Gotham Gazette Sun, 15 Jul 2018 23:03:43 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) The Diversity Visa: A Ticket To A Better Life Diversity

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

This past October my mom passed the United States citizenship exam. On November 7, she became a U.S. citizen. And this past December my dad passed the United States citizenship exam. On January 31, he became a U.S. citizen. Soon, my sisters and I will become U.S. citizens as well. None of this was guaranteed to us, and it almost didn’t happen.

My family is from Bangladesh. We moved to the United States in July 2011 through the Diversity Visa process, which is currently being called into question at the federal level, especially after a recent terrorist attack in New York City. The experience of my family -- me, my parents, and my two younger sisters -- is a testament to what the Diversity Visa program can do for people, and for the United States, a country we are proud to call home.

Simply put, the Diversity Visa changed our lives. It gave us a second chance. It allowed me to be where I am today: 15 years old and a tenth-grader in a New York City high school.  

In Bangladesh, my dad was a businessman, running a company called Nicos Digital Color Lab. Armed with a bachelor’s degree, he was also a self-taught photographer, and sometimes taught computer lessons to high school students. My mom has a master’s degree, and helped to support our home.  

Back in Bangladesh, there was a lot of pressure on my parents: my grandparents, two cousins, two uncles, and an aunt all lived with us in the same house. My dad paid all of our family’s expenses, and my mom cooked and took care of everyone. The entire family depended on my parents, and it put an obvious strain on their marriage. Things began to fall apart between my mom and my dad. Since they were the caretakers, though, no one much noticed.

One day, when my dad was in his Color Lab staring at his computer screen, one of his friends stopped by and asked for a cigarette. He told my dad to apply for the Diversity Visa to the U.S.

My dad laughed at first, “A common person like me, with no extraordinary talents, living in a small town in a country named Bangladesh, will get a visa to go to the United States?”

My dad’s friend smiled and told him to ask my mom to apply. “Your wife is your lucky charm. Her application will get accepted.” My parents quickly filled out an application under my mom’s name.

Soon after, we received a first letter notifying us that we had been selected, and then a second letter notifying us that we would be interviewed. After an extensive vetting process, we were approved. My mom, my sisters, and I were given a visa. A month later, my dad’s visa was approved as well. While the process may seem easy, it was not. It took time, preparation for the interviews, and anxiety until the visas were in hand.  

As we looked up airline tickets to go to the U.S., we realized we didn’t have enough money to get there. But, we soon found, miraculously, that our family was surrounded by supportive guardian angels. All my dad’s childhood best friends came to our rescue. They all contributed, not only helping to pay for our plane tickets, but providing extra money to survive in the U.S. as we started our new lives.  

After moving to the U.S. and gaining employment, my dad paid all their money back. But we will never be able to give back the generosity, kindness, and opportunity they gave us. I am forever grateful to my dad’s friends for helping to change our lives.

In the years since, we have established our lives in the U.S. It has not been easy. My father, a former businessman, works as a taxi driver. My mother, with her master’s degree, takes care of my sisters and me. We all go to school, studying for a better future for our family. But we feel so lucky to be living in the United States. It has changed our lives immeasurably.

If we were still in Bangladesh, I’m confident that my family would have fallen apart, and my parents might have separated. My sisters and I wouldn’t have been able to receive a proper education because education in Bangladesh costs so much. I wouldn’t be independent, navigating the subways of New York City on my own. I wouldn’t have my parents as close to me as they are to me right now, and they probably wouldn’t be able to give much time to my sisters and me as they do right now. My parents wouldn’t be able to financially support my grandparents and all their siblings as they do now.

Getting settled here in the United States was not easy; it still isn’t. Adjusting to the new environment around us, being away from our extended family, hearing threats because we are Muslims and people see us as foreigners. But life is better. And there is the possibility of an even better future. A future I work toward every day at school.

That is what the Diversity Visa has meant to me. A ticket to a better life.

The United States is my home. It always has been. I may not be born here, but I am an American. I love this country so much. The Diversity Visa changed my family’s life forever. For that for so many Americans to come, I pray we do not get rid of it.

Laila Dola is a high school student in Queens and a former member of the Generation Citizen Student Leadership Board.

