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Opinion

Three Keys to Positive Criminal Justice Reform in New York


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Gov. Cuomo speaks to ABNY (photo: @NYGovCuomo)


It has been encouraging to hear Governor Andrew Cuomo call for a resolution of the unfortunate conflict that has broken out between Mayor de Blasio and the leaders of the NYPD unions. A number of our elected leaders are proposing responses to this affair and to the larger issue of the execrable state of police/community relations that has erupted across the nation over the past year catalyzed by the Ferguson and Staten Island deaths of young men of color at the hands of police officers.

Based on my experience as a lawyer and legal reform consultant, including several years as criminal justice advisor to the administration of Governor Mario Cuomo, I have three recommendations to make regarding criminal justice reform in the State of New York.

First, over the past two decades, a once vibrant movement toward community policing -- police service founded on true partnership with community stakeholders -- has been all but totally eclipsed by the kind of data-driven policing that Bill Bratton debuted in New York City in 1994. I am a witness to the fact that this style of numbers-driven policing was aggressively promoted throughout the nation and has been hugely influential. It has fundamentally changed the relationship between municipal police agencies and the public they serve and not for the better.

While many credit CompStat and other policing tactics that are descended from it for the historic reductions in crime nationwide, this style of policing has driven a wedge between police and communities of color. Crime may be going down, but public dissatisfaction has been skyrocketing. That is what protesters across the nation are saying. That is what New York City voters were saying when they elected Bill de Blasio last year. Their complaint is both legitimate and urgent. Whomever is tasked with the Cuomo Administration response to this phenomenon should be given a clear mandate to reignite the community policing movement.

Second, former Governor Mario Cuomo, may he rest in peace, signed into law Chapter 55 of the Laws of 1983, the Neighborhood Preservation Crime Prevention Act (NPCPA). This DCJS-administered program was intended to foster the creation of an infrastructure of community-based nonprofit organizations that could access new resources and collaborate with police and other municipal agencies to improve quality of life in neighborhoods that otherwise would slide into decay and criminality. This inspired piece of legislation would have empowered neighborhoods and their residents to have a major impact on the quality of life in their communities. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, NPCPA was never funded, staffed, implemented.

The kind of community-based infrastructure it would have created would have helped neighborhoods and police agencies work together in productive partnership. This law is still on the books. As the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo moves forward in developing its response to the police/community relations crisis, I would strongly suggest taking up this piece of Mario Cuomo's legacy and fulfilling its promise at last.

Third, for over half a century, the decision of the US Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright has guaranteed that poor persons who get swept up in the machinery of the criminal justice system should have effective legal representation. As all know, this promise has not been kept. Certainly, were we to address this decisively and dramatically, we would be leveling the playing field between the poor accused and the police and prosecutors who arrest them in their tens of thousands and force them into plea bargains that ruin their lives.

Any thoughtful person who contemplates the many decades over which this issue has been left on the backmost burner can only condemn the total lack of engagement by the Executive, the Legislature, and the Bar in doing what is so obviously the right thing. The shameful fact is that there has been no meaningful judicial reform in New York since the administration of Nelson A. Rockefeller and he accomplished what he did because he made it a top personal goal of his own. I ask Governor Cuomo to accept the challenge of Gideon right now when doing so would do the most good.

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Terry O'Neill is Director of the Constantine Institute in Albany, an organization that promotes constitutional, legal and ethical standards in law enforcement and advises state and local governments on police issues. He is a lawyer and served as a criminal justice advisor to the administration of Governor Mario Cuomo from 1988 to 1994.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Moving Forward with Support for Veteran-Owned Businesses


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photo via @USNavy


In July of 2013 when Bill de Blasio was running for Mayor, a briefing paper was created to help bridge the cultural divide and educate all mayoral candidates on what the next administration could do to create policies helpful to military veterans in New York City.

One of the recommendations was that the next administration take the lead regarding veteran-owned small businesses and "support the development of a Veterans Business Enterprise program (VEB) through executive fiat (as a pilot program) or by working with the City Council to create legislation for the program."

The thought at that time was that especially as veterans are returning from two major wars, New York City should lead the way in creating local procurement opportunities for veteran entrepreneurs, and that by the City taking the lead, the State would more than likely follow as it did when then-Mayor Dinkins set up the city's first Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprise (M/WBE) programming over twenty years ago.

With the help of veteran business owners and advocates, who were talking to elected officials about the lack of procurement options with the City, the City Council passed Local Law 144 at the end of 2013, which required the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) to conduct a study to "analyze veteran owned business enterprises and opportunities for such business enterprises in city procurement." A lack of data on the subject and general lack of understanding of veterans' issues made this study necessary and reasonable.

In early 2014, the city partnered with PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct the study. After almost a year, the results were finally released last month in a report from the administration. One key question the study aimed to answer was whether the City should set goals for awarding contracts to veteran-owned businesses. Overall, the study concluded, "Given the limited pool of veteran owned companies able to do business with the City and the availability of other City certification programs like M/WBE and EBE, a goals program for veterans is not recommended at this time."

The recommendation against creating a procurement goal is disappointing as many veterans believed we had an administration which better understood our needs. At the time of the report's release, a Gotham Gazette article included some discussion of the problems with the data used.

However, the problems can be fixed. There appears to have been good intentions in putting the report together and there is a major bright spot in the list of seven recommendations for increasing outreach to veterans, better training veteran business owners (VBOs) on how to do business with the city, and creating a designation for VBOs who wish to be potential vendors with the City. These recommendations make for a very good start and where SBS and the Mayor's Office of Veterans' Affairs (MOVA) can now come together and proceed, beginning with this week's City Council hearing.

A short list of recommendations - gleaned from speaking with people far more knowledgable than myself on the subject at hand - to Commissioners Maria Torres-Springer of SBS and Loree Sutton of MOVA:

-Group dynamics: It appears that SBS is taking the lead on the public forums around the report and veteran-owned businesses. Anything related to contract procurement goals will go through SBS, it seems, which makes sense. But, MOVA must also be involved. It was clear at the first feedback session on the report that SBS is less than familiar with the veteran community, which is understandable, but shows the need for Commissioner Sutton and MOVA to be integrally involved. Commissioner Sutton has a better handle, of course, on the players in the community as well as the issues veterans face, which gives her the ability (by working with Commissioner Torres-Springer) to better alleviate concerns and avoid miscommunication.

-Open and honest communication: City Council Member Eric Ulrich, chair of the veterans committee, is holding a Wednesday hearing on the report. It is essential that the commissioners and agency representatives are forthcoming and forthright. One of the most frustrating things for veterans is when we hear city officials duck questions or give non-answers. If a mistake was made, admit it and explain how we are moving on. Discuss the report's recommendations and how this report should viewed as the beginning of a road map to get to an end goal. We want to hear concrete steps.

-Planning and outreach: Be clear and communicative about what events are happening and when. Make sure that as many veterans and veteran organizations as possible know about opportunities to give feedback or attend helpful events. But also be clear about what each event is about - whether it's an event about feedback on the new report or more general support sessions for VBOs (or whatever else), it is key that flyers and other messaging are clear.

-Policy: Eventually City Hall - really Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Sutton - will decide what the end game on contract procurement goals will be. Even though this report recommends against setting a goal, that does not mean it can't or won't happen. Once again, the administration should get input from stakeholders (which it is doing) and again consider following the election year briefing paper and conducting a pilot program, which should include getting VBOs certified and then collecting further data and evaluating to see if there should be a permanent contract set-aside for veteran businesses.

Yes, there is disappointment with the report, but still room for improvement and reason for hope. By working with the recommendations made, obtaining more input from stakeholders, and furthering communication between the agencies and with veterans, we can still make New York City a far better place for veterans to not only open and expand businesses, but do much more work with and for the City.

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Joe Bello served 11 years in the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve and has been a veterans advocate in New York City for almost two decades. He is the founder of NY MetroVets.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Why I am Visiting Israel


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BP Ruben Diaz Jr. at One World Trade Center (photo: @rubendiazjr)


The people of the United States have stood strong with the people of Israel from the day that country was founded in 1947. As the only democracy in the Middle East, and as our key ally in the fight against terrorism, Israel holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Americans. This is especially true in New York City, which has shared a unique and significant relationship with the Jewish people and the state of Israel for decades.

On Saturday, January 17, I will travel to Israel with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, leading a delegation of our city's growing Latino population. This group, which includes business, civic and non-profit leaders, will spend a week discovering what Israel has to offer, learning about why Israel's continued strength is so important, and exploring the growing relationship between the people of the Promised Land and Latinos across the world.

This is of critical importance, given not only the continued vitality of the Jewish population at home, but the longstanding history of Jewish acceptance in countries like the Dominican Republic and growing Jewish population in places like Argentina, Brazil and Panama, as well. On this trip, I will lead a discussion about the future of Jewish/Latino relations, both here and abroad, and take the first steps toward cementing a lifetime bond between these two communities.

I have been to Israel before. I have seen, firsthand, the attacks the Israeli people face every single day. But the people of Israel persevere. Now, more than ever, their example deserves our praise and our support.

The horror of the attacks on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket—and the subsequent exodus of Jews from Paris—show us just how critical our support of Israel is right now. As Martin Niemöller wrote, reflecting on the Nazi atrocities of World War II, "First they came for the Jews..."

Following these acts of terror, the Paris Grand Synagogue closed for the first time on Shabbos since World War II. The meaning behind such imagery cannot be understated. Israel is one of our strongest allies. Israelis and all Jews must know that our Latino community, and in fact the American people, are on their side during these troublesome times. As we saw world leaders standing arm-in-arm in solidarity following these attacks, we too stand arm-in-arm with Israel and the world's Jewish population.

Does a borough president have an interest in promoting Israel? Of course. At one point more Jews lived in The Bronx than in Israel, and our Jewish community remains vibrant and strong. Across the entire city, Jews and Latinos are already working hand-in-hand on the issues that unite us, be it economic development, housing, education and more.

Israel has produced and continues to work on some of the most amazing technological and scientific advancements the world has ever seen. Israel is a partner in our security, and what keeps their country secure helps keep our borough and our city secure. Israel is worthy of not only our respect, but our support.

As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. next week, we must also remember his message that we are all God's children, including the people of Israel. "Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity," said Dr. King. "Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality."

Both the nation of Israel and Jews everywhere around the world are under perpetual attack. Their peace today, as Dr. King so eloquently put it, requires our commitment to their continued security. I will work to join the Latino and Jewish communities together in new bonds of strength, and I will help create new friendships during difficult times.

Israelis do not let terrorism and hate keep them down. Neither do Americans, and neither do I.

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Ruben Diaz Jr. is Bronx Borough President. His office is on Twitter @rubendiazjr

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Pursuing ID in NYC


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City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito applied Thursday for her IDNYC (photo: William Alatriste)


I moved to New York in August 2013 from India to pursue a master's in journalism at NYU, which I earned just last month. I am on an F-1 visa and my only forms of identification were my Indian driver's license and my passport. The license is valid here, I was even allowed to drive in the State of New York, but there was some understandable confusion whenever I produced it as proof of my age. In India, like many other countries, we use the day-before-month format. I've often faced a confused bartender wondering how I could have been born in the 22nd month of the year.

While most places accept my license, with some explanation required, others outright refuse to acknowledge its authenticity. I've been told several times that people are unable to accept anything but a State-approved DMV ID. That or my passport, which I don't regularly carry around in my back pocket for obvious reasons.

