- Interview by
- Alex Birnel
In 2021, Jalen McKee-Rodriguez was elected to the San Antonio City Council as a socialist and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). He also became the first openly gay black man to hold office in the state of Texas, representing San Antonio’s working-class and historically majority-black East Side.
Working as a math teacher in one of San Antonio’s most impoverished high schools motivated McKee-Rodriguez to fight for a government that puts working-class residents first, an agenda he has pursued on the San Antonio City Council for the last year. He sat down with Alex Birnel for an interview with Jacobin.
You represent District 2 on San Antonio’s East Side. How would you describe your district, its history, and its current struggles?
District 2 is vast and diverse. We have the largest black population in the city. We’ve historically been a majority-black district, though demographics have changed so drastically that we no longer are. Still, when people think of District 2, they think of the inner city that grows into the East Side. It is rich in culture, history, and pride.
Some of the greatest civil rights leaders in our country’s history called District 2 home — from Reverend Claude Black, known throughout the South as an activist and changemaker, to Artemisia Bowden, who was born to enslaved parents and fought for increased access to education for the black community, eventually founding St Philip’s College. The Ella Austin Community Center is named after the community activist who originally founded it as a black orphanage.
Every leader who’s made District 2 what it is today had a deep understanding of a particular set of struggles plaguing that generation or that era, whether it was segregation, access to housing, or access to economic opportunity and prosperity. Our greatest struggles today grow out of continuous disinvestment, over-policing, and under-resourcing. Gentrification is underway on the East Side right now. Investment that happens in our district often feels like an effort to replace existing residents. Overall, the issues in our district are largely rooted in both class and racial injustice.
During your first term on the city council, you challenged the consensus on crime and policing as a response to so-called crime. What does alternative public safety look like to you beyond police and prisons?
It looks like a reclamation of a neighborhood or a community’s accountability system. We stress the need to look beyond our existing tool kit, which is currently composed of oppressive tools. Thinking about crime, the question to keep up front is, Is theft worse than the poverty that led to the decision to steal? Is anger at a corrupt, oppressive system worse than the corrupt oppressive system itself? How do we prevent preventable crimes? If the root of a crime can be traced back to underinvestment in housing, infrastructure, or another thing under our control, that’s what we should be investing in. Public safety should look different in different cultures, communities, and neighborhoods. We need a larger conversation at a deeper level about generational trauma and all of its forms. Those in positions of power within oppressive systems should take accountability for systemic causes of crime.
In your social media bios, you’re open about the fact that you’re a democratic socialist, a gay black man, and a Barb — meaning a Nicki Minaj fan. What do you mean by “democratic socialist”? And what does it mean to you to be a gay black man in a state power structure that’s mostly straight and white?
I love that you mentioned Barbz.
As a gay black man, if I walk into a room, I cannot afford to present myself as uncomfortable, because discomfort looks like weakness. It’s interpreted as a lack of authority. I have to stand in my power and speak with the voice and the authority that my constituents empowered me with. Or I run the risk of failing, which is absolutely not an option for my district. I enter this power structure knowing that people power is the strongest kind of power there is.
As for democratic socialism, when I sought out DSA’s endorsement, I had to acknowledge that on the East Side black capitalism is considered a solution to our problems. What I’m fighting for is different from that. Democratic socialism is about making a change in the power dynamic of our society. We are ruled by capitalism, and many of our greatest struggles are born from worker exploitation. Democratic socialism calls for changes to power dynamics in the workplace, a shift that’s driven forward by union organizing, strikes, campaigns for workers’ rights, mutual-aid efforts, and community-led programming. Democratic socialism also means a change in the way our government operates. Government should be driven by the goals, desires, and needs of people over corporations and other exploitative institutions.
What have you been able to accomplish during your first year in office?
My office makes clear that we aren’t just a political personality, we’re policymakers. We’ve successfully advocated for a street-lighting index paired with record streetlight funding. Our team fought for an animal care hospital to be built into our city’s bond program after it was originally left out of the initial draft. We recognized a somewhat ironic inequity in our city’s equity lens for infrastructure funding that was causing greater disparity in road conditions, and we challenged the city to change the formula. Those changes will take effect this year — rather than being based on the size of a district, it’s going to be based entirely on condition.
