Research shows that working-class people almost never become politicians, but Carmen Castillo is both a hotel housekeeper and a Providence Rhode Island City Council member. Yet when Carmen first began to work as a housekeeper, the only English words she knew were “yes” and “no.”
Carmen joins Sanford School of Public Policy Dean Judith Kelley to discuss her journey to citizen politician.
Conversation highlights have been edited for readability and clarity.
Was your family supportive of you running for city council?
Yes. My daughter says okay. My mom says yes. My family supports me a hundred percent in every step I want to do in my life. When I decided to be a union organizer and organize the union in the hotel, my daughter saw me as a leader. Even when my baby was in the crib, I brought them to the picket line. My daughter was four years old and was screaming like crazy. My other daughter, too. They know how that works because they grew up seeing me fight. It’s not only for the hotel. It’s for immigration, for abused women. They know me. I grew up my daughters like that. They support me a hundred percent.
When did you know you had won?
When we won the primary, we had a real victory, because we are Democratic city. Also the harder part is going door to door after eight hours of work. You get out, do your job, and then you have five more hours in the street knocking on doors and letting the people know what you do and what you want to continue to do.
I don’t make any promise to people, like, “I can get you a job,” or “I can get you this and that.” No, I promise them to fight really hard for our neighborhood and get them more resources.
On research that shows working class people almost never become politicians, because they don’t run for office.
We need to change that mindset. We can do it. We know what we need. We continue to let the rich people manage everything. They don’t care where the money’s going because they aren’t affected. [But policies] affect poor communities. If we don’t raise our voice, if we don’t organize the community and say, “We need to let the people know we are here” [nothing will change].
And being a political person gives you power … you can make the right decision for the people you represent.
On gaining the courage to run, even though she was not fluent in English
My union workers, my coworkers, a lot of people in my neighborhood believed in me because they see me all the time trying to help other causes. They said, “You can do it, Carmen.” I said, “No, I’m not prepared [to run for office].”
But you know, thinking about it, you don’t prepare for anything that happens in your life. You’ll always be scared to do something new, but if you don’t do something, why are you complaining all the time? Nothing will change. Stop complaining and do something.
Carmen Castillo’s visit to Duke was sponsored by POLIS: The Center for Politician Leadership, Innovation and Service.
- Carmen Castillo is featured in the documentary film Councilwoman
- Professor Nick Carnes’ book is The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run for Office
- Subscribe to the Policy 360 podcast: www.policy360.org/
- Read an episode transcript
- Music: The Zeppelin by Blue Dot Sessions / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution