by Sara Maher
Community leaders and borough residents gathered in the New School’s Tischman Auditorium on Sunday, January 31, to hear Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer give her second annual State of the Borough address and community conversation.
Brewer’s opening remarks highlighted her office’s accomplishments in 2015. According to Brewer, the focus in 2015 was on affordable housing, assisting small businesses, and promoting urban gardening in public schools. The Island was influenced by all of these issues in 2015: Island House was the first building in the City to exit the Mitchell-Lama program while retaining affordable units, (Roosevelt Landings and Rivercross had transitioned to market rate previously); residents complained about the emptiness of Main Street as the grand re-opening of a renovated Trellis was continuously delayed; and PS/IS 217 was one of the top vote-getters in participatory budgeting, receiving $500,000 to build a “green roof” to use as additional outdoor space and as an environmental programming opportunity.
Brewer presented the services her office offered in 2015, including SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) and tenant clinics; helping residents connect with benefits, services, and job opportunities; and a budget of $7.7 million that was used for technology projects in 57 public schools and given to non-profits for use in sustainable long-term projects aimed at police officer-community relationships. Brewer said her office also introduced 32 pieces of legislation, with eight passed into law, including the Fair Chance Act, which made it illegal for most City employers to ask for the criminal record of job applicants, and a caregiver discrimination bill to prohibit employment discrimination against individuals who are perceived to have a status of caregiver. In September 2015, Brewer announced she was partnering with the Senior Association to bring her Fresh Food for Seniors program to the Island, making bags of fresh, locally-sourced produce available to senior citizens for $8 per bag.
The goals of 2016 concentrate on Manhattan youth and culture and ways the community can work together to best prepare its future leaders. Brewer has worked to include youth influence in the past, supporting a State law passed in 2014 that lowered the eligibility age of community board membership from 18 to 16. Six applicants under the age of 18 were appointed to community boards in 2015. This year, Brewer is establishing a Council of Young Leaders of Manhattan, open to youth ages 14-18 who live, work, go to school in, or belong to an organization in Manhattan (this includes young residents of Roosevelt Island) and want to learn how local government works. The application form (link at the end of this article) says the Council “will meet periodically to address policy and budget concerns affecting Manhattan’s young people” and work “closely with local elected officials and City agencies” by drafting resolutions, serving on committees, and giving presentations.
After her opening remarks, Brewer moderated a Represent NYC panel with “four New Yorkers whose work has a major … cultural, social, economic, [and] artistic impact” on the city: Khary Lazarre-White, co-founder of The Brotherhood/SisterSol; Marc Murphy, executive chef, restaurateur, and board member of both the Food Council of City Harvest and Food and Finance High School’s industry advisory board; Francisco J. Núñez, founder and artistic director of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City; and Sumie Okazaki, Professor of Counseling Psychology at New York University’s Steinhardt School and Coalition for Asian-American Children and Families policy fellow.
The panel answered questions about the current situation of youth in New York City, with a focus on income and educational inequality and how it affects their future education and careers. Lazarre-White said some of the main concerns of young people were creating better schools that leave them feeling prepared for higher education; food justice; and prison and criminal justice reform. “What’s important to them is an opportunity … to build stable lives,” said Lazarre-White.
Okazaki added that immigrant families have to overcome differences in language and culture as well as income. “[In] the Asian-American community there’s a lot of barriers, both structural and cultural, to feeling like they are a part of the city, especially in school settings … there’s simply not enough language access, not enough translation and interpretation services for parents who really want to be a part of their kids’ education.” She said that as a result of this, many Asian-American teenagers try to navigate the college application process on their own. “The kids also don’t get equal access to school guidance counseling,” she said, but said they have noticed the inequality and taken action. “The kids have been advocating alongside City Council members with City leaders to try and bring more equitable guidance services to all kids, not just Asian-American kids.”
Brewer then turned the discussion to police-community relations, saying that what came out of the forums with police officers she hosted was the “need for respect between both parties.” She linked this to the uptick in bullying in schools and on social media, asking, “what can we do as a City to encourage everyone … to show more tolerance and respect for each other?”
Lazarre-White advocated for adding morals and ethics lessons to the core curriculum of City schools. “We say we want young people to learn these things, but where is the space for them to learn it? … We have a responsibility, as a society, to put that front and center.” Regarding policing, he said there are “structural issues within NYPD that have to be reformed … this is about a police department where too many members do not realize that they have to respect all citizens.”
Okazaki agreed that bullying could be addressed through education. “It’s very, very difficult work to understand structural racism and structural classism and all those things that keep us from genuinely connecting to each other … [but] some of the bullying is simple ignorance that can be eliminated with some more targeted education … [and] learning about each other’s cultures and religions in a way that is respectful.”
Núñez said it was important for adults to make children and young adults speak to each other and work to find “a common thread.” “Conversation starts to bring down the barriers between them and figure out that it’s OK to build trust among others.” He said that because of bullying, many kids felt “very oppressed” and without a sense of belonging, so it was the responsibility of adults to “make them feel like there is a place for them, even if they are different.”
The conversation moved to the state of small business in the City. Murphy said there were obstacles for smaller businesses, such as the Commercial Rent Tax, an additional tax charged to commercial properties south of 96th Street that pay more than $250,000 in gross rent annually. Murphy wanted to see an adjustment to this tax, such as exempting businesses that generate under a certain level of revenue annually. “I moved to this city [about 27 years ago] and there were all these bodegas and all these great little places and they are disappearing … I think small beautiful restaurants are part of our culture.” He added, “people are not going to come to New York to go to Starbucks … they can just stay home and do that.”
Brewer then went back to City youth and the importance of the arts in their education, asking, “do you think young people need more of the arts, and … how should they be structured together?” Lazarre-White said “the arts are absolutely key” in the lives of young people. “It’s helping young people to identify who they are, to find their voice. It pushes them to explore other parts of who they are.” He said that the fact that so many City schools didn’t have a quality art program, especially schools in poor and working class communities, was “an abomination.”
Brewer ended by asking each panelist to give one “big idea” for the City of New York. Núñez said he would like a performing arts center for use solely by young people, explaining that youth arts programs could not afford time at Carnegie Hall, but young performers still “need to have an artistically excellent space where they can be heard.” Okazaki wanted to see public schools used as a space “not just for students, but for families and communities” so there wouldn’t be such a “divide between the community and the education.” Murphy thought everyone who was interested in the food industry should be able to get enough training to enter the business and find a good job. Lazarre-White stated that New York City was “the most progressive city in our country,” and should “take front and center [in] training the future leaders of this nation,” with ethics being a core component of youth education.
After the panel, Deputy Borough Presidents Aldrin R. Bonilla and Matthew S. Washington presented ways Manhattan residents can get more involved in the borough. Washington encouraged organizations to apply for funding and individuals to attend Brewer’s public events and sign up for her e-newsletter.
A full recording of the State of the Borough address can be watched online at mnn.org/video/watch-manhattan-state-borough-2016. Learn more about Gale A. Brewer or City policies, sign up for updates, and apply for the Council of Young Leaders of Manhattan (deadline is Friday, March 4) at manhattanbp.nyc.gov.