I’ll add that although I voted against the police contract, we were able to alter what ultimately passed for the better, including changes to arbitration that will make it harder for fired officers to return to the department. Our rehire rate is one of our biggest shortcomings as a city.
In terms of infrastructure, our district is receiving over $350 million in capital investments over the next five years. We managed to keep Brackenridge Park during the local redistricting process, meaning we get to maintain our influence over the extremely large investments and developments taking place there. We were one of only two districts to remain unchanged in spite of lobbyists’ efforts to have the park removed. I’m also positioned to secure land for a senior center in my district, which we currently don’t have.
I think there’s a victory in the fact that we’ve pushed discussion on multiple issues. Sometimes I’m the lone vote, as during the vote against incentives for the Spurs facility being built over our Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, or the vote against granting Texas Biomed and animal-testing facilities public dollars.
You’ve got several community folks in your office. They include Frankie Trynoski and Sean Omar Rivera, formerly of MOVE Texas; Joleen Garcia, Marie Naranjo, and Le Reta Gatlin-McDavid from Texas Organizing Project; Imgard Rop, formerly of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center; and Denise Hernández, who has been involved in grassroots efforts in San Antonio for years. What does having staff with backgrounds in community organizing say about your approach to governance?
I have some of the baddest, most compassionate organizers in the game working for my office. People with strong moral compasses, people who know what it’s like to be devoted to a larger mission and objective. It makes me a better leader, and it keeps me accountable. Our work would have been much more challenging to accomplish if we had the usual city hall insiders on our team.
In an organizational sense, our office runs very differently from any other office. We have a four-day workweek. We have shorter hours during the day. The staff has greater autonomy, and I check in with every member of my team at some point every single day to offer my support and take their feedback. Our victories come from a place of trust and mutual respect for each other outside of an employee-employer relationship.
This year, we’ve consistently had the highest turnout of any council district at our events, and some of the greatest responses in the city surveys. That’s because we organize, we’re still block-walking, we’re making phone calls. We’re creating those opportunities to coalesce. I think we also look like and reflect the district. My team is entirely black and brown, with queer, disabled, age-diverse voices — and we’re united.
How does your office work with allies on the ground? And are you a member of any organizations?
I’m a member of Texas Organizing Project, DSA of course, Stonewall Democrats, and Our Revolution. When items come before the council, my office often calls organizations that are doing work on the ground in that specific area to ask for feedback and suggestions. If anyone has any concerns or ideas, we take those back to the dais. If there’s something that an organization is doing that compels them to want to understand the inner workings of city hall, or if they ask how they can be effective in accomplishing their goals, we brainstorm that. I think that the collaborative relationship we’ve built has empowered black and brown folks and organizations that weren’t given ears at city council to show up and advocate on issues together.
How do you work with your fellow DSA member on city council, Teri Castillo?
I’m a ride-or-die kind of ally. When it’s time for a fight, I’ve always been a guaranteed second, a vote of support, a signature on a CCR, a memo. We face many of the same challenges in our districts. When people talk about disadvantaged communities, they reference our districts. We also share difficulties in navigating the power structures together. When I need to lend a hand in support of Teri or in defense against city staff or other council members, I do. I believe the organizations galvanized behind us want to see us work closely. That’s my homegirl.
In your second term, what policies do you hope to introduce and pass?
I would be the first District 2 council person reelected in ten years. Much of what I’m working on now is positioning for the future. I want to work on a food-access strategy with tangible investments. I’d like to see the creation of an office of crime and recidivism prevention, influencing the investments that we make beyond policing. I’d like to create a greater animal care services master plan. On housing, I think it’s time for a formalized tenants’ bill of rights, and I’d like to prevent hostile architecture on public projects — architecture that’s designed to harm and deter the houseless community.
My first term has been focused on building trust with constituents. I hope for a second term, where we can see cool things such as movie theaters and community centers. I also want to work on much-needed solutions like changes in density, or projects like permanent supportive housing. And I’d love to see city council aides unionize. That’s going to have to happen organically through their own efforts, but they would have my complete support in that.