THE BLOG
08/26/2013 10:38 am ET

The Future of New York City: A Family Story

I was raised in politics and within movements for social change. It is through this lens that I see the current New York City mayoral election. It is one of the most important elections I have experienced.

My father was born in North Carolina and participated in the civil rights movement that formed him as a young black man coming of age at a time of great change and revolt. That experience led to a life of work focused on labor and human rights with a profound commitment to equity under the law. He has worked in executive level positions for three mayors of New York City (Koch, Dinkins, Bloomberg), one governor (Cuomo) and served an appointee of a president (Clinton). I learned politics at his knee.

My mother is the daughter of a Jewish immigrant from Russia, a man who fled pogroms against Jews and brought a view of a better world to these shores. Though having no formal education, he was a fierce intellectual who became a radical, leading union organizer, worked for equality for all and was jailed for his beliefs, in addition to being called in front of United States Congressional House Un-Activities Committee where he refused to "name names." He saw the rise of fascism in Europe and volunteered and fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War in the fight to defeat Spain's fascist leader, General Franco.

It was no surprise then that his daughter would become involved in the Women's Movement and develop into a leading feminist writer and voice. Her work has dealt with themes of women's voice, of African-American autobiography and her long work in academia focused on diversity.

In my family, politics is our form of religion. It is what we discuss at the dinner table, at family get-togethers, in the morning over coffee, even on vacation.

I have worked for 18 years a non-profit entrepreneur and serve as the executive director of an organization that I co-founded and that works with youth from some of the most economically disadvantaged backgrounds found in our city -- to help them transform their lives, to break cycles of poverty, and to hone their moral and ethical codes. We are an evidence-based program that has been awarded and recognized and modeled throughout the country.

Our mission:

"Founded in 1995, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis) provides comprehensive, holistic and long-term support services to youth who range in age from eight to twenty-two. Bro/Sis offers wrap around evidence-based programming. The organization focuses on issues such as leadership development and educational achievement, sexual responsibility, sexism and misogyny, political education and social justice, Pan-African and Latino history, and global awareness. Bro/Sis provides four-six year rites of passage programming, thorough five day a week after school care, school and home counseling, summer camps, job training and employment, college preparation, community organizing training, and international study programs to Africa and Latin America.

We are locally based, with a national reach, as Bro/Sis publishes assorted curricula and collections of our members' writings; trains educators from throughout the nation on our approach; and our leadership is invited to speak and present at educational and policy convenings and conferences across the country.

Our theory of change is to provide multi-layered support, guidance, education and love to our membership, to teach them to have self-discipline and form order in their lives, and then to offer opportunities and access so that they may develop agency."

This work has anchored me in the urgent need for a transformative vision for New York City. This city faces three major crises: poverty, education, and a lack of middle class housing that allows for the stabilizing and entrenchment of families. We need a debate of a progressive vision for our city. We need to have a conversation focused on big ideas and transformational plans.

There are three viable candidates for mayor on the Democratic side -- Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and former Comptroller William Thompson. Due to the nature of political campaigns these days, and the scandal-focused news cycle regarding this specific election, we have not had the solutions-focused debate we need for the benefit of our City. After 20 years it seems likely that we will have a Democratic mayor and the city will not vote for an acolyte of former Mayor Giuliani who returns us to those polarizing years. And so voters must ask, which candidate articulates a vision for the city that will deal with the major issues it faces? Which candidate displays an understanding of policy and structural issues that will allow for true leadership with regards to these issues? Who is ready to handle these big problems?

Last year, the census completed in New York City found the disparity in wealth at levels that threaten the foundation of our beloved City. In Manhattan, the disparity was starkest. The lowest fifth of the population made $9,681, while the highest took home $391,022. The wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites made more than 40 times what the lowest fifth reported, a continually widening gap surpassed by only a few developing countries.

There has been wide spread focus on the dearth of middle-class housing options -- opportunities for an essential part of New York City to truly make it here and build the kind of multi-generational familial ties that serve as the fiber and substance of communities across the boroughs.

The debate regarding education has been vociferous, strident and often profoundly simplistic. Whatever successes and failures over the last 12 years, whatever the new Common Core standards will now bring, there are major structural issues facing a school system of 1.1 million children:

Only 61 percent are graduating from high school; of those who do graduate, only 25 percent are college-ready and without need of remedial classes.

To allow hundreds of thousands of children to continue to not graduate from high school, to allow hundreds of thousands more to be unprepared to compete in a new innovative economy is an abomination. We still have not had an honest political conversation about the transformational approaches and changes needed to fix public school education and the documented reality of the role of poverty in this educational inequity.

An interconnected, multi-faceted and long-term agenda is needed to affect the issues of housing, poverty and education. The city's future depends on this next election. In recent years, with the gridlock on a national level, it has become cities across America, including New York under Mayor Bloomberg, that have become the sites of innovation and big thinking -- now is the time to go far further to respond to what we face.

We need major business in New York City and we need to ensure a climate that allows for the largest employers to remain here. We need a financial engine. In fact it is what can help to drive such an agenda. That said, we also need a concerted effort to engage in the building of massive units for working and middle class New Yorkers. We need to have Marshall Plan to reduce poverty, with a particular focus on those communities where it is most entrenched. We must create infrastructure projects, modeled on Roosevelt's Works Projects Administration, that employ a wide swath of New Yorkers and ensure our city remains a hub for innovation and technology and is at the cutting edge of transformation and environmentally sound development. We must use our massive CUNY system to educate the populace to do this work. We need to bravely and honestly detail an educational plan that is not based on the current fad, or supposed "silver bullet" of the day, but instead is based on the expansive changes that are necessary. There are those who will say this is too expensive to do -- I would contend it is too expensive not to do. The very future of our city depends on it. While I have my ideas for how to tackle these profound challenges for the future New York City, it is the mayoral candidates who must articulate their vision for such transformation.

My parents met as young, idealistic social workers, one the daughter of an immigrant and one the first college graduate of his family who left the South for the opportunities of New York City. They met on a picket line organized by a union that led to the creation of District Council 37 that now numbers over 170,000 members, including my 90-year old grandmother. My grandfather arrived via Ellis Island with no financial means, and worked in a factory and as an organizer. A self-taught man, he sent his daughters to City College and Queens College. My family is three generations of artists and activists, government employees and entrepreneurs, teachers and union members. Our love affair with New York City runs throughout these generations. What will the next mayor do to ensure that these kinds of family stories are still possible?