Jamaal Bowman ’99, Ed.D., is passionate about education and fostering opportunities for students and communities of color. That’s been his mission as an educator, including as the founder of a school, and, now, as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
April 30, 2021
When Jordan Harris ’21 reached out to Jamaal Bowman ’99, Ed.D., and asked him to speak to the University community, he didn’t give up. His determination paid off, as Bowman recently spoke to the University community as part of an alumni speaker event, crediting Harris with encouraging him to return to his alma mater.
“Persistence is a very important skill,” said Dr. Bowman. “If you don’t have a problem calling someone and following up, you can get a lot accomplished just by doing that. That’s how things work in Congress.”
Dr. Bowman would know. He was elected to Congress in 2020, representing New York’s 16th District, which includes the Northern Bronx, as well as parts of Westchester County. Dedicated to issues related to climate, the economy, and racial justice, Bowman is using his platform to further progressive policies while highlighting the importance of investing in communities of color.
Speaking to the University community via Zoom, Dr. Bowman shared his own story, discussing what he has learned throughout his career and the impact he hopes to make in the communities he now represents.
A New York native, he lived in public housing and rent-controlled apartments as a child. He later studied sport management at the University of New Haven before beginning his career as a crisis intervention teacher in the Bronx.
Dr. Bowman told the University community about the education he personally received while working in historically underfunded and underserved schools. He told students that, while working in a high school, he was horrified that the students, who were mostly Black and Latinx, had to walk through metal detectors. He describes his own experience as “feeling more like a corrections officer than an educator,” saying it bothered him – especially since a nearby school with mostly white students did not have metal detectors.
“Kids – and adults – behave as they are treated,” said Dr. Bowman, who holds a master’s degree from Mercy College and a doctorate in education from Manhattanville College. “If you treat them like criminals, they will behave in that way.”
‘His incredible commitment to public service’
In 2009, Dr. Bowman founded Cornerstone Academy for Social Action (CASA), a middle school in the Bronx, serving as principal for a decade. He was determined to make sure this school was different, and it focuses on, as he says, “unlocking the natural brilliance of students while fostering a sense of belonging and community.” Dr. Bowman believes every child is brilliant, and that it is the job of educators to unlock that brilliance.
“We take a different approach to how we introduce and engage in curricula with students,” he explained. “We are a school of social justice. Kids learn about their history and culture. We treat our kids as human beings. If they made a mistake against the school community, we talked about it. We used restorative circles to gain a better understanding of what was going on, and we supported kids – we didn’t just suspend them.”
Dr. Bowman discussed how his career as an educator has been informed by his own experience as a student, including how the curriculum did not enable him to learn about his own history or culture, which is something he has endeavored to change. An advocate for reimagining education, he has also pushed for ending state-sanctioned standardized testing.
“Congressman Bowman embodies everything the University of New Haven stands for in terms of not just his success, but his incredible commitment to public service,” said University President Steven H. Kaplan, Ph.D., in speaking at the event. “We are very proud of all he has accomplished as an educator and, now, a U.S. Congressman, and we look forward to his years ahead.”
‘We’re living the civil rights movement’
While taking questions from students, Dr. Bowman told students about his experience in Congress, including how he has enjoyed working with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents New York's 14th congressional district.
Destiny-Jenkins Rubins ’22, who introduced Bowman, went to high school in the south Bronx, and she said that what he discussed resonated with her.
“Dr. Bowman is the embodiment of our community,” she said. “It’s important that we can fight for social justice. I think the most important thing is not what we do but how we do it. It isn’t one size fits all. Some communities need more help than others.”
Dr. Bowman concluded by urging students to be activists and not to accept no for an answer. He assured them that change is possible, and that they can play a critical role.
“You are all part of a moment in American history where transformative change is happening,” he said. “Elected officials are speaking, understanding, and behaving differently because of people’s activism. I want to encourage you all to continue to push hard for transformative change. This is a big deal. We’re living the civil rights movement. We’re living what we read about in textbooks.”