Frustrated by being turned away too often, I made a trip to that much dreaded institution of urban existence, the DMV (though I did find the branch at Atlantic Center in Brooklyn quite efficient). I had to brave long lines and produce nearly six different proofs of identity, including health insurance, debit card, and utility bill, before the application was valid. Two weeks later I received a New York non-driver's ID in the mail.

So, I have plenty of valid photo identification for my time in New York, which I'm hoping will extend. But that didn't stop me from immediately wanting one of the new New York City municipal identification cards, for which open enrollment began this week. And I tried to get one, to no avail thus far.

To me, it's about the perks. Like many New Yorkers, I haven't been so good about taking advantage of the cultural mecca that is New York. I've never seen the animals at the Bronx Zoo or enjoyed a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, for example. So, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in September that the city's new municipal ID program, IDNYC, would come with free one-year membership to 33 leading cultural institutions, I was sold.

On Monday, I watched the mayor's press conference officially launching the program, then spoke with City Hall sources and wrote a story about the budget for the IDNYC program and the details of the marketing campaign it will fund.

I didn't need to hear a radio ad or see a PSA in the back of a cab, though - I was already convinced to get my own IDNYC. So on Tuesday, day two of the rollout, I set out to get one.

Like many New Yorkers, my efforts to apply for the ID on Tuesday were met with disappointment. Sadly, at two separate Brooklyn locations I was unable to have my application materials processed. But, it wasn't that the program launch didn't work. It worked a little too well. On each of its first two days, IDNYC enrollment centers saw overwhelming demand from New Yorkers, forcing many centers to cut off their lines when they'd reached capacity for what they'd be able to process for the rest of the day. They simply couldn't handle the numbers.

I first went to Joralemon Street, where the Department of Finance's Brooklyn Business Center was hosting enrollment. It was only 2 p.m. and there were thirty-five or so people in line before me for the ID. Some had been waiting for hours. The standing racks holding application forms in numerous languages were half empty. All the forms in English were nearly gone. After I had waited a painful 90 minutes, the center announced it was at maximum capacity. In the time left (the center closes at 4:30 pm) they would only be able to process a certain small number of applications - not including mine. But, a helpful employee directed me to the Brooklyn Public Library, which would be open till 9 pm. Plenty of time to go get signed up, I thought.

I thought wrong.

At the Library, a police officer corralled the crowd to keep the entrance clear. At least a dozen people milled about, some in curious wonder and others in fuming anger because of the ID enrollment. A line snaked out from a nearby door with a large IDNYC logo above it.

Unfortunately, the line had closed long before I got there. By mid-afternoon, the amassed applicants had surpassed the center's ability to sign them up. The line of people, which had apparently stretched out the door as early as 6 a.m., was now at a manageable size. But it would be the last batch of the day. Stragglers were being told they could set up an appointment through 311, the city's helpline.

The mayor's team seemed prepared for this contingency. They confirmed on Tuesday afternoon that the City would switch to an appointment-based system - much to my relief since I'd already exhausted enough time - and extra volunteers would be brought on to assist with enrollment. Both 311 and an online portal would allow for appointments, it was said.

But, as I and others attempted to go that route, we were met with reminders of the initial healthcare.gov launch by the federal government, where a good idea got bogged down by bad execution. This is on a much smaller scale and of far less importance, of course.

The website did get going and though there are long wait times through 311, appointments can now be made - but they are being given for weeks into the future, leaving me less enthused and less determined to get my IDNYC. I didn't book one...yet.

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by Samar Khurshid
@SamarKhurshid

Learning to See Each Other


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Council Member Mark Levine, the author (photo: @MarkLevineNYC)


Mayors and police unions have clashed for generations in New York City, conflicts which have often erupted in the form of work slowdowns by the cops in the trenches. But the scale and intensity of the current job action by rank-and-file officers is unprecedented. We're seeing dramatic drops not just in low-level ticketing but in nearly every category of arrest--including armed robbery and drunk driving.

It will require unprecedented action to pull our city back from this perilous precipice.

The level of vitriol in the public dialogue reached red hot levels in New York City following a grand jury's decision not to indict in the Eric Garner case and the heinous assassination of Detectives Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. We can't heal the profound divisions in our city until we begin to heed the call, made by Commissioner Bill Bratton in his eulogy to Detective Ramos, to "learn to see each other."

That means reform activists must cease referring to police in dehumanizing terms. This includes demonizing all cops as racists or making the absurd accusation that the NYPD is equivalent to the KKK. It shouldn't take the murder of two police officers to remind New Yorkers of the difficult, stressful, and dangerous conditions that cops labor under day in and day out.

By the same token, critics of the reformers must stop saying that anyone calling for change in the NYPD is anti-police. Or that fighting against unequal treatment of people of color is slandering all cops. New Yorkers certainly have a right to expect that those charged with protecting us must not kill unarmed civilians, and to have a right to speak out when such tragedies occur.

The fact is that the vast majority of people on both sides of this divide want exactly the same thing. We want cops to be safe. We want crime to continue to go down. And we want everyone treated fairly regardless of their skin color. And yes--we want the police to be active and engaged, and we understand that proactive, community-centric policing requires more cops not fewer (which is why my colleagues and I in the City Council proposed the addition of 1,000 new officers last year).

All of which make the current enforcement slowdown perplexing and alarming. Policing, much like teaching, is a job requiring judgment. Even a 200,000 page manual would not be sufficient to stipulate how each aspect of the the work should be carried out. Policing works in New York City because nearly all cops care deeply about their mission of keeping the public safe and don't hesitate to go above and beyond their contractual obligation. Officers Andrew Dossi and Aliro Pellerano exemplify this spirit--having been shot last week in the Bronx responding to a robbery, even though they had just come off duty.

The current work slowdown runs counter to that heroic ethic. And it endangers millions of New Yorkers, robs the city of desperately needed funds, and undermines civilian control of the force.

