaching $1 million per young person incarcerated. What changes, if any, do you plan to propose to the state juvenile justice system?
In general, my criminal justice platform revolves around restorative justice and decarceration, so taking steps to reduce the number of youth that end up in the system in the first place would be important to us. I’d be happy to work with my colleagues to figure out other ways to ensure that there are fewer youth caught up in the system.
Are there any particular approaches or restorative justice programs that you’ve seen be effective?
I know Sen. Montgomery was big on the Solutions Not Suspension bill, which aimed to decrease the number of students who are getting suspended, because it’s predominantly Black and brown youth. I had the pleasure of working with a principal who did not see suspensions as a go-to tactic — he was of the opinion that we should exercise all possible avenues before looking into suspension. And he was right, suspensions don’t really teach the child how to channel their frustrations or energy more effectively or how to communicate with their peers better.
All New Yorkers have had a really difficult year, and especially children and youth, who’ve had schooling disrupted and all kinds of challenges. What do you hope that New York can do for children over the next year, and what kind of support should the state provide to them?
I would like to have two of the most fundamental stabilizing things in their lives be secured. I would like to see housing not be a concern for children, meaning no one is feeling threatened by evictions. I had one student that I didn’t see for about seven months after the schools closed in March because they left to bury a family member in the Carolinas and came back to illegal eviction and had to deal with the fallout from that.
Also, ensuring their stability in education. We need remote learning plans that center the voices of teachers and are not political games, ones that are drafted by educators who understand the best practices for children. We need to ensure that every child actually has the materials necessary to be able to log in and attend class.