Taking Social Justice to the Statehouse with Rebecca Kislak

Rhode Island statehouse member Rebecca Kislak is an unabashedly progressive feminist whose agenda includes promotion of health equity, economic equality, public education, environmental stewardship, campaign finance reform, and LGBQIA+ rights.  But she’s also a consensus builder and believes that by developing personal relationships with people who hold opposing points of view, lawmakers can better serve diverse populations and interests. 

“I think I can work with almost everyone,” she says. “Personal relationships can change things.”

Kislak, first elected in 2018, has been endorsed by a slew of organizations including the statewide NOW PAC; the National Education Association; Planned Parenthood; 1199 SEIU; the Sierra Club; United Auto Workers, Region 9A; and the Working Families Party – Rhode Island. Not surprisingly, she is elated by this support. 

Furthermore, Kislak feels that her presence in government has had an impact and despite pushback and challenges, she has already been able to make headway in advancing gender, racial, and economic justice. I spoke to her this spring.

Eleanor J. Bader: You were a public interest lawyer and had been president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). What made you decide to run for elected office?

Rebecca Kislak: Although I ran for elected office for the first time in 2017, I’ve been involved in political campaigns since I was about 10! I remember volunteering in Miami, where I was raised. In high school I worked on a campaign and was assigned to look up the phone numbers of potential voters. I was given a stack of telephone books that was taller than me. I loved it.

When it came to running myself, however, it was a longer path.

The day after Trump was elected a friend called me and said that she was going to run for the General Assembly. Then she got a new job and decided not to compete. Slightly later, I learned that my state rep was stepping down so there was an open seat where I lived. At that point, there was a lot of momentum to get grassroots folks to run for office. All over the country women were running for state, local, and national office and I just decided to go for it.

EJB: Tell me about your campaign. 

RK: Even though I’d worked on other people’s campaigns for a few decades, the experience of being a candidate was like nothing I could have imagined. First, you can never have too many volunteers so you are always recruiting. There’s also a lot of down time where you’re sitting by yourself writing thank you notes.  And there’s always something else to do.

At the same time, it’s amazing and energizing. It’s also humbling to have people come together to support you and your leadership.

I was able to put together a wonderful coalition that led to victory. I’d lived in Rhode Island for 16 years when I ran. I had been president of the state NOW chapter and had built a lot of relationships throughout that time. Connection and building relationships are a passion for me.  

Running for office helped me articulate my ideas about what’s needed. The bottom line, I’ve discovered, is that when we bring people together to pay attention to what the government is doing, it improves governance for everyone.

EJB: Did you expect to win the election?

RK: By Election Day, the campaign had identified supportive voters and knew exactly how many votes I needed to win. Basically, we had a plan, stuck to that plan, and it worked. We expected to win and we did!

EJB: What was it like to enter the state legislature as an elected member?

RK: I’d lobbied the state house for NOW and on behalf of community health centers so I did not expect to be surprised by the way the statehouse functioned,  but I was. Every job has its own vocabulary and culture, and the vocabulary and culture of being a state representative is different from the vocabulary and culture of being an advocate. There was suddenly a lot that I needed to learn. 

There were also some things that I wanted to be true – for example, that if your cause is important and just, you’ll automatically win. I learned that that is not always true, even though I wanted it to be. Basically, I’ve had to learn to navigate between the world we live in and the world we want. This can be tricky, to say the least.

EJB: Do you have progressive allies?  

RK: Yes. There is a progressive bloc and it is growing. We’re getting some great things done. We codified Roe v. Wade in Rhode Island which was fabulous. We passed a bill on climate that helps us set goals and establishes a structure to enforce and monitor the changes we make.  

There were also some seemingly smaller and very important bills that were passed. Shortly after I entered the statehouse, we passed the Rhode Island Parentage Act. This allows both a birth parent and an intended parent to be listed on the birth certificate of babies born to LGBTQIA+ couples. When my partner and I had a birth, the non-biological parent had to adopt the child. I was able to advocate for the Act in a direct, personal way, which I’m proud of. We also passed a bathroom bill to require all single-stall bathrooms to be gender neutral.

This year, my constituents, who I meet regularly at zoom coffee hours, gave me some homework. They asked me to introduce two bills: a Ranked Choice Voting bill, and a bill to decarbonize Rhode Island buildings. Together, we researched the best approach, and I’ve introduced bills for each. 

EJB: You also introduced a bill to expand sex education in public school. There’s been a lot of pushback on this from conservative parents. What’s happening with the bill?   

RK: We’ve had hearings which were both beautiful and horrible. It’s hard to sit and listen to people spout lies about a community and I’m still confused about the best strategy to break through the lies that are being put forward, including that comprehensive sex ed will make kids gay or trans. On the other hand, a lot of  LGBTQIA+  kids have come forward and it has been beautiful to hear them speak their truths.

Over my years in office, conversations with youth and youth-led organizations have inspired me to rewrite my job description a little bit. I now see my role as helping youth build the world they want and supporting them in their efforts. 

After one of the hearings another elected official, a conservative, called me and we spoke about parental fear. The rightwing is tapping into a real uneasiness that is bubbling up over kids announcing that they are nonbinary or trans, and we have to figure out how to navigate this. The truth is that giving people the freedom to be whoever it is they are is not making them trans, or gay, but it is making them healthier. We know that suicide and suicidal ideation are far higher for LGBTQIA+ kids than for cishet kids and we need to help them in every way we can.

EJB:  What has it been like to be one of only three Jews and three LGBTQIA+ members in the Rhode Island House? 

RK: I have a very strong Jewish identity. Growing up, I was steeped in Tikkun Olam, and doing – activism – has been threaded through my life. It’s also true that I’m the only lesbian mom in state office. This made a difference when I was advocating for the Parentage Act.   

And as my colleagues and I get to know one another, they come to me to ask about legislation that affects the LGTBTQIA communities or about pronouns. Or about Jewish holidays.  Representation matters a lot and being a liaison is part of who I am. 

I see my job as an elected lawmaker as doing what I can to make life better. I want kids to be able to access the books they need to read in order to develop critical thinking skills. In my view, having too much information can’t cause harm, but having too little can definitely hurt. As a lesbian mom, I feel blessed to be living at a time when it is possible to be open about who I am. But laws like Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill keep people in closets. That’s not okay. We owe the next generation a lot better than this.