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Making the City’s Vacant Land Work for the Public


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(photo: Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)


Last month, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) announced that it selected developers to build affordable housing on 87 city-owned vacant lots, which could produce almost 500 affordable homes. This came the day after Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report criticizing the city for moving slowly on developing such lots.

As New York City staggers through the unrelenting affordable housing, homelessness, and displacement crises this plan is a missed opportunity that we can not tolerate. The city has repeatedly squandered the most value asset - land - it has in fighting these crises. Instead of giving away these vacant lots, the city should keep them and create a public land trust.

New York City owns 1,125 vacant lots. For decades it has relied on an insider-favoring process that turns over vacant properties to private developers and some non-profit developers. That number doesn't include city-owned distressed properties, which is bound to spike as foreclosures are nearing great recession levels. In either case, the transfer comes with laughable requirements for (and definitions of) affordable housing.

This process is the result of a long retreat from the public ambition that defined New York City during its period of great growth in the first half of the 20th century. An activist city government - albeit one tainted by machine politics and systemic racism - built institutions that expanded the very idea of what public life could be and made modern New York City possible. That all ended in the 1970s and left subsequent leaders wary of ambitious public growth and reliant on powerfully connected private actors.

This must change. Our over-reliance on the private market has demonstrably failed the public interest and carries much of the blame for the mess we are in.

Using the community land trust model, the city should retain ownership of the land - removing it from the speculative market that drives up prices - and contract out development based on a fixed equity model that incentivizes construction while limiting costs. It would then directly own and manage this housing stock, guaranteeing that 100% of it is permanently affordable for low- and middle-income households.

Make no mistake, what I am suggesting is public housing. A new, 21st century form that avoids the previous century’s mistakes of massive public housing developments while retaining its public virtues.

Public housing, for all of its problems (thanks to a loss of $1 billion in federal funding since 2000, with more reductions on the way), is still the best vehicle for providing New Yorkers with sustainable affordable housing.

Despite its operational failures, NYCHA currently offers an average monthly rent of $509 to over 400,000 New Yorkers in 176,000 homes and has a waiting list of 257,000 families. Public housing works and we need more of it.

A public land trust that takes advantage of small-site development on vacant lots would work even better as a public housing model in today's economic, political, and social landscape. Instead of the discredited 'shotgun' approach of megablock development that destroyed existing communities while isolating its newly created ones, this approach would be a syringe-sized injection of affordability into existing communities and landscapes.

Neighbors would barely notice the physical changes while enjoying the practical protections of permanent affordability taking root across individual sites. Most of these lots are in distressed neighborhoods that are at high risk of displacement as speculative developers (many of them private equity firms) swoop in. The best, fastest way to address displacement in these neighborhoods is through public-owned land anchoring their development.

The community land trust model works, too. It has successfully provided permanent affordability across the United States for decades, notably in Burlington, Vermont (initially supported by then-mayor Bernie Sanders) and in Dudley Square in Boston (created by local residents who were granted eminent domain). Even here in New York City, the city's first trust, Cooper Square, has quietly managed hundreds of homes in the Lower East Side as a community land trust since 1994.

Speaking of Cooper Square, through its efforts along with the New Economy Project and NYCCLI, the community land trust model has finally started to get the attention it deserves in New York. Last year HPD and Community Enterprises announced $1.65 million in initial funding for the creation of new CLTs and training programs. Many elected officials like then-Borough President Scott Stringer, Council Members Donovan Richards and Margaret Chin, and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have all worked to expand CLTs in the city.

These developments represent the chance for a fundamental shift in how to create permanent affordable housing in New York City. The land trust model does not rely on excessive tax-subsidies to private developers, flimsy definitions of affordability, or unenforceable protections for maintaining affordability over time. It is simple and sustainable. We should all be excited that the city finally sees this as a viable policy tool.

However, if Mayor de Blasio wants to deliver on his promise to build or protect 300,000 affordable housing units while also recommitting to public housing and NYCHA, he should take the next step by transferring the city’s many vacant lots into a public land trust.

We know the model works. The city knows the model works. Usually the hardest part is acquiring the land, but the city already has it. There is nothing to stop a public land trust from getting into the fight.

New York City was once capable of envisioning and delivering bold progress for the public good. We need this again, updated for the 21st century. The mayor has at the very least claimed this rhetoric and along the way tapped into a respondent audience in many corners of the city. Now it is time to act.

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Peter Harrison is CEO/Co-founder of homeBody, a public benefit startup. On Twitter @PeteHarrisonNYC.

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Can the De Blasio Administration Really Register 1.5 Million More Voters?


Mayor de Blasio voting

Mayor de Blasio voting (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced a DemocracyNYC plan. One big goal: “to register 1.5 million New Yorkers to vote over the next four years.”
To make this work the mayor will create a new city leadership post: Chief Democracy Officer. How hard will it be for this new chief to meet the mayor’s goal?

Let’s do some rough math, based upon recent enrollment, census, and vital statistics data:

According to estimates in the most recent American Community Survey, there were 5,402,352 citizens of voting age in New York City in 2016 (plus or minus 22,325).

According to the state Board of Elections, in November of 2017 there were 5,053,842 registered voters in the city. That’s 93.5% of the eligible citizens.

Let’s make two initial assumptions to maximize the number of potential additional registrants among those of voting age now to make the CDO’s job more possible. First we’ll put aside reasons for disqualification other than age that would further reduce the number of those eligible but not registered (in prison or on parole for a felony, judged mentally incompetent by a court, voting elsewhere). Second, we’ll add that 22,325 to the estimate – that is, make the high side assumption of the number of age- eligible citizens while remaining within the statistical range of error.

That results in 370,835 citizens who are of voting age now and not registered.

Additionally, there are about 372,000 teenagers in New York City who will reach the age of 18 in the next four years. Of all people in the city over the age of 18, about four in five (80.5%) are citizens. The percentage of citizens among younger people, many born here of immigrant parents, is likely higher. They are not all citizens, but again let’s count more rather than fewer as likely to be eligible to register to vote: 9 in 10 of them. That would be 334,800.

That brings the available target total of potential new registrants to 705,635.

People from elsewhere in the country or living abroad (but not new immigrants) will move into and out of the city during the mayor’s second term. For now let’s just consider those moving in. Some will be children. Some won’t be citizens. A high side assumption from past experience of the number who can be registered: 200,000.

That brings us to 905,635 potential registrants.

Uh oh. We are 594,365 short.

Of course there are all those people who move within the city. They change their addresses. They need to re-register. Maybe the mayor meant to include them; he did not say the Chief Democracy Officer would have to find “new” registrants. So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Again we have to watch out for kids, non-citizens, and those already included in our count as not registered. Estimating from federal statistics on people moving annually within and between counties for 2011-2015, it looks like 483,000 is a reasonable number.

Still not there: 1,388,022 (OK, though, we’re getting within shouting distance). To meet the mayor’s goal the Chief Democracy Officer must find about 112,000 more people eligible to register in the next four years, and register them all. Where?

But wait a minute, that’s just the additions. How about the subtractions?

The Empire Center and others have noted that New York City’s population continues to grow every year because immigrants from abroad outnumber the many already living here who are leaving. Less noticed, most of those leaving are voters or vote-eligible, while those who are arriving are non-citizens. A conservative estimate is that 189,000 actual or potential registrants will move out of the city over the next four years.

Finally, there’s mortality. About 212,000 New Yorkers will die during Mayor de Blasio’s second term, more than 95% of whom are voting age. Of course, some - probably a smaller portion than for the city population as a whole - will be non-citizens. A reasonable, conservative estimate is that death will reduce New York City’s potential electorate by 171,000.

One-hundred-eighty-nine thousand plus 171,000 equals 360,000. Departure and mortality will reduce the city’s potential electorate in the next four years by about 6.5%.

Implications:
-Registering 1.5 million people to vote in New York City over the next four years is an impossible dream.

-Registering all of the age-eligible citizens now in the city won’t significantly expand the current electorate; it will keep it about the same size.

-The largest pool of potential registrants during Mayor de Blasio’s second term is comprised of people living in the city who are already registered, but changed their addresses.

-It would be truly extraordinary if the city’s voting roles grew by half-a-million registrants in the next four years.

The bottom line: If I were asked to be the new Chief Democracy Officer, the first thing I’d do is some serious counting. Then I’d call the mayor, to renegotiate the voter registration goal.

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Gerald Benjamin is Director of The Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz.

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Expanding Immigrant Access to Health Care in New York


Statue of Liberty

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


In January of 2017, after living in this country for 17 years, I was able to access health insurance for the first time in my life. I became eligible as a new graduate studentl at NYU, which had a Student Health Insurance Plan—and, because in New York, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients were eligible for health insurance.

Now, when I am ill or in need of a checkup, uncertainty and stress are no longer part of the equation. When I feel sick, I no longer need to try to force my body into thinking I’m not sick or treat myself with Tylenol or Theraflu. Instead, I can see a doctor, get the prescription I need, and recover quickly.

Having access to high-quality health care in the past year has lifted an enormous burden from my shoulders. I used to feel anxious and scared every time I started to catch a cold. Now, each time I find myself at the Student Health Center since then, I feel gratitude and relief.

But now, as President Donald Trump’s attacks on immigrants escalate, health care access is in jeopardy again for Dreamers like me, as well as immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

New York has long led the way in providing more expansive health care access than the federal government and most states. In Florida, where I went to college, I could not get health insurance. Earlier this year, Dreamers in New York received good news when Governor Cuomo announced that income-eligible DACA beneficiaries would continue to be eligible for state-funded Medicaid. This was an important step forward for the immigrant community and for health care for all in New York.

But the governor’s announcement does not mean that all Dreamers and immigrants will have access to health care. We need further action to ensure that all Dreamers and TPS holders have access to health insurance.

For immigrant youth like me, and young people across the state more generally, the solution is to pass legislation to increase the upper age limit of the Child Health Plus (CHP) Program from 19 to 29.

CHP was founded on the fundamental truth that health care is a human right. The program honors this principle by providing comprehensive health care services to uninsured young people not eligible for Medicaid or Marketplace coverage. For a mere .5% of the state’s annual budget, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature could expand CHP in this way to increase access to nearly 100,000 more young adults who would be newly eligible for high-quality coverage, since they have been aging out of CHP when they turn 19.

Additionally, with Trump acting to terminate TPS for countries like El Salvador and Haiti, hundreds of thousands of current TPS holders are at risk of losing legal status. In New York, this will put tens of thousands more in jeopardy of losing access to health care, in addition to potentially facing deportation.

New York State must take measures to ensure that TPS holders maintain their health coverage regardless of the reckless—and, frankly, racist—policies from Washington. First, the State must pass legislation to ensure TPS recipients remain eligible for Medicaid, even if they are stripped of their protection. Second, New York should create a state-funded Essential Plan for all New Yorkers who earn up to 200% of the federal poverty level, regardless of immigration status. This plan would be of particular urgency for immigrants who will be losing their TPS and thus, their current health insurance.

These policies offer a clear path for New York to lead on immigrant health care access. That’s why immigrant-led organizations like Make the Road New York (MRNY), which has included the policies as part of their statewide Respect and Dignity for All Platform, and the Coverage for All Coalition are lobbying legislators and the governor to adopt them. In fact, more than 500 MRNY members will be rallying and talking to legislators in Albany today -- Tuesday, March 6 -- about this issue as a central part of their 2018 agenda.

Day in, and day out, immigrants build this country. We are the ones who cook your food, care for your kids, stock your shelves, pick your vegetables, mow your lawn, and clean your house. We graduate in the top percentile of our classes, pay for our own education, serve our communities, and make lasting contributions to the beautiful tapestry of American culture. 

Like all Americans, and all New Yorkers, we deserve access to health care—not as a privilege, but as a right.

New York has led the way before on health care access and standing up for immigrants. This legislative session, it’s time for Governor Cuomo and the Legislature to renew that commitment by adopting further measures to protect immigrants like me.

The Trump administration doesn’t want immigrants like me to have access to health care. We need New York to have our backs.

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Lucas Lopes is a Master of Public Administration student at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

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An Essential Agreement on Carting Safety, and More to Come


 carting

(photo: @laborers108)


A quiet announcement recently by the Business Integrity Commission - the watchdog agency that regulates the city’s food and fish wholesale markets, commercial waste services, and shipboard gambling - is unlikely to be etched in the history books or remembered for decades to come.

But it marked a significant turning point in an unnecessarily contentious dialogue between city officials and the companies that daily manage 12,000 tons of waste, recyclables, and organics generated by the city’s businesses and institutions – as well as labor leaders, and environmental and transportation safety advocates.

The announcement – a new safety manual for the city’s trade waste sector – is the result of an unprecedented collaboration.

Traditionally, commercial waste is an industry that everyone loves to hate – its big, loud trucks; its late-night collections; and its odors make it an easy target for vilification. It’s easier to blame others for the garbage all of us generate and we wish to forget, and to take for granted what’s required every night, 365 days a year, to keep our city clean, productive, and ready for the next day.

This new manual pulls together best practices for every step of the process from putting a truck on the road through its safe return every morning with its driver and helper aboard, without damage to people or property with which it might interact while on the streets.

That’s no easy job. In fact, waste-related jobs are among the top five most dangerous in the nation.

The just-published manual arose from the creation of an advisory board to guide the city’s controversial intention to replace the open-market system that promotes efficiency, choice, competition, and innovation with a system of geographic zones and exclusive franchise rights.

While we strongly disagree with the zone-based initiative, the effort led by BIC Commissioner Brownell proved that other approaches are possible – with actual results sooner, better and cheaper than waiting five years or more for a system with city government-initiated contracts to be designed, adopted, and implemented. In that same period, multiple safety initiatives could be implemented – all trucks soon will have cleaner engines, most new trucks will have cameras and all with have sideguards, and more frequent safety training could be initiated, with active engagement with the industry’s leading unions.

All that is necessary is commitment, and good-faith efforts by all concerned. If nothing else, safety is a “safe space” for those who chose to be adversaries on other matters.

This joint effort provides two takeaways:

First, the commercial waste industry – nationally and locally – makes safety a high priority.

Local efforts include semi-annual industry-city symposiums focused on safety (the fourth is scheduled for April); installation of protective side-guards; and renewed commitments to employee training, proper management, and personal protective equipment.

Second, safety requires “continuous improvement,” it’s never “over.” To be successful, the effort must be maintained by all concerned.

We know that safety is not an event, achieved through a single action. To that end, the new safety manual isn’t the first safety-focused effort and it won’t be the last.

We share commitment to the de Blasio administration’s Vision Zero goals and new solutions to street-design, traffic control, and street-sharing, which are impressive in their results to make the city a safer place to walk, bike, and drive.

But we also recognize the daily challenges of operating safely with heavy equipment, picking up bags, moving containers, and at night, in all kinds of weather, and under less than ideal conditions.

Unfortunately, safety is the only working group formed. Perhaps others now will be initiated with good-faith efforts by all concerned to improve licensing, operations, and labor standards, as well as effective zero waste initiatives.

Beyond safety, we hope the collaborative effort that created this manual will serve as a model for how disparate stakeholders can find effective ways to work together to address a compelling public issue.

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Fritz Schneider is business manager of Laborers Local 108. Jose Maldonado is principal of Maldonado Associates, LLC and senior advisor to New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management, and previously served as commissioner of the city’s Business Integrity Commission. On Twitter @laborers108.

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GothamTalks: Fighting Alzheimer's Disease & Supporting Caregivers of Those Suffering


GothamTalks commentary New Leaders Council


Gotham Gazette and New Leaders Council -- a nonpartisan, nonprofit leadership institute -- have partnered with Manhattan Neighborhood Network to create a series of video commentaries by New York City civic activists. GothamTalks is short video essays submitted through the New Leaders Council alumni network, which consists of hundreds of New Yorkers working in advocacy, government, campaigns, nonprofits, business, law, and other aspects of city life.

Like both the reporting we do at Gotham Gazette and the written op-ed columns we publish, the GothamTalks video commentaries range in subject, but are all meant to move the public discussion forward. Please watch, listen, and let us know what you think. Use #GothamTalks on social media, and tag us @GothamGazette and @NLC_NYC.

Note: The views expressed in GothamTalks are entirely those of the commentators, and not of Gotham Gazette or New Leaders Council.

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March 1, 2018
Crystal Hudson
Fighting Alzheimer's Disease & Supporting Caregivers of Those Suffering  

The Fallacy of Janus at The Supreme Court


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photo: @UFT


The Supreme Court of the United States will shortly rule on the Janus v. AFSCME case. Janus contends that any and all union activity is inherently political, that no one should have to contribute anything to union activity, and that we should therefore become a “right to work” nation. That’s an interesting concept.

My union, the United Federation of Teachers, has a political fund called COPE, and I contribute. I frequently disagree with UFT candidate endorsements and decisions, but I believe it’s important to empower our union. Not all of my friends believe that, but contributions to the political fund are strictly voluntary.

Union does, however, help press for things like higher pay, better working conditions, and increased benefits. We teachers and our union are frequently criticized for those demands. I see our working conditions as student learning conditions. I see our profession as a pathway to the middle class. At least two of my former students are now my colleagues, something I’m proud of. I think it’s our responsibility to leave our profession better for future generations. Of course, others may disagree with what we strive for.

It’s entirely possible there may be a class of teachers who want more work, less pay, and fewer benefits. A ruling for Janus, which would certainly weaken unions, could help achieve that. I’m UFT chapter leader at the largest school in Queens, and I represent Democrats, Republicans, and independents. I’ve never met a single member who wanted more work, less pay, and fewer benefits, but I don’t doubt they may exist. There are over 200,000 UFT members, and I don’t know them all.

Nonetheless, I’m fascinated by the concept that Americans ought not to be compelled to contribute toward political activity that, at least in theory, benefits them. If SCOTUS rules for Janus (and smart money says it will), then this “freedom” ought not to be limited to union activity. For example, like many Americans, I don’t want to pay for Donald Trump’s golf outings. Why, then, is my money covering those trips?

In fact, I don’t really want to pay for Jared and Ivanka in the White House either. I understand Ivanka may not be taking a salary, but I’m sure she incurs expenses -- an office in the White House can’t be cost-free. Why do I need to pay for the space and upkeep? I’d like to opt out of that as well.

It’s entirely conceivable that Donald Trump may start a war to divert attention from the ever-rising tide of scandal that perpetually engulfs him. If he does, I’d rather not pay. If he ever builds that wall, I don’t want to pay for that either. I could go on.

I understand that, under the new Trump tax system, New York will be further picking up the tab for states that levy little or no income tax. Why should New Yorkers have to do that? If other states don’t wish to tax their citizens, it shouldn’t be up to us to build their roads or pay for their services. Maybe, like the union members who want more work for less pay, those states have residents who don’t want roads or services.  They should have the absolute right to live without them, and we ought not to get in their way.

Like a state or country, a union is a group of people who share an interest. Together we try to make things better for our group. We work together to advance our interests, and that’s why we have collective bargaining. I understand that, in a large union and in a democracy, I may not always agree with the direction in which we’re moving, but I have to do my part. And more broadly, I understand, as a citizen, that I have to do my part.

I freely acknowledge that our union may not be adequately representing the interests of teachers who want more work for less pay. I can understand that they may wish to opt out of union dues, even if doing so leaves them with more pay in the short run. (Call me cynical, but, if the SCOTUS ruling goes for Janus, I suspect some people who don’t want more work for less pay will also opt out just to save a few bucks.) The fact is that so-called right to work states have lower pay and fewer benefits, and that could become the norm after Janus.

However, if union activity is inherently political, so is government activity. If people are permitted to opt out of union dues, we ought to also be able to opt out of taxes. As soon as we can do that, I will consider supporting Janus.

But until that happens, everyone who benefits from a union should pay their fair share.

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Arthur Goldstein is an ESL teacher and UFT chapter leader for Francis Lewis High School. On Twitter @TeacherArthurG.

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The Failure of 'Renewal Schools'


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Mayor de Blasio on a school visit (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


My daughter is a third-grader in one of Mayor de Blasio’s so-called Renewal Schools in Harlem. When I first heard about the program, I was hopeful: P.S. 149 needed attention and change to become the kind of school I wanted for my daughter. But, as a parent, I have not seen much renewal.

Since the program started, enrollment at P.S. 149 has dropped 25 percent. For the kids who have stayed, scores haven’t improved much – students passing the English Language Arts exam has gone from 5 percent in 2014 to 13 percent in 2017. The math pass rate has dropped from 8 percent to 5 percent over the same time. So despite all the resources the Department of Education claims to have pumped into our school, fewer students are doing math at grade level.

When Mayor de Blasio announced his Renewal Schools program, he promised that his “bold new plan” would be the key to turning around chronically-struggling public schools like my daughter’s. Four years and $600 million later, there is little to show for it. None of the schools have come close to any sort of “renewal” and the mayor has been forced to close nine of them and merge others. Just a handful of the original 94 Renewal Schools have seen real improvement.

For me, this broken promise means a lot more than just numbers on a state test. My daughter is struggling in reading and math, and nothing the mayor has done these past few years has helped her school improve.

When I realized my daughter needed extra help, I reached out to the school’s parent coordinator – I’m not about to give up on my child. The coordinator promised to look for outside resources that might offer her the support she needs. I appreciate the effort, but why do we need outside resources when our school is supposed to be part of the mayor’s major project? If his program were of high quality, my daughter’s school would be able to provide a good education for kids inside the classroom, and parents like me wouldn’t be scrambling.

I am so discouraged with the state of the district schools in my neighborhood. The system is failing communities like mine all over the city – the same communities that elected this mayor. At the end of the day, it’s becoming clear that we can’t depend on Mayor de Blasio to improve struggling schools for children of color.

That’s why I’m trying to get my daughter a spot in a charter school, where kids like her have a shot to catch up. It’s really her only hope.

The problem is that there aren’t enough spaces at charter schools. I guess the mayor knows that if parents like me had a choice, we’d leave, just like a quarter of our school already has.

The mayor shouldn’t be the only one with a say here. The New York City Council will be holding a hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 27 – and I hope Council members get to the bottom of this failed experiment. Our Council members live in our neighborhoods and they see what’s happening in our schools. They need to step up because our communities can’t wait another four years for Mayor de Blasio to figure things out.

As I keep fighting for my daughter, my son is getting ready for kindergarten. I am trying to do everything I can to make sure he’s on a better path. Knowing what I know now, I am fighting like hell to get him into a charter school right from the start. As a single mom, juggling two different schools will be hard, but I would do anything to get my kids a better education.

If Mayor de Blasio was really focused on turning around struggling schools, me and my kids wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in now. The mayor’s “bold new plan” is nothing more than another broken promise.

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Aradany Vargas is a public school parent at P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth.

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Let’s Lead the Way on Gun Background Checks in New York


Senator Gianaris

Senator Gianaris, the author, with young people (photo via @SenGianaris)


72 hours.

That is how long one needs to wait for a background check before buying a high-capacity gun capable of mass slaughter. Three days is all it took for Dylann Roof to purchase his .45 caliber Glock and kill nine people who sat praying in Emanuel AME Zion Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof bought his gun without completing a background check because current law authorizes a gun purchase after three days, regardless of whether or not a background check has been completed. Roof, with his prior convictions, would have failed a background check and should not have been able to acquire his firearm. The victims should still be with their families today.  

Right here in New York, Jiverly Wong purchased a handgun in Binghamton in 2009 after three days, even though a background check – which may have prevented the purchase due to a history of mental health issues – was not completed. Just a month later, he walked into a naturalization class at a local community center and killed 13 people.

As the nation reels from another horrifying tragedy, this time in Parkland, Florida, thoughts and prayers are insufficient to stop future calamities. The time for action is at hand. Grieving teenagers mourning their classmates should not shoulder the burden of a nation; state and federal leaders must do something to prevent even more parents from burying their children.

In 2016, the federal government authorized more than 300,000 prospective gun purchases before background checks were completed. This means thousands of weapons in the hands of potentially dangerous people – those with criminal histories and mental illnesses, as well as domestic abusers.

