American Saint: Second Lady of Pennsylvania Gisele Fetterman on Kindness in Government | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, September 30th, 2023  

American Saint: Second Lady of Pennsylvania Gisele Fetterman on Kindness in Government

“What this normal looks like…like hugging people and breathing their air is my DNA and I can't do that anymore.”

May 28, 2020 Photography by Photos by Laura Petrilla and Sean Simmers Gisele Fetterman
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When driving through Braddock, Pennsylvania you start to get a vibe that it’s different from the surrounding area. There are boarded up buildings and societal wreckage, but some things start to stand out. You’ll see new low-income housing units with solar panels on the roofs; the street signs that say things like “Spread Love.” All around the small borough you’ll see evidence of a different kind of agenda, one of official government kindness and generosity. This is owed to the policies of former mayor and current Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, but also to his sunnier side: his wife and the Second Lady of Pennsylvania, Gisele Fetterman.

Gisele Fetterman was born Gisele Barreto Almeida. Her mother ran hospitals in Rio de Janeiro until she brought her children to the United States in 1990. Upon settling down in New York, her mother cleaned houses. Gisele learned to speak English from watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. While growing up an undocumented Dreamer, Gisele’s mother would tell her to be safe and “be invisible.” She studied at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, became a citizen, and was struck by the inequality she witnessed in New York versus back home. She heard about Braddock and what Mayor Fetterman was trying to do, and volunteered to start a summer program for the town’s children. The rest is PA history.

On their fourth wedding anniversary Fetterman asked his wife what she wanted as a present. She replied, “I want a shipping container.” He never asked why. She then found an abandoned lot, had it landscaped, paid local artists to brighten it up, and opened the Free Store. The Free Store accepts donations of any household item and gives them away every week, free to all. Like Braddock itself, The Free Store finds value in discarded things, and repurposes them. There are three rules: Be Kind, Take Only What You Need, Pay It Forward.

She speaks multiple languages, and is a holistic dietician, ambidextrous, and admittedly, a bad driver. She has founded numerous charities and non-profits, like The Free Store, 412 Food Rescue, Positively Parking, and For Good. Many of the programs she has initiated have been copied and replicated throughout the state and region. One resident compared her to Mother Teresa. She is a genuinely good person with an unparalleled fashion sense and impeccable taste.

Lt. Governor Fetterman works across the state in the capital, Harrisburg, now, presiding over the state senate, but the family remains based in Braddock. John Fetterman is the kind of leader who inspires an intense hero worship, but Gisele is always there. She is the type of political spouse who might just be more powerful. A vote for John Fetterman has always been a vote for Gisele, by proxy. The Fettermans have always been laser-focused on the tangible, positive effect of good politics in citizens’ lives. PA is very lucky to have one of them elected to office. If you have the opportunity to vote for them and don’t, you may need to see a doctor because you’re out of your damn mind.

Together, equally: they are the head and the heart. They’re a complete set. The Fettermans are the realest people in the game and are real heroes. This is what happens when people of good intentions have power. When we talk about political power couples, we’re talking about the Fettermans. Most Democrats are born to lose, but every once in a while, you find some with real magic.

Full disclosure: Mrs. Fetterman and I are friends at this point. She’s the one who connected me for interviews with her husband, over Twitter. We’re e-friends and penpals but we’ve also compared our medical marijuana weed vapes. I’ve shot nerf guns with one of her kids, and donated to the Free Store. I have mad love for this essential American family and have never been unclear about my bias. You’re not supposed to meet your heroes but that’s crazy talk. It’s pretty cool. They’re good people.

Steve King (Under the Radar): What’s it like being Second Lady of PA?

Gisele Fetterman: I feel this immense responsibility that I used to feel for our residents, which were 2,300 when I was First Lady of Braddock, but that has grown slightly. And I feel personally responsible for them.

You have a protective detail, right? Do you have a staff and all the other stuff that goes into a position such as that?

No, I don’t have a staff. We have a detail. There’s no staff. No one manages my schedule or anything like that. It’s really just me.

I remember John saying during campaigns he couldn’t see you and the kids as much and that it sucked. How have you and the kids adapted to being the Second Family of Pennsylvania?

