Jennifer Esteen Is Not Only Looking to Make History as the First Gay, Black Jewish Woman on the California Assembly, She Also Wants to Make Real Change

Jennifer Esteen campaigning to fill Alameda County's 20th Assembly District seat. Image: Shawna Jones/@shawna.oakland.

Jennifer Esteen isn’t moved by the notoriety of political office—or her chances at making history as the first Black, Jewish, and openly gay member of the California Assembly. Instead, the 41-year-old nurse is motivated by the people she helps day in and day out on her job, in her community, and at home. They are the reason she is campaigning to fill Alameda County’s 20th Assembly District seat, the guiding light in her decision to bring an elevated level of care to a system that she feels too often lacks it, and she’s starting at home.

“I wasn’t going to go to San Francisco and try to do things when I live in a different place,” Esteen tells EBONY. “I feel honored and fortunate to be able to live here and run for office here. To be able to potentially represent this unincorporated area where community members have very unique needs.”

Esteen’s run is, to some degree, a culmination of singular events that led her to answer the call for political office. In addition to being a mother to two sons and a health care provider, she is an advocate, who learned prior to COVID, how critical it is for people to have others in their corner, fighting on their behalf. “I learned not too long ago that I am an organizer,” Esteen says.

Though the Louisiana native admits that running for office has required sacrifice, hard work, and not to mention a lot of dollars, she believes the end result will be worth it. “I think I’m going to have to raise at least half a million dollars, which is incredibly hard to do. I don’t have access to wealth. Black people have not had access to all sorts of things because of the vestiges of slavery and racism. So that makes it very hard to run for office, no matter who’s in there before you,” Esteen says. “But it comes down to the people and providing for communities.”

Esteen recently spoke with EBONY about what fuels her passion for political office, what she hopes to bring to the California Assembly if elected, and how being a mother and care provider is helping to shape her political future.

EBONY: I’ll start with the most obvious question: What made you decide to run for office?

Jennifer Esteen: Multiple things encouraged me to run. First, people had asked me to. I’m a registered nurse and had, what I thought, was a very simple boring life—going home and going to work. I was a single mom for 12 years. There was this moment, where I was working with clients who had a severe and persistent mental illness, and I found out they were going to be evicted—this was 2019 just before COVID—and it was due to a policy decision—a shortcut to opening homeless shelter beds. The city of San Francisco needed a fast way to open homeless shelters. And a decision was made to kind of repurpose the licensing. By doing that, they were going to close the beds that my clients were living in and it didn’t make sense. So that was the moment when the organizer inside of me was born. I made it a huge campaign. My stance was: You can absolutely open that homeless shelter. We need it. It’s vital. But you should not be closing one service to make space for another. It just didn’t make sense to me.

In three months, the Board of Supervisors passed three pieces of legislation to keep those beds occupied, permanently staffed, and funded. And people told me that was remarkable. They said “Jennifer, you’re an organizer.” From there I got on a steering committee to create legislation called Mental Health SF. And this is legislation that was the first of its kind in the nation. It was going to expand behavioral health care to the entire county. We put it on the ballot, coupled with a funding measure. It was a progressive tax on excessive CEO income, and it was going to raise $150 million annually. The voters were in favor so we started advocating for behavioral health clients, people who are usually ignored, and within a year’s time, saved their housing. We taxed the richest people in the county and expanded behavioral health care. That was the moment that I said to myself, ‘Okay, I should be paying closer attention. I think people are right. There’s something to this. Maybe I am an organizer.’

So the fire you now have for policymaking was fueled in 2019, going into 2020. How, if at all, do you think COVID and the subsequent social justice protests during that time helped to shape your platform?

When COVID happened, I learned that my unincorporated town, Ashland, had the most deadly infection rates amongst people of color in our assembly district. And that kind of lit a fire in my belly. I thought to myself, “What’s going on here? Why are my community members and my neighbors getting sick and dying more than everybody else?” And since then, I’ve learned there was a study conducted at Harvard University that said, when you have prolonged exposure to air pollution, you have a 15 times greater likelihood of dying from COVID. So I realized what I observed has now been demonstrated by these researchers. Four freeways run through this district., and we’re only a couple of miles from the Oakland airport. It feels important to me as a nurse, as someone who understands covenants and budget, as someone who’s an organizer, who has a voice and is respected, that this is my time and moment to address these inequities.

In addition to the health piece, I’m also a psychiatric registered nurse. And in Alameda County, we have had the most 5150 per capita of any other county in the state. That’s the police code for an involuntary. And 90 percent of 911 calls that result in 5150 are nonviolent, which means they do not require police intervention. The Department of Justice also said that behavioral health care services should be provided in an outpatient setting where you have this convergence of psychiatric needs. And people at all levels—the DOJ, the superintendent of schools—all these different entities are saying we must meet this need but we don’t have the providers. We don’t have the trained clinicians to do the work. And this is something I’ve thought about every single day in my work. As a nurse, we never had enough providers. You never have enough levels of care to serve people. So I want to help do what I did in San Francisco, and that’s to create expansive behavioral health care. With funding, I’m going to make sure we can do this statewide dissemination. And I feel like I am well poised with my family to do exactly that—to write the legislation, to create the policy, to make an entire agenda that is focused on health outcomes and meeting the needs of the schools, meeting the needs to get people out of jail, and meeting the need for crisis response by making sure that we have workforce development.

A movement that grew out of the George Floyd protests was “Defund the Police.” And despite the criticism it received, many people galvanized behind it because they felt too many times mental health issues were not being factored in by police departments. They were sitting at home witnessing events where a police presence escalated a situation as opposed to de-escalating it. And from seeing this, created a push for money to divest from large police budgets and go into mental health services and mental health providers. As someone with a nursing and psychiatric background, what are your thoughts on this?

