Last year, we got a chance to sit down with Hartford City Councilwoman and Working Families Party Minority Leader Wildaliz Bermudez for an informative chat about Hartford, her organizing efforts and how we can fix the city's fragmented culture.
I grew up in Hartford, born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Frog Hollow neighborhood. From K-12th I attended Hartford’s public school system. The first place I remember - my earliest memory - was Park Street, and so we lived right off Park Street on Zion Street, right where the cemetery is. Those are my first memories of my childhood. And then we bounced around for a little bit, but we always stayed in Hartford. My dad was a schoolteacher in the Hartford school system, and he worked at Sand school [back] when Sand school used to be a project. Back when the gangs were around, and it was like the late 1980’s, early 90’s. When we started going to school and I could also be with a teacher, he saw firsthand - especially us being his kids - there weren’t good resources in the education system and it clearly needed to be revamped in Hartford. So he connected with a group of activists in Hartford and he was really involved as well as my mom, too. They got linked with this group that wanted to file a court case to sue to make education equal in Hartford. And it ended up being the Sheff case. So at a young age, the three of us - my brother, my sister and I - we became plaintiffs as part of this case. So when you’re a kid, you don’t really know what that means. You’re like, “Well, alright. There’s a lot of meetings that my parents go to all the time.”
And what was the name of the case again?
The Sheff and O'Neill case. So it was the desegregation lawsuit against the state of Connecticut to integrate the schools and also have a better quality of education. So yeah, as a kid, I thought it was cool that we would go to a lot of these meetings and so it was the first time that we would play with kids who were not like the kids in our neighborhood on Park Street, who were white Caucasian kids who were different from us. So, I guess maybe through just that through osmosis sparked my [love for] activism.
How old were you when you were a plaintiff in this case?
So I remember the earliest meetings, I was seven, eight. Yeah. It was good. It was a good way to connect with different people cause there were some suburban families too.
So fast forward to high school, I went to Hartford High. I attended the Classical Magnet Program, housed at Hartford High. It wasn’t like it is now where you have hundreds of Magnet schools. But I wish I had an opportunity to go to one of the Magnet schools that was a product of the Sheff vs O'Neill case. An example of such a school is The Performing Arts Academy.
Like, one of the best performing Academies in a lot of places in the country, even.
Exactly. So that came out of Sheff. CREC expanded because of Sheff. They had to fulfill the mandate.
So you guys won the case?
We won the case. And now you see a lot of different schools popping up here and there. Lot of magnet schools. My sister ended up going to that school. My younger sister. I’m so happy that she went.
That’s wild. Okay cool, so Hartford High and then Classical.
I stayed in Hartford, and did my freshman year and the first semester of my sophomore year at the University of Hartford. And then I took a class at Trinity College, and it was with Mr. Figueroa and his class, it was about Latin America Caribbean History. That class, it was specifically focused on Caribbean history, and I said, ‘I need to learn about my history. I need to know about my history. And I think I might just major in that.’ I ended up transferring to Trinity College.
Because of that professor?
Because of that professor, and because when I first went to college, I didn’t know what program I wanted to study. And I always loved history. And taking his class made me realize that’s something that I could say that I was actually interested in. So I went to Trinity. I was really involved in some of the student organizations like La Voz Latina, the Spanish Club, a little bit of activism on campus here and there. Then, right around the time of my senior year, the Anti-War movement started. So I started participating in that a lot.
So you’ve always been out here. Would you call yourself a lifelong activist and organizer?
I do think I’m a lifelong activist. An organizer? Not so much. An organizer is a little different than an activist, but yeah I was certainly exposed to it in different ways.
I personally think that a lot of it has bleed into your politics in a very positive way. But before we get into that, you graduated Trinity?
I graduated from Trinity. Oh! While at Trinity, I did a study abroad program in Trinidad, and I loved it. I said, ‘I love this place!’ So with that experience, I realized my senior year that I wanted to live in the Caribbean. So when I graduated from Trinity, I said I needed to learn more about the Caribbean and wanted to learn more about Puerto Rico. So I went to Puerto Rico for four years. And I thought I was going to go down the history track, but I ended up majoring in Environmental Studies for my Masters. So the way that that worked out was because the history track - especially on an island like Puerto Rico - the history and the environment go hand and hand. Like what happened with the bombing. The fact that there’s crazy cancer rates in that area. There’s a bunch of pharmaceutical companies that all their runoff water goes back into the ocean. And there’s all these other ripple effects that have happened, so I said the environment [is what I want to focus on]. So I was there for four years. Afterwards after I graduated, I couldn’t find work and I came back home. I came back to Hartford.
So you’re Hartford through and through. It’s funny because I’m surrounded by a lot more people who have found their way to Hartford by crazy means. You know, like they’d say, ‘I didn’t want to go to New York or Boston’ or what have you, but rarely do I see people who were born in raised in Hartford and who chosen to come back and help benefit their city and grow it to what it can be. That’s amazing to see. When you came back, did you ever think, “Okay, I’m going to run for City Council.”
No. [Laughs] No. Actually, it’s a running joke because my younger sister, she’s the one who majored in Political Science and was Pre-Law, and said, “I’m going to be a politician. When I grow up, that’s what I’m going to be.” And I said, “Alright, do you.” [Laughs] Go ahead. And I always said I like history and I like policy and I like never in million years if you asked me if I was going to run for office, I would’ve said no.
In fact, up until two years ago, I was adamantly saying no. Absolutely not. But kind of what led me to say yes was that sense of frustration and it was around the time when the stadium deal was happening. So I was working on as Community Organizer but in New Haven, but certainly following everything that was going on with the stadium here. I started full activism full gear. So I went to a lot of the council meetings. Then, I started organizing and I organized a group of residents. We organized a march from where the proposed site was. We held and organized a press conference, facilitated meetings. Some of the meetings - the best attended meeting had over 100 people.
And so bringing different people in the community together. In that process, the key facilitators were called over to a radio show interview and it was with NPR. And I sat down, getting ready [for] the morning interview and then I was told after sitting down by an intern; “Oh, I’m sorry. You’re not part of this meeting. There’s the waiting room right there.” I was like, “What?” [Laughs]. So, I said, “Hold on, in a city where you have half of the population that’s Latino, you’re telling me that you’re going to favor someone else? And you’re not going to favor what would have been the better example of the city’s representation?” And I’m one of the main meeting facilitators against that stadium.
So did they scrap that story, or your representation in that story?
They didn’t scrap the story - they scrapped my representation of the story. So I guess little kicks in the sand -
Yes, microaggressions! Where I said every single meeting that I go to, I rarely see young people and the city is made up of half young people. I always see the same people, and I think it’s time: we need better representation. So that’s pretty much what fueled it with, of course, support of a loving husband and family. They said, “Yeah, you should do it!”
How did you choose your party affiliation?
Oh yeah, that was easy. [Laughs] That was easy. So Working Families Party I’ve always supported. When Luis Cotto was in town for City Council, we held fundraisers for him. Robert, we held fundraisers for him.
Can you talk a little bit more about Working Families Party for those who don't know too much about it.
So Working Families Party, I always say it's Democrats on steroids. So if you look at the Bernie Sanders movement and what Bernie stands for - and by the way, Working Families Party endorsed Bernie - the social, progressive ideals that Working Families stands for. People are like, "What is Working Families exactly? What is it exactly that you guys do? What are you about?" We represent working [and] working class people. We are the ones who are always saying, 'Hey, $15 and a union. Black Lives Matter'.
Some of the Democrats on City don't show up for the Black Lives Matter movement. You see Working Families Party members there. And so it's taking that other step and saying we have to be progressive in different ways. So it's encompassing that. So if you follow some of the bills at the State Capital that Working Families Party has been trying to push [like] paid family sick leave, paid sick days. All of that.
"We are facing an economic war. That's the war that we all live in. It doesn't matter what your background is, your culture or ethnicity. Working class people are facing an economic war where the very wealthy are trying to amass as much as possible."
I knew a little bit about the Working Families Party but it didn't really gain my attention until this recent election cycle on a presidential level. And just having those conversations with friends who are affiliated with the party, it really seems like the Working Families Party is one of the few that is trying to help the common man. How do you build your background activism and now your relationship with Working Families Party to weave through the political web that you're currently in now?
It has its challenges [laughs]. It really does because I'm the one, on one hand, who is standing for every progressive thing, and want to bring attention to many reforms that are happening at the state level and at the federal level. And then being on City Council right now, I end up introducing several resolutions and from some of my Democratic council members, they say, "Why are you introducing that resolution? That's a waste of time. That is not relevant to Hartford." So things at the federal government level, there's a chance for a big partnership agreement and saying, 'Hey, if we say in Hartford or we have enough municipalities throughout the country saying that we don't our manufacturing jobs and our labor to be exported, and to allow that to happen? If we have enough buy-in from our voters [and] our elected officials, we are sending a bigger message at the federal level. So it's something that we can point to. It's something that we can tell our Chris Murphy's of the world and our Larsen's of the world. 'Hey, your constituents in Hartford care about this issue.' And I'm getting resistance from some of my democratic colleagues. And they say that we have to be more Hartford-specific. But if all politics is local, then shouldn't we set the example? Even though the resolution, technically it's following what's happening at the federal level, but it's saying, 'Hey, your actions affect us here.'
