Ask Joyce Briscoe why she’s running for Congress and she might offer, innocuously, “I’m just a regular citizen who’s not too pleased with the way things are going in politics.”
But it’s not quite that simple.
As Briscoe sees it, the system failed her. And it’s failing others, too.
That’s why the single mother of two, who describes herself as an activist and humanitarian with a background in paralegal and administrative work, is taking on longstanding incumbent U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel in next week’s primary.
“I don’t feel that any of my representatives are representing me, my family, or the people in my community,” said Briscoe, who lives in Wakefield. “They seem very disconnected, far removed from the people that they represent. Rather than complain about it, I wanted to make changes. So I decided to make the changes myself.”
From her work as a paralegal, Briscoe gleaned an invaluable lesson.
“Information is vital,” Briscoe said. “One of the responsibilities of a congressman is to bring the information from (Washington) to their constituents and make sure that the information flows evenly. I don’t see that happening.”
Born in Asheville, North Carolina, Briscoe was raised by a single mother along with two older siblings. At the time Briscoe was born, her mother was fleeing an abusive relationship. The family moved to Harlem when Briscoe was 8 months old, and arrived in the Bronx when she was 7. She’s been here ever since.
Briscoe calls the years she spent living in the New York City Housing Authority’s Daniel Webster Houses at East 169th Street and Webster Avenue her “most formidable.” But it was there she noticed an unbreakable sense of community in a place every family was trying to “make a way out of no way,” parents seeking the best for their children.
Briscoe moved into her first apartment at 18, had her first child at 20, her second at 26. Along the way, she discovered what she calls “a rude awakening about public assistance.” Despite heroic efforts working in a day care facility while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice — all while raising two kids — she couldn’t support her family without being on some form of social services like Medicaid, food stamps, cash assistance or subsidized housing.
“I thought that working hard and trying your best would be enough,” Briscoe said. “Getting the social services, I noticed that it didn’t help you to propel or progress. It seemed like it kind of pigeonholed you into a position of staying at a lower class. So I always told myself either I have to make enough to get off” assistance, or continue earning a sufficiently low amount to receive it.
“There’s no in-between,” Briscoe added. “The moment you do a little better — let’s say you’re getting Medicaid or child care services — if you make $5 extra, they take it all away. So you have to weigh, ‘Am I going to take this $5 extra, or am I going to lose every other service that I have, and possibly where I’m living?’”
Elected officials who implement such policies, Briscoe said, are “not the ones that have to live through those policies.
“I’m someone who lived through the policies and sees that they’re failed policies.”
A key tenet of Briscoe’s campaign is raising awareness among voters, on more than one level — about how to stand up for their rights when fighting eviction, for example, and simply knowing who represents them in government.
Canvassing in Engel’s 16th District, “I’ll ask people, ‘Do you know who your congressperson is?’” Briscoe said. “They don’t know. They don’t know what the responsibilities are of their congressperson. They don’t even realize, when they’re having certain problems, who to actually turn to.”
Briscoe lists a slate of issues she’d like to tackle — student loan debt, mental health, unemployment, NYCHA, public schools, police-community relations — but perhaps most crucial, based on what she’s heard from residents, is showing up.
“They really appreciate seeing a politician doing the footwork,” Briscoe said. “Oftentimes, they say they’ve never met one of their politicians, or the people who’s running. They often send other people out to do their work. I’ve even met people who’ve worked for politicians, myself included — you never see the person that you’re working for. You’re out there canvassing, but you never meet the actual candidate.”
That’s why, as a challenger (along with Jonathan Lewis), she’s doing the legwork.
“They really feel that there’s a disconnect, similar to myself,” Briscoe said. “They don’t feel that their politicians either understand their plight or understand what their needs are, and they don’t relate.”
Engel, Briscoe said, is “not finding out what’s going on with the people” he represents. “Often, people say he’s scared of people. He does not come around people. He does not seem to like people. Why is he in this business? Where I live, nobody’s ever seen him. Nobody knows what he does.”
But that couldn’t be further from the truth, said Bryant Daniels, Engel’s director of public affairs.
“Congressman Engel is and always has been very active in the communities he represents,” Daniels said, maintaining three district offices — two in the Bronx and one in Westchester.
Additionally, Engel holds special office hours every other Friday on White Plains Road and East 229th Street, Daniels said — right in the heart of Wakefield — to help serve as many people as possible.
It’s Briscoe’s hope to reconcile what she sees as a chasm that’s emerged between residents of her community and their elected officials. That starts with keeping a keen ear to the street.
“I feel like that’s what this job is all about,” Briscoe said. “You’re supposed to take the information that you get on the ground and make sure you’re representing (constituents) in Washington. If you were listening to the people, you would’ve learned a long time ago that this work is not being done.”