By: Lurie Daniel-Favors, Esq, Commissioner, NYC Racial Justice Commission and Executive Director, Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College
Two years ago, the Covid pandemic upended life in NYC. Residents experienced incredible pain and loss, from which we are still recovering. Communities of color suffered higher rates of illness, disability, and death from Covid. When the lockdowns began, Black and brown people were less likely to have jobs that allowed them to work from home. Most New Yorkers live in densely populated neighborhoods and small apartments. Even those able to stay home were unlikely to live in spaces conducive to social distancing or quarantining. It was a time of fear and uncertainty - a time that exposed and exacerbated all of the worst aspects of our broken system. Then we learned of the lynchings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arberry which were captured on camera, and we learned of the killing of Breonna Taylor. Something shifted at that moment, and people across the country and in every NYC borough hit the streets.
A massive wave of protests and other forms of direct action swept New York City as people demanded an end to the matrix of interlocking racial inequities and injustices crushing Black and brown residents. New Yorkers called for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arberry. We fought for equity in healthcare around COVID-19. Unlike typical protests, New Yorkers engaged in months of sustained activism. The NYC protests gained national attention as they attracted thousands of people calling for justice reform, labor reform, and healthcare reform.
Your voices were heard. Your actions caused the government to act in a variety of ways. Mayor Bill DeBlasio made public declarations of his support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the overall commitment to social equity by having “Black Lives Matter” painted on the streets and declaring Juneteenth a city holiday. However, the most significant move was the creation of the NYC Racial Justice Commission (RJC).
In response to these brave acts of civil disobedience, the city created the RJC to study the long history and impact of racial oppression in New York City and propose a series of ballot proposals to create a path toward true racial equity. During this election cycle, the public will vote on these proposals.
Modeled after the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Mayor DeBlasio formed the RJC with the full legal power to revise the NYC charter, the City’s constitution. This authority allowed the commission to identify the structural and institutional barriers to power, access, and opportunity within municipal government. I was honored by my appointment to the commission. My colleagues and I brought our personal experience and expertise to the analysis and also conducted extensive research, going directly to the people in a series of public forums.
We designed the ballot proposals based on input from subject matter experts and public testimony. The Commission spoke with other cities, agency experts, and community-based organizations. We held events and panels to allow residents, leaders, organizers, activists, and more to share their experiences and thoughts. After collecting all this information and having deeply enriching conversations across all five boroughs, the commission developed three ballot initiatives found on the back of NYC ballots during this election cycle to accomplish the following goals:
- Add a Statement of Values to Guide Government in the City Charter. Adding a statement of values to the Charter will formally define and cement the city’s commitment to racial equity into its governing document; acknowledge the history of injustice and oppression within our city; and factor that history into future decision-making.
- Establish a Racial Equity Plan, Office, and Commission. Mandating a plan for racial equity from every city agency and creating a permanent Racial Equity Officer and Commission will create a formal system of accountability for each agency to center racial equity going forward.
- Measure the True Cost of Living. Every person deserves to live a life of dignity. In NYC, Black and brown communities are likelier to be poor and low-income. Currently, the guidelines for what constitutes poverty and the cost of living are grossly inadequate. This means the support New Yorkers receive as well. With this proposal, the city would measure the true cost of living to allocate resources.
New York City, we are here right now because of your hard work - your blood, sweat, and tears. We have accomplished something never done before - an opportunity to alter the City Charter to center equity and inclusion in our governance. For months, you put your feet to the pavement, donated money, ran study groups and book clubs, and implemented DEI initiatives at work and school. Even now, many of you continue to work to make New York a stronger and better city. To create sustaining change we tie activism to civic engagement and vote on these ballot initiatives. We can’t end centuries of structural racism with one commission in one year, but we can set the stage for future progress - together.
The opinions, content and/or information in this article are those of the author and are independent of BK Reader.