Pepper Bowen Roussel is a food, water and environmental attorney running for State Representative of District 91 in New Orleans, the election of which will be on October 12. Ms. Roussel did not seek or receive the endorsement of the DSA, but agreed to an interview to explain some of her positions. To find out more about her campaign, visit her site vote4pepper.com. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So how did you get to this day, to where you are now?
So I had not planned on running. I know and have known for a while that most of our legislature is going to be term-limited and so they’ll be aging out this go-around, and I expected that since there are some really crucial issues coming up, that somebody would have stepped up long before me who would be addressing them and nobody had. The sun has set on waiting for somebody to step forward and do the things that I want to see done.
The biggest thing is redistricting, and that hits so very many different levels of existence that I don’t think many people give it enough credit, because we are trained in many ways to respond to centrist politics, so when we hear healthcare and education and criminal justice reform, people rally around those things, which is great, but to me, even though I am fully in support of Medicare for All and we should all have healthcare, if I take off in order to go to the doctor and get fired, I don’t know if having healthcare is helping me too much. If I cannot return to my job because I was sick and needed a couple days to recuperate-again, not helping me too much. These are intertwined, these are interlocking systems. You can’t just move one and everything is going to fix itself.
So one of the big ones for you is making sure that representation is done in the right way?
Not just representation. Yes that is part of redistricting, so that everybody does have a vote but also the way that we get money for infrastructure, it is also the way that voices that believe they are not heard get heard. So, take a couple of steps back. Gerrymandering got to this place because we wanted to be sure that we had certain types of representation in certain areas. In 91 we are Irish Channel, Lower Garden District, Central City, Gert Town, Holly Grove, it cuts all the way through Fountainbleau to Marlyville, which is up in Carrollton, and it also hits a little swathe over in Mid-City. So essentially we are from the river to the parish line, right through the center of town, and just thinking about those different neighborhoods, they are not the same interests, so we can all say that we do have a concern with say, water management, but, in Irish Channel where it does not flood, the concern is ‘Why is my street not draining?’ as opposed to Gert town or Holly Grove and that issue is really more around ‘Why is it that every time there is a flood event that my house is completely underwater?’ So you can see those as the same, but they are very much not in the same vein. Levels or degrees as it were.
Instead of looking for a specific representative, if we were to start looking at the people who are there and what they might need, and maybe even encapsulate entire neighborhoods inside of a district, then those people can actually have a place. Suddenly it’s not about the folks who were in Mid-City competing with the folks in Lower Garden District over resources. They are voting with people who have the same basic interests as they do.
Additionally, for money coming in for infrastructure, when we start looking at the census, which is going to drive the redistricting in many ways, if we are not capturing citizenship, if we are allowing people to just say, ‘Hey you know what? I live here!’ Then we can stop this trope around a drain on resources. What ends up happening, is that especially in areas where we don’t have enough resources, there’s folks who are afraid to say ‘I’m here’. We don’t get money into those areas that reflects them, so there’s not money for schools there’s not money for streets, there’s not money for hospitals, there’s not money for anything because they just ‘don’t exist’. Conversely, in the Lower Garden District, you don’t necessarily have a high volume or a high concentration of folks who are looking for affordable housing, well, everybody there is having their voices heard.
For me my platform is really about family, community and culture. Families, first and foremost, we need to have equality in pay, we need to have equality in criminal justice application, we need have equality in opportunity and that is well beyond an education system, that is really about starting at the foundation of things and saying if women are indeed heading most of the families in different areas then women need to be making more money period. They need control of their bodies, they need to be able to put their children in schools that are going to be best for them, they need transportation whether that be private or public transportation to be able to get back and forth to work in order to give them and their families an opportunity to grow. Their families are really the foundation of our communities and our communities are really disparately treated in this moment so we’ve got areas like Gert Town where there are really radioactive materials that have been found in the ground, where there are brown fields and brown lots in Central City. We don’t really hear about that in parts of Uptown that are closer to the river. The things we hear about there are potholes, which, believe me when I tell you I do feel the misery of the pothole, but it is certainly not the same thing as having some radioactive sludge running down the street every time that it rains. So ensuring that we have these healthful, safe, and environmentally friendly places for families and communities to be able to grow and to thrive is really just looking at how it is that each of us lives and works with each other.
