At just 34 years old, Abu Edwards has one impressive resume. Now he's hoping to take that same drive and apply it to an at-large seat on city council.
At just 34 years old, Abu Edwards has one impressive resume. Edwards, who grew up in Germantown and now lives in Mt. Airy, was elected class president of his high school and elected vice president of the city’s citywide student government by the student government presidents from every public high school. A decade later, in 2020, he became the Biden campaign’s Pennsylvania director of Black male engagement. It was a role that extended the work of his political action committee Millennials in Action, which he’d started to encourage civic activism among urban Black Millennials throughout the city, many of whom grew up in the same kind of low-income households as he did.
Edwards is now hoping to take that same drive for creating positive change and apply it to an at-large seat on city council, a position he’s running for in the May 16 Democratic primary. The Local talked with Edwards to ask about his experience, why the Democratic Party is losing Black male voters, and life in the 22nd Ward, where he currently serves as a committeeperson. The interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
What makes you a unique candidate for City Council at-large?
I'm a lifelong resident of Philadelphia who grew up in PHA housing. My mother was a single parent and a retired sanitation worker. I decided to run because I was just tired of everyday Philadelphians being forced to deal with poverty and crime in the city. And it seems like there's no real voice for working families, or for low-income families.
What I have that a lot of these candidates don't is that I’ve been politically active ever since I was a student. I've been advocating for asbestos to be removed from our school buildings since I was vice president of the citywide student government. We advocated for a youth commission to make sure we amplify the voices of young people in these councilmanic districts. I went on to college, graduated with my degree and came back to my community and used that same degree to be the youngest officer of the NAACP’s Philadelphia branch, where I oversaw our political action work. I was a grassroots manager for All Voting is Local, where I oversaw our JIVE Board – justice impact voter engagement – and made sure people who are incarcerated and eligible to vote have the opportunity to vote. I’ve worked with incarcerated troubled young people all across the city, making sure they have the resources and opportunities to be productive members of society. There's no citywide candidate who's been on the ground and then in the community like I have been for the last decade plus. I've been serving my community since I was in high school, and I'm 34 years old now. I've heard the stories of single mothers who don't have the luxury to walk their kids to school every day and have to pray that they get there.
You were the director of Black male engagement for the Biden campaign in 2020. Can you tell us about that?
I'm a young Black male myself, and I've been educating and engaging Black Millennials and Black voters since I started my organization, Millennials in Action, which was the first Black PAC established to target Black Male Millennials between the ages of 18 and 40. I worked with a lot of the Black clergy, Black elected officials, and Black micro-influencers in developing a strategy to bring more Black men back into the Democratic Party and to make sure that we're amplifying the voices of Black male voters in the city and state. It was probably one of the most humble, but most difficult jobs I've ever had on a campaign as well.
Why do you say "back" to the Democratic Party?
Statistically, [Democrats] are losing Black male voters each year to a different party. We do have a problem mobilizing and engaging Black male voters in the city.
Why do you think Black males are leaving the Democratic Party?
Because we are not amplifying the voices of Black male voters' issues as it pertains to criminal justice reform, workforce development and job development. I think we are taking that electorate and group of voters for granted, especially since each year the voter turnout is not as strong as it is in other demographic groups. For the last few years, we've been focusing on how to engage and make sure that we're building up the Black male electorate across the city so that they can be a force to be reckoned with.
With that in mind, what are your top issues?
Education, and making sure our school buildings are free of asbestos. I also advocate for the safe route to school initiative in all neighborhoods, which makes sure that kids have the opportunity to walk along a safe route to school. I want to focus on childhood literacy and make sure we provide resources to teachers, and to specialists, and give them the training they need to make sure that our kids are reading on grade level by the fourth grade. Being in the community and knocking on doors, circulating petitions and hosting community listening sessions, especially depending on the neighborhood – I'm hearing a lot of concerns.
I also want to create and advocate for accessible and affordable housing. As a young Millennial and a young professional, I want to live in my city and I don't want to get priced out. I don't want my grandmother to get priced out, I don't want Ms. Mary, who's been living in her neighborhood for 40 or 50 years, to get priced out. I want to make sure that we have a balanced system in our housing and that we are keeping people in their homes. My platform wholeheartedly is an anti-poverty, anti-crime platform based on solutions.
What’s your opinion on rent control?
I'm in favor of rent control, but my goal is to make sure that we have buy-in from landlords and tenants.
What else would you do to make sure housing is more affordable?
I'd like some type of property assessment tax freeze that would keep our seniors from being taxed out. I also want to work with our district councilmanic colleagues to figure out if we have enough land in the city to create additional affordable housing.
How do we build new homes in residential neighborhoods when the property value of that home may increase the other property values in that neighborhood? Those are the conversations that I would like to have in our communities, to make sure we have a transparent process for renters, owners, and developers. Right now, everybody is kind of going through the nooks and crannies of zoning, and going through back doors (to get projects approved). I think it's time to have a conversation about how we make sure that people are not being priced out of their homes - especially if they're invested community members.
Can you tell me more about Millennials In Action?
It's a political action organization that is geared toward the issues that impact young millennials and seeks to get urban Black millennials across the city involved in the political process. We've hosted hundreds of events across the city, with voter registration drives. We've hired and trained more than one thousand urban Black millennials to serve as poll workers, field organizers, canvassers and door knockers.
It started in the Olney community when we began organizing just a few wards. We saw there was a need, and an appetite, for us to take it citywide. Now, a lot of young Black millennials who are running and engaged in politics probably have some type of affiliation with Millennials in Action.
I would say too that Millennials In Action has helped fill the void of Black millennial operatives in the city of Philadelphia. There was minimal to none when I first joined and that was about 12 years ago.
You're a committeeperson in the 22nd Ward, which is controlled by City Councilmember Cindy Bass, and has seen some turmoil in recent months with a rump group advocating for an open ward. What is your role in that?
I've been trying to unite the ward because we all have the same issues. I have a gentrified division where crime is still the number one issue and where people are capturing shootings on their video cameras and are scared to turn it into police. Car accidents are happening because people are speeding down Chew Avenue or Stenton Avenue. I see my position as a 22nd Ward Democratic committeeperson is to bridge the gaps between the open ward/22nd Ward caucus and the Cindy Bass caucus because at the end of the day we are a ward, and we have to work together. How can we work together and how can we put the past in the past? It's all about making sure whatever our personal affiliation is that we are putting the voters first before anything else.