It also diverts us from critical policy work aimed at making the NYPD the best it can be--reforms that will benefit not only the general public but cops as well. When we deploy body cameras it will enhance accountability on both sides of the shield. As we roll back the over-criminalization of marijuana possession it will free up critical police resources so they can be deployed to fight more serious crime. As we train cops on how to de-escalate potentially violent confrontations it will make everyone safer.

It is imperative that all of us--cops, activists, regular New Yorkers--start to truly see each other, and to understand that only by building on our common goals and aspirations can we live together as one city.

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Mark Levine is the New York City Council Member for the 7th District, representing parts of the West Side of Upper Manhattan.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Cell Phones Help Us Grow


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Mayor de Blasio announcing the cell phone policy shift (photo: @BilldeBlasio)


Those who favor a ban on cell phones in schools, including many educators, cite legitimate concerns: distraction, cheating, theft. Yet those who favor lifting the New York City ban, which Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced their plan to do on Wednesday, make an overwhelming point: parents and their children must be able to communicate.

This is not nearly the only reason it makes sense to lift the ban.

De Blasio, Fariña, and others (including many educators), also acknowledge that not only was the ban not really being enforced at many schools, but that cell phones can actually be helpful in the learning process. Forward-looking educators are excited today that many more students will soon have internet access, calculators, and cameras in their pockets. There are a whole host of ways that cell phones can be used positively in the classroom, including for language translation, vocabulary look-up, topic research, and taking photos (of science experiments, for example). Not to mention many more sophisticated learning apps.

Yet, other than the must of parent-child communication, I argue that the most important aspect of allowing students their cell phones gets at the larger purpose of school: growing up.

In six years teaching high school history in a school district that does not ban cell phones, I faced all sorts of related challenges, especially that of distraction. Keeping students from using their phones in class when they weren't supposed to be (which was almost all of the time) was a daily struggle. But, it certainly did not dominate every day or even most class periods - as with everything, students respond to consistent expectations, and consequences.

The distraction problem is not exclusive to children, of course. As the years went on and I found myself both more attached to my phone and more distracted by it, I faced the need to self-regulate. So I did, though it wasn't always easy. Especially on Fridays.

Walk into just about any school in this city or elsewhere, and you'll find teachers on their phones when they shouldn't be. It's 2015. This is life. Ask any student you know if they have a teacher that's on their cell phone more than others, they'll spit out a name almost as quickly as they'd text it to you. In my experience, students, like the rest of us, come to resent what they see as a double standard. In the best learning or working environments, everyone's in it together.

It will be essential that students, educators, and parents are all on the same page as the new policy takes hold. It was also my experience that many parents texted their children during the school day more often than absolutely necessary. It can be challenging as a teacher to respond in the middle of class to a student with phone in hand saying, "What, it's my mom."

As the mayor and the chancellor explained on Wednesday, each school will be responsible for creating its own cell phone policy. This decision is with an eye toward allowing schools to best meet the needs of their communities and including parental input in the policy-making process.

Above all else, school is about growing up, about learning, about becoming a young adult ready to be independent in the world. School should be an authentic place, not one where we institute rules of convenience. We have to help students struggle through the growing pains, including learning how to self-regulate - we do this all the time already.

We don't really focus quite enough on authentic experience and executive functioning. We're often too distracted by mundane exercises of a bygone era, in many ways mandated, sadly, by our education standards and infrastructure - even in the Common Core Era. Still, working with students on being responsible, focused, curious learners who happen to have cell phones in their pockets could easily be the norm. Two of the most important skills any of us can learn are assessing the resources at our disposal and choosing when best to use them.

Unfortunately, in the first phases of the new city paradigm, which allows for school-by-school policy-making, it's likely that many will choose to make students turn their phones in at the beginning of the day and pick them up at the end. So be it, progress is usually incremental.

And I can't blame some principals and teachers for wanting it that way, considering that they are under such pressure to begin with that any significant shift can feel like too much to handle (see again core, common).

Ideally, teachers would have plenty of time to work with students on using their phones appropriately and helpfully, but that flexibility simply doesn't exist in the vast majority of cases. Teachers are already tasked with too much material to cover in too short a time with too many students. So, in many cases, at first at least, cell phones in New York City schools will likely have a very basic existence and be the source of lots of "put it away"s and confiscations.

But, the shift is certainly a step in the right direction as we help our young people stay safe and grow up.

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by Ben Max, executive editor, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax

From 2006-2012, Ben taught high school history in Malden, MA while and after earning a master's degree in teaching from Tufts University. Growing up, Ben went to New York City public schools in Queens.

NYCHA's Path to Privatization?


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AM Rodriguez speaking at a community event (photo: @_rjayrodriguez)


As it currently stands, NYCHA's 2602 buildings spread across 334 developments, serving more than 615,000 people, are in need of $18 billion for major building repairs and upgrades. The area I represent in East Harlem has the highest concentration of public housing in the State. This state of disrepair is both a natural result of aging housing stock and a failure to properly invest in the regular maintenance of these buildings. The plan recently introduced by NYCHA to sell a 50% stake in six developments in exchange for an immediate cash infusion is an intriguing approach to this massive problem, but this deal requires closer scrutiny. Furthermore, it raises significant questions about the federal government's future role in providing housing subsidies.

There is no doubt that the massive needs of these buildings to meet even the most basic standards of living for NYCHA residents will require creative thinking. As a proponent of Public Private Partnerships, I can appreciate the role of the private sector in working with the government to provide better services and encourage it. The deal raises significant capital dollars for these buildings and others in the portfolio, where little or no money existed before. Based on the original financing structure, we are told it is not replicable across the portfolio. On the surface, raising money to fix the buildings makes sense, but there is more to any deal involving NYCHA. In fact, I struggle to see how this fits into the long-term affordable housing plan for New York City. Is this "pilot" part of a larger plan to diminish the City's stake in housing?

