The Challengers: Isaiah Thomas Says ALL City Millennials Need a Voice

A series of Citified Q&As with the top challengers in the at-large City Council race.


All week, Citified will be featuring Q&As with leading at-large City Council Democratic challengers on topics of their choosing. The prompt was simple: if elected, what’s a problem you would you prioritize, and how would you address it? To keep the conversation substantive and on-point, we asked the candidates to focus on a relatively narrow question (i.e., not “schools,” or “crime.”)

In 2011, Isaiah Thomas ran for City Council at large and won 31,515 votes; good enough for eight place in a race where the top five finishers get a job. Still more impressive? He was 26-years-old. Four years later, Thomas is again a serious challenger, with a impressive and wide-ranging clutch of endorsements from the Inquirer to labor unions to the Black Clergy.

Right now, Thomas is the associate dean of students at Sankofa Freedom Academy. This time next year, he’d like to be in City Council, working on a youth-centric agenda.

Citified: What we want to do with these interviews is talk about an issue that’s near and dear to each of the candidates’ hearts — a subject that you’d focus on if elected to council. You’d like to talk about programs you’d like to get going for kids in the city—is that right?

Thomas: What I’d like to really have the dialogue about is an entire youth agenda. I think that encompasses a lot of different things, but essentially what we know is this: In the city of Philadelphia, we have a significant poverty rate, we have schools that haven’t been providing a quality education for over two decades and the services that we provide young people in general don’t give everybody an equal opportunity for the same chances of success. There are a lot of different nuances as it relates to this idea of better youth engagement and more resources for youth and young people, but for me I feel like that’s one thing that makes me unique and I think it shows that I can be an asset to this particular body.

Citified: So how does that make you unique? A lot of folks are saying in this race that schools are first and foremost, how is your focus on this issue or your approach to this issue different and unique? 

Thomas: I am the only person in this race right now who works with young people on a consistent basis in the schools. That’s my daily craft. Also I think I have a unique set of experiences. I think the fact that I grew up in Philadelphia at a time when stop and frisk was at its peak, I truly understand that injustice and the impact that has on youth growing up in the city of Philadelphia. … For me, I think the dialogue is way bigger than just what happens in traditional brick and mortar academic settings

Citified: Let’s talk about that. Give me some examples. What are things you’d like to do? How can you accomplish them?

Thomas: … First and foremost, we’re talking about advocacy and representation and that’s something that’s significant at a time when there’s a lack of trust between elected officials, police force and neighborhoods. When you have people who hold positions of influence, such as City Council at large, and you have this lack of trust, it is very important that there’s credibility and authenticity between neighborhoods and these individuals. …

I spend a lot of time working with grassroots organizations in the city of Philadelphia that offer unique opportunities and initiatives to help address a lot of the ills we have in our city. We’re talking about resume initiatives, job preparation, extracurricular activities — and these people are essentially blocked out because they don’t have access to city resources.

Citified: Let’s drill in a little bit on that access issue. What sort of access is lacking and do you think that on council, you’d be in a position to enable broader access?

Thomas: Yeah, and I have plenty of examples, but I’ll give you the most recent one…

I ran into a woman who dealt with the issue of re-entry. She talked to me about how she wants to help returning citizens have access to computers so they can make resumes themselves and apply for jobs online. Temple wants to give her 15 free computers, but she doesn’t have the space to house the computers. Temple won’t give her the computers until she has a physical location to house the program…

Citified: I get what you’re saying and I see the problems you’re identifying, I would agree that they would seemingly be solvable, but why is City Council the venue to solve them? What is it about being a city councilman that would make you better positioned to solve those problems? 

Thomas: A couple things. You need to be able to have access to certain venues and certain conversations and certain resources to be able to address those issues. It doesn’t require nine votes, but at the same time these aren’t issues that I can fix just by being a constituent that cares. I can’t get this woman the space she needs for 15 computers as the Dean of Students and Athletic Director at Sankofa Freedom Academy. I can hear out her problem, but I can’t solve it for her.

Citified: But as city councilman you can call up the nearest rec center, for instance and say hey is there some space that you could give this woman who’s trying to do something for kids in the neighborhood. Is that kind of what you’re getting at?

Thomas: Let’s be honest — an at-large councilman can probably have a conversation about resources with Temple. A rec center would be great, but that’s a phenomenal collaboration for Temple. And having a seat on Council gives you access to that. 

Citified: Isn’t what you’re describing the role of a District Council member?

Thomas: Absolutely not, because these problems exist in multiple pockets across the city of Philadelphia. … I think a lot of the time when we talk about youth, young people, education, and the lack of resources people want to pass that buck. Somebody has to pick up, stand up, and take ownership and say this is an issue that I’m going to own.

Citified: This may seem like a question with an obvious answer, but what’s the upside? What do we get as a city out of better services and a more intelligent focus on opportunities for kids?

Thomas: We’ve got a city that’s got a 24 percent poverty rate, we have a large percentage of our population that’s uneducated, and there’s a serious disconnect and lack of trust between police and communities, as well as elected officials and communities…

The key is, when we see these ills we have to understand that this isn’t just a North Philadelphia problem or South Philadelphia or West Philadelphia; it’s everybody’s problem. And these are the conversations that aren’t taking place… Nobody talks about these types of millennials — the millennials that have been in Philadelphia their whole life.