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The Diversity Visa: A Ticket To A Better Life Thu, 15 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Now Pursuing Diversity, New City Council Speaker Has Employed Mostly White Men Speaker Corey Johnson

Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

Corey Johnson’s ascension to speaker of the New York City Council came amid concerns by elected officials and activists that yet another white man would be in a seat of leadership in a majority-minority city where the mayor and comptroller, two of three citywide elected officials, are also white men. During his pursuit of the position against several men of color and amid citywide outcry over the gender imbalance in the City Council, Johnson promised to ensure a diverse senior leadership team and central staff, and early indications are that he is following through on that pledge.

However, before rising to speaker, on his Council staff and his reelection campaign, Johnson has seemingly surrounded himself with almost exclusively other white men, in positions from communications to chief of staff.

Before Council Member Inez Barron made an eleventh hour bid, Johnson was one of eight men running for the speakership, raising a red flag for a City Council that had female speakers for 12 years -- Christine Quinn, who led the body for two terms, followed by Melissa Mark-Viverito for one. The new speaker would also be taking the reins of a 51-member legislative body with only 11 women, down from 18 a few years ago.

As speaker, Johnson will be overseeing about 300 central Council staffers, a big leap from a rank-and-file Council office with fewer than 10 employees. In the last four years, under Mark-Viverito, the entire Council staff, including members’ aides, has seen increasing representation for women and people of color. It has been clear that people expect Johnson to build on that progress.

In the lead up to the Council speaker election, Gotham Gazette sought staff member names, titles, and salaries for each of the speaker candidates -- including frontrunners Johnson, Mark Levine, and Robert Cornegy, Jr. -- but the freedom of information law request was not returned before Johnson was chosen, and has still not been fulfilled by the Council.

Of the seven people on Johnson’s Council staff identified by Gotham Gazette, five are white and male. These include his chief of staff Erik Bottcher, deputy chief of staff for legislation, planning and budget Louis Cholden-Brown, deputy chief of staff and district director Matt Green, director of communications David Moss, and community liaison and scheduler Sean Coughlin. (Johnson’s former chief of staff, Jeffrey LeFrancois, who served him for almost all of 2014, is also a white man.)

A sixth is legislative aide Pat Comerford, who is a woman; and the seventh Johnson aide known to Gotham Gazette is CeCe Scott, an African-American woman who has been chief of district operations for the Chelsea and West Village Council district Johnson represents. A Council spokesperson did not provide full details of Johnson’s government staff composition when repeatedly requested independent of the FOIL submission, which was also reiterated several times.

According to campaign finance records, Johnson’s 2017 reelection campaign paid five individuals, all white men, including campaign manager Kevin Groh, organizing director Wyatt Frank, treasurer Matthew Bergman and campaign workers Ryan O’Neill and Jake Kern. (Johnson’s 2013 campaign was managed by R.J. Jordan, who is also white and male.)

The Manhattan district Johnson represents was home to about 174,000 people in 2010, according to the demographic data from the Census. Of those, 67.2 percent were white non-hispanic, 12.8 percent were of Hispanic origin, 12.4 percent were Asian and Pacific Islanders, and 4.7 percent were black. Gender and race are not the only measures of diversity, of course. The district is known for its rich LGBTQ history. Johnson, who is gay and HIV-positive, was preceded in the Council by former Speaker Christine Quinn, the first openly gay person to lead the Council.

It is unclear how many of Johnson's governmnet or campaign aides identify as LGBTQ. Johnson made history being elected speaker while openly HIV-positive, and while he has also said that while he knows he has experienced privilege being white, he is also from difficult socioeconomic circumstances, having grown up in public housing in Massachusetts in a family that was led by a single mother.

It’s early in Johnson’s transition into the speakership and he has already announced that he will retain some of the top aides at the Council, including people of color, who served under Mark-Viverito.

At a news conference shortly after being elected speaker, when asked about his efforts to ensure diversity, Johnson said he would bring Scott, “an incredible African-American woman,” to City Hall. He will also be keeping Ramon Martinez, the powerful chief of staff to the Council speaker, who is Latino, in his current role. The Council’s finance division director Latonia McKinney, who is African-American, and land use division director Raju Mann, who is of South Asian descent, may also be staying on -- Johnson mentioned and praised each but did not discuss their continued employment in the same definitive terms. The Council's communications director Robin Levine, a white woman, informed Gotham Gazette that she will continue on in her role.

“So I think many of the top jobs are already represented by people of color and women,” Johnson said, while conceding that “we have to do a better job at all levels of government and we have to do a better job here in the Council.”

