Melissa Harris-Perry: In March, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio created the Racial Justice Commission. The purpose of the commission is to examine structural inequities and to propose ballot initiatives that can address structural racism in the city. The commission is empowered to use the power of charter revision, which means that they can propose changes to this city's constitution. Last month, they released their first report identifying six patterns of inequity facing New Yorkers. I spoke with two members of the commission.
Yesenia Mata: My name is Yesenia Mata. I am a commissioner with the Racial Justice Commission.
Jennifer Jones-Austin: My name is Jennifer Jones-Austin commissioner and chair of the New York City Racial Justice Commission.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yesenia told me how they spoke with local communities to develop their recent report.
Yesenia Mata: The first report is a combination of a comprehensive citywide public input process. In every borough we held in person session, virtual sessions, and there was a process for public comment online. With this, we are asking the community to work very closely with the commission so we can change any structural racism through the charter revision.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yesenia, say a little bit more about how community was engaged at various stages of the process. What did it mean to get community together as part of this?
Yesenia Mata: The immigrant community is often forgotten or left out of these conversations. It was very interesting to see how the commission was also taking into account language, accessibility was taken into account, interpretation was taken into account, all types of backgrounds of the communities. It was public hearings, it was through virtual Zooms, it was through public online input. It was just constant, constant public input and all types of levels that made this more accessible to the communities despite if there was a technology barrier, despite there was a language barrier the commission ensured that we can be accessible to the communities inputs.
Jennifer Jones-Austin: I may just add, we also centered on making sure that the conversations with community members were just that, conversations that we were not talking at the community, but rather we were hearing from the community and then engaging with them about the issues that they were presenting to us. It wasn't a let's show up in Staten Island, or let's come to the Bronx. Let's sit in Harlem and tell you what we think will bring about greater equity and racism. You tell us what you've experienced on a daily basis. You tell us what your children experience. You tell us what challenges you. We want to hear from you what you think would make the difference.
It really wasn't us talking at community which is what often happens and that's part of this racist structure in society, it was rather them talking to us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell me Jennifer in part what you found in these conversations, in these engagements where community was having the capacity to set the agenda, what are the initial reports showing?
Jennifer Jones-Austin: Well first and foremost, what the community was very clear about is that we often center on racism as tied to policing. We know that racism, the criminalization of poverty, and of race is a constant in this society. We know that's part of the system. The system of racism and capitalism and militarism all working in concert to continually oppress people of color. They talked to us about policing, but they went beyond policing. They understand that racism pervades every pillar of our society.
Education, healthcare, housing, what is happening in their communities with respect to parks and recreation, who gets to decide whether or not they have hospitals or whether they have overabundance of certain types of facilities that people in more affluent and predominantly white communities do not want. They helped us to appreciate that they understand racism is not just a policing issue, but it's in every, every pillar. They talked about inequity in work and the opportunity to earn fair and living wages to advance. They talked about how the ever-growing wealth divide keeps them from getting ahead.
They talked about inequities and access to basic quality goods and services that would bring about greater economic, social, emotional wellbeing. Being deprived of quality education, healthcare, housing. They talked about the overcriminalization of our communities and the marginalization of our communities. They talked again about out not being, I shouldn't say again, but they talked about not being a part of decision making.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One of the things I like about what you're saying Jennifer is this sense that communities can already identify the problems. They already know what challenges are facing them, but Yesenia, sometimes communities don't know how all of the inside processes of government and bureaucracy work. Folks may even know not only the problems but the solutions they'd like to see. I'm wondering how this process for communities has maybe also just been like a politics 101 class for how city government works.
Yesenia Mata: The community at times know the solutions that they need, or they at times need support on how to get either connections with the city or how to go about their final solution when it comes to organizing, but there's never that support. What happened with this commission which was very interesting I think how Jennifer touched upon was that we were there to listen. When we listened, they would tell us that they needed support. Let's just say they needed more information about this topic. The commissioners, we did provide that information to them. It's a way to help them with their organizing because organizing can only go so far.
It also requires to work with the city, it also requires to work either with elected officials, it also requires to work with commissioners. I think that one was beautiful with the commission itself that we were helping organizers as they were telling us what was it that they needed, or what is it that they hoped to see.
