Highlighting Manhattan

Black Lawmakers Talk About Their Life in Advocacy for Black History Month

Posted on 02/15/23 by Andre Hidalgo

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AARP New York is proud to celebrate Black History Month by asking our New York elected officials from around the state to share their stories about why they decided to run for office, why it’s important to celebrate Black History Month, and what New Yorkers age 50-plus can do to get involved in local and state public policy. Here is what the legislators shared with us:

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1. Adrienne E. Adams - Speaker of the NYC Council - District 28
• Why did you initially run for office?
I was raised in Hollis, Queens, as the daughter of union workers. After a career of working in the private sector in executive training, human capital management, and child development training, I entered public service first by joining Queens Community Board 12, the second largest board in the borough. After serving as Chair of the Education Committee, I was elected to three terms as Chair of Queens CB12, focusing on improving the quality of life in Southeast Queens, education equity, and advancing economic opportunities. I ran for elected office in 2017 to continue serving my community and became the first woman to represent District 28 in the New York City Council. As the first Black Speaker of the City Council, I remain more committed than ever to making New York a safer, healthier, and better city for all.

• Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?
Black History Month is a time to celebrate, reflect, and commemorate the achievements and contributions of Black people. It serves as an opportunity to learn from and pay tribute to leaders who helped pave the way for us to be here today, while also looking ahead to the work that we must do to create a brighter future. Black history is American history, and we must ensure that we teach this history to our students so they can be prepared to continue the fight for justice and equity.

• How can Black New Yorkers 50 plus make a difference in public policy?
Black New Yorkers 50 and older can make a difference by remaining involved in their local community, civic, and advocacy organizations. By speaking up on policy issues, sharing their deep well of knowledge, and being civically engaged, older New Yorkers can make their voices heard on the policies that impact everyone. We must provide community members with the ability to thrive as they age through robust funding, services, and resources, because our elders are the jewels of our communities.

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2. Senator Jamaal T. Bailey - 36th Senate District

• Why did you initially run for office?
I ran to create a better future for my community. Before I’m a State Senator, I’m a kid from the Bronx first. Having lived in the community my whole life, I’ve seen not only the struggles my neighbors face, but the tremendous power of working together to create positive change. My family and my community made me into the person I am today, and I take that with me into everything I do. There’s nothing more humbling than being able to serve the community I grew up in and affect change on a real level through this work, on issues like education, criminal justice reform, food insecurity, and gun violence. There’s so much good work already happening here, but I know we still have a lot of work to do. I want to see our families continue to prosper and thrive, access greater opportunity, and get the investment and resources we deserve.

• Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?
Black history is woven into the fabric of America’s past, present, and future. Our history is living and evolving all the time. We celebrate this month to reflect on how far we’ve come, and how far we still must go. We must confront our past, so we are not doomed to repeat it. Black history is about elevating stories that tell not only our pain and struggles, but our greatness, ingenuity, strength, and triumphs. As a Black legislator, I celebrate my great, great, great grandmother Sylvia Richardson-Holder, who was born into slavery, and whose freedom allows me to do what I do today. I think about the significance of serving alongside Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewarts-Cousins, the first Black woman to lead a legislative conference in the state of New York, and Speaker Carl Heastie, the first Black Speaker of the New York State Assembly, in whom we can celebrate living history. I celebrate my young daughters Giada and Carina, who are my inspiration every single day.

• How can Black New Yorkers 50 plus make a difference in public policy?
"Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” - Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The work of change has never been automatic – it is difficult, persistent, and ongoing. We can honor this continuous struggle by remembering the history we come from and staying involved. As state legislatures across the country are making it harder to vote, I’m proud to be part of a majority conference that is working to protect and expand this sacred right. Our voices matter. It is incumbent on all of us to exercise the power of our vote because someone who couldn't, fought for it.

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3. Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke - 9th District of New York

  • Why did you initially run for office?

I first ran for Congress inspired by great Black women, particularly my mother and Shirley Chisolm, who came before me and fought to represent so many communities who historically have been left behind without a seat at the table. My parents moved here in the 1950’s – a time when many communities of color had no one to represent them or their interests. In 1968, Shirley Chisolm became the first African American woman elected to Congress. Chisholm was a political trailblazer, inspiring young Black girls, and Black women to continue unabashedly breaking barriers without permission. Years later, Chisholm endorsed my mother, Dr. Una Clarke, who became the first Caribbean-born woman elected to the New York City’s legislature. I went on to start my own political career, succeeding my mother in the City Council and was later elected to represent New York’s 9th Congressional District. I ran to continue their legacy and show young Black girls and Black women that we can continue to shatter more glass ceilings in the name of progress and equality.

  • Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?

Black History Month is a special month, defined in equal parts triumph and tragedy, and centered around pride and appreciation for the Black men and women who came before us. Our forebears came to this country, willingly and unwillingly, and their achievements helped create the greatest nation in the world. We celebrate Black History Month because our story is America’s story. Black History is American History.

  • How can black New Yorkers 50 plus make a difference in public policy?

A key part of the democratic process is participation, and there is no age limit to affecting policy change. Call your federal, local and state representatives and let them know the issues most important to you. Share your wisdom and help guide future generations by being civically engaged. Everyone deserves to have their voices heard because every one of us deserves representation to have a seat at the table.

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4. Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest - Assembly District 57

  • Why did you initially run for office?

I ran for office because I was fighting for stronger tenant protections, and I realized we need more legislators who have struggled with the cost of housing and healthcare.

  • Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?

Black History Month allows us to uplift the amazing work of our Black predecessors and remember that we are part of a beautiful legacy of struggle.

  • How can Black New Yorkers 50 plus make a difference in public policy?

Come up to Albany and make some noise!

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5. Carl E. Heastie - Speaker of the New York State Assembly

  • Why did you initially run for office?

Like many other public servants, I first ran for office in 2000 because I wanted to make a difference in my community. When I decided to seek the speakership in 2015, I saw an opportunity to do even more for my community. I knew as the first Black man to serve as speaker of the New York State Assembly, the stakes would be even higher. I would be giving people of color a seat at the table – a seat that comes with the privilege of influencing the direction of legislation and policy that will affect New Yorkers for generations to come. I never take that for granted.

  • Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?

Black history is American History. For too long history was whitewashed and the contributions of Black people were overlooked and underappreciated. No matter how far we have come, this month reminds us to reflect and celebrate our accomplishments.

  • How can Black New Yorkers 50-plus make a difference in public policy?

While I always appreciate fresh ideas and new perspectives, older Black New Yorkers, particularly those older than 50, have lived through many of our hard-fought gains. It has been less than 60 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which reminds us all that history was not that long ago.

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6. New York State Senator Robert Jackson - 31st Senate District

  • Why did you initially run for office?

After serving on my children’s school Parent Association in 1993, I was elected to serve on the district-wide school board. I then went on to be elected by my colleagues to be president, representing 40,000 students. Years later, as a Community School Board President, I launched the Campaign for Fiscal Equity after becoming the main plaintiff in a lawsuit against New York State to fix an inequitable school funding distribution formula that was cheating schools and undermining our children’s future.
I walked 150 miles to draw attention to the lawsuit and won a court judgment that awarded $16 billion for all students in NYS to achieve a sound basic education. I was later asked to run for City Council in 2001 and was twice overwhelmingly re-elected by the voters of my upper Manhattan district. In 2015, I was elected District Leader and helped found the new, progressive, grassroots Democratic Club, Uptown Community Democrats. Finally, in 2018, I was elected to the State Senate, where I continued to advocate for fairness and equality at the state level.

  • Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?

Black History Month is an integral part of our collective American history. It is important to celebrate Black History Month because it brings attention to the many accomplishments and contributions that African Americans have made to our society throughout history. By celebrating Black History Month, we recognize the struggles and successes of African Americans and the importance of diversity and inclusion in our society. It is a time to acknowledge the resilience and perseverance of those who have come before us. It is also a reminder of the progress that still needs to be made to achieve true racial equality and justice.

  • How can black New Yorkers 50 plus make a difference in public policy?

Black New Yorkers 50 plus can make a difference in public by leveraging their decades of life experience, wisdom, and perspective to create meaningful change and advocate for much-needed policy reform. They can also serve as mentors, offering guidance and support to the younger generations, helping to foster a sense of hope and possibility to create lasting change in their communities. Ultimately, their involvement and leadership can help create a brighter and more equitable society for everyone.

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7. Assemblymember Demond Meeks - Assembly District 137

  • Why did you initially run for office?

I decided to run for office once I recognized the many challenges in the community as a grassroots organizer. I realized that a large number of the challenges pertained to state government and that being a part of state government would give me the opportunity to bring about change in those areas.

  • Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?

It is important that we celebrate Black History Month because black history is part of American History. The history of how this country was built stems from black history.

  • How can black New Yorkers 50 plus make a difference in public policy?

Black New Yorkers 50 plus can make a difference in public policy in a number of ways. Getting out to vote is extremely important, as is educating younger family members about the importance of voting. Specifically, educating them on the history of voting and how a number of groups throughout history were disenfranchised from the voting process. Black New Yorkers 50 plus should also understand the significance of their voice and that they can voice their opinions by contacting their elected officials.