So that's like one example. Another resolution that I've introduced is paid family leave. It's not that they're against it. Or there was another bill that was before the state legislature and it was on reentry stuff. Some of the bills that go in front of the state capital, they die very quickly at the Senate level and sometimes at the House. And they're saying, "Well, why would you introduce that resolution if it already died?" And I'm saying it's about the bigger message because that bill might be coming up next year. So there's definitely challenges in navigating the political system because sometimes when you're so progressive, there tends to be resistance from others who say, 'It's a waste of your time to be so progressive'. You have to pick and choose.
That's interesting because I see that a lot in the Bernie campaign where they want to leap frog incremental change, not in a bad but to say, 'Well, there's certain things that we, as American people, deserve now. We, as working families, black, queer, all deserve now. You see that incremental change in the government too, and you ask yourself, 'How long can I wait around for my rights?' As someone who was born here, how do you feel about this economic, social climate? A lot has been going on in a year and some change. What are your thoughts on that?
Oh yeah [laughs]. Hartford is a reflection and a little microcosm of what's been happening out in so many different states, or in different towns around Connecticut across the board. And it's the significant cuts that's been happening. But in Connecticut in particular and in Hartford, we have the poorest zip code right on the North End of Hartford right near the Clark Street neighborhood. And in Connecticut, we have some of the wealthiest people in our entire country. So we're a reflection of what's happening with the economic disparity.
So what's happening in Hartford right now, if I can simplify in its most simplest terms in two words, we are facing an economic war. That's the war that we all live in. It doesn't matter what your background is, your culture or ethnicity. Working class people are facing an economic war where the very wealthy are trying to amass as much as possible. They're getting wealthier at rates that are unprecedented. We've never seen this kind of millionaire, billionaire [?] before. It didn't exist in the 60's and 70's, and yet they're trying to keep their wealth in such a way that prevents the regular people who live in Hartford room to progress. If you're able to progress economically, then you'll do well with everything else. You'll be able to get a better education. And of course, all of these issues are interconnected.
Like how do we get better economic development in places like the North End. Some people think that the solution is entrepreneurship, other people think that the better solution is education, etc. What are your thoughts on the generational lack of income, and generational poverty in a lot of these neighborhoods?
It goes back to the economy. It goes back to being able, for the folks of lesser means, to have opportunities. Why is it that we always see the same cycle happen? Well of course, we know that the policies are rigged and the system is rigged against us people of color. But at the same time, if there were solid economic opportunities available in front of them - for the people in the North End or on Park Street, wherever - then we wouldn't have the problems that we have right now that just continue to loop around. So when someone is going through the prison pipeline, then they're released from prison, [they] can't find work. How are they going to be able to provide for their kids? So they go back to doing whatever. So I think it goes back to employment.
I think it goes back to jobs. And some people say, "Doesn't one verse have to follow the other? Should we educate our kids first before we say, 'Okay, now we have all these jobs available that you can apply to.'" Education, of course, is very important. But look at how long its taken in terms of being able to have -- for example, the Sheff vs O'Neill case. Being able to have magnet schools in Hartford. Certainly not when I was a kid. So that more than 20 years, just implemented over 20 schools. And so it goes back to having jobs available. Not tomorrow. Not fixing the education system two years from now. No, today. People need jobs today.
So in that same vain, there's been a big push on the federal level explicitly through the Promise Zone to bring that economic development to the North End. What are your thoughts on that, in terms of creating an area and saying, 'There's extreme levels of poverty here, and we're going to make a concerted effort to put money into it and build that up.'
I mean I think it's a great idea. It's very important to have that. But at the same time, when is that going to happen? When is that going to be implemented? Who's driving it? So one of the things in the informal conversations that I've had with people living in that area, they'll say, "Yeah, they haven't spoken to me yet. I don't know much about it" [laughs]. And people really have to be included in that process, especially when you're looking at many community organizing models. Having something that's coming from the outside being implemented in versus getting the input first from the people there to grow something. What is the best approach for the North End Promise Zone? Including more of the community into the process and the dialogue, and more of the non-profits in the area who know the community inside out to be able to say, 'Hey, we would love to work with that Federal grant.'
So we interviewed the Mayor earlier this week, and one thing I found interesting was that he said the budget issue was like being a cartoon and the character runs off the cliff, and he's still running and not realizing that there's nothing below him. What do you think about the current budget situation in Hartford?
It's a challenge. It's very challenging. There have to be cuts that need to be made but at the same time, especially on the City Council side, if we cut X amount of jobs, then we're pretty much killing families. You won't have your base, you know? When you look at certain departments in particular, or departments that have more Hartford residents and employees than others. So if we cut a certain amount from those departments, then we won't have a tax base. These are people who have steady incomes or steady jobs [and] homes in Hartford and pay taxes. But also the same thing holds true for those that don't live in Hartford, and have been working for the city of Hartford. So that's where you get the urban-suburban connection. We're all in this together.
