In a Q+A, Gore talks about her vision for Northampton and her historic campaign.
By Blair Gimma
Jamila Gore is running for At-Large City Councilor in Northampton. We sat down with her earlier this month to discuss her historic campaign and learn more about her vision for Northampton. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Blair Gimma: I have heard rumors about you being interested in municipal government for the last couple of years or so. I know you shared on your website that one of the reasons you want to run is to not have politics as usual. I was curious, what is it about this year or this race that made you decide, you know, “I want to run, and this is when I want to run, and this is what I want to run for”?
Jamila Gore: Yeah, I’ve been wanting to run since about 2017 when the surveillance camera ordeal happened where the police department wanted to put surveillance cameras in downtown Northampton. So that’s when I really got into municipal government and what was going on downtown. I went to city council meetings, and just saw how my Ward 2 representative was not representing what the people wanted. And so, I even thought back then of running for office for Ward 2 Rep, however I didn’t do it that year. And then in 2019, I was thinking of running for Ward 2, but then Karen Foster, who’s a fellow Emerge alum (Emerge is a program for Democratic women to run, and win), she said she was going to run, so I decided not to run in 2019, and so that’s why when this opportunity came up, with both incumbent-at-large seats leaving, I just felt that this was the time to do it now, because I have wanted to do it for so long and I didn’t want to put it off anymore. Especially given COVID and the climate of everything right now, changes can happen so rapidly right now and we can change things now for the future; for the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years. Like Main Street, for instance; we’re going to have a whole re-design of Main Street, and that redesign is going to be lasting for decades, and we’re going to have to live with what we do now. So, I think this is a good time to get into politics, because whatever happens now is going to impact the next 40 or 50 years, I think.
BG: That’s a great point. Speaking of the anti-surveillance camera debate, what would you say you learned from that experience? What was your take-away? I was present for that, too, and I know I was certainly inspired by the consistent turnout and the amount of research, and experiential knowledge shared by members of the public. When I was attending I felt like I was really learning something and learning things I didn’t know. It was inspiring and there was this sense that, you know, “we won?” What did you take from it?
JG: I got a sense that we won and that felt good. I got a sense that the public was heard by the council, and I really saw in action how the public can influence the council to do things for the public good. I mean, the way that people were involved with that, how they would stay in meetings until 10, 10:30 at night in the council chambers, and just each person speaking their mind every time they got up for public comment. And you know, it was kind of like that this past summer with the policing and George Floyd, after the George Floyd murder, and you just get these passionate displays of public comment that go on for hours. It just shows how involved the public can be if it’s enticed to be involved. I feel like so many things in government just happen and the public is not really invited to participate, and I think that’s unfortunate. As a public servant, that’s what you do: you serve the public. And that’s what I would want to do as a city councilor.
BG: Not that there is one definition, but if you think of the concept of “politics as usual,” what does that look like to you? What is the alternative that you would like to bring to the city council?
JG: I think politics as usual is often bureaucratic and slow—that things can’t happen in a timely manner when they’re needed. I think that given the circumstances of how things are now and how urgent everything is—people urgently need housing right now—it’s not even a thing of… like a sound-byte where you just say “affordable housing.” This is an emergency, we’re having a housing crisis right now. I feel like politics-as-usual is like we could sweep these crises under the rug a little bit, and I think that now they’ve come to the fore and you can see them right out there. I think that we need to move things faster through all the bureaucracy, through all of the status quo kind of procedures and get things done.
BG: It’s interesting, too, because it just depends on what is considered an emergency, because you know, things happened very fast because COVID was considered a crisis, an emergency. But like you said, with housing, it’s not to conflate the two, but you can see how fast things move when it’s considered an emergency. You were talking about the design of Main Street—I think it was undone, but there was a really quick re-do of Main Street when the shutdown happened, which again, can show you how quickly things can be re-done. I think a lot of people had issues with that, but it’s a testament to your point that sometimes when there’s these progressive causes, there’s an opposing force that says let’s have 15 studies on it over the next 5 years, let’s have a council, let’s have a committee, a commission, then let’s push it through a non-profit, and then you’re looking down the line and you’re like ‘Where’d it go?’ When you’re talking about bureaucracy…
JG: We have so many commissions in Northampton. These are people who are experts in their field and they have put out so many hours of their time on a volunteer basis. None of the commissions and committees are paid. And to come up with expert opinions on things in the city, and I feel like their ideas just kind of sit, and it’s frustrating to see that. For example, there was a committee that came up with the idea for a resilience hub for Northampton. That was years ago, and it hasn’t even happened yet. It’s gotten to the point where a Resilience Hub is not even going to touch the surface of what we really need to address the houseless population.