Those communities are really the basis for our culture. The idea that we would have a preservation of culture as an economic driver really makes a lot of sense here, but what we’ve ended up with is folks who don’t really know New Orleans who are capitalizing off of what they do know about it. Knowing a lot of facts is not really the same thing as knowing and understanding a culture. For years the Black Masking Indians have been just that, Black Masking Indians, but they are having to re-brand themselves as Mardi Gras Indians in order to get any money out of it. Folks have been coming in and taking pictures of them and selling it for a lot of money, meanwhile, they spend an entire year putting together a suit, but get no money out of it. We’ve got restaurants that are popping up all over the place that are re-imagining things that have been food staples here for generations, and I’m not saying we should not have some sort of evolution of food, what I am saying is that if we do have people that are making money off of it, why are they not the people who have been cooking the food for all of these generations? So, putting protections around the culture as an economic driver, and making sure that the folks who are already in these spaces are not being driven out by further transitions of faces and neighborhoods.
So do you have a couple big priorities if you got elected as far as food and water in New Orleans goes?
So many things! The biggest thing for me is really getting people a space where they don’t just have “access” to things, because even if I live across the street from the Whole Foods and I can’t afford to buy anything in it, I have access. Growing becomes a very nuanced conversation because the whole idea around community gardens means that the community has to buy into it, and if the community is not ready or willing to support it then it fails, as I’m sure you’ve seen around town, lots of community gardens have just died because people don’t have the time or don’t have the interest. What I think would be really awesome would be to increase the opportunities in ways that are just a little bit off the beaten path in order to get people with money in their pocket so they can purchase this food.
Royce Duplessis was trying to change the [state] constitution so that we would no longer have preemption at a state level, where we could not set a living wage at a municipal level, and that did not work last session. I would really love to partner with Royce and maybe see if we could expand that a little bit more so that we could actually have a living wage created and set by a city or municipality so that then folk do have options to actually access.
Are you pro legalization of marijuana?
I am pro legalization of marijuana and I believe the taxation around that should be equivalent to whatever it is that we do around drugs and alcohol-over the counter drugs and alcohol. Again I think that it is disingenuous to create an entire industry around legalization of marijuana where it ends up looking like you’re walking into an apple store, meanwhile black and brown bodies are rotting away in prison as part of the industrial prison complex. So these are all interlocking systems, and in my mind we have to be able to, if not disentangle them, then to figure out a lynchpin so that once we start, we can hit all the different levels of oppression. What I would really love to see is a program where we don’t just release. So step one is that we release drug offenders into general society, but step two is that we find in some sort of a way a business incubator for these folks, because they are clearly entrepreneurial and have a very clear understanding of market demand, as well as product placement, so that they can then make money off of the very thing that has destroyed families and destroyed their futures. Just releasing people into general society doesn’t work, and just hoping they will get a job is putting them in a very difficult situation, but if we can make them business owners and put them into a place where they can self-support, and they then can then hire other people, I think that that is a reasonable way forward, in that way not only do we have opportunities for those folks to sell, but there’s also a growing aspect of it so we can not only cultivate them, we can cultivate land in ways we have not thought of before, and not just community gardens but maybe we have a lease program for urban areas that is far more supportive of these small businesses then it is just waiting for developers to come along and put another high rise on it.
We talked a little about people who are apathetic about voting, or don’t feel like they have a voice, what are your suggestions as far as getting out the vote, because I do feel like there are so many people who are like ‘Why would I bother?’ And they’re such an important group of people to reach.
So you’ve got a couple of groups there. One would be your formerly incarcerated folks and many of them may not know they can vote this go-around thanks to organizations like VOTE (Voices Of The Experienced) who worked really hard to make sure that they could. We also have folks who live in marginalized and depressed areas who are suffering from community trauma: if every day somebody is being removed, you don’t know when they’re coming back, if they’re coming back, it does create a sense of helplessness. That’s the lion’s share of folks who don’t vote because they don’t see how things are going to change. Getting out the vote is a little bit more difficult because they have seen over time how it doesn’t really matter the shading of the person who’s in elected office, it doesn’t really matter the gender of someone elected into office because they continue to be the ones who are trod upon, they continue to be the ones who do not have a voice necessarily that they really just have this treadmill that they’re on, which is unfortunate.
What I would love to see is when folks do go knocking on doors, and they’re talking about come and vote, that they are explaining what the numbers are. In [district] 91 alone we have somewhere north of 61 percent of black women. 61 percent of people who are in the neighborhood. In this district they alone could choose who represents them. I’m a factual kind of person, and if someone were to come to me and say “if all y’all just showed up and voted, then we can make real and lasting change, if all of y’all opened your homes to discussions around what does voting look like and how it is that I can actually have a voice, if more folks were actually engaged and invested in politics the same way that politics is engaged and invested in them, I think we would have much deeper and better discussions around how it is that these folks can move power and shift power from where it sits and take it back into the communities where it ought to be.