The recently revealed plans include private developers, paying $150 million for the initial sale in exchange for 50% interest in the six developments. NYCHA is also set to receive $100 million over the next two years and an additional $100 million in revenue over the next 15 years. Making this deal work for the developers is that the federal government would now be paying the developers the difference between the rents that are currently being collected and market rate rents. Also in the deal, the developers will be able to sell tax-exempt bonds and federal tax credits for the 30-year life of the deal. At the expiration of the contract, the developers may be given the option of buying the remaining 50% interest and turning all of the apartments into market rate units.

The biggest red flag in this deal are the details, or lack thereof, surrounding the developers' ability to take the units to market after 30 years. As we've seen with the Mitchell-Lama program across the state, a failure to ensure permanent affordability upfront has led to thousands of affordable units vanishing. With diminishing commitments from the federal and state governments, NYCHA will almost certainly be less empowered to keep their stake 30 years from now. I've asked NYCHA to consider a deed restriction, which would require the property be kept as affordable housing in perpetuity. It's not enough to "promise" not to sell after 30 years; a more permanent legal protection is required.

NYCHA's partner selection, particularly the absence of an MWBE business partner, is also troubling. With both the City and State applauding their improvement in engaging with minority and woman partners at the MWBE conference this past October, and the commitments of the de Blasio Administration to MWBEs, this strikes me as a perfect opportunity to expand these relationships. With two of the developments included in this deal, Milbank-Frawley and East 120th, located in East Harlem, we have no shortage of local minority-owned developers, contractors, property managers, or workforce providers that could have participated in this deal.

Another concerning aspect of this deal is the property management contract, which has been awarded to an affiliate of the developer as a bundled service. NYCHA maintains that in its ownership role it has the ability to fire the property manager if it finds the manager's performance to be negligent. It seems like we have the fox looking after the coop. How can NYCHA, which has historically failed to perform its duties as property managers, be the sole arbiter of negligent performance? Furthermore, the business partnership between NYCHA and the developer is inherently a relationship that would make any change in management company a challenge. If this is a model the City is looking to expand upon in the future, how are we able to protect our tenants from neglectful management?

It is our responsibility to approach this problem in a way that confronts the challenges of today, while ensuring that the New York of tomorrow provides equitable opportunities. Unlike the previous administration, which claimed that prior infill development or privatization attempts were exempt from the ULURP process, I ask that Mayor de Blasio allow closer scrutiny of this deal and add additional checks and balances to ensure we are meeting our responsibility to provide high quality public housing.

Most important, this is the sort of solution that results from the current model of federal HUD (Housing and Urban Development) funding. I think we should allow ourselves to think more broadly about how the federal government supports housing and ensure that a larger stake is invested in the community and the current residents themselves. This starts with ensuring that local and MWBE developers are given an opportunity, and this extends to property management, construction jobs, and the other areas of economic impact. I look forward to having this conversation with Mayor de Blasio, the City Council and, most critically, the community members themselves.

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Robert J. Rodriguez is a State Assemblymember Representing East Harlem/El Barrio and the Upper East Side. He is the Chair of State's Mitchell Lama Subcommittee and a Member of the Housing Committee.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

We Can't Ignore Family Roots of School Behavioral Problems


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Students in a City DYCD writing program (photo: @NYCYouth)


There is no question that black men face substantial barriers to employment. As the demand for men with limited educational credentials has declined, firms increasingly screen out all men they perceive are from at-risk groups: those with criminal records, those who live in high-crime areas, and those who cannot provide reliable personal recommendations for their employment worthiness. As a result, high black joblessness appears among teenagers and persists among those in their prime working years. In particular, the employment rate among black men aged 25 to 34 years old is 70 percent, in contrast to 83 percent for similarly-aged white men.

In response, there are an increasing number of programs to prepare at-risk youth for the world of work. In Brooklyn, CAMBA has done very positive work with kids in the transfer high schools - schools for students who had previously dropped out or were significantly behind in credits; United Neighborhoods gains employment for disconnected youth – those who are neither in school nor in paid employment; and organizations like STRIVE work with those leaving the prison system. There should be greater funding for these successful initiatives.

Many observers believe that one of the barriers black youth face is the racial disparities in school discipline. In New York City, black youth comprise 26 percent of the student population but 53 percent of suspensions. Generally, commentators focus on what can be done in the high schools and certainly, in many cases, alternatives to suspensions are needed. But changes in high school disciplinary policies or expanded work readiness programs for at-risk youth can only do so much. It would be much more effective to intervene early so that fewer black males reach their teen years with deficient academic skills and/or significant attitudinal problems that put them at risk for failure in the educational system and in the workplace.

Behavioral problems appear at an early age. Black children comprise 18 percent of preschoolers but 48 percent of those suspended multiple times. The evidence strongly suggests that an important source of these behavioral problems is the fluid family environments that many black disadvantaged children experience. With less stable male income, blacks have less stable romantic relationships.

Over their lifetime, 59 percent of African American mothers, 35 percent of Hispanic mothers and 22 percent of white mothers reported having children with more than one partner.

Kathryn Edin, a professor and researcher on women and poverty, noted, "When a mom moves from one relationship to another – playing gatekeeper with the biological father while putting her new boyfriend into the dad's role - she puts her kids on the 'father-go-round.' What about fathers? They, too, find themselves on a 'family-go round,' having kids by other women in a quest to try to get what they long for – the whole father experience."

These changing relationships create stress for children for a number of reasons. First, many children are abandoned by their biological father when he moves on to a new romantic relationships. A Pew survey found that over half of fathers did not share a meal with their noncustodial children in the last four weeks; less than one-third did homework with them.

Second, children must adapt to a new man in the house; someone who sometimes brings his employment frustrations into the home.

Surely one of the outcomes for many children is to act out in school. This is especially the case for young boys who have additional school problems and stresses.