“Defund the Police” is not necessarily the phrasing that I would use, but I will say that police officers, sheriff’s deputies, uniformed folks that I’ve talked to about behavioral health response, have said to me repeatedly, “We do not feel trained in the right way to do this work. Even though we have some crisis intervention training, we are not behavioral health specialists and this does not feel like our work.” But until we have the right professionals to train clinicians to do it, until this is something that goes beyond a pilot program and into a real deeply funded permanent program, statewide, we are going to continue to see the same thing continuing to happen. The only option we have right now is 911. At some point, we need a system that will help to move mental health calls into the right space for dispatch. We have to meet this need and we have to put our money where our values are; we have to put our money where our priorities are—and incentivize training clinicians.

So much of the headlines surrounding your run have been about your potential to make history. But for you, what’s the most important driving factor for your campaign?

I think that making history is incidental. That’s just like a lucky thing, which is also kind of sad. I don’t want to be the first openly gay person who’s Black. I wish that it was easy to be openly gay and Black, but I know that that’s not necessarily true. I also wish I wasn’t the first Black Jew that is serving. I wish that was also incidental, especially because Jews of color are 25 percent of California Jews. So really, it feels overdue. For me, the most important part of my campaign is having the opportunity to make this widespread change and expand behavioral health. That is at the heart of what I want to do. I want to help expand our care economy in a meaningful way, because, in addition to needing behavioral health providers, we have an aging population. And we have seen the desperate need for childcare workers during these unprecedented times. And we’ve seen a desperate need for people to be able to support folks who have different levels of disability. So I want to see a huge investment in care workers. I want California to lead the way in providing care to our communities. That’s what I really want my legacy to be.

California is a pretty progressive state. But even liberal states have areas where the push for social, economic, and environmental justice could be harder. What are some of the areas where you think California could just do more for its citizens?

Climate is where I would love to see some change. I talked about care already, and that’s absolute for me. But California is home to a lot of the food that we eat in this nation. It’s also home to some of the biggest ports in the nation. We move a lot of goods and services. Because we are the fifth largest economy in the world, we have an outsized impact on the decisions that other states make. Beyond nationally, our choices can also have an international impact. So what I would love to see us do is make a whole different kind of infrastructure investment and take on climate change. We need to transition, mitigate and adapt. We are at risk of sea-level rise because we are coastal, and a lot of our communities are at risk of being inundated and flooded. This is an urgent issue and we have to be rapid-fire with our policies and decisions. We have to start investing today.

The California Green New Deal is truly the only way. We need to stop drilling for oil. We need to stop fracking and we need to have transmission lines. When people talk about “it’s so expensive. It’s going to cost us jobs.” I say that the fire season from 2021 alone is expected to cost California between $45-$55 billion. If we start to implement the California Green New Deal, that’s like a one for one. It is not going to cost us any more to be proactive than it costs us to be reactive. But we have to decide that that is what we are going to do.

It’s always great to hear Black politicians speak about climate change because too often, as a community, climate change isn’t necessarily at the top of our issues. However, it’s so important because it affects us and our communities, probably more than anybody else.

Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. Because I’m a registered nurse, I know that health outcomes and health disparities are directly related to our climate—the air we breathe, the water we drink, the stress of having longer commutes. Health justice and climate justice go hand in hand. It’s the reason that we are dying. It’s the reason that we have health outcomes that make us more at risk. We are overburdened, and this is not uncommon. Because of redlining, we can only live in certain areas. This is the second time in my life that I’ve lived in the Bay. Both times I’ve lived with two freeways in my backyard. My kids, when we were located in Richmond, lived with a refinery across the street. I feel lucky not to be there now, but at the time, it was all I could afford. That is not an accident.

To that point, you are a mother. How does that play into your political passion points?

Oh, it’s a big deal. My oldest son is 20, and one of the things I don’t talk about much is the fact that he is neuro-atypical. It makes me incredibly passionate about a whole other issue which is the fact that our schools are not well funded. That’s a statewide problem, but specifically in this district. We just had our superintendent say suddenly that he was going to close seven schools. It is a problem, and it is ultimately a problem of resources. In California, we have this special needs provider that is statewide, but the funding that they get isn’t equivalent to the services that they render. I’m struggling to get services for my son that are adequate to meet his needs.

But it’s also a sacrifice to run for office. My youngest son is 17. He’s a high school senior. And I’m spending more time writing answers to questionnaires so I can get endorsements that will pump a little money into my campaign than I am helping him with his college essays. And, you know, it’s a sacrifice, I believe—a sacrifice for the greater good. At the end of the day, I’m still a mom. I still have to do all the things that my kids need and require.

That’s the juggling act. It’s all for a greater purpose, so I’m sure your kids understand that.

Yeah, I think they do. And I think that they’re proud of me. And I know I’m setting an example and leading the way. But sometimes, I just want to have the whole weekend with him. It’s exciting to know that my children have the opportunity to have a better future if I win because I’m going to help to implement the kind of policies that benefit their future. And the future of all young people.

When my 20-year-old was 15, he was a part of a youth group that was all about activism. It was his work in this coalition with young people in front of groups that inspired me. I realized I don’t have anything to be afraid of. If my kid can get out there and stand up, then what am I afraid of? I can do it. Young people have been my inspiration—their creativity, the way that they accomplish their goals. It’s amazing. I feel so grateful to be able to serve and to be a steward of their future, and I hope that I can bring justice to what they deserve.

To donate to Jennifer Esteen’s campaign for California Assembly, visit JenniferEsteen.com.

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