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8. Donovan Richards Jr. - Queens Borough President

  • Why did you initially run for office?

In March 2003 my close childhood friend Darnell Patterson was fatally shot in front of his home. His murder was devastating, but I decided I wouldn’t let Darnell’s death be in vain. That’s when I became active in the fight against gun violence. My outspokenness on the issue and my work in the community led me to joining the staff of then-City Councilman James Sanders Jr. in November 2003. After 10 years as a staff member, I took the next step in my public service journey and successfully ran for my own seat on the Council. I was eventually elected Borough President in 2020, and throughout my time in elective office I have never stopped working to advance the interests of those whom I have had the privilege of representing.

  • Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?

Black history is an integral part of American history. Unfortunately, many of the important contributions made by Black Americans have been too-long ignored by society. The celebration of Black History Month aims to rectify this and to ensure that the many trailblazing accomplishments of Black Americans are both recognized and celebrated with the zeal they deserve.

  • How can Black New Yorkers 50 plus make a difference in public policy?

Black New Yorkers over 50 can make a positive impact on public policy by staying informed about the issues and by expressing their views about the issues that affect them the most. We can’t develop and implement effective solutions to our society’s problems without getting constructive input from an engaged and informed public. We all have a role to play.

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9. Assemblymember Michaelle C. Solages - Assembly District 22

  • Why did you initially run for office?

The decision to seek public office stemmed from a desire to change my community by taking action. I saw firsthand the challenges that many of our residents faced, such as economic inequality, lack of access to healthcare, and inadequate educational opportunities. As a Black New Yorker, I wanted to be a voice for the underrepresented and help to build a prosperous and resilient community. Running for office was a way for me to serve my community and give back to the place that had given so much to me.

  • Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?

It is important to recognize Black history and use this time to reflect on past sacrifices as well as the current obstacles that African Americans face. We also pay homage to the history of Black excellence. By celebrating Black history month, we are celebrating the collective history of Black people and their accomplishments and recognizing those who continue to make an impact on advancing equity on our nation.

  • How can black New Yorkers 50 plus make a difference in public policy?

Black New Yorkers who are 50 plus can make a difference in public policy by using their collective voice, experience, and influence to advocate for issues that affect their community.
Furthermore, voting is one of the most important ways black New Yorkers 50 plus can make a difference in public policy. By voting in local, state, and national elections, they can help elect leaders who are committed to representing their interests and advancing policies that benefit their community. Black seniors remain a significant voting population that effectively exercises their right to vote for the betterment of our society.

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10. Representative Ritchie Torres - 15th District (South Bronx)

  • Why did you initially run for office?

I ran for office to be a fighter for the Bronx. I grew up in public housing, which in New York City has been deeply underfunded and starved for resources by the federal government. As the conditions of my home got worse, I watched the government invest over $100 million dollars to construct a golf course across the street in honor of Donald Trump. I remember thinking to myself what does this say about our society, that we are willing to invest more in a golf course than in the homes and the lives of low-income Black and Brown New Yorkers? I first decided to run for City Council in 2013 to advocate for low-income Black and Brown New Yorkers who weren’t being fought for.
As an openly gay Afro-Latino man raised by a single mother, I do not fit into the typical profile of a member of Congress. But what I do bring to the table is the wisdom of lived experience. I never thought I would embark on a journey that would take me from public housing in the Bronx to the House of Representatives in Washington DC, so I hope to stand as an example of what is possible in America.

  • Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?

Black history is American history, which is why Black History Month is a time to celebrate the impact and contributions of the African diaspora and Black community on our country. It is a moment to teach about racial injustice and to challenge stereotypes. This month my office is celebrating Black History Month by supporting legislation that seeks to close the racial wealth gap and improve education opportunities for the Black community. By highlighting and celebrating Black History, we hope to show young Black individuals the impact people who look like them have had and continue to have on American society.

  • How can Black New Yorkers 50 plus make a difference in public policy?

Participating in the democratic process is key to affecting policy change. For far too long Black Americans have been disenfranchised from engaging with the political system. Voting is the most powerful mechanism for enacting public policy change. Research the issues that matter to you, learn about the candidates, and vote at all levels of office. Often the policies with the most visible impact on daily life are formed or implemented at the local level. I encourage everyone to write to your elected official, participate in peaceful protest, and hold your representatives accountable. Making a difference in public policy means engaging with the process and the people who make it.

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11. Latrice Walker: Assemblymember - Assembly District 55

  • Why did you initially run for office?

