Title media by
Elana Lane

On Sept. 14, Joel Richards lost his city councilor candidacy for district four, which comprises Boston’s Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, and Mattapan neighborhoods. Richards—a teacher, union organizer, and DSA-endorsed candidate—ran for city councilor on a platform of housing and educational improvement for district 4. In a councilor race of a whopping 12 candidates, Joel polled in third. 

Richards’ campaign knocked on approximately 20,000 doors for his candidacy. Of those, YDSA Northeastern knocked 2,300 doors at a Joel Richards canvass where they represented 30 of the 80 total attendees. Though Richards’ loss for city councillor is a hard one to swallow, he encourages his supporters to keep fighting for socialism in Boston: “Door knock, show up.” Richards said. 

In a 30-minute interview with the ex-candidate, Joel Richards tells student journalist Lina Petronino of his involvement with district 4 through teaching and organizing, as well as his plans for the future.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to run for district 4?

Being a public school teacher, having two Boston Public Schools students as my own, and just seeing — time and time again — families being left out of the thought process of the city inspired me to run. We had low voter turnout, and people try to blame the people of my district for that, but it's hard to feel like you matter when you don't even have street lights; you can't even see in the dark. And so, I’m running because for too long, district 4 has been left out of the budget, and has been left to be crushed by the margins. We don’t get new streets, sidewalks, and more buses. 

Was there a specific moment where you realized you were going to campaign?

I would say the moment when I knew it was just gonna happen—being a married man, I gotta ask the boss if I can do these things. My wife told me, “Don't talk about it. Just do it if you're going to do it.” And so, it was done. I'll say the second moment is when I met my campaign manager. He contacted me and he just wanted to volunteer, but I knew from our conversation that he was the guy, and that we were going to do this together. [A] 23-year-old guy, Yousif Abdallah, just worked tirelessly. He did my website, coached me up, polished me off, and we ran a good race. 

Were there any groups besides DSA that helped your campaign?

The Boston Teachers Union (BTU) was there. They endorsed me: They’re my union and they came fully behind me. We worked together on that. They would come to door knocks, they would do that. Right to the City — they didn't work with me because they're a separate organization, but they endorsed me and they put door knockers out for me. Those were groups that were really big. The AFT Mass[achussetts] president herself, Beth Kontos, came out. Brian LaPierre, who's the communications director, came out for me. All of the officers of the BTU were out helping.

You had prior union experience before your candidacy. Were there any organizing skills that you learned and then used during your campaign?

Yeah, as a union you talk about a lot of issues with other members. You really learn how to engage with people. We do one-on-ones because that’s what really works. I did the same with this campaign. I had to meet people at their doors and tell them what my stances were and how I felt. Those are the skills I really used and honed in on. I'm one of the chairs of Black Lives Matter at School through the union, and I used that as a platform. Just understanding, communication, emailing, and how to have a clear and concise message. I think the big thing about organizing is not compromising on your stances and your morals. Something I learned is that I'm not going to change it up for anybody. I'm going to keep talking about the same message. And I think that was received, you know. 

Let’s talk about Black Lives Matter at School. How did it form in Boston? What’s its message? What do you guys do?

It's been around for a while; it’s a national movement. But I think it came here to Boston about four years ago. We were really small, it was really just me and two other people that ran everything and showed up to events. But by the second year, it got bigger. And by the third year it really just took off. The lead organizer for the BTU helped us out too, and there was just a lot of muscle on that. We had hundreds of people at events. We had a full week where hundreds of people showed up to the school board on behalf of students to fight for, the hiring of more Black teachers, the teaching of ethnic studies, and ending zero tolerance — meaning more counselors instead of cops in schools. These are things that are very, very important to myself, but also important to the success of students and their community. Our community needs to be restored in a lot of ways because of systemic racism, and fighting for that means a lot. We've had some pushback from certain groups that feel it’s an anti-cop movement, but it's the farthest thing from that. It is a pro-student movement. It is a pro-Black, Hispanic, LGBTQIA movement that needs to affirm people. As one of the people that are near and dear to my heart, Regina Robinson would always say, “affirmations matter,” and that's why Black Lives Matter week is important. 

How did Black Lives Matter at School impact your teaching experience? 

For me it was great, because it was just something inspiring to do with the kids. The conversations we have every day are incredible. We have restorative justice circles around empathy and redlining. We’re having really tough conversations with third- or fourth-graders, but they get it. These are great conversations to have.

How did these students receive this heavy-handed information? 