Adolescents with a half-sibling with a different father are about 65 percent more likely to have used illegal drugs by their 15th birthday than those who have only full siblings. Among fatherless boys, those who lived with stepfathers were at an even greater risk of incarceration than those who lived with a single mother.

When these young children exhibit behavioral problems in schools, in many situations school disciplinary actions are warranted. Educators know, however, that disciplinary actions alone will not change the situation: counseling for both the child and the adults in his family would be more constructive. The problem is that counseling resources are not available in many K-5 settings. Even when parents are amenable, the referrals put them on waiting lists and even out-of-class resources for troubled children are often not available. Indeed, in too many cases, the only way that these troubled children gain resources is if they are (mis)placed in special education classes.

Reducing suspensions without providing the necessary resources to aid in the transformation of the home environment will be of limited value. Many more resources are necessary to respond in a holistic approach when children act out - and Mayor Bill de Blasio's approach to failing schools points in the right direction. Counseling and social work resources should be a priority if we really want troubled children to succeed.

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Robert Cherry is Stern Professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

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Senator Serrano: Priorities for 2015


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Sen. Jose M. Serrano, right, with a constituent (photo: @johnhenrysoto)


With the 2015 Senate session rapidly approaching, the time has come for all legislators to outline their priorities for the new year. Putting the previous elections behind us, the time has come for all of us to work together for the common good. The people of New York State are far less concerned with the political squabbles in Albany, they're demanding real action now.

I, for one, remain hopeful that all senators can find common ground while working together in a constructive manner to address many of the issues and concerns the voters have entrusted us to tackle. While new issues present themselves on an almost daily basis, some long-standing problems have lingered for years without substantive action.

On various issues like the DREAM Act, the Women's Equality Act, and raising the minimum wage for hard working New Yorkers - the time is long overdue for positive legislative measures. Other issues, such as rent regulation laws, require immediate action and will be at the forefront this year. Additionally, tragic events have recently shined a bright light on the need to reform the criminal justice system in ways that will inspire confidence and ensure equal justice for all New Yorkers.

Perhaps this year's biggest battle in Albany will revolve around New York City's rent regulation laws, which are set to expire on June 15. I will join many of my progressive colleagues in fighting to pass pro-tenant legislation. We will fight to ensure that average, hard-working New Yorkers can remain in their homes and raise families in a city that isn't exclusively for the very wealthy.

Ensuring high quality housing for the working class is essential to New York maintaining a robust local economy. For too long, we have been moving in the wrong direction when it comes to affordable housing. Estimates suggest that roughly 400,000 affordable housing units in New York City have been lost over the last 12 years, which has only served to further squeeze the poor and middle class.

To help combat this alarming trend, I am proud to sponsor bill S1040, which will repeal the often-exploited "statutory vacancy bonus." Currently, landlords unfairly benefit from the statutory vacancy bonus by increasing the rent up to 20% in the event of a vacancy of an affordable unit. Each time a landlord is able to increase rents in this fashion, they get closer and closer to the decontrol threshold, until eventually the apartment is phased out of rent regulation and removed from affordability status. The negative result of this has been that many New Yorkers are forced to leave their homes in search of more affordable places to live. My bill, along with other pro-tenant reforms advanced by the Democratic Conference, would help change this and ensure that affordable housing remains affordable.

Recent, highly publicized cases, both nationally and locally involving police and civilian interactions have created a firestorm of debate both in the media and on our streets. This debate focuses on much needed reforms to our criminal justice system which are designed to inspire confidence in the system. Toward that end, my Democratic colleagues and I have recently announced the introduction of a legislative package implementing a permanent Office of Special Investigation to review any interaction between a police officer and an unarmed civilian that results in the death of that civilian. I wholeheartedly believe that the overwhelming majority of police officers work honorably, while showing great restraint and respect for the communities they serve. They risk their lives each and every day to ensure that we can live in safe communities and raise our families without fear of criminals. When there are questions about conduct, I feel it's important that an independent and transparent process be implemented to ensure that communities feel confident that justice has worked its course.

Our nation was built by generations of hard-working immigrants who came to America seeking new opportunities. The DREAM Act would honor this legacy by giving immigrant students access to higher education, and with that a chance at achieving the American Dream by providing undocumented students access to financial aid. Despite the Democratic Conference providing an overwhelming amount of votes in support of this legislation, we unfortunately were not able to make this DREAM a reality. The DREAM Act is not only the right thing to do, but a common sense way to ensure we have a well-educated workforce ready for the challenges of the future. As the immigrant population continues to grow throughout the state, it's my hope that we can work together to show our friends across the aisle that every student, regardless of documentation, deserves the opportunity to achieve their dreams.

Passage of the full 10 point Women's Equality Act is another major objective of the Democratic Conference. The Women's Equality Plan was proposed by Governor Cuomo in order to bridge the gender gap that (shockingly in this day and age) still remains in so many segments of society. This plan not only promotes fairness and equal opportunity for the women of New York, but it also bridges income disparities due to gender discrimination. The complete 10-point Women's Equality Plan is a commonsense approach to achieving equal pay, alleviating sexual harassment in the workplace, ending family status discrimination, and, so importantly, protecting a woman's freedom of choice. Numerous polls have shown that the majority of New Yorkers support the full 10-point plan and it is imperative that we put the State of New York at the forefront of women's rights.

Continuing the fight for fair wages and combating income inequality is another top priority for 2015. It is heartbreaking that over 1.1 million hardworking New Yorkers struggle to provide for their families, and live below the poverty line despite having full-time jobs. If we are able to increase the minimum wage, individuals will invest more in their local economies and help generate greater prosperity for communities throughout New York State. The cost of living in New York State is growing increasingly more expensive and wages are not climbing at a similar pace, and this is especially true in places like New York City. Our city has the highest cost of living in the entire state, making it harder for families to pay their rent and put healthy food on the table for their children. Therefore, we will also be fighting to allow New York City to set its own minimum wage.