In New York State, we can lead the way on avoiding these preventable tragedies: I introduced the Effective Background Check Act, legislation lengthening the waiting period for a background check from the current three days to a full 10, giving more time for checks to be completed and keeping weapons out of the hands of potential killers.

This effort is even more important now as the Trump administration seeks to reduce funding for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which would further slow the ability of the FBI to perform timely background checks. As Parkland parents buy caskets for their children instead of graduation gowns, Donald Trump needs to recognize this is the worst possible time to abdicate his responsibilities.

Leaders on all sides of the aisle must rally around the crisis our nation is facing: too many people are dying of preventable gun deaths. On average, 96 people die each day from guns. Because of background checks, we have stopped more than 3 million gun sales to prohibited people, saving countless lives. With a longer waiting period, we could save even more.

Could a few days’ time have made a difference in these tragedies? Could one of those more than 300,000 gun purchases in 2016 be the next mass shooting? Could one of those be the perpetrator of domestic violence against his or her partner or child? Are those extra hours worth saving the lives of innocent men, women, and children who may be gunned down in movie theaters, on street corners, or in their schools?

240 hours. That is how long a gun purchaser would need to wait to complete a background check if New York enacts my Effective Background Check Act. For all those whose lives were cut short by years, we owe them this extra time.

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Michael Gianaris is a state senator representing the 12th Senate District, in Queens. On Twitter @SenGianaris.

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Teaching Black History in Our Schools


blackpantherchallenge

Senator Jesse Hamilton, the author (middle)


Last summer, I hosted a hackathon for middle school students at Medgar Evers College. Picture 40 enthusiastic young people ready to learn about coding, computer science, and technology, along with CodeEd educators and the welcoming college staff.

In an effort to be as educational as possible, I like to do a little history quiz when we host young people. My quiz features questions like, “Who was the first African-American woman elected to Congress?” That day, I asked, “Who was Medgar Evers?” Silence. The question stumped nearly all the students.

Only one student could venture a reply on his Civil Rights Movement leadership. That lone reply is part of the reason I am advancing legislation to make black history instruction in our K-12 schools mandatory.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently published a troubling report on schools teaching the history of slavery, “Teaching Hard History.” Among the most alarming findings, SPLC reports that two-thirds of high school seniors did not know it took a constitutional amendment to end slavery; 58 percent of teachers found their textbooks inadequate in teaching about slavery; the average textbook scored only 46 percent in SPLC’s assessment of what should be included in the study of American slavery; 40 percent of teachers believed their state offers insufficient support for teaching about slavery.

The SPLC’s analysis provides important data supporting the need to make black history instruction mandatory, mirroring my experience with the hackathon students and elsewhere.

Recent news reports underscore the necessity of this legislation. In one Bronx school, I.S. 224, the principal reportedly instructed an English teacher not to teach about the Harlem Renaissance. In another school, administrators refused to allow a student named Malcolm Xavier Combs to put “Malcolm X” on his senior sweater. In another instance, in Park Slope, the PTA included images of performers in blackface on advertisements for a 1920s themed fundraiser. Passing this law would send a clearly needed message of inclusion to all New Yorkers.

Black history’s importance extends far beyond a single month. From the abolitionists like Sojourner Truth, who broke barriers in advocacy and helped end slavery, to the Harlem Renaissance, home to literary and artistic dynamism we benefit from even today, to the pioneering achievements of Shirley Chisholm, who paved a path for future public servants of color, men and women alike, black history serves as part of our national heritage.

Our young people should engage with black history in thoughtful, age-appropriate ways, throughout their time as students. Black history provides a panoply of avenues across subject areas for K-12 students to explore, intersecting with social studies, English language arts, performing and visual arts, and more. I have every confidence that the Board of Regents and educators across various disciplines can successfully weave the richness of black history and New York’s unique place in black history into school curricula.

A crossroads for the world, New York’s Black History intersects with experiences of the Afro-Caribbean community, the Afro-Latino community, and the entire African diaspora. Under the provisions of my black history in schools proposal, the Board of Regents would be responsible for determining how Black History is best incorporated into students’ studies.