Jennifer Jones-Austin: If I may just add that one of the things that we did see, and Yesenia touched upon this, and we heard I should say, is that community members, sometimes they knew what they needed, but they did not necessarily speak about it in structural law terms. I need a job that pays me a decent wage. I need an opportunity to advance in my job and I feel like I keep being held back. That's what we would hear. We'd hear the Black women in this city government agency are denied promotions. We need to have an opportunity to be promoted. We need to be seen.
They would speak to us about what they needed sometime, but they wouldn't necessarily translate that into, "Here's the underpinning structural law that needs to be addressed." It is our responsibility as commission members to hear what they're saying, to hear the struggle, to hear what is needed, but then to figure out what impedes that from happening when you look at the charter. What does the charter say about fair and livable wages? What does the charter say about real access to opportunity? What can we do about that by changing structural laws?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about these six patterns of inequity that are operating as barriers for people of color in the city.
Jennifer Jones-Austin: We heard about lack of access to quality goods and services. We heard about inequity in work advancement and wealth building. The over-criminalization of communities of color and people of color, inequity in representation decision making. We also heard about good things being done, but there never being any follow-up. We're looking at creating a preamble in the city's charter. What are the basics that every resident of New York should be able to expect? We want to be actionable.
We're going to look at establishing an office of racial equity that is required to center on the anti marginalization through agency, policies, and practices of people of color that looks at how do we establish a true cost of living in New York City. We know good and well that the poverty level is not a true measure of what it costs for people to live. We're looking at putting in place something like a true cost of living that the city then has to use as a measure for what it costs for people to live and what we need by way of wages and income supports.
Then we want to be accountable. We're looking at, how do we establish within the charter stand-up structures like a commission that is going to hold the city accountable for developing racial equity plans and then implementing them. Putting in place [inaudible 00:09:38] racial and gender equity impact analysis using data, disaggregated data, to see how people are really faring and looking at their agencies and making the reforms that are necessary. Aspirational, actionable, and accountable.
Melissa Harris-Perry: [chuckles] Yesenia, I'm wondering, let me just come to you on the aspirational. What are hoping will be different five years from now, ten years from now in the city of New York, as a result of this work that you've been involved with.
Yesenia Mata: I was able to see from the very beginning how opportunities were taken from both of my parents because they were undocumented. I saw how language also was a barrier for them. I just saw many opportunities that just were taken away from my parents and close relatives and friends. I always wanted to see change. I wanted to see equality. I wanted to see equity. I wanted to see just everyone thrive. It didn't matter their religion, their background, their status. I understood that at very early on, once I started organizing that change will not just happen one day to the next right.
It's going to take time but because of the organizing that we've done as a community, look where we are now, we now have the first-ever racial justice commission. I believe there's still more organizing to be done, but this is the beginning. I do see us in five years from now making more progress than where we are now. I do see this, especially this Racial Justice Commission, being a platform, a beginning of new things that are going to happen. What I do hope to see is that this is used as a vehicle for further organizing. I really loved how Jennifer said, a lot of the time us organizers are on the ground, are marching, protesting, are holding meetings.
However, we don't have the support when it comes to implementing a law to someone help us navigate the legal system. Someone helped us navigate the financial system. I hope that the Racial Justice Commission is the vehicle to help organizers in the community move forward agendas that they need to better their community and in my community because I do live in a community, in the Latino immigrant communities so I do hope that we are able to use this vehicle to further the rights for our communities.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jennifer I'll just come to you finally on that last aspirational question as well. What is your great aspiration? What do you hope will change? What will look different in New York City say in five or ten years
Jennifer Jones-Austin: In five years my fervent hope, my prayer is that a community has a greater voice, that they feel empowered, that they see that there is a law that says that they have a right to demand more for themselves. That government has to be accountable and providing more, that they have through the changes that are put forward the opportunity to say, you know the data here shows that you are discriminating against us.
That the equity plan here shows that the policies and the practices, the programs that you've put in place, don't go far enough to address and redress all of the harms that have been visited upon black communities, indigenous persons, other people of color for centuries. I'm really hoping, praying, believing that people develop greater voices through this and that they feel that there is a lot, which they can turn a structure that says that they have every right to demand more of this government when the government is not providing what it should equitably.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jennifer Jones Austin and Yesenia Mata of the New York City, Racial Justice Commission. Thank you both for joining us.
Jennifer Jones-Austin: Thank you.
Yesenia Mata: Thank you.
[00:13:48] [END OF AUDIO]
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