They know it's true, we’re just giving them the language to actually express it. I teach middle school in the summer. I teach them about overt and systemic racism, the differences between them. I'll never forget this fifth-grader I was teaching asked if bad schools were systemic or overt; he said it was overt. I thought it was more systemic, but he told me it was overt because it's obvious that our schools are bad because of a lack of funding. That’s not systemic, that’s obvious, because there are good schools in Boston. And I just said, “You know what? I understand what you’re saying.” I feel like these kids really get it. When we taught about redlining, the kids weren't sure if it really affected them. Then I just asked them, “You live where your parents live, but do you live where your grandparents live?” They all said yes, and so they started seeing all the effects of racism. They realized, “Wait a minute, my family all lives in the same place. We can't even leave or grow our life.” And it's not in a good way: you don't live in your grandparents mansion, you live in a rundown apartment building underneath them, or you all live together in one room or apartment. So, they started seeing the cracks in our system, even though they’d noticed it before. Like that kid said: it’s overt. They can’t ignore it, but we can help them name it.

Let's get back to your campaign. What would you say were the best or most memorable moments of your campaign?

The best parts were talking to the voters. I know it sounds cliché but it was really fulfilling to knock on someone's door and hear their story. I even saw some people at the polls again: it went from me not knowing them to them hugging me, even in a pandemic. That's the best part. The best parts were working with Yousif [Abdallah] and building a team. I had very few socialist friends before working with DSA, but now I have hundreds. They’re people that really love me and my family. I became a hub of the movement: my house has hosted over 200 socialists just this summer. I hope to keep doing stuff like that, to keep having salons and meetings where we can get together and talk about the things that matter to us, so that we can counteract bad things that are happening to people.

Were there any moments or events that made you more hopeful towards the future of the Boston socialist movement?

Just talking to people. If you say socialism, people shut down. But if you explain to them that their streets shouldn’t have holes in them, they understand. We pay taxes every time we go to the grocery store or buy gas. We pay taxes whenever we buy anything. We are the economic drivers: Covid showed us that. We are the economic drivers of this city, this state, this country, and we deserve more. That's socialism. And they agree with socialism, you just can’t explicitly say it's socialism. So, what’s hopeful is that we're right. We don't need everyone to join DSA, we need everyone to get behind our ideals. And that's the most important thing.

How can Boston’s youth further build the Socialist Movement?

Keep talking to your friends. Keep being right and keep showing up. Because you all showed up that day: that's why my phone won’t stop ringing. And so, if we keep doing that, people will start to take notice. We still have chances in Somerville, we still have changes in Jamaica Plains. But we have to make a movement, we still need to support these people.

It was obviously disappointing to see you lose, but what factors do you think contributed to your loss? Running against 11 other candidates must’ve been a big factor, but do you think there were any others? 

I'll say this: we need ranked choice voting, or else this is going to keep happening. Progressives or leftists won't get elected, because of tribalism. It’s very much a part of voting.  Voting is emotional; you gotta vote for your cousin, or whoever else. You’re going to vote for someone that’s from the same island as you. So, we need a way to take those votes that are splitting to come behind people that people love. There are people that agree with you and would vote for you, but instead they vote for their cousin or their neighbor. But there’s a way: It’s called ranked choice voting. It would move the right people up, politically. The loss just showed people, once again, the necessity of ranked choice voting.

In terms of plans for the future, what will you do to support Boston socialist candidates? 

I will only support socialists, and I’m going to stick to that. I know they’re not going to take fossil fuel money; I know they're not taking cop money; I know they’re not taking development money. These are things that we have to get out of our local politics.

Do you have any advice for your supporters after the loss of your election? How can they support socialists in future and current elections? 

Door knock, show up. Get comfortable with nuance. If there's a socialist running, you might not agree with everything, but these candidates have the core ideals of returning the power to the people, rent control, housing as a human right, and healthcare for all. Support them financially: $5 goes a long way in a campaign. Door knock for them: every vote counts, every person you interact with can be a potential voter. And showing up makes us seem more powerful, it shows the movement is there. Call and do phone banks for them, text-bank for them. Do whatever it takes to get people elected. We're a political party: If we don't start winning elections, we're never going to grow. There are so many factors that go into it, but the one factor that put a lot of respect on my campaign was that it wasn't a lack of work. It wasn’t a lack of support and work. If someone can get 100 people to come out for them to door knock, and if someone can get people to knock 20,000 doors, you need to think about what is next. Because now, there's no way you can give up if you see that you can garner that kind of support. We're going to start winning, and it’s going to take time. But we’re not going to start winning if socialists are sitting on their hands. 

As Frederick Douglass said, “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer, until I prayed with my legs.”