Our work in Albany will not be limited to the issues highlighted above. Every member of the Democratic Conference will have their own personal priorities and legislation. As the Ranking Member on the Senate Committee on Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks & Recreation, I will continue to fight for more arts education in our classrooms while pushing for better compliance with regulations that mandate music and art be taught in all schools. I will advocate for preservation of and improvements to our beloved state parks, while working to further promote our cultural sector as the major economic engine that it is. Studies have shown that investments in our state parks yield a 5:1 return. Each year seems to be record-breaking for tourism in places like New York City - and we have our cultural institutions and organizations to thank for that.

Just as I have throughout my career, in 2015 I will continue the fight for improved ethics and transparency within New York State government. An updated ethics package will strengthen our campaign finance rules by increasing transparency and punishing those who abuse their position in government. One of my bills would establish a review process for member items (S.920) while helping to root out corruption and conflicts of interests in a process often veiled in secrecy. My legislation will ensure transparency and inspire confidence, while giving power back to those who know best the needs in their community - the local elected officials. This measure, combined with campaign finance reform and others, represent huge steps we must take towards restoring public confidence.

As the Chair of our Democratic Conference, it is an honor for me to work with such a dedicated and energetic group of individuals. I am proud of all we have accomplished, but I'm far more excited about the work that lies ahead. I have spent my nearly 14 years as an elected official, both in the New York City Council and the State Senate, working hard to build coalitions, bridge gaps and find common ground while fighting for issues that our communities demand action on. Whenever partisan politics are put aside, good things happen and our constituents are the greatest beneficiaries. I look forward to joining my colleagues in Albany in the coming months as we tackle the tough work before us.

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State Senator Jose M. Serrano represents District 29, which includes parts of the Bronx and Manhattan. Senator Serrano is the Chair of the Senate Democratic Conference and serves as the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation. Find him on Twitter at @SenatorSerrano.

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The Promise - and Preservation - of Queens


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Queens BP Melinda Katz, right, with a DOT rep (photo: @MelindaKatz)


Lonely Planet travel guide recently named Queens as the number one destination on its 2015 Best in the US list, even calling it the "next Brooklyn." The New York Times, New York Magazine, and a flock of influential food, culture, and real estate bloggers agree, Queens is on the rise. Manhattanites who once might have moved to Brooklyn now consider relocating to Long Island City or Astoria for lower median rental costs, often-larger apartment units, affordable neighborhood amenities, and proximity to Midtown Manhattan.

Though Queens has been relatively untouched by the development and population shift that dominated much of Brooklyn over the past decade, the success of new luxury residential developments in western Queens, and large development projects in Flushing, Corona, and Willets Point have developers dreaming of new glass high-rise residential towers, restaurateurs salivating over customers willing to drop $17 on dinosaur kale salads, and bar owners anticipating sales of $14 muddled cocktails.

Mindful of the downside that follows uncontrolled growth, New York City and Queens must plan ahead to ensure that Queens remains vibrant, economically and culturally diverse, affordable, and unique.

On the eve that Queens threatens to become "the next Brooklyn," New York City must quickly takes steps to insulate the community from the harm that unbridled gentrification might bring. Queens has the opportunity to get it right; we can simultaneously welcome new neighbors and preserve existing communities and cultural resources. Strategic, coordinated county-wide planning must place the unique cultural aspects of Queens on par with development.

The largest borough has much to offer newcomers and long-time residents alike. The county is served by several subway lines, and is home to the city's airports, nationally respected museums, the Mets, and the US Open. The county is geographically diverse, with enviable views of the East River, Queensborough Bridge, and the Manhattan skyline; beautiful beaches to the east, and picturesque parks and neighborhoods in between. Queens has the second largest, though most diversified, borough economy, and good public schools.

However, its most remarkable and unmistakable quality, the unique asset that separates Queens from other boroughs, is demographics. Queens is the most diverse large urban area in the United States. Half of Queens' residents are foreign born. Its citizens make up about 100 nationalities and ethnicities and speak 140 languages. Flushing hosts one of the largest and most vibrant Chinatowns in America. A large Greek community lives in Astoria. South Asians and Central and South Americans prosper in Sunnyside and Jackson Heights. In Corona, a long-term Italian-American neighborhood has enjoyed an influx of Latin-American residents and businesses. Other communities, including Egyptians, West Indians, and Irish, prosper as well.

With one of the five boroughs' largest African-American communities, Queens is a significant cultural stronghold with a rich history. Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong lived there during the Jazz Era. Armstrong's home is now a museum, and it regularly hosts live outdoor jazz performances. A number of contemporary African-American musical artists are from Queens, including 50 Cent, Nicki Minaj, LL Cool J, Mobb Deep, Nas, Run-D.M.C, and A Tribe Called Quest. Two prominent African-American theater companies are based in the county.

Long regarded as a bedroom community, Queens residents are family-oriented and middle class, with 68% of its residents living in family units, and 29% with children. Home ownership rates are nearly double that of Manhattan, Brooklyn, or the Bronx.

Queens boasts the most diverse religious community in America. There are 200 houses of worship within a 2.5 square-mile, densely populated Flushing neighborhood, including half a dozen Hindu temples, two Sikh gurdwaras, over 100 Korean churches, and many mosques, churches, and synagogues.

New York City has a number of tools that could be used to help maintain what is unique about Queens.

Skyrocketing rents and unrealistic real-estate price hikes that accompany gentrification push out long-term residents, and invite unwanted speculation. Safeguarding the community requires preservation of affordable housing. The City's inclusionary housing program should be mandatory, and targeted expansion of the City's homeownership assistance program to vulnerable populations can help attract and retain neighborhood culture. Non-profits should be encouraged to buy housing units in designated areas so long as they rent to economically vulnerable populations at below market rates.