It’s really different. I’ve seen my children be harassed online, which is strange. I’m raising my kids to be strong and know that the world will have things like this come at them, but to realize there are grown adults who are willing to do these kinds of things. Like attacking children, right? That’s a little hard for me to see.

But we’re very public. Our lives have always been public but it’s much more public right now. John travels a lot. I traveled a lot so we didn’t see each other a whole bunch, pre-quarantine. During quarantine, I see him way too much. But my mom is here and she’s incredibly helpful by making sure there’s always coverage for the kids if he’s out of town or if I’m out of town, they always know that they’re loved and that there’s someone caring for them.

You guys didn’t move into the Lieutenant Governor’s Residence. I think we all agree it’s a little superfluous. It’s like the only one of its kind in the country but you have reopened the pool to the public and non-profits in order to allow unprivileged children to use the pool for swimming lessons. I assume that might be on hold this summer because of the virus. What other ways might you want to use that property?

Because we chose not to live in it, several legislators suggested for it to go to veterans use, which we supported, so it’s actually been turned over to Veteran Services, but we continue to have access to the pool so there was an understanding that this is great. This is a better use for this property but you can still reserve the pool each summer.

The first time we spoke for publication in 2015 I asked if you would want to be Mayor of Braddock. There was some talk of you and the mayorship a couple years ago. The running joke has always been that residents of Braddock and PA were voting for John but also because it meant voting for you. Have you given any thought to running for public office?

Politics is mean and I am not. I don’t think it’s for me. It’s flattering when people ask. I’ve been asked to run. I’ve heard those conversations and it’s very kind and I’m appreciative, but I think I can be most effective in where I’m most comfortable, and I get enough toxicity as an elected official’s spouse. I think it would hurt the efficiency in the work that I do. I’m more efficient doing it my way. In my own, gentle way.

A lot of politicians’ spouses don’t really start as private citizens, ready to serve and make a difference. A lot of the time it’s the husband who just made a bad decision to enter politics. But you met John when he was already mayor of Braddock. You moved there to help. When you speak to other spouses of politicians, is there a little weirdness or friction because your backgrounds are so different?

No. If there is, I’ve never picked up on it. I think spouses of candidates and elected officials all have their own kind of pain. They’ve all had their share of bad experiences; unfortunately, that’s expected. I don’t think it should be in any position. But in elected office you expect that you’re going to get the hate mail, or the threats, you name it. For me, it was kind of unexpected, the level I would get for being an immigrant, for being open about it, for having thick eyebrows. It’s really kind of ridiculous stuff.

Since the first time we all spoke, the world has changed in some pretty horrific ways. How have you maintained such a pleasant and positive outlook and approach to politics and service?

You have to realize these are all real people and I never forget that. When I was a kid and I was dealing with difficult things as undocumented, or fear of my family being taken, or any of those things, or I dealt with someone at school who was particularly unkind to me, I would create stories in my head. That’s something I started as a little girl. It’s really kind of elaborate stories about how this boy had a terrible grandmother who was mean to him and starved him, and I would create whatever I needed to help me cope with the situation, and I would tell myself these stories.

And when I grew up I realized that I was right. All those stories I created were true. These are people who are in pain in some way. No one attacks someone, or goes after someone, or is so mean, if they’re not in pain. I never lose sight of that; the worst people I meet are probably the ones going through the worst things. It helps me to humanize them, it helps me to separate them from whatever awful thing they may have said or done, and it allows me to keep going. I cry a lot too. For me, that’s very therapeutic. I allow myself to really feel the bad things, and I’ll face them and cry and let them move through me, and then I’m ready to get back to work.

Because of your background, you endured a lot of online abuse and harassment. It’s total bullshit because you’re like the perfect example of a former Dreamer who has had a huge positive local and state impact. What do you guys tell the kids about what’s happening in this country? How much have you had to shield them from?

I don’t think we shield them too much. I do remind myself that I’m raising them for the world and not for me. I’m just open and honest with them because these are things that they’re going to face. They’re going to see this is the reality, and I want them to be prepared for the world, and I teach them to be different from those people. I think there’s a lesson in any situation, and it can be “These are things that are happening to Mommy and Daddy, but these are things that we would never do to someone else. This is how it’s made us feel, and you never want to make someone feel this way.” I don’t show them deliberately. I protect them as much as I can, but I am raising them for this world that is cruel at times.

