Councilmember Isaiah Thomas: The coach turned lawmaker fighting for a better future for Philly youth
The city’s youngest councilmember is hitting the ground running with a youth-based agenda to create new, more positive norms for children and adolescents.
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Isaiah Thomas will be the first to tell you that he’s worn a lot of professional hats in his life. On Jan. 6, he added arguably his most important, when he was sworn in as one of the new Democratic at-large members of Philadelphia City Council.
But one he has always worn was his sports hat.
“Sports were probably in my life from the time I was conceived,” said Thomas.
Born to a large family of boys in the Oak Lane section of Philadelphia, Thomas remembers days of his childhood spent at the Lighthouse Girls and Boys Club on Lehigh Ave., or at its sports complex on Erie Ave.
“I was there often after school and in the summertime,” he said.
His dad ran those facilities at Lighthouse and his six older brothers stayed involved in athletics in some way throughout Thomas’ early years.
Thomas credits sports for a lot of the early lessons in his life and ones that have stuck with him ever since.
“It’s an invaluable experience,” he said.
For one, Thomas says the required social aspect of sports taught him how to connect with and meet other people at an early age.
“I was networking before I was networking,” he said.
One collaboration he puts above all others is that between a player and coach.
As a player, Thomas participated in as many neighborhood sports as he could, but basketball rose to the top.
He played the sport throughout his time in elementary school, middle school and high school, and then transitioned into coaching not long after graduating from Penn State University with a Bachelor’s in Psychology.
To this day, Thomas said he still cherishes the connections he’s made with his former coaches and players.
“It’s a bond that when done right, it’s a relationship that lasts for life,” said Thomas.
A big reason for that lasting power is what a coach can do for a player beyond the playing field or court.
“Coaches save lives,” said Thomas. “Coaches offer resources and supplement often for what homes and schools aren’t necessarily able to provide.”
He also spoke of the firsthand knowledge coaches have about “the distractions” facing young people on a daily basis and their power to help students navigate them.
“Like helping them with breakfast, or maybe making sure they have clean clothes or uniform clothes, or things they shouldn’t have to worry about as children,” said Thomas. “It puts them in a position where they can wake up every day and focus on what it takes to get a quality education.”
Thomas has been a varsity basketball coach at the Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School for nine years and runs an annual summer basketball camp for city youth through his foundation, the Thomas & Woods Foundation.
He also played volleyball in high school and coached girls varsity softball at Sankofa for eight years.
In many ways, sports also prepared Thomas well for the beginning of his political career, which has seen its fair share of ups and downs.
He equates his introduction to politics, in two specific instances, to a slap in the face.
The first instance came as Thomas voted in his first open Democratic primary. At the time, Michael Nutter was a mayoral candidate, pursuing his first term in office.
Thomas vividly remembers discussions between him and his father about who they would vote for, describing the dialog as a “verbal quarrell.”
“We just respectfully disagreed with each other,” said Thomas, “and that was the first time that I had a difference of opinion as it related to representation between myself and my parents.”
The other instance came when he was working in the Philadelphia Freedom Schools program. Part of the funding for the program came from the School District of Philadelphia.
As a byproduct of balancing the state budget, Governor Tom Corbett failed to adequately fund the school district, meaning initiatives like the Freedom Schools suffered.
“We watched our program, which was doing phenomenal work, diminish,” said Thomas.
Both situations, he said, motivated him to be more politically engaged.
It would eventually lead Thomas to run for office, but before that, he worked part-time for State Representative Tony Payton Jr.’s office.
In the same way that Governor Corbett’s office showed Thomas some of the government’s shortcomings, Payton, Jr.’s office — which represented PA’s 179th legislative district comprised of Frankford, Hunting Park, Olney and Feltonville — highlighted the potential positive changes.
“That was my introduction to: ‘This is what an elected official can do when they care about the constituents that they served,’” said Thomas.
From his part-time position, Thomas said he watched millions of dollars come to the district and everything from schools to community resources for residents changed because of Payton, Jr.’s work.
“I guess you could call it life-changing,” he said.
It was so “life-changing” that the then-teacher decided to first run for office in 2010.
At 25 years old, Thomas entered the race for an at-large City Council seat without much political experience. He had a lot to learn about the “science” of running a campaign.
