Jennifer Stewart – Submitted photo

Welcome, Jennifer, to the Ocean State Stories Q & A forum. You are a state representative from District 59, which includes Oak Hill and Woodlawn in Pawtucket along the Providence border. We will get into issues momentarily, but let’s start with your background. Where did you grow up and what schools did you attend?

I grew up in Chicago, IL. Initially, my family lived on the southside, in a predominantly Black, working-class neighborhood called Chatham. When I was in high school, we moved across the city to west Lakeview, about a mile or so west of Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. 

For first through twelfth grades, I attended Catholic schools. For high school, I attended St. Ignatius College Preparatory, a Jesuit school. 

For college and graduate school, I attended the University of Chicago. 

And then you moved to Cambridge, where you had your first teaching job, correct?

I never lived in Cambridge – I taught at the Cambridge School of Weston. It’s an independent school located in Weston, MA. I was on the faculty there for four years; I taught history and political science. 

When did you move to Rhode Island?

My husband and I moved to Pawtucket, RI in 2006. We’ve been in the same house ever since. We chose Pawtucket because it was close to where my husband grew up in Providence. It was a community on the move with exciting arts and culture. We liked that it felt like a city neighborhood that reminded us of living in Chicago, where I grew up and my husband and I met.

And what is your “day job” now?

I teach history and political science in the upper school at Moses Brown School. I’ve been teaching there since 2006. 

We understand you have been greatly inspired by the Civil Rights movement. Tell us about that.

I’m inspired by Civil Rights Movement activists like Fannie Lou Hamer. Her work on behalf of desegregation and voting rights, along with her leadership in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, demonstrated an unrelenting commitment to ensuring that everyone can live with dignity in the United States. I want all Rhode Islanders to be able to live with dignity and be able to lead the lives they want, free from systemic obstacles. 

You were elected to the General Assembly in 2022. Had you ever run for public office before?

I had never run for office before 2022. Holding elected office was not on my “bucket list.” Nonetheless, I decided to run and campaign. I had a great team help me. It turned out to be a winning combination. 

Why did you decide to run?

Since the pandemic, I have been inspired by so many Rhode Islanders who demand we do better for each other. I began to see my community differently, too, and ask more questions about what has been going on in our state and how our resources have been used.

Also, I was encouraged by acquaintances, friends, and even my own students to run for office. After initially declining several times, I softened on the idea and thought, “well, why not me?”

Lastly, I thought it would be fun to share the experience with my students. 

What were some of the issues you emphasized in your campaign?

The unifying theme of my campaign was that members of the General Assembly should use more of its power for the benefit of ordinary people making a life here in Pawtucket and throughout the state. These needs included affordable housing, accessible health care, livable and dignified employment, a sustainable environment, and transparent and responsive representation. It included, for example, passing the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act (EACA) and prohibiting plastics burning.

And now, they are issues you champion in office. Let’s get into some of them, starting with education. What is your assessment of K-12 schools in Rhode Island now?

There are so many wonderful and dedicated teachers in RI. Youth want to fulfill their potential even if they are unsure of what it is or how to do it. The Covid years have undermined educational gains and made the challenging work of teaching more difficult. Teachers are underpaid and schools are underfunded. There are school mergers and closures that some argue make financial sense; I question whether they make sense for the well-being of communities and students. 

Healthcare is also of critical interest to you. Break that down for us please. Here at Ocean State Stories, we have written frequently about health disparities.

I am a member of the House Committee on Health and Human Services. Rhode Island is experiencing a crisis in the access to primary care providers. We need to act urgently to modernize our health policies relative to our neighboring states or the problem will worsen. Also, I am the prime sponsor of bills like House Resolution No. 7887 which asks our congressional delegation to protect traditional Medicare and to hold Medicare Advantage plans accountable. Also, I have been very happy to support the work of my colleagues to ensure that the beneficial aspects of the Affordable Care Act are part of state law in case the national policy is successfully challenged at some point. I believe that access to medical care is a human right and should be a domain that is protected from profit-seeking. 

Talk about another interest of yours, the environment. We live of course at a time when climate change affects everyone.

I see the health and expansion of public transportation in RI as a climate change issue. I support fully funding RIPTA and oppose any service cuts. In Pawtucket, access to active greenspace like Morley Field is a social justice issue. Improving the environment, including access to parks, is good for everyone’s mental and physical health. It can be good for development, too. Unfortunately, too many decision-makers see the environment as a hurdle to development. 

And what about housing?

