Social Justice in Politics: A Q&A with Mayor Toni Harp (BA, ’72)

Toni Harp Inauguration

Toni Harp (BA, ’72) is the first female mayor of New Haven, Conn. and the city’s second black mayor. After completing an English degree at Roosevelt, Harp went on to earn a master’s from the Yale School of Architecture. From 1993 to 2014, she served as state senator in Connecticut. She spoke to us about her memories of Roosevelt and her work on social issues.

1. What do you remember about your time at Roosevelt?

I remember a real activist community at Roosevelt. There were protests around women’s rights and members from the Black Panther party who came to campus. I remember protesting myself while I was there; I believe it was an anti-war protest. It was a very active and vigorous intellectual community.

2. How did Roosevelt’s mission impact you?

There was a social mission and a sense of equity at Roosevelt that probably didn’t exist in a like manner anywhere else in the country. It was very diverse, and not just among students; the faculty was diverse as well. Some of the great intellectual thinkers in the African-American community were on the faculty, such as St. Clair Drake and Charles Hamilton. It was a great opportunity to be exposed to them. 

3. What issues have been most important in your life and work?

I was a state legislator when we were implementing welfare reform, and it has always been very important to me that poor people not be blamed for their poverty. I fought for a lot of issues that impacted the poor. I also worked hard to make sure our juvenile justice system was fair to young people. In Connecticut, we have a huge achievement gap between low-income students and those with more resources. I see a correlation between education and public safety; the kids who fail to thrive in schools are the ones who get in the most trouble. So we’ve been working on programs to address that population, to think about restorative practices in the educational context for disengaged youth. We’ve also had a lot of success with community policing, in which police, my office and local residents work together to solve problems. That has resulted in a crime drop in New Haven.

4. In a recent speech, President Obama mentioned your work canvassing neighborhoods with police, teachers and firefighters to help troubled kids. Will you tell us more about that project?

I worked with the New Haven superintendent to determine: which students are most likely to do unsafe things and destabilize the community? We defined them as “disengaged youth.” These are kids who have been suspended or expelled, who get Ds and Fs, and who miss 50 days or more of school a year. Then we got teachers, police officers, firefighters, other advocates, members of my staff and me, and we took a list and went door to door to reach out to the parents. We said, ‘We know you have a handful. What can we do to help?’ In a couple of cases, we actually moved the families out of town because they were convinced their child was in serious danger because of gangs. We also developed mentoring programs and found activities for them to do during the summer. It’s important they don’t just hear from us when something has already gone wrong.

5. What is it like being the first female mayor of New Haven and the second black mayor?

New Haven, Connecticut viewed from an airplane
New Haven, Connecticut viewed from an airplane. By Sage Ross, via Wikimedia Commons

New Haven is a majority minority city, and for many of the people in our community, it’s really important for them to see a black mayor and a black female mayor, because it shows that this is something they can do, too. This is something they can become. Some people struggle with the fact that I’m a woman and that I’m black, because I think there’s a thought that women and blacks are not as qualified to do the job. They’re uncomfortable with anybody who is different from those who had the job before. I have had to prove I can do the work and show that things are as good, if not better, now. I think by and large, people don’t think of me as a woman and black, but as the mayor.

 

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