Sociologists point to the black experience being underrepresented overall in media, missing stories altogether, exaggeration of negative portrayals, and providing positive portrayals within only a narrow scope. These broader facts have consequences for young peoples’ development, self-esteem, expectations, and what figures are even available as role models. Requiring black history in schools is not a silver bullet, but it marks an important further development in chipping away at stultifying boundaries to opportunities.

I invite the public to join in support of an holistic effort to think about black history and participate in embracing a curriculum recognizing New York’s unique place in black history. New York is blessed with a rich variety of institutions that can contribute to making this inclusive move a success, the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, and all our museums, libraries, and numerous institutions of higher education can make valuable contributions to this effort.

This broader integration of black history into our schools is as important to our future as the coding and computer science those middle school students learned at Medgar Evers College. Such a curriculum leaves the boundaries of the schoolhouse and will help bolster New York students’ college- and career-readiness, engaging them, sharpening their skills, and preparing them for the diverse and dynamic communities they will lead their lives in.

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Jesse Hamilton is a state senator representing Brooklyn’s 20th district. On Twitter @SenatorHamilton.

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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.

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

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Education Adrift: New Chancellors Needed for City School, University Systems


de Blasio Farina schools new chancellor

Mayor de Blasio, Chancellor Fariña & others (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Lame duck chancellors now lead New York’s school and university systems. Governor Cuomo, who controls the CUNY board, and Mayor de Blasio, who appoints the schools chancellor, each show a shocking lack of urgency to fill these critical posts.

This is intolerable. Education is the driver of our information age. Social progress and economic prosperity depend on a vibrant public sector commitment. The city Department of Education enrolls a million children, pre-K through grade 12. CUNY enrolls 275,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Yet our elected leaders allow these essential institutions to remain rudderless.

Our schools and colleges should be brimming with excitement. New technologies, exploding fields of scientific endeavor, novel business opportunities, and a wealth of artistic media make this a particularly fertile time to teach and to learn. A new generation of education leaders is needed to meet this challenge, ready to bring vision and creativity to jobs that have become handmaidens to parochial political interests.

The leadership vacuum holds us back. New York’s position as the World’s Capital is threatened by educational backsliding and neglect. When Mayor de Blasio announced that Carmen Fariña’s successor would be cut from the same mold, my heart sank. Not that she’s been a bad chancellor but because we need a new chancellor, filled with original ideas and vision.

And who beside insiders even know the CUNY Chancellor’s name? James Milliken announced his departure three months ago after just three years on the job. His tenure has been marked by defending repeated charges of long-term fiscal mismanagement. Belated filling of vacancies on the CUNY board by Governor Cuomo and tensions surrounding appointment of City College’s new president added to system-wide stasis, a lost opportunity when Columbia, NYU, and Cornell’s new Roosevelt Island campus are all expanding.

Union leadership has been complicit in this lack of forward motion, settling into predictable cycles of management opposition and compliance for short-term interests. But Michael Mulgrew of the UFT and Barbara Bowen of PSC-CUNY, each safely ensconced in their positions, should do much more. New York labor leaders have historically been national figures, fighting tooth-and-nail for their members and the public good. Innovative contract terms can be an engines for implementing instructional progress if union sights are raised above routine salary demands.

Current belt-tightening by the federal, state, and city governments should not be an excuse for treading water. If anything, the budget picture requires increased institutional agility. Consolidation of organizational structures may be necessary, requiring different operational strategies. Principled reform of antiquated or unneeded functions can be catalyzed by cuts. Public officials’ well-known motto that “no serious crisis should go to waste” requires courage and consensus to implement. This is a challenge that requires new thinking, pointing again to the need for immediate change in the city’s top education posts.

This is a propitious moment for such change. With two ambitious politicians on the cusp of filling these leadership positions, a coordinated approach to New York City’s educational future is possible. Perhaps the Cuomo-de Blasio feud can find a moment of détente or realization that their mutual self-interest dictates summitry. With claims to being The Education Governor and The Education Mayor, the high-visibility appointment of quality chancellors for each of their fiefs will send a message of optimism and renewal that both can use to their advantage. Let us hope this flickering possibility can light our educational future.

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David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Educational Leadership, Law & Policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center. On Twitter @BloomfieldDavid.

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