Over the course of running for speaker, Johnson has promised that he will commit to diversity in staff and leadership positions. At a speaker forum, he pledged that at least 50 percent of his senior team and central staff would be women, transgender and non-conforming individuals. The Council’s Women’s Caucus also extracted numerous promises from all the speaker candidates and intends on holding Johnson to account for his commitments, which include funding a full-time staff person for the caucus. Johnson appears set to name Council Member Laurie Cumbo, an African-American woman, as Majority Leader, and a diverse group of members to top committee chair posts, including Rafael Salamanca to lead the land use committee.

[Related: Women's Caucus Secures Commitments from City Council Speaker Candidates]

A spokesperson for the speaker emphasized that it was too soon to tell what the entire staff composition would look like. Johnson has yet to make any new hires and has just begun the process of meeting and interviewing candidates, the spokesperson said.  

“I think we need to look at our own staff,” Johnson said at the news conference. “It needs to be better, but I actually think that compared to other agencies and bodies in the city of New York, we’re actually more diverse, when it comes to staff positions, than other agencies in the city.”

The Department of Citywide Administrative Services’ latest city workforce report, through Fiscal Year 2016 which ended July 2017, showed promise as far as diversity is concerned. Of the 721 employees of the Council -- 318 full-time and 403 part-time -- 49 percent were female and 57 percent people of color. Members of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus praised that progress in December, crediting Mark-Viverito for putting in practices that prioritized diverse hiring.

“In order to build a democracy that accurately reflects our City’s diverse communities, we need reflective representation at all levels of government and all forms of public service,” said Council Member Margaret Chin, co-vice chair of the caucus, in a statement issued December 13. “While our work for a more inclusive democracy continues, especially in the efforts to increase language access for immigrant communities, we are more than ready to continue this legacy.”

The BLA Caucus also called in December for the next speaker to be a person of color, insisting that the city should “continue to be served by leaders who reflect our city's values, vision, and demographics.” But, the caucus did not rally around one candidate.

Council Member Jumaane Williams, a member of the BLAC who ran for speaker, did not want to prejudge Johnson’s dedication to diversity but is encouraged by conversations he’s had with the speaker about “equity in government” in the last week. “I’m assuming they’re gonna produce some good results, I have no reason to expect it won’t happen,” he said in a phone interview.

[Related: City Council Speaker Candidates, All Men, Promise Gender Equity if Victorious]

Williams was one of two speaker candidates, the other being Council Member Robert Cornegy, Jr., who initially refused to concede to Johnson when it became apparent that Johnson had the vote locked up. The two protested the county choice of a Council member who was not a person of color. Cornegy went on to concede days before the speaker vote, while Williams did so only the morning of. In the meantime, Council Member Barron jumped into the race, also arguing that it was time the Council had its first black speaker.

“If the City Council wants to be a beacon for progressive government, we obviously have to start here,” Williams said on Tuesday. “Any place there’s diversity, everybody benefits...Without diversity, resources don’t flow equitably to communities.”

Williams seemed reassured by Johnson’s promises to empower members and the body as a whole. “It’s easier to do that when everybody feels represented,” he said. And he had a simple word of caution should the speaker not follow through. “There are a lot of people watching,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that Pat Comerford is a woman, not a man as originally stated. 

Note: this article has been updated to note that Robin Levine will continue to serve as the Council communications director. 

Now Pursuing Diversity, New City Council Speaker Has Employed Mostly White Men Wed, 10 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Officials Discuss Gender Equity, Sexism at ‘Diversity’ Conference on diversity panel

The "On Diversity" panel; photo via William Alatriste for the City Council

What are "women’s issues"? When should men recognize their privilege and stand down? Speak up? How do women in public life talk about everyday sexism and engage men in that dialogue?

These were just a few of the questions asked on Tuesday during one panel discussion at City & State NY’s annual “On Diversity” conference. Elected officials, business professionals, journalists, members of academia, and others gathered to discuss issues of race and gender in public life, especially related government and doing business with it.

City & State columnist Alexis Grenell moderated the panel discussion on gender equity, norms, and policies with New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Council Member Dan Garodnick, State Assembly Member Nily Rozic, and Michael Kimmel, professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at Stony Brook College. The discussion revolved around gender equality both in the workplace and the home, as well as how gender issues are defined within government, the press, and the broader public.

Grenell started the conversation by quoting Professor Kimmel himself: “White men are the single greatest beneficiary of the [greatest] affirmative action of the history of the world. And that’s called the history of the world.”

Kimmel jumped in to discuss the traditional belief that men don’t have a say or a place in conversations on gender. “We think that gender - the word gender itself - is a woman’s issue," he said. "When you hear the word gender, the word, what comes into your mind usually is women. Most men don’t think that gender really matters to us.”

