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Lessons on Grassroots Campaigning from ‘Councilwoman’

Peter Rugh May 9

Carmen Castillo is a housekeeper. A Dominican immigrant, she is raising three kids and lives in an impoverished neighborhood in South Providence, Rhode Island. “Sometimes I feel like a minority, being a Latina, being a woman,” she tells us in a new, hour-long documentary profile of Castillo from first-time feature director Margo Guernsey.

Oh, but Castillo is so much more.

For one thing, she is a union organizer and, for another, she is a councilwoman for the City of Providence — a job she maintains while continuing to fold sheets at a local hotel. Hence the title of Guernsey’s movie, Councilwoman.

‘Public policy is as much an organizing task as a campaign is.’

Recent years have seen a slew of workaday people attempt to enter politics with varying degrees of success. Freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a server at Flat Fix taqueria near Union Square just months before she was elected to office. And who can forget retired steelworker Randy “Ironstache” Bryce’s attempt last year to snag Paul Ryan’s Congressional seat?

Castillo was in the avant-garde, winning political office in 2011 on the heels of a successful union drive she helped spearhead with Unite Here. Her story might serve as a blueprint and an inspiration to a new crop of candidates seeking office today.

Ahead of the film’s screening at the Workers Unite Film Festival at Cinema Village on May 10, The Indypendent spoke with Guernsey, a former Unite Here staffer who has known Castillo for over 20 years, about the roots of the project and the lessons it has to impart on this current generation seeking workers power in government. As Councilwoman shows, getting elected is only part of the battle.

How did this project come about?

When I graduated college in 1998 I worked as a union organizer for Councilwoman Castillo’s union. Fast forward to 2011 when she ran for office, by that point I wasn’t working with her anymore but we stayed really good friends. I was super excited she was running but I also knew she’d keep her job at the hotel if she won because local government pays very little across the country unless you are in a big city. In Providence, it pays $18,000 a year. So I knew she’d stay cleaning hotel rooms while serving as a politician and public policymaker.

There’s a lot of talk about the lack of people of color in decision-making positions. But working women are just not represented. Workers generally are not represented. I thought her election could help shift the narrative over who should be making public-policy decisions, about what it means to truly represent the people, and that we could probably learn something from her experience as a worker in public office.

As you say in your director’s statement, Castillo’s story raises the question of what it means “for our democracy that workers do not normally have a voice at the table?” And you ask how things would be different if leaders reflected their communities. Were you closer to any answers by the time you finished this film?

Those are big questions and I think the answer is we need to keep talking about it as a country. As human beings, we tend to make decisions based on our experience. When you don’t have workers at the table, you have policies that are not generally going to be good for workers. We currently have policies that are really good for corporations and big business because we have really good representation for corporations and big business. We don’t have very good representation for workers, so the policies have not been very good for workers.

You can see that in this movie. A lot of Castillo’s political opponents appear to come from this monied, elite side of Providence.

Providence is all Democrat so we’re not talking about partisan politics here. We’re just talking about who represents who and what part of town, and whose interests are at stake. It’s hard for working-class communities in any city to get resources without having full representation.

Once on the council, Castillo at times struggles between her ideals and necessity of political compromise. What does this say about the nature of politics and activism?

She talks about the idea of compromise. I think I’m quoting her by saying, “People tell me, ‘Politics is the art of negotiation.’ Well, of course, I’ll compromise but I’m not going to sacrifice my community.”

But at the end of the day, Castillo’s struggle isn’t so much about compromise as it is the lack of like-minded people on the council. There are a few others who are like-minded but they are not a majority. It’s about who else is there with you. When you’re in public office you are only one vote. One person doesn’t change the world. You really need representation across the board.

This film not only tracks Castillo’s political career but also her at times tumultuous personal life. Why was it important to you include these details?

We’re whole people. There’s a false dichotomy between the work that we do and our personal lives. I’m actually constantly explaining this to people because I’m a mother of young children and my children are as much a part of me as my career is. To portray Carman’s political life without having her whole self there would miss the point of what full representation looks like.

What do you hope your film has to teach others seeking office today?

Run as you are. Anyone can and should. Carman was trained as a shop steward and a union organizer and those skills helped her win an election. It is important to have a base of support. Yes, if Carman can do it, anyone can do it, but look to your base of support and build organization.

It is fabulous to see so many people running. There’s a professor at Duke University. His name is Nick Carnes. He researches the class backgrounds of politicians in office. I don’t want to quote an exact figure but the number of millionaire politicians compared to the number of regular people is abysmal.

That base of support you mentioned really comes in handy in the film even after she is elected.

Public policy is as much an organizing task as a campaign is. Carman knows that. She did a lot of policy work from the outside before she ran for office. Organizing is especially important when you have a lot of city council people who aren’t from the neighborhood or living regular lives. To move people and change their minds it sometimes takes filling City Hall with a lot of neighborhood folks who vote.

Catch Councilwoman at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 10 at Cinema Village: 22 E. 12th Street. Part of the Workers Unite Film Festival. To learn more about this movie visit councilwomanfilm.com.


Photo: Carmon Castillo in Councilwoman. Credit: Nikki Bramley