Also with the police commission, it’s an example where it’s like, “Ok, well, there’s this issue that the whole public is having this really passionate, long discussion about, and we’re going to put it through a commission and we’re going to make people work really hard for free, and put in all these hours to come up with great ideas and all this research. And then what are we going to do with it? We’re not going to fund it properly.” I think that’s just not acceptable. Like politics as-usual is like, ‘let’s just kind of meet things halfway that are important to the public.’ That’s what needs to be addressed: what’s important to the public? That’s what needs to be found out, always. I just think that doesn’t happen enough. It’s always, ‘what’s important to this handful of people?’ Not what’s important to the public at large.
BG: What are the means or processes by which you would lend your ear to the public? As far as accessibility goes, what do you want people to know as far as how they can get in touch with you?
JG: I want to be reachable. I want to be reachable by phone, I’m around town, I hang out in town, I’m a townie. I just want to have conversations with people, that’s what I’ve been doing canvassing, I’ve been asking ‘What are the issues that are important to you?’ I don’t want to go in assuming that I know what’s important to the general population of Northampton. I have some ideas about hot-button issues, but it’s important to me to talk to a bunch of people and get a wide variety of input about what’s important. Representative Sabadosa does a really cool thing where she rides the bus on Mondays and gets to talk to people on the bus. I ride the bus, so things like that. I’m around town, I’m just around, and I think that I’m very accessible to people.
BG: As far as a couple of subject matters I’ve heard you speak about is housing and police commission, a redesign on Main Street; is there anything specific you want to stress about any one of those?
JG: There’s groups that I’m working with, like I have gone to Northampton Abolition Now meetings. I’m more on the side of what they’re doing as far as policing goes. I’ve also been involved with a group called Main Street for Everyone, that’s trying to push a more climate-friendly design for Main Street, so I’ve been involved with groups that are kind of super focused with certain aspects of those things, so I think that would help me kind of bring to the table what the people who are most passionate about those issues are expressing.
BG: What unique vantage point will being someone who rents and doesn’t own a home give you when the council is making decisions about property, land, etc…?
JG: It makes a big difference, I think, when you’re a renter as opposed to an owner, especially in Northampton. It can be such a transient experience. As a renter, there’s been years where I move twice in one year, and I think that’s not a unique experience for a renter, and I think that that perspective needs to be brought to the council. I think a lot of times, especially with these new zoning laws, you get a lot of people who are upset about the new zoning laws that are meant to create more affordable housing. They’re upset because they’re going to have smaller yards, their land is going to be taken away in some way. But I think that it’s important to have a city that’s welcoming to people of all incomes. I don’t want us to be this exclusive city where only certain people can afford to live here, and that’s what we’ve turned into, unfortunately. A lot of people—artists, people who are just coming out of college—want to stay here and live here. When I first moved here, it used to be like that, there used to be a lot of artists, there used to be a lot of people just out of college, and now they can’t even afford to live here at all. It’s a shame because that’s what made it such a vibrant community: having that young community, having artists and that cultural community. There used to be more cultural events downtown, and all kinds of things used to happen, but now they just don’t happen anymore.
BG: I wanted to ask you about Warfield Place. One of the residents recently requested that the upcoming municipal candidates be asked a question about Warfield Place, such as “do they think that was right?” If they had been councilor for that ward, what would they have done? I believe Michael Quinlan is the councilor for that ward, and the consensus is that he was largely absent. I think Rachel Maiore tried to step in and be present for that street and that ward—
JG: And Marianne.
BG: Yes, Marianne LaBarge as well. So, what do you think could have been done better? If you had been the ward Councilor, what would you have done?
JG: I think there needed to be clear communication between the city and the residents, for sure. This is one of the things, again, that I was talking about, where something in the city government will happen and the public is kind of unaware, or taken-aback-by, because it happened so quickly. I mean Warfield Place, it just seemed to happen so fast—all of a sudden these cherry trees were a problem… To me it seemed like it kind of came out of nowhere. I know that the DPW had their reasons for wanting to take down the trees when they did, but I really think there could’ve been a better compromise between the city and the residents. I also kind of think I didn’t like how the city… seemed a little bit dismissive of the residents’ concerns, but I also think it was a little too polarized, because I think it became an issue where it wasn’t even about the trees anymore. It was about something else, and that to me, it became a real fight for something else.
JG: Yeah, it became a real power struggle. I get that, but… Yeah, there were other factors, like ADA compliance of the street that, you know, someone from the DPW told me about [that] and I was like “Oh, I didn’t consider that.” It just got really convoluted toward the end, and it became a super power struggle. I think that’s what made it such an icky ending to it, because it became this kind of tug-of-war, this ‘us vs. them’ kind of thing.
