New Blood: Does the City Need a Coach?

In the fourth of an ongoing series, meet East Oak Lane’s Isaiah Thomas: A 30-year-old with a new way of thinking about leadership

New Blood: Does the City Need a Coach?

In the fourth of an ongoing series, meet East Oak Lane’s Isaiah Thomas: A 30-year-old with a new way of thinking about leadership

There are two types of New Blood candidates vying for City Council this year: You’ve met the first, the geeks. Guys like Tom Wyatt, George Matysik, and Terry Tracy are stalwarts of urban studies; they’ve immersed themselves in the nitty-gritty of government programs and are committed to convincing you of policy’s transformative effects. Then there are the poets to their prose, candidates like 30-year-old Isaiah Thomas. Thomas, who garnered over 30,000 votes when he ran for an at-large seat four years ago, can do policy, too. It’s just that Thomas’ passion is leadership—he calls it “servant leadership,” a concept straight out of the Civil Rights Movement. Every conversation with him hinges on it—and not necessarily some new idea or program—as the key to transformation.

“You know who Ella Baker was?” asks the associate dean of students, athletic director and basketball coach at Sankofa Freedom Academy, a charter school in Frankford. “She was a civil rights leader who did a lot of organizing. It was all behind the scenes. It wasn’t about her.”

In fact, Baker was critical of charismatic leaders, and instead worked to promote leadership up from the grassroots.  “I’ve studied servant leadership very closely,” says Thomas. “I want to be the type of leader no one has seen before here. There are plenty of grassroots mentoring organizations in Philadelphia that do great work with our young people. I want to work with them and get them more resources. That’s not just about money—it can also be about city facilities, rec centers, and libraries…I want to have my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the neighborhoods. That means interacting with people on social media, sure, but it also means riding the subway. You want to know what’s on people’s minds? Take the El.”

Thomas’ defining moment came in June of 2010, when he was serving as legislative assistant to then-state representative Tony Payton. Payton is one of the forefathers of the influx of progressive millennials now crisscrossing our city, a young good government crusader. (There wasn’t a lot of strength in numbers behind him when Payton defied the machine on numerous fronts during his 2007 to 2012 Harrisburg tenure.) That day, Payton turned Thomas’ servant leadership rhetoric around on him.

“We were in a staff meeting and Tony said, ‘You should consider Council at-large,’” Thomas recalls. “I’d seen all the influence Tony had in the 179th legislative district. ‘Think of all the good we’ve done here, and taking those same principles to City Hall,’ he said. I felt backed into a corner. He was telling me, if you believe in servant leadership, this is bigger than you.”

So Thomas ran in 2011, raising a mere $10,000 but knocking on thousands of doors. It was a bold step for someone who doesn’t self-identify as a risk-taker. He and his fiancée, Klissa Jarrett, and their two-year-old son, Isaiah “ZJ” Thomas, Jr. eat most days at the Breakfast Boutique on Ogontz Avenue or at Chili’s right up the street. “I like predictability,” he says. “Risk isn’t in my DNA.”

But service is. So, after his credible showing, Thomas got back to work. He had learned that politics is all about relationships. He began forging them. He got himself appointed committeeman and then was elected to the post last year. And he struck up a relationship with Henry Nicholas, president of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, a big financial backer this time around. His campaign is now professionally staffed and he’s spending much of his time dialing for dollars.

His platform is more about doing politics than disrupting it. He doesn’t sound like an insurgent, eschewing phrases like “the machine” or “reform” because the terms, as he sees it, are self-limiting. “Buzzwords put a combative spirit out there,” he says. “Use them, and now you have enemies you wanted to avoid having. I want to bring people together.”

Thomas emphasizes what he calls “future-proofing”—anticipating problems before they become crises. “In 2011, I talked about the fact that the stimulus money was going to dry up in public education, but it didn’t register—we didn’t future-proof on education,” he says. Today, he sees the same thing happening in the realm of business sustainability. “I get support from both business and labor, and I recognize the right to organize and to earn a fair wage,” he says. “But I also recognize that it’s harder to do business in Center City than in Conshohocken. We need to think about the way we treat businesses now.”

When it comes to our schools, Thomas has a three-pronged platform that includes replacing the SRC with a school board that is half-elected and half-appointed by the mayor and City Council. But, not surprisingly, he comes alive when talking about what schools need at the grassroots level. “Civic and political science classes should be mandatory,” he says. “We’ve got to train this generation of young people to understand politics. I can’t tell you how many of them don’t even know that our judges are elected. They complain about the system—and then I tell them, ‘you can choose who your judges are.’ They don’t understand the importance of participation in politics. The same with financial literacy. Every high school senior should have to take a course in it. We’ve got too many kids graduating who don’t know how to handle money. It’s like they’re choosing poverty.”

Thomas’ passion for change bubbling up from the street comes straight out of his own story. With a civic-minded father, six older brothers and countless other influences, Thomas sees his own story as part of a prescription for the city as a whole. “I was raised by a community of elders,” he says. “It really does take a village.”

He’s a coach now, and that’s no accident. Outside of his family, his coaches have influenced him the most. At Penn State/Abington, where Thomas captained the basketball team, assistant coach Ameen Akbar gave him a graduate level tutorial in leadership. “Ameen taught me how each guy needs to be inspired and motivated,” Thomas says. “One guy, you might need to jump on his behind. Another guy, you may not. He got me thinking about how to maximize the potential of other people.”

A correlation to public life?

“Absolutely,” Thomas says. “A coach needs the ability to inspire, and he needs to be trusted. The biggest compliment I get is when my kids say they’ll run through a concrete wall for me, because it means they trust that I have their best interest in heart. And a coach needs to take responsibility when things aren’t going well. You can’t look at your players and say, ‘It’s you. It’s not me.’ You’ve got to say to yourself, ‘How do I make this thing work out?’”

Kinda like on City Council.

For more on Isaiah Thomas, click here.

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