We all deserve a safe, stable place to call home. Yet, too many Rhode Island families are living with the stress and fear that they will lose their homes because rents have been rapidly increasing but incomes have not. Also, the supply of reasonably priced apartments has not kept pace with the demand. Last session, under the leadership of Speaker Shekarchi, we passed important legislation that will eventually help to increase our housing supply. This continues to be an important priority for the House. We need to compliment that housing legislation by helping renters – 38% of our state’s households. I introduced H 7304 to increase the number of days notice people have prior to a rent increase. Imagine living paycheck to paycheck, already rent-burdened, and receiving notice of a big rent increase to start the following month. 

Our current law does not recognize today’s rental conditions in which it is so hard to find affordable apartments and in which families are faced with double-digit percentage rent increases. This bill seeks to give all renters an opportunity to adjust budgets, seek additional employment, and get a security deposit together. It seeks to reduce stress for families by ensuring people have more time to figure out what’s next and how to remain housed. 

My other housing-related interest is in accessibility. As we focus our policy-making attention on the housing supply, we must remember to meet the accessibility needs of our diverse population. 

I introduced H 7377 to require the design of new homes and substantial rehab projects that receive any financial support from the public to accommodate access for anyone, of any age or ability, who may live there now, or in the future. It would require that home designs comply with the Standards for Type C (Visitable) Units of the American National Standards Institute (commonly known as “ANSI”) Standards for Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities. The goal of this bill is housing that can work throughout a lifetime, no matter what might happen physically to us. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 26% of Americans have a disability, yet only about 6% of the housing supply is designed to be accessible. And it’s estimated that about 70% of people will experience some sort of physical disability in their lives that makes stair climbing impossible. 

If we adopt visitable standards in new housing, those who develop mobility problems won’t have to move. Also, it’s significantly less expensive to build homes that are visitable, than to renovate or retrofit them later.

The health of democracy is another issue. Tell us about that.

I support expanded access to the ballot through same-day voter registration. 

Transparency is important, too, so I introduced a bill (H7890) that would require municipalities to disclose information about legal actions they participate in as defendants. This would also include information about the legal costs incurred by the city. This bill is inspired by my experience in 2022, when Representative Cruz and I were co-plaintiffs challenging a Pawtucket ordinance that prohibited posting yard signs for political candidates on residential property more than 30 days before an election. Although there had been several court decisions dating back decades that ruled durational limits on displaying political signs unconstitutional, including successful suits against similar ordinances in Cumberland, Warwick, and North Kingstown, and despite the RI ACLU alerting Pawtucket in 2018 about the unconstitutionality of its law, the city attempted to enforce its ordinance, forcing us to sue.

Because we won the lawsuit, the City of Pawtucket was responsible for our legal costs and minor compensatory damages. In all, Pawtucket paid $19,311.77. This does not include the city’s own legal costs which were not disclosed.

I knew lawsuits are expensive; I had no idea how expensive until I was involved in this case. In our case, those costs were avoidable. My involvement in this lawsuit led me to wonder how many other cases were in process and how much money is being spent, not only in Pawtucket but in every city and town throughout our state

Lastly, I introduced H7386, The Freedom to Read Act. This bill asserts that it is the responsibility of the state government to support the right of Rhode Islanders to read freely. It protects the freedom of public libraries to acquire and deaccession materials and protects libraries from attempts to ban, remove, censor or otherwise restrict access to books and other materials. Lastly, it asserts that libraries shall provide an adequate collection of books and other materials sufficient in size and varied in subject matter to satisfy the library needs of the people of their communities. 

Some folks might think that book bans would never happen in Rhode Island, but in 2022, according to the PBS NewsHour, there were four efforts to ban books in Rhode Island. Last year, The Providence Journal reported on a bill that was introduced in the RI House to restrict access to “obscene” books. That bill had bipartisan support. Luckily, it did not advance. Nonetheless, we should expect more attempts to ban books in Rhode Island as suggested by a 2023 article in Ocean State Stories. Passing this legislation would be an important statement of support for Rhode Island’s democratic values. 

What is your take on the importance of journalism to a healthy civic life?

We need vibrant, active journalism to hold government and elected officials accountable.  We especially need it at the state and local levels. Democracy can’t be healthy without varied, accessible journalism. In addition, we in the General Assembly could do more to protect Rhode Islanders from disinformation and to help people recognize it. 

What are your hopes for this session of the General Assembly?

I hope Safe Storage will become law in Rhode Island this year. I hope that at least one of the bills I described in this interview will become law, too. I hope the General Assembly will take housing stability for renters more seriously. Without action, I fear the number of Rhode Islanders will continue to grow in our state. 

And finally, what advice do you have for young people coming of age in this turbulent period?

Ask yourself what you care about right now. Find like-minded people in your community, and start doing things and getting involved. Start with small actions. You’ll learn a ton and gain a sense of empowerment. We need your creativity and energy if we are to solve any of the many problems we face.