Recently sworn-in Public Advocate for the City of New York, Letitia James is paving a new pathway for women of color as the first African American to be elected to citywide office. And she’s calling for major policy change across a range of issues, including inequality, wage stagnation and the feminization of poverty in NYC.
We were able to sit down with James to talk about her new role, the importance of getting more women to the (political) table and the controversy surrounding her alleged involvement in bringing the harrowing story of homeless youth Dasani Coates to the New York Times.
EBONY: What made you pursue the NYC Public Advocate position?
Letitia James: I thought the office of Public Advocate really spoke to who I was, what I was about and what I represented. I really wanted to [bring to light] issues that most people were talking about quietly and privately. There are millions of silent voices whose plight and conditions are not being discussed on the citywide level. I call it the silent majority…the silent majority of individuals who are really suffering under the weight of poverty. These individuals are primarily women with children – it’s the feminization of poverty as I know it. We’re having a difficult time and I notice that. I, along with some other members of the city council, have been talking about poverty since 2007. We had a conference on poverty. It didn’t get a lot of attention, but we’ve been noticing it in our respective districts for some time. The pantry lines, people in food kitchens, the working poor – we witnessed it a long time ago. But, it took Mayor Bill de Blasio to bring it to the forefront and make it a national issue.
EBONY: The issue of poverty is something you have experienced firsthand. How did that fuel your decision to run?
LJ: I come from humble beginnings. I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I come from a family of eight on public assistance, my parents were separated. My mother struggled, my father struggled. They came from the South and were not educated, some of my brothers and sisters made it, some didn’t and I know what it was like to live without. I know what it’s like to be on public assistance and to be unemployed. And I know what it’s like to be evicted. I know what it’s like to struggle in this city. Part of the reason why I wanted to be involved in politics was to create and be a part of policy changes.
Also, I wanted to run for citywide office because they’ve never had an African American woman in a citywide position. Despite the naysayers and all of those who said it could not be done, whenever people tell me “No,” I try to defy the odds. And we did.
EBONY: What was running through your mind when you heard you had been elected?
LJ: It’s really a message to little girls that regardless of their color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or the individuals who criticize you – people who are poor, people who are living in public housing, people who are living in no housing – you have to believe in your dream, in your passion and go forward. Keep your head up and make it happen.
EBONY: When you were sworn in earlier this month, you had Dasani Coates, the young girl profiled in The New York Times’ piece on homelessness in NYC, hold the Bible as you took your oath. How do you respond to the criticism that you made Dasani a “prop?”
LJ: I knew that bringing her onstage with me was not something everyone was going to understand, but I didn’t want her just to be a headline. She’s a child with a history of homelessness and she’s also a child with a future. There are thousands of Dasanis out there. I wanted people to be reminded about her plight, about her story and to not lose sight of it. [I didn’t want it to be] just a story line for a week and then we forget. That’s why I wanted her to be by my side. I also wanted her to know that she had a friend in government and that this was an issue that I was going to work on with the mayor of the city of New York. We need to get past all of the bureaucracy related to public benefits. We need to provide individual subsidies and housing. We need to provide children with early childhood education and make sure that all children regardless of their status are attending school. That they’re eating and that they’re safe from harm. That’s really what I want to focus on and that’s why we are trying to get a hearing with the city council on the state of family shelters.
EBONY: What was Dasani’s reaction to being called on stage?
LJ: She’s so cute. She said to me, “Ms. James, you should’ve told me that you were going to call me up because I would have fixed my ponytail.”
Ebony: What’s your response to the backlash from the Times controversy and your role in helping to expose the city’s “face of poverty?”
LJ: The Times article, as I indicated on NY1 news, I was aware of it. We had created a task force dealing with [the conditions in] Auburn [Family Residence, a shelter in Brooklyn.] We knew Auburn had a number of problems…I said I had a little something do with it and I did. I’m not taking credit for the story and I’m not a source, but I was involved with Auburn. I knew there was a New York Times reporter in and around the neighborhood of Fort Greene. I did not know that they were focusing on a particular family, but I knew that there were some issues at the shelter that some stakeholders had indicated to me they were going to bring to the attention of a major newspaper outlet.
I think with Dasani’s family there were a lot of issues, particularly since it was a rather large family and there was a lack of coordination amongst city agencies. But also, there were not sufficient services provided to the families on site. Clearly one of the issues we are going to have to work on is trying to provide individuals living in homeless shelters with services on site and a better coordination of city agencies to make sure that women and children are safe from harm.
EBONY: What has been the most surprising reaction to your being named public advocate?
LJ: How did we overcome all the money that was involved in our campaign? How were we able to organize this grassroots campaign that resulted in a victory and the fact that we won by such a large margin? And it was just really organizing, organizing, organizing. It was networks, advocacy groups, and it was a sisterhood – a very powerful sisterhood. That’s what did it. No one can underestimate the power of a woman.
EBONY: What are you hoping to accomplish as Public Advocate?
LJ: We want to engage in some major policy changes for the city of New York. It’s really about addressing income inequality, wage stagnation, and the feminization of poverty. Women do not make as much as men. We still only make 76 cents on every dollar that a man makes, so gender equity is a major issue. We’re going to talk about paid family leave, childcare, early childhood education and after school programs, which are critically important. We want to make sure that all families have access to that. We want to train individuals for changing industries. We want to talk about affordable housing and make sure that housing is available for working people in the city of New York. Also, that there’s sufficient housing for not just single individuals, but for families.
EBONY: What are some of the biggest challenges you see?
LJ: The big challenge right now is that our budget is not adequately funded. The Office of Public Advocate has been cut. I shouldn’t even say cut. It has been decimated as a result of “politricks” and I want to move away from politricks. I want to talk about the people’s business and the only way to do the people’s business is to have an independent voice and to make sure that the office is adequately funded. One of our first priorities is negotiating with [newly-elected] Mayor [Bill] de Blasio to fund this office comparably to funding levels that the first public advocate received.
EBONY: How do you see New York City changing under Mayor de Blasio?
LJ: I see more transparency and more fundamental fairness, with a focus on addressing income and equality in the city of New York. We have a very good relationship with Bill de Blasio. As you know, he and I have been friends for some time. It’s a very cordial relationship, but at the same time I have disagreed with Bill on a wide range of policy issues. I have no problem staking my claim to standing up to the mayor of the city of New York if he should fail to remember that we were voted in on a mandate – a mandate to change. It was a dramatic left turn and a left turn towards a more progressive agenda. It’s my responsibility and role to remind him of that whenever he goes astray.
EBONY: Can you speak to the importance of having more women involved in politics?
LJ: I would urge all women – particularly young women of color to get involved in politics. Not everyone has to be an elected official. There’s a wide range of roles from advisor or working for a city agency to being an advocate or working with a community-based organization. There’s definite room for growth and development in this business. Unfortunately women of color are underrepresented. In all of the organizations, there are only a handful of women of color who look like me. That’s why we have to be vigilant to ensure that our issues and the issues particularly as it relates to women of color remain on the table – issues related to our healthcare and finances, issues in respect to pay equity, issues related to sexual assaults, employment and education. If you want conditions to change in your community, you’ve got to be at the table. This democracy demands that this just not be a spectator sport. It requires active participation at every level.
Ravelle Worthington is a writer living in New York. Follow her on Twitter @ravmo.