If we lose this election it’s lights out for everyone and everything we believe in, but America’s immigrant population will be hit the hardest. You’ve been doing what you can to get more marginalized groups to take part in the 2020 Census. You’ve said, “I know what it’s like to be scared of a knock on the door.” How has the effort been going?

It’s hard now through the pandemic. What if this happened when I was a child? My mom was a housekeeper in New York City; we would not have made it. I don’t know what it would have looked like, but we wouldn’t have made it. If you look at it on a national level, how immigrants continue to be punished, that includes spouses. If you’re married to an immigrant who doesn’t have a Social Security card and you’re a U.S. citizen, you’re not eligible for the stimulus. That’s just straight cruelty and punishment.

That’s sick.

Right? It’s celebrated. It’s so foreign to me that we would celebrate punishing people. And if you’re anti-immigrant, then you’re punishing U.S. citizens. I try to understand where that could have come from and I can’t. It’s this idea that someone is superior or inferior to you just because they happen to arbitrarily be born somewhere. Like these borders mean something. I try to understand it but I don’t.

You and I have our medicinal marijuana cards. You have it for your back. I’ve got it for MS. It helps a lot. We’ve all talked about this before. You and John are big proponents of legalization. He went on a listening tour of the state to gauge the public attitudes for legalization. How much progress have they made? Can they make medicinal marijuana more accessible or make the state certifications cheaper?

With medicinal you’ve seen quite a shift. Most polls are overwhelmingly supportive of medicinal. When the conversation began, people were still very much still against it, but public opinion has really changed on medicinal. In regard to recreational, the tour had more support than not. Even in areas that were really red, you still saw some support. For me, what was really interesting about the tour was that we have these preconceived notions of people. We all walk around with these kinds of biases. With the listening tour, when someone got up to speak, you had no idea of knowing or guessing if they were pro or con. In every single location it was that way. And it was really fun.

What was great too, was to see that you had these folks in the same room who felt completely different about this topic, and passionately the other way, and they were peaceful to each other and respectful to each other and no one booed anyone. You don’t see that often. So the tour was really remarkable in many ways. But now with this pandemic, there have been several Republicans who were previously anti-recreational [and] are now changing their tune because of financial incentives. Now, they’re like, “Wait. How much money? Oh, let’s talk about it.”

Right. Just legalize it, tax it, and that way it’ll help with some of these budget shortfalls as a result of the pandemic.

So, it isn’t a compassionate approach by any means, but it’s a step forward. It’s one of those things where changes come when it becomes personal, like if you have a gay child, or don’t want to see your businesses go down because of this pandemic. Once it becomes personal is when they’re willing to begin to advocate for it. It shouldn’t be, right? You should care about people regardless of if their situation is identical to ours, or even similar.

I was literally reading last night about a small study where CBD and different strains can prevent the virus from latching onto cells in the lungs. So it’s like the cure is right there. You don’t need Plaquenil. You just need to smoke a little weed.

Amazing, right? I don’t know if you know, but my uncle is fighting for his life still, in Brazil.

I do.

He’s in the best hospital in Brazil but it is still Brazil, still a third world country, and to see this open inconsiderate rebellion against wearing a mask. Like, what inconvenience is wearing a mask, knowing that you are protecting someone?

I know they’re building mass graves down there, and Brazil’s been pretty hard hit. What’s going on with him? Is he better? Has he turned a corner?

No. He’s on day 20 of being hospitalized. He’s on day 13 or 14, intubated. He’s using 90% artificial oxygen. So the ventilators have levels. I don’t know much about it. I speak to his doctor everyday. He is on a 12 on the ventilator and they won’t remove it until he’s at a five. I keep writing him letters, emails, and text messages everyday because I don’t want him to wake up and miss out on anything. There was this piece on BuzzFeed, yesterday, I don’t know if you saw it, there’s this bodybuilding nurse who got it in Miami, and he was on a ventilator for two weeks, and when he made it out he was unrecognizable, and it hit me that my uncle’s not eating anything, so when he comes out he will be unrecognizable. He’s going to look like a whole different person.