While the discussion addressed what is often a divide between men and women on certain political issues and how they are framed in public discourse, the dynamics of the discussion itself also reflected these issues. In a conversation fraught with potential landmines, the three elected officials on the panel spoke from differing personal experience, but all with a largely common perspective. Throughout, Garodnick and Kimmel - the two men on the stage - stressed the importance of redefining women’s issues as gender or family issues and the importance of recognizing men as stakeholders within the framework of these issues. The women - Grenell, Rozic, and Mark-Viverito - agreed.

Meanwhile, Mark-Viverito and Rozic also focused on the importance of having women in elected office and that of including women’s perspectives when discussing issues that directly affect women. Mark-Viverito is the first Latina to be Speaker of the City Council; Rozic was the youngest woman in the Assembly when she was elected.

“How do we include, get more women into politics - because our perspective is essential - but do we give men the toolkit to understand when to back off a little bit of that privilege, right? So when do men have to stand down when a woman is speaking, perhaps? And also maybe when do we not include men enough when they should be stakeholders? So how do we walk that fine line?” she asked the panel at one point.

Kimmel discussed the role men have as stakeholders when it comes to what are traditionally referred to as women’s issues, such as paid parental leave, reproductive rights, and sexual assault on college campuses. He emphasized the need to redefine the issues to include men by saying that “we cannot fully empower women and girls unless we engage boys and men.”

Garodnick discussed his experiences with gendered expectations and stereotypes. He recalled the period in which he took paid parental leave, and despite being fully engaged in the parenting process during that time, he said he also felt pressure to project a certain image to his colleagues and peers while doing so, namely that he was still busy with work while on leave.

Agreeing with Kimmel, Garodnick emphasized the need to change the perception that certain issues are strictly women’s issues when, in fact, “they’re family issues, they’re societal issues, they’re economic development issues. These are big picture issues.”

Kimmel also called for the politicization of the familiar relationships men already have with women. “We don’t enter [the conversation on gender issues] as men,” he said. “We enter as sons and as fathers and as husbands and as partners...every man in this room knows what it feels like already to love a woman and want her to thrive. We need to just make that political, public.”

While Mark-Viverito and Rozic both acknowledged the importance of men recognizing their place as stakeholders on certain issues, they both maintained that having women in positions of power and continuing to challenge sexism present within government and the workplace in general are the most effective ways to achieve gender equity.

Rozic discussed the sexist assumptions that continue to pervade the culture in Albany, where the state Legislature she is a part of conducts its business. She recalled incidents of sexism, including an occasion when she was denied access to the Assembly floor during a roll call vote by a Sergeant in Arms who assumed, because of her gender in combination with her age, that she was not an Assembly member despite her having been in Albany for several months. Rozic also discussed multiple occasions of having been mistaken as male colleagues’ staff member, girlfriend, or wife when standing next to them during a conversation while in the workplace.

“Believe it or not, Albany is a little backwards,” Rozic said wryly early in the discussion.

“It is a very fine line maneuvering gender, in particular as a young woman, because I face...a dose of sexism but also ageism, which is a lethal combination at times,” Rozic said. “When I got elected, I was the youngest woman ever elected to the state Legislature, I get that. With that comes a lot of responsibility, but it also comes with a challenge of understanding what leadership looks like, and sort of, countering what leadership is supposed to look like.”

While Garodnick spoke from recent personal experience in taking parental leave, Mark-Viverito also discussed her personal life and choices.

“I am a 47-year-old woman who does not believe in traditional marriage...And I don’t have children," she said, framing her other comments. "I made a choice in my life that I wasn’t going to have children, and the expectations or the approach that I get as a woman, right, is that somehow I’m supposed to be in that box: 'You have children, right?' And when I say "no, I made a choice that I’m not"...So I never approach a woman from the assumption that she has children because I know my own experience...And you ask, 'do you have children?' You don’t assume that they have children."

Mark-Viverito said it is essential to break down normative expectations of women. It is "not only my responsibility," she said, "it’s also men, our allies.”

The Speaker expanded the conversation to sexism faced by women in positions of power by discussing the sexism she has experienced during her career, especially in that role leading the City Council, perhaps the second most powerful position in city government. She said that the media’s perception of her decision-making and independence is indicative.

