“I never thought I would ever have a career in politics,” Nelini Stamp tells NYLON. “Or even be in politics at all.” And yet, here she is, at one of the most important political times in recent memory, working in the trenches, fighting for a better future and a more equitable present. As the organizing director of the Working Families Party, the New York City native travels around the country, campaigning for and supporting progressive candidates who want real change in our political system.
Stamp, who always thought she would be on Broadway and acted in commercials and films when she was younger, says her political awakening was a cumulative process, beginning when she saw a “family member get arrested for jumping a turnstile,” deepening once she realized that paying for college was impossible for her and her family, and solidifying during the financial crisis that began in 2007. At that time, Stamp became involved in Occupy Wall Street, and then Black Lives Matter; through these things, she realized the power in activism and organization, and has been working with the Working Families Party since 2008, where she promotes candidates who are working to bring about real change by increasing the minimum wage, eradicating student loan debt, and making health care accessible for everyone. Dramatically changing the course of the country in this way is an intimidating task, but it’s one Stamp is uniquely ready to tackle.
Below, we talk with Stamp about the importance of challenging America’s political binary, how not to lose hope, and who her own It Girls are.
What do you say to young people who feel like there’s not much they can do to make our country a more equitable place?
I always tell them how I saw the message of hope and change when Obama got elected, [but then saw] the Tea Party rise and more people being deported—my dad's an immigrant, wasn't a U.S. citizen for a long time—and thought, Okay, so we got someone elected, and still things are going a little sideways. Like, obviously, better than the Bush era, but still, not necessarily what I thought was going to happen.
And so, when I talk to people—young people or other folks who are like, "Oh, anything I do, it doesn't matter, it's just one vote"—I say, “You know, if we all said that in 2008, I don't know if Obama would be president.”
And I point to all the movement of people, after Obama became president, that grew and built and changed the dynamic, the fact that there were folks who said, "Not one more deportation," and were able to move the framework so that Obama passed executive orders to protect children and deferred action for early childhood arrivals. I point to the fact that some “kids in a park,” as a lot of folks called [the Occupy Wall Street movement], changed the narrative around class in this country.
Everything that has been gained in this country is not gained because it's the easy way. It's not because you just wave your hand and say, "I want this to happen." It's because people have taken sacrifice, and put in time to make that happen. So, the fact that people are saying "the 99 percent" and "the 1 percent" to this day, [that’s because we] changed the narrative for the country for the good.
You have folks in Ferguson that say, "You know what? Not anymore." And even though we still have black men and black women being incarcerated, as well as trans women of color, with people's ability to take risks and go out there, we've seen so much change. We've seen the culture change around immigration, around trans women of color, around class.
And so when I talk to people, I just say, "Look at your daily life. Can you see or feel any one of these movements and how it affected you? Even if it's a small way. That's because people did small things to make big change, and then some folks did big things to make big change."
I know people, especially right now with Trump being president, feel really, really hopeless, and with Kavanaugh being confirmed, even more so. But we still fought off the gutting of health care. We were still able to stop a bill that Steve Bannon wanted to pass, that would've given massive amounts of money to wealthy corporations and not to communities of color. We still have been able to do stuff, even faced off against one of the most evil presidents we've probably had in our entire life.
I think that a lot of people are unclear about our other options in what is such a strong two-political-party system. What does the Working Families Party stand for? And why is it so important to have an alternative to our existing political binary, of Democrats and Republicans?
For me, the Working Families Party is a political home for communities—for any community—to come together to identify and pick the best candidates that should be represented on the ballot in November. Our strategy is to primary either a corporate Democrat, like we did in New York [the Working Families Party supported Cynthia Nixon in the Democratic primary against incumbent Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo], that has not met the community's needs, especially in terms of social movements. And so we see our job as making sure that that best Democrats get elected in their primary and have a political home.
[As a Republican alternative,] the Tea Party was a political home. That's why, unfortunately, we have Trump, because of this movement that was built on the right to push it further to the right.
We believe that if we put progressive Democrats out there and push the dialogue, push the narrative, and then push the party, when we can, to the left, we'll change the course of what our elected officials look like. We want to make sure that we're always, always in tune with where social movements are pushing us. We're not a social movement. I've been a part of social movements, but the party itself is not a social movement. The party itself wants to be a political expression of the social movements.
I think that's a really helpful way of looking at elections. I think a lot of people only think of victory as looking a very specific way. And they don’t understand sometimes it’s not just about winning immediately, but about winning the long game.
The Tea Party probably ran thousands of candidates, and they only won, like, one really big one their first go-around, which was when they beat the Speaker of the House… they didn't really win a lot of races if you actually look at how many they supported. But they changed the whole dynamic for the party, because it was a referendum on how the party was acting for those radical right-wing folks.
And so, how do we change the way the Democratic Party behaves? Especially after 2016. Regardless of all of the things that we can say about interference and all the things that probably are true, we also have to understand that [Trump’s victory] happened because of mistakes and missteps of the Democratic Party, as a coalition. And the best way for us is if we contend with them by saying, "This is actually the way forward. These are the policies that are the way forward: free higher education, Medicare for all, the fight for 15 and unions, the fight to decriminalize migration, the fight to cut our prison population, hopefully in half, if not more. This is the future, this is what you should be talking about, and we should be unapologetic about it."
Who was a woman you admired growing up? Who was your It Girl?
One was Aretha Franklin. I mean, Aretha just… there was something about her voice, the power of it, the command of it, the fact that while I was growing up—and this is years after what people would call her prime—she's still out there, killing it, slaying it; when "Respect" comes on, all the people come to the dance floor. Just seeing a black woman from an inner city in the North, just being powerful at any age, to me was just like, "Oh, that is It."
I'm an Afro-Latina, and seeing someone, a black woman, who's out there, who's like, "This is it, I am who I am, and I'm gonna be who I am at any age, and none of y'all can tell me to sit down, ever," that was something extremely beautiful and powerful. Always, to this day, I play Aretha Franklin when I'm feeling down, or when I'm feeling like, "Ugh, fuck, this country hates people like us.”
And then my abuela, my grandmother. I don't even think she has a full high school education. She came from Puerto Rico, emigrated to the United States in the 1950s during the mass exodus, grew up in poverty, and she, to this day, is the matriarch of our family. For me, she was strong, she was powerfu—you didn't want to cross her, and you also sometimes were annoyed at her, but you also always could confide in her. She's always the person that I want to go to when I'm sad, when I'm feeling some type of way. Even if she has said things that are, like, really old, Catholic values, I can still talk to her, and she sees me as who I am. She sees me as not just her granddaughter, but a human.
Do you have any It Girls right now? Apart from Aretha and your grandmother?
There's this woman by the name of Tracey Corder, who is the racial justice director at the Center for Popular Democracy, and she's just unapologetic. As a black woman too, and a millennial, watching her is amazing.
After Heather Heyer was murdered in Charlottesville, I called her organization and was like, "We're doing this march to confront white supremacy, and I need some people," and she was just like, "I'll come," and just, like, left her home, came on this march, didn't know who the hell I was, came up for 10 days and just… anything we needed, anything we needed to do, she was there. She just helped lead this Be A Hero tour across the country with Ady Barkan, and has been leading that work and is just an amazing powerhouse, in the movement, in elections, in organizing, and she's just fucking brilliant.