“It’s very difficult. Just because you recognize your city has problems and you have ideas to fix those problems, that doesn’t make you a quality candidate with a quality campaign,” he said.
There are two things Thomas points to when considering if a campaign is quality or not: funding and networks. He admits these two factors were a struggle in his first election foray.
His network in 2010 was large, and consisted of his family and friends in the neighborhood in addition to those he met across the city through sports, the Philadelphia Freedom Schools and his church.
However, that network also, naturally, consisted of mostly people around his age, who couldn’t afford to put up much to fund his first campaign.
“When I started at 25, a $100 check was a hard lift for me. And that’s not just for me. That was the person I went to high school with. That was the person I went to college with. That was my neighbor,” said Thomas.
Not only that, but he also had to take a pay cut by resigning from his job to run for office.
“How do you take that financial hit at the age of 25 or 26 when you have the federal government breathing down your neck for student loans and a bunch of other bills you’ve accumulated because you’re probably not the fiscally most responsible person while in undergrad or graduate school?” said Thomas.
Despite the lack of funds, his first campaign, while ultimately unsuccessful, still garnered more than 31,000 votes.
“I’m pretty sure every time I’ve run, no other person has gotten a better bang for their buck as it relates to dollar per vote,” he said.
Thomas’ next campaign at 30 years old saw him just miss out on the final at-large Democratic spot, losing to Helen Gym by a little more than 1,000 votes.
Both previous runs prepared him for his eventual success in 2019, which saw him win the third-most votes of any at-large candidate in the primary and the second-most in the general election in November.
Now at the top of the mountain, Thomas has the approach of a coach with young people under his watch. His agenda is to break the norm for Philly youth and work towards a quality education and career opportunities.
Thomas said that it’s a status quo that’s made young people in the city — a majority of whom are black and brown — learn to accept dilapidated school buildings, abusive, racist police and the prospect of no opportunity or hope.
“I don’t know my conditions aren’t ideal until someone shows me what it’s supposed to look like,” said Thomas.
During his visit to AL DÍA on Dec. 18, Thomas listed community-police relations, education and the census as his top three priorities once he entered office.
Regarding community-police relations, Thomas has a personal connection and can remember being stopped and frisked “aggressively” growing up in the city.
That treatment still follows him, even now, as a public figure.
“I’ve been, what I feel, racially profiled by police three times this year alone,” said Thomas.
These interactions, in addition to adding to the sense of hopelessness, also create barriers of distrust between communities and the authorities meant to serve them.
Thomas’ solution is to educate more high school seniors about the benefits of working in the police force in hopes they pursue careers as officers. He plans to personally visit classrooms to spread that message and help walk interested students through the process of applying.
“The only way we’re going to change the way police perceive people is if those police are the people who are from those same neighborhoods,” said Thomas.
Beyond healing some of the mistrust, Thomas also mentioned that a job with the police could also be financially beneficial for young people and their families.
And it’s not just opportunities in the police force that Thomas wants Philly’s high school seniors to explore.
He also supports a change in the senior-year curriculum that emphasizes financial literacy, media literacy, computer technology, entrepreneurship and civics.
The goal is to create a new norm for Philly youth that encourages civic engagement and presents more options beyond graduation through internships and entrepreneurship.
As a former teacher, Thomas said he’d love to teach financial literacy or civics to a younger age group, but because the school system is set up to rely on test scores to show progress and get funding, he understands that it could be difficult to teach other subjects that don’t have standardized tests.
“It’s not a system or infrastructure that I agree with, but since it’s the one that’s in place, I don’t want to put teachers in a position where they feel pressured,” said Thomas.
Regarding the census, Thomas is hitting the ground running in supporting an education platform for residents to know the impact of the data it collects.
Held every ten years, the census is a nationwide collection of data on the country’s population. Most importantly, it informs how much funding is allocated to certain government resources and communities throughout the U.S. for the next decade.
Thomas stressed its importance because of the limited time frame in which it can be completed.
“The census is unique because unlike most issues, it’s a window. And once the window closes, it’s gone for a decade. We have to get it right,” he said.
In the past, Thomas recognized that the city has lost funding, which it could use to better fight its most pressing issues like poverty and the lack of education.
“We can’t leave money on the table,” he said.