“I feel that still when you talk about issues and decisions, I still get a little bit appalled at times at the perspective of the press, that there’s this assumption that when a tough decision has to be made, somehow I made a decision, I’m in the pocket of the mayor, right?” Mark-Viverito said, referring to how the media has portrayed her working relationship with Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio was influential in Mark-Viverito’s ascension to the position of speaker and there has been an ongoing narrative in news articles and political discourse that Mark-Viverito is not independent from the mayor. The speaker and her allies push back that her collaborative leadership style can be misinterpreted as weakness or a lack of independence.

“I couldn’t possibly have arrived at that decision on my own, right?” Mark-Viverito said Tuesday. “A controversial, difficult decision - somehow I had to be forced into that because I could not have made that decision on my own. That’s sexist...And when I say it’s sexist, what do I get back? ‘Oh you’re always throwing the sex card around’ or ‘the sexism card around.’ Right? ‘The women’s card,’ ‘the race card,’ whatever it is, and it’s usually men saying that.”

by Libby Wetzler, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Officials Discuss Gender Equity, Sexism at ‘Diversity’ Conference Wed, 20 Jul 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Eyeing Diversity, New Push for Demographic Data on Community Board Members torres alatriste

Council Member Ritchie Torres (photo: William Alatriste)

In an effort to ensure that local community boards are representative of their neighborhoods, New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres will introduce a bill on Wednesday requiring the city to publish demographic information about board members.

The bill, co-sponsored by Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Ben Kallos, is straightforward and reads much like a general population census. It would require the reporting of community board members’ names, neighborhoods, occupations, and employment, duration of board service, who they were appointed by, as well as aggregations by borough.

The bill also mandates the publishing of members’ attendance records and the number of vacancies on each community board.

The most important aspect of the bill, according to Torres, is the reporting of detailed demographic information -- obtained through a voluntary survey -- including race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, income, employment status, marital status, level of education, disability status, veteran status, language spoken at home or if they own or lease a car.

“The conventional wisdom is that community boards are the most local unit of government, the most local form of representation,” said Council Member Torres, in a phone conversation with Gotham Gazette. “We want to ensure that they are genuinely representative of the districts where they’re located.”

In the past few months, community boards across the city have shown the power they wield in influencing major city decisions. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan, which requires changes to the city zoning rules and the individual rezoning of several neighborhoods in the five boroughs, is under fire after more than two dozen community boards came out against the citywide rezoning plans. While the boards play a largely advisory role, the feedback has forced the mayor to take a step back, reconsider his approach, and acknowledge that changes will be made.

Taking this and other examples of community board influence into consideration, Torres, a Bronx Democrat, feels it is important to judge whether such opposition is representative of larger community preferences. His bill would provide the data to help do that, he says. Torres believes that community boards can be a “lagging indicator” indicative more of the past than present situation of a community so it’s necessary to ensure diversity in their composition.

“I would argue that the more diverse a community board, the greater its capacity for representation and broad-based community engagement,” he said.

Community board members are unpaid local representatives appointed by borough presidents and are often politically-connected, long-time local advocates. They have the most power relative to land use issues and can also be effective in terms of persuasion, especially in terms of influencing City Council members and borough presidents. City Council members often have experience on their local community board before being elected. There are no term limits for community board members.

Torres’ bill isn’t the first attempt at making community boards accountable, transparent, and diverse. In April 2014, Council Member Kallos sponsored a resolution calling for borough presidents to adopt best practices for recruiting and appointing community board members. The resolution was based on a report from earlier that year which came out of a hearing of the governmental operations committee, which Kallos chairs. The report recommended, among other measures, more inclusive outreach and recruitment methods and a standardized application process for board members. There has been some reform by borough presidents, but much still varies borough by borough.

Another bill, from December 2014, also attempted to establish term limits for community board members to ensure evolving memberships. (Torres opposes term limits saying that there is “no one-size-fits-all solution” for community boards in different boroughs.) That bill has not seen widespread support in the Council.

Torres’ bill will be introduced at Wednesday’s full-body Stated Meeting of the Council and will go before the governmental operations committee. Torres expects that there will be sufficient cooperation from community boards on the optional surveys and also from Council members and borough presidents. The idea is that more demographic data will help make it clear that more should be done to help diversify the boards where needed.

“My message to community boards is this: There’s nothing to fear from diversity,” said Torres. “The goal isn’t perfect proportionality but broad-based representation.”

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid    @GothamGazette

Eyeing Diversity, New Push for Demographic Data on Community Board Members Wed, 06 Jan 2016 00:56:18 +0000