IS JAMAICA ME COME FROM: ONE WOMAN’S JOURNEY FROM POVERTY IN JAMAICA TO POWER IN AMERICA

By Jamaica Global on November 15, 2018

Marcia Ranglin-Vassell’s journey from a 2-room board house in Bull Bay, Jamaica to a seat in the Rhode Island House of Representatives is not a modern day ‘rags to riches’ story because she did not leave Jamaica in rags nor has she ended up in the US in riches. Rather, her journey has been a continuous fight – first to overcome the challenge of poverty; then to challenge and win against the existing and entrenched power structure of Rhode Island politics, and finally to work tirelessly to save lives and give hope to the young people of her community. 

Who is Marcia Ranglin-Vassell and how is it that she has never been featured as one of Jamaica’s celebrated achievers in the USA?

Marcia is a Jamaican-born school teacher and a two-term elected member of the state of Rhode Island House of Representatives. When Marcia won the election to the House against all odds in 2016, she became not only the first Jamaican to be elected to that state’s House of Representatives, but also the first black woman to achieve that status in Rhode Island. Its gets even better as these highlights will show:

  • She ran a campaign that lasted a mere 3.5 months

  • She spent only $50,000 mostly from donations, compared to double the amount of her rival

  • She ran the campaign from her modest home

  • She ran without the backing of the Democratic Party which endorsed her opponent

  • She defeated the incumbent of 24 years who also happened to be the Democratic House Majority leader, polling 60% of the votes

  • She maintained her full time teaching schedule for the duration of the campaign and beyond

So again, who is this remarkable woman?

Marcia Ranglin-Vassell was born in Eleven Miles Bull Bay St Thomas, Jamaica. She grew up in abject poverty in a community without (and still is today) running water, in a 2-room board house with eight siblings and a father who could not read or write. Yet this man started a school in 1963 on the grounds of the New Testament Church of God at Eleven Miles, both of which continue to operate to this day. This is where Marcia began her schooling, literally in her own yard, before transferring to the Bull Bay All-Age school and then on for her secondary school education to Yallahs High School also in St. Thomas.

11 Miles Bull Bay

Type of House Marcia grew up in

Poverty was never an impediment for this spirited young woman as even in her teenage years she became involved in activities to lift her community by helping to form neighbourhood youth clubs and conducting fundraisers. Her developing social consciousness and community spirit found a new outlet when, after leaving school she became a youth worker with the Social Development Commission involved in community building in Eastern Kingston and Port Royal.

Marcia’s Basic School 11 Miles Bull Bay, 2018

 

New Testament Church of God, 11 Miles Bull Bay, 2018

Her step to becoming a teacher was a natural one when she enrolled in the Bethlehem Teachers College in, what was for her, far away St. Elizabeth, eventually transferring to the St Joseph Teacher’s College in Kingston, from which she graduated with a teaching diploma. Thereafter she taught for four years – almost predictably – at the School of Hope for the mentally challenged and later at the John Mills All-Age School.

Marcia 1986, while teaching At The School of Hope for the mentally challenged

 

Marcia’s Mom celebrating her 90th birthday

Fast forward to 1990 the year she arrives in the United States. By then Marcia’s mother, having been a sponsored immigrant courtesy of a sister, in turn and over time, sponsored all 9 of her children including Marcia to become US citizens! Thus, began the new phase of her life which was not easy at the start. Holding down jobs first as a housekeeper and then as a factory worker, Marcia then has to re-qualify to become a teacher in the US system which she eventually did, first with a Bachelor’s degree in Community Health Education from Rhode Island College and then a Master’s degree in Education from Providence College. Thereafter, like most hard-working Jamaicans, Marcia settled down teaching in Providence, married Van Vassell and raised four children with n’eer a thought of entering electoral politics (or politics of any kind) until one fateful day in June 2016 when a young friend of her son gets shot and killed. It was not the first time that she was forced to cope with gun violence that claimed the life of one close to her, nor was it to be the last. What made the difference on that occasion was the utter helplessness she felt in the face of her son’s grief that led her to conclude that her only option was to get herself into a position from which she could influence issues affecting the lives of her students. Marcia says:

“On June 27th I went to City Hall and declared my candidacy. I, yes, I

 Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, a mother, teacher and wife, I who had

 never run for anything, I declared my candidacy for House

Representative, District No.5. I was all in for my students.”

In the ensuing Primary she scraped through by a mere seven votes forcing a recount in which she prevailed and even increased her margin of victory to eleven over her vaunted opponents – the House Majority Leader, as well as the paid attorney of own local her teacher’s union. The former had the endorsement of the Democratic Party apparatus and the latter of her teacher’s union. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, ‘some woman from Jamaica’ as her rival derisively referred to her, was nevertheless on the ticket!

Fighting against the status quo candidate of long-standing but by then having the endorsement of the Firemen’s Union and the Bernie Sanders’ ‘Our Revolution’ organization, our Jamaican heroine proceeded on a campaign reminiscent of some of strategies of the 2008 Obama Presidential campaign:

  • intense, house to house, knocking on doors never seen in Providence;

  • focus on issues relevant to the community, never experienced by Providence voters;

  • recruitment of an army of volunteers who had never previously volunteered for anything.

Marcia Ranglin-Vassell

Her unlikely victory winning 60% of the votes was hailed by the media and drew the attention of the nationally read New York Times and the Huffington Post. Her story also caught the attention of  ‘Elected Officials of America: Underdog Stories’ a radio interview programme selecting successful candidates from each of the 50 United States.

Speaking of her victory at the time Marcia said:

“I am glad I ran and won. I am a fighter and will continue fighting to save my students and to help improve the lives of all Rhode Islanders”

Now about to enter her second term as a legislator having won re-election with 93% of the votes, Marcia is determined to continue to fight for the causes that she championed during her freshmen year in the House – issues like raising the Minimum Wage to $15.00; stricter gun control laws; women’s reproductive rights; and increasing from 18-21, the age at which children can opt out of state care. In spite of her legislative commitments, Marcia continues to teach full time in the days and legislate at nights.

…………..And back in Jamaica, she has not abandoned her community of Eleven Miles, Bull Bay returning there as often as she is able. Every year “Barrels, Books and Butterflies” her personal charity, provides books, school supplies and new clothes for children and their families. Earlier this year she donated US$1,000 to assist the Eleven Miles Youth in Action and the New Testament Church of God summer programme for children.

Marcia presenting a check to Lamar Clarke , President of 11 Miles Youth in Action

Now you know the measure of Marcia Ranglin-Vassell.