Jass Stewart, center, is the first African American and the first openly gay candidate to win a city councilor-at-large seat in Brockton, Mass. (John V. Thomas photo)
Jass Stewart, the first African American and openly gay candidate in Brockton to earn a city councilor-at-large seat, defeated four other candidates in a historic election last week that also saw Linda M. Balzott become the first woman elected mayor of Brockton.
“I was taught that the only thing that would limit me is my imagination,” Stewart said during a wide-ranging interview.
For Stewart, 38, it’s been a long journey from his childhood days living in a crime-plagued housing project in Dallas, Texas. He credits his parents for instilling a sense of persistence and pride in his young mind.
His father loaded trucks for a living and his mother, who was the first in her family to attend college, was a teacher. Money was tight and Stewart recalls very few frills growing up. He remembered eating mayonnaise sandwiches and drinking sugar water instead of soda.
When Stewart realized as a teenager that he was gay, he told his parents. To his surprise, they were very supportive. “My parents never ceased to amaze me in terms of their ability to cope,” he said. “Now I can look back and see the ability that my parents had, with pretty limited means, to see the bigger picture and how they wanted their kids to move forward and experience the world.”
Stewart was 18 years old when he came to Massachusetts in 1989 to study at Boston University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in communications and later a master’s degree in education. He also spent two years at MIT as a senior research fellow in the Department of Urban Planning.
In 1999, he moved to Brockton in part because of the city’s diversity. He bought a house and adopted a seven-year-old child. He married his partner Denzil Paul, a computer analyst from Trinidad, when Massachusetts became the first state to recognize gay marriage in 2004.
Stewart is now vice president of communications at Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit organization that implements educational reform and work force development in cities around the country.
Stewart became involved in the civic issues of Brockton when his son started school there ten years ago. “It is when you have a family that you actually become rooted in a place,” he explained. “Your children are what really move you.”
Stewart took that feeling to another level. He became very active in the Brockton community, serving on the Mayor’s task force on after-school programs and on the boards of Brockton Neighbors United, the Boys and Girls Club of Brockton and Brockton Area Multi-Services, Inc. He was also a member of the Cable Advisory Board, a Crime Watch leader, a member of Brockton Peace Crusaders.
Amazingly, Stewart found time to start My Enterprises, a summer program to help Brockton youth use their creativity to become entrepreneurs.
Over time, when speaking with local residents, he saw a disconnect between them and how City Hall seemed to be functioning.
“The people I met in the community and in organizations like Brockton Neighbors United were optimistic, hopeful and had great ideas about how to move the city forward, but there was no bridge between them and city government,” he said.
It was then that Stewart, a registered Democrat, decided to get involved in local politics.
Although this is his first electoral victory, Stewart is no a stranger to political campaigns. He ran twice for mayor of Brockton. In 2007, he was narrowly defeated, in a hotly contested election marred by gay smears and false allegations regarding his educational credentials.
“I learned that hope is as powerful as hard work, and no matter the circumstances, you never give up,” Stewart said.
He credited this year’s victory to his campaign’s extensive use of the internet and connecting with individuals by campaigning door-to-door.
“It’s about reaching out to people, one person at a time,” he said.
Stewart is aware of the challenges that urban, economically depressed cities like Brockton face. Two areas in which he says his professional expertise could help Brockton are the high dropout rates and the lack of well paying jobs.
“It is now up to me and the others on the city council to deliver reform here in Brockton,” he said.
On election night, Stewart took his commitment to reforming Brockton’s government a step further.
“The good old boys didn’t put me in, the establishment didn’t put me in and the insiders didn’t put me in,” he said. “The people of Brockton put me in. So I look forward to working hard, getting up early, going to bed late and working for the people of Brockton.”