You are one of the nicest, most positive people I’ve ever met, definitely in politics, hands down, but you get 10 times more hatemail than the Lt. Governor. This has always boggled my mind, for years. I’ve never been able to understand it. You were brought here illegally as a child, something that you had no choice in, and have done more philanthropic work than, I don’t know, most Americans, and you still have so much hate directed at you. And your kids now? What are some coping mechanisms?

A lot of crying. I cry a lot. That’s the coping mechanism for me. I was at this news conference. It was like a panel on women in leadership positions and I was one of the panelists and one of the questions was “How do you deal with criticism?” and I was the last one on stage, and the first two ladies gave really powerful responses and everyone clapped, one got a standing ovation, and my turn came and I said I cried, and you could see just mass disappointment in the audience. It’s a mental exercise. It’s really easy to love nice people. But I challenge myself to learn ways to love all the difficult people and mean ones. It’s a challenging exercise but you have to practice, so I practice it everyday.

How has the pandemic affected your non-profits? Are you trying to work around it? Have some had to temporarily shut down? What’s the status of The Free Store, for instance?

So, we’ve had to find really creative ways to continue to work. Historically, the need was greater than ever, so the Free Store location has been closed. It’s actually reopening next Tuesday, but it’s been closed this entire time, and we’ve changed our operations to do porch deliveries. So we’ve done porch deliveries of new toys. The week that they announced the stay-at-home order I thought, “Oh my gosh. I’m home with three kids and we have things for them. How hard is it for these families with children who don’t have toys and new things?” So we delivered brand new toys to the porches of over 300 local kids.

We have narcan distribution now. We know that during the pandemic stress levels are higher on everyone, and if you use, you’re in a much higher rate to overdose, so we had families reach out about a loved one or someone staying with them who is at risk, and we delivered narcan. I know that one actually helped save a life. We got an email two weeks ago from a woman saying that the narcan had saved her son’s friend who was staying with them.

We’ve done food deliveries. We provided masks to almost every resident who needed one. We found ways to work differently, but I feel that we’re as busy as we’ve ever been. And what this normal looks like…like hugging people and breathing their air is my DNA, and I can’t do that anymore. I saw a meme that said “check on your extroverted friends because they are not okay.” It’s all I’ve ever known my whole life, and now I can’t get close to anyone. It’s sad thinking that this is going to be the new normal for a long time.

You’ve said, “My work has always been based on pain…whether it’s pain that I experience or pain that I witness: How do I respond to this pain with something beautiful?” The world seems to be going through an extended lesson in pain and suffering, and PA has been pretty hard hit by the virus. Your own family members have been infected in other areas of the world. What positivity will we be able to salvage from this?

I think it’s seeing the new heroes who have emerged. Like in Pennsylvania, there’s a factory that was making materials for PPE, and 40 of the employees volunteered to live at the factory, so they completely stayed away from their families for 28 days, in Pennsylvania, living in the factory. It was right at the beginning, to make sure that they made as much materials that were needed to get to essential workers. That was so beautiful to me: 40 people saying goodbye to their children, to their loved ones, for 30 days. That’s beautiful.

There’s a little old lady who lives in Braddock Hills, a community next to me, and she is making masks and she wants to be anonymous. I said “Can I say thank you? Can I put a picture up?” and she was like, “No. I don’t want anyone to know it was me.” She’s made hundreds of masks for me to give in the community, by hand, with love. We’ve seen such beautiful acts of love. People have been really creative during this, and those are the stories I cling to. It’s beautiful. I think that’s what’s going to carry us out of this, remembering the sacrifices that were made by so many.

When this is all over, whenever that may be, what activity as Second Lady do you want to do the most? Which one do you really look forward to?

I just miss people. I miss traveling the state and being with Pennsylvanians. And I missed our Easter egg hunt in the community, which is my favorite event here. We have hundreds of kids come, and we give prizes to all of them. And we had to cancel that, of course. I miss those days the most.

The Free Store 15104 has reopened:

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