History Teacher to U.S. Representative: Jahana Hayes

Hayes Uses Her Background as a Teacher to Champion Safety and Accessibility

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With recent infringements upon the rights of members of marginalized communities — most of whom are merely seeking to access and maintain how they manage their lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness — it is important to know who’s in their corner, fighting the good fight. Congresswoman Jahana Hayes, who is in charge of representing Connecticut’s 5th district, is one such person.

Her journey to working within the legislative branch of the U.S. government is an atypical one, with her experience as an award-winning history teacher greatly paving the way for her political career. From being recognized with the National Teacher of the Year award in 2016 to winning Connecticut’s 5th congressional district in 2018, 2020, and 2022, Hayes is a steady champion of public education and of working families.

Who is Jahana Hayes?

Hailing from Waterbury, Connecticut, Jahana Hayes is the current U.S. House representative for Connecticut’s 5th congressional district, which comprises Waterbury, Danbury, Litchfield County, Farmington Valley, Naugatuck Valley, and Meriden. As both the first Black woman and the first Black Democrat to represent the state of Connecticut in the national congress, Hayes’ 2018 victory over Republican Manny Santos was groundbreaking, not only for her home state, but in the greater American political landscape. She rose into her role as a vocal supporter of public education and teachers’ unions, with her career as a representative beginning with an endorsement from Connecticut’s American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). When asked early on about her views on unions, she spoke earnestly of her struggles with teen pregnancy, single motherhood, and working her way through higher education and early teaching jobs, noting that, when work became difficult, she found solace and aid in her “union brothers and sisters.”

Prior to working in legislation, Hayes taught history at the John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury for a decade and a half, earning the distinctions of Waterbury Teacher of the Year and Connecticut Teacher of the Year. In 2016, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) awarded her the title of National Teacher of the Year, after which she took on the role of a public education ambassador to the public, and traveled throughout the United States. It was only after the then-incumbent representative, Democrat Elizabeth Esty, dropped her re-election bid, that Jahana Hayes decided to run for the position. Though she had a miniscule amount of time to collect the necessary amounts of money and support required, Hayes ultimately succeeded in not only raising $359,000 in cash, but also in beating out her opposition in the Democratic primary — Mary Glassman — with 62.27% of the vote. She went on to win the seat over the GOP with 55.87% of the vote, maintaining the Democratic party’s grip on Connecticut’s 5th district and making history at the same time.

She has maintained her seat in the two elections that have followed, with support from both the Democratic Party and the Working Families Party.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 03:  U.S. Congresswoman Jahana Hayes (D-CT) addresses media on the Rebuild Americas Schools Act on March 3, 2020 in Washington, DC.  The act makes a $100 billion investment to both help repair and improve the physical and digital infrastructure of public schools.  (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 03: U.S. Congresswoman Jahana Hayes (D-CT) addresses media on the Rebuild Americas Schools Act on March 3, 2020 in Washington, DC. The act makes a $100 billion investment to both help repair and improve the physical and digital infrastructure of public schools. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

A Champion of Education

Within the 118th Congress (which convened on January 3, 2023, and will come to a close on January 3, 2025), Hayes has been serving on two committees: the Committee on Agriculture, and the Committee on Education and the Workforce, the latter of which she serves on as Vice Ranking Member. Within the former committee, she is on the Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry, and the Subcommittee on Nutrition, Foreign Agriculture, and Horticulture. She serves on the latter subcommittee as the ranking member. When it comes to the Committee on Education and the Workforce, she serves on the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, and the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions.

Congresswoman Hayes’ most recent legislative efforts have been focused on gaining insight into school shootings — namely, what causes them, and what kinds of legislation must be introduced in order to minimize or eliminate them. In May of 2023, she, alongside two other congresswomen, introduced the School Shooting Safety and Preparedness Act, a bill that would lead to annual reports relating to school safety, as well as thorough research into mass shooting prevention tactics. This is a matter especially close to Hayes’ heart, as well as to the general populace within Connecticut’s 5th congressional district, as Sandy Hook Elementary School is within Danbury, and, as such, falls under Hayes’ oversight.

Her efforts towards preserving students’ lives through strengthening school safety measures are not new. As related to Education and to Hayes’ thorough recognition of her position as a representative of the people in northwestern Connecticut, one of her first action items upon beginning her second term was to bar infamous Republican politician Marjorie Taylor Greene from the House Education and Labor Committee. She circulated a letter to House Republicans speaking against Greene’s appointment, taking care to note that the Republican representative made callous, incendiary, and outright false comments about the Sandy Hook mass shooting being fake. Hayes speaking up about her views on Greene’s comments led to the latter being stripped of her committee assignments in 2021, after the House Rules and House Ethics Committees began calling Greene’s statements into question and put her committee assignments to a vote.

Hayes is also vocal about other aspects of student safety apart from gun control measures, speaking openly of her disagreements with H.R. 734, a bill aiming to ban trans athletes from competing, noting that “this legislation, this conversation further puts a target on the backs of students who are in the scariest times of their lives.”

A Champion of Workers

When on the campaign trail, Hayes often opened up about her difficult upbringing and subsequent life experiences, mentioning how unions helped her through difficult times as a young, single mother who often felt taken advantage of for labor at work. She knows how to relate to the average American while simultaneously being candid about how uniquely taxing some of her childhood and young adulthood experiences were. In a forum prior to the onset of her career, she let voters know that she “[knows] what it’s like to go to bed to gunshots outside.” She emphasized the influence her background had on her and how it led her into the arms of the union, ultimately allowing her to be supported and endorsed by both the Connecticut Education Association and the Connecticut Working Families Party.

Just as she highlighted unions and the importance of safe and just labor practices when originally running for her seat, Hayes also maintains a great interest in workers’ rights. She makes sure to highlight bills such as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, and is a steady supporter of those involved in the Northwest Connecticut Chamber of Commerce. She often takes to the floor to discuss employment issues and policies to strengthen the workforce.

Congresswoman Jahana Hayes has let her past lead naturally into her future, with her previous experiences as a lauded history teacher and a union member evident in the legislation she aims to pass as a U.S. representative. She has maintained her integrity and beliefs throughout the changes that come with shifting careers, and does not shy away from demanding justice for her constituents.

Arundhati Ghosh (she/her) is an English major with a certificate in Creative Writing at the University of Texas at Austin, and will graduate in May 2024. She has written numerous pieces on womanhood, its variety, its perceptions, and its reception, and hopes to continue with spotlighting non-male-centric stories and experience.