I know one of the big plans to take away the extreme regionalization in the area, and kind of have Hartford County work together to be a tax base because right now - on paper, at least - Hartford doesn't have the revenue to facilitate. How can we change that?
Regionalization definitely has to be looked at. One of the first things I'd say in terms of the budget, on that note, is we can't cut our membership to things like CRGC - Capital Regional of Government Council. So what the main hole in this budget is to do away with our membership for CRGC, and other memberships. And yet, here is an organization that is all about connecting urban and suburban, and getting grants. Like allowing us to apply for federal grants. And we were talking about transportation. That's a main component of regionalization. We are the Capital. So we have to make sure that we include transportation as part of our regionalization program.
And [there are] other ways that we can do better regionalizing. Certain services that we have like 911, there's like 129 towns or something like that that have 911 dispatches. Why not regionalize it? You would cut away a lot of cost. Or the city's MIAH department. They do a great job doing it, so why not regionalize it? Some folks in Council have said, 'Oh, why don't we regionalize our fire department?' I'm not sure if that's a viable option or not. So we have to think about regionalization. We always say in Hartford, and I remember this from the previous council especially, "We want people to come to Hartford. We want to attract them and to have a good time in Hartford". And we've been thinking that way. We can't just say, "Okay, come to Hartford. We're this big, shiny attraction" and then leave. There's a lot of people who work here in Hartford that don't live in Hartford. So they come in - it's more than 60,000 per day - and they go and spend their money somewhere else so when we have that bigger plan of regionalization, how do we change that outlook of their mindset where they say, 'Oh, that's just where I work. I'm not going to go there at night.'
I grew up in Windsor and I know that Hartford has always had this very negative connotation in terms of their nightlife. And you know, things do happen in Hartford. There are some bad things happening, and have happened. But outside of that, I live on Park Street. Downtown is very safe area, etc. There's some really great areas like the Riverfront. Great places to eat, great places to relax. So it's sad that people see it as a commuter city. In what ways do the arts and culture play a role?
Extremely important! Arts and culture are extremely vital in our city. And I have to look at the census again, but I know that in Hartford, if you look at our per-population and everything else, we're one of the top cities in Connecticut and in the East Coast that has the most concentrated amounts of artists. We don't do a very good job publicizing that, and letting that be known. Look at Elijah's work up there. We have great artists. We don't celebrate enough. We need to celebrate it more. It's also a direct reflection of our culture. It's an expression of the culture, and also it's an economic driver. Where there is art, there is nightlife. Where there is art, there is self-expression. Where there is art, there are political activists. All of that comes from art and it's an opportunity to bring everybody together.
I know when the Mayor spoke a lot about the arts [but] I think it's a shame that MECA is getting cut. There's no more MECA. I also think it's a shame right now that the commission on arts has not been given for the City of Hartford. Those volunteers have not been given the sufficient amount of resources that they need from the city side. I also think it's a shame that we don't invest more in our artists here in Hartford cause if you invest in our artists, you know what? Our rate of employment is certainly going to go down. Artists are very creative people. They employ a lot of people.
And they don't need a big budget to make an impact in their city, and I think that's a beautiful part of it too.
What role do you think government plays in the arts?
It's a critical role. And we can't forget about the arts. There are three main things that I'm passionate about: the environment, women's policy issues and the arts. And of course, education. But we have to do a better job of creating and safeguarding policies that exist in Hartford, like the [?] percent one for the arts that right now is being slashed in this budget. So we just can't do away with things like that. And the least that we can do in terms of talking about our economy is to pay attention to our artists and giving them incentives
I would like to see Hartford change - and as a member of Breakfast Lunch & Dinner, we have a responsibility in this as well - from being so fragmented. What are the ways we can build that up and create a real collective community?
I think that happens across the board, you're right. With different groups and agencies in Hartford that might get stuck in one specific area. Number one: to start attending those events that you normally wouldn't. So whether that's deep in the South End or for the North End to do the same and vice versa. So to start attending each other's events so we can really know what each of us are working on. To then, collaborate on an event that brings the North, South, West End all together. And third, the city needs to do a better job - not just artists and activists - with not allowing those segments and fragments to continue. Those barriers to continue. And I'm going to bring it back really quickly to the campaign. The campaigns were very split. It was very North End and South End. And so, that sentiment especially if you talk to the Latinos in the South End, they'll say, "Oh well, such and such candidate was with the North End." And we need to get rid of that. But we need to have a conversation about it. How do we do that? It has to be aired out. But definitely collaborative.