BG: I think the manner that the trees were taken down was really shocking. The kind of large police escort, and [they got an order before a judge to try to stop it].
JG: Wow, I didn’t know [a legal process] may have been violated.
BG: From what I understand, the street wanted a public shade tree hearing, and they weren’t given one. A couple people on the street filed a Temporary Restraining Order, they filed it the morning-of, and it was being seen by a judge as the lumberjacks and police and DPW came to the street. I guess people on the street were trying to say, ‘Hey, it’s before a judge right now,’ but no one would stop. And then the judge actually enforced it before the last two trees were cut down.
JG: Wow. I think as city councilor, I would try to mitigate that conflict somehow, or try to mediate between the public and these political beasts that make decisions without taking the public into account very much. These things that happen behind closed doors between a few people that influence what happens to whole neighborhoods.
BG: In your campaign materials, you mention the history of Northampton, and I just wanted to bring that up and talk about, and hear your thoughts, on what that history means to you. Particularly talking about it being a place of abolition, and how does that history guide your thinking on your process of deciding priorities for the city council? Why is the history of this place important?
JG: It’s important to me because the abolitionist history here makes me feel safe as an African-American person. I know that sounds weird because abolition was hundreds of years ago, but just knowing that there was a whole community founded around the abolition of slaves in the 1800s here in this area and that it was such an integral part of this area, just makes me feel like this is a safe area for me to be in, honestly. I think that history carried on, not that there wasn’t any problems or discrimination, or there’s not now, or anything like that; but the progressiveness of Northampton carries on through the years, and I think that that really helps me. It helps me when I go to Florence and I see the statue of Sojourner Truth, or I see a painting of her or something like that. It reminds me that there were African-American people here.
It’s important to think about, sometimes, when I don’t see a lot of African American people here, and I think, “Oh my gosh.” But this was like a hub back in the day, so, I think it could be an abolitionist hub, again, as far as like abolishing state practices, state enforced violence, policing practices that are violent and not helpful to Northampton in the city that it is and the kind of policing that—well, not even policing, but the kind of services that we need. So I just think that is one of our bases, our progressive values that—it feels weird to say but it’s in the land, it’s kind of just here. It feels like I can feel it sometimes, especially when there’s a push for something radical, or not the norm for other cities. I think we need to go more towards that. We need to look at ourselves as a flagship city, where we don’t have to be like other cities. We don’t have to liken ourselves to Boston, or Springfield, or any other city because we’re very unique and we have a very unique history. The abolitionist stuff is a part of that unique history, and I think we need to emphasize that. We need to emphasize that we’re a different place than other places. That’s what is special about us, and that’s what keeps people coming here from all over the place.
BG: Absolutely. I’ve heard that there are some records from a long time ago that have been lost, so we don’t know who ran exactly, but other than what might be contained in those records, you are the second Black person to run for municipal government in Northampton.
BG: I just bring that up because…
JG: Is that really true?
BG: I checked in with Bill Dwight, he said “John Thorpe (Ward 4) was the first-“
JG: Everyone said that he was the first Black person to run.
BG: Yeah, and Bill Dwight said, “Well, yes, from what we know.” I don’t know why, but there aren’t records from that time.
JG: Well they might not have kept race records from that long ago. [Editor’s note: a large fire at the turn of the century destroyed most pre-1900 city records.]
BG: I bring that up as an optional thing if you wanted to comment on it, or not? I don’t want it to feel like it’s centered if you don’t want it centered.
JG: It doesn’t have to be centered, but it can be something said: this is a historic campaign. No Black woman that we know of has ever run for at-large city council position. JT, for all we know, is the first Black person to ever be on the Northampton City Council. Honestly, as a Black person living here, it’s not that surprising to me. When I first moved here in 2006, compared to the other places where I’ve lived, I’ve lived in DC, I’ve lived in St. Louis, I’ve lived in other places, and the Black people here are sparse. I think the Black population here has risen in the last 14 years. I’ve definitely noticed more Black people here, more people of color. But I think it’s important to have representation for that. Having representation on the council is important so that people can feel like they can live here, and feel like they are welcome to live here. I’ve heard from other Black people that they didn’t feel comfortable here. I think that that could be a start to having people feel more comfortable, by having representation there on the council.
Northampton’s preliminary municipal election will be held on Tuesday, September 28th. The election will narrow the At-Large candidate field from five candidates to four.
Blair Gimma is a co-editor at The Shoestring. They are alive in Northampton.
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