Communities remain viable and resilient when neighborhood businesses prosper. Queens is an amazing patchwork of 40,0000 small businesses that support their owners and create local jobs. Many of these businesses cater to specific ethnic communities and thereby help to ensure a vibrant, culturally diverse environment. To help protect existing business, and encourage new ventures, the City can aggressively expand the reach of its Business Improvement District (BID) program within Queens to help with business development, capital improvement, marketing, public area maintenance, and representation before city government. The City can also implement cultural preservation districts to help prevent displacement of local business and cultural anchors.

The New York Economic Development Corporation (EDC) should continue to encourage land-use planning that incorporates local manufacture and light industry in order to bring good, well-paid jobs to the borough, and tamp down overzealous real estate speculation. The City should facilitate incubators focused on development of local entrepreneurial ventures. While encouraging business development, the City must continue to regulate "big-box" and chain stores that pay low wages, insufficient benefits, unfairly compete with local business, and funnel money out of the community.

Current state law does not allow New York municipalities to control the minimum wage within their boundaries. The De Blasio administration should continue to advocate for local control in order to raise the minimum wage and thus increase economic stability and purchase power.

The promise of Queens is not in what might be imported, but what is already here. But change is inevitable. Instead of framing gentrification as a zero sum game, the City should encourage a vision of neighborhoods as shared space, where the benefits and talents of new and often affluent residents are valued, while local businesses and cultural institutions are protected with public investment of money and expertise.

Though Queens is less vulnerable to gentrification due to the high level of homeownership, large numbers of people living in family units, substantial and healthy local business, and a solid middle-class base, the probability of permanent change that diminishes the unique character of the borough is high. By ensuring communities have adequate stock of affordable permanent housing, vibrant and diverse businesses that cater to local needs, and a government that prioritizes diversity along with economic development, Queens will be the face of America as a model of diversity, economic opportunity, and good quality of life.

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Michael Greenberg is an attorney and Queens resident. Find him on Twitter @GreenbergSez.

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2015 Legislative Priorities for LGBT New Yorkers


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(photo: @prideagenda)


A new year means a fresh start in the continued fight to further equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) New Yorkers and our families. For us, 2015 marks the 25th anniversary of New York's LGBT advocacy organization, a milestone that parallels an important shift we're seeing as we turn the corner on visibility and enter our second quarter century.

With marriage equality recognized in New York and rapidly expanding to more and more states throughout the nation, the focus is turning to the other important priorities that were previously silenced, but arguably even more pertinent when it comes to life and death issues that impact our community.

The Pride Agenda's number one legislative priority is the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, or GENDA. This bill, which we've been advocating for more than 12 years, will secure long overdue basic civil rights for transgender New Yorkers, including protections from discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations, and when seeking an education and credit.

As it stands, New York is behind more than one third of the country when it comes to including gender identity and expression as a protected class. GENDA saw its seventh passage through the New York State Assembly in 2014, but failed to come to the floor for a vote in the Senate yet again. We'll work closely with legislators on both sides of the aisle, including the nearly 100 we endorsed in the 2014 election season, to advocate for its passage in the 2015 legislative session.

We're also fighting to protect our youth from damaging and discredited conversion therapy, a practice where so-called mental health professionals licensed by the State of New York try to deny a young person of who they are. While the methods vary, none are sanctioned by any medical association – in fact, every major medical association has denounced the practice as harmful – and they are proven to leave lasting harm on young LGBT people who should instead receive affirming therapy if they're struggling to come to terms with their sense of self.

The bill to ban conversion therapy, a version of which has already become law in California and New Jersey under Republican gubernatorial leadership, passed in the New York State Assembly the first time it was introduced earlier in 2014 with resounding bipartisan support. Again, the bill got blocked from coming to a vote in the Senate, but the indication in the Assembly and the number of cosponsors of the bill in the Senate are strong signs that we will see this become law soon.

In addition to protecting our youth and transgender New Yorkers of all ages, we're fighting for greater protections for our families. New York, perhaps surprisingly, has some of the most outdated laws on the books when it comes to family building options. Contractual surrogacy, or having a baby with the help of a gestational carrier, is illegal in New York. The law is the harshest of any state with criminal penalties as punishment for entering into an agreement.

This means families who can't carry a child to term, either due to health concerns or because the household is headed by two men, have to leave their home state to work with a surrogate in a state where the practice is not banned, adding a complex and frightening array of medical, legal and logistical hurdles to an already emotional and stressful endeavor. LGBT couples have to travel to states like Kansas, which don't have basic civil rights protections in place for our community, but which have better laws when it comes to family creation.

In addition, New York law has not caught up with current family dynamics and we're fighting to bring us up to speed. For instance, intended parents have to wait until 45 days after their child is born before they're able to file for adoption if they're not biologically related. That means the child hangs in legal limbo while a sperm or egg donor has more rights to a child they never intended to parent than does the actual parent. Current law also creates harrowing uncertainty when it comes to making critical health decisions at the time of birth, insurance coverage, travel and other legal logistics. We need laws that provide safe and regulated framework so that we can create and protect our families here at home in New York.

As we enter our silver anniversary in 2015, we also celebrate our 20th anniversary of the facilitators of the LGBT Health and Human Services Network. Composed of more than 50 organizations that serve 1.5 million LGBT New Yorkers and our families in all 63 counties throughout the state, the Network delivers care that ranges from medical and mental health services to anti-violence resources and shelters, after school programs, community centers, and much more. We'll continue to convene this important group of groups and advocate for fair funding in the state budget so these organizations can continue to provide critical direct services to our community, which faces disproportionate inequities when it comes to health and safety.

In 2015 and beyond, the Pride Agenda will continue to advocate for the many disparities that impact LGBT New Yorkers with the ultimate goal of one day creating a truly equal and just Empire State.

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Nathan M. Schaefer is the Executive Director of Empire State Pride Agenda; follow Nathan on Twitter @NathanMSchaefer.

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