I had been serving the people of Brooklyn - particularly in Brownsville where I was born and raised - for my entire adult life. So, when the Assembly seat opened in the 55th District, running for office was a natural extension of my service. People in the neighborhood encouraged me to run. I had already gone to law school and I had worked for other campaigns. It was my time.

  • Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?

Stories of Black achievement in areas from science to politics to civil rights are often left out of the narrative of American and world history. Celebrating the contributions of Black people gives confidence to young people, particularly in African American communities, shining rays of hope for what's possible. My mentor, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, once said, ""We must never forget that Black History is American History. The achievements of African Americans have contributed to our nation's greatness."

  • How can Black New Yorkers 50 plus make a difference in public policy?

Public policy is not a spectator sport and it has no age limit. Older Black New Yorkers can make a difference just like anyone else. Call your local, state and federal representatives and let them know what issues are important to you. Organize. Volunteer. Spread wisdom. Vote.

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12. Nantasha Williams: City Council Member - District 27

  • Why did you initially run for office?

My interest to run for office was initially sparked by my passion for helping people. I never thought I would run for office myself, but after having the pleasure of working with many elected officials. I saw firsthand the importance of the legislative body, as an agent of change. I felt because of my experiences, it was an important place. I also think it's a space to make our cities more Democratic. By making this space more accessible and ensuring that we are creating a space for everyone to truly participate in government.

  • Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?

Black History is essential to American History. Black History Month is a time to reflect on the past, access the present, and plan for the future. It’s an opportunity for African Americans to feel celebrated and recognized for their many contributions to society. It’s necessary that not only African Americans as a community celebrate this month, but Americans as a unity to pay homage to those who paved the way for us today!

  • How can Black New Yorkers 50 plus make a difference in public policy?

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”- Nelson Mandela
Black New Yorkers 50 and older can make a difference in public policy by remaining involved in their communities. All change starts with the community! Organizing and working collectively to make sure your voice is heard and action is taken. Call your local and state representatives and bring to their attention matters affecting your neighborhood.

Assemblymember Stefani Zinerman- Assembly District 56

13. Stefani Zinerman: Assemblymember- Assembly District 56

  • Why did you initially run for office?

I ran for office to represent the community I love, to rebuild their trust in government, ensure inclusion in local decision-making, and ultimately to build a better tomorrow together. During my years working in city and state government, I built a reputation as an advocate, community organizer, and responsive leader who could bring resources home to the community.

  • Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?

As the representative of a majority Black community, we celebrate Black History to reaffirm our belief in our own experience and to recall the achievements of Black people throughout the diaspora. We look to Weeksville, the first free Black community in Brooklyn, to remind ourselves of what can be accomplished even when the odds have been stacked firmly against us. It brings us a sense of pride and hope to reclaim our history as it reminds us of our power and self-agency. My legislation to reconstitute the Amistad Commission (A1939) seeks to ensure that all students have access to Black History through the New York State curriculum.

  • How can Black New Yorkers 50 plus make a difference in public policy?

As the representative of the first majority Black Aging Improvement District in New York city, I am fortunate to have older adults who anchor our community, and share knowledge, expertise, and volunteer generously to improve the quality of life of others. Age Friendly Central Brooklyn, the Brownstoners of Bedford Stuyvesant, and the Crown Heights North Association are organizations are great resources as they participate and serve in leadership positions on our Community Boards and local councils to inform policies that improve our district. I value their lived experience and honest feedback, in the spirit of Sankofa, to look back and inform our future.

New York State Senator Lea Webb- 52nd Senate District

14. Lea Webb: New York State Senator- 52nd Senate District

  • Why did you initially run for office?

Growing up, I saw my parents working to make the community a better place. Whether it was through their respective unions or by being there for our neighbors, I learned from a young age the importance of being our brothers/sisters keeper. Like my parents, I am always evaluating how I can be of service to those most in need, and how I can make meaningful change in my community. This led me to becoming a community organizer, and after years of working on important issues such as our environment, affordable and accessible healthcare, and social and racial justice issues, I witnessed first-hand how critical it is to have diverse and underrepresented individuals in leadership positions to address the many problems impacting our neighbors.

  • Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?

Celebrating Black History Month is important for many reasons. It provides the space for all of us to acknowledge the accomplishments we’ve made as individuals, for the community, and across our nation. This time is for us to honor the power we’ve stepped into, and the joy that anchors our community. It is our past that informs our future and by recognizing this rich history of our community we can continue to work to advance racial justice causes everywhere. It is also a time for us to reflect on ways we can continue to make Black history everyday.

  • How can Black New Yorkers 50 plus make a difference in public policy?

It is important to use your voice to make change at every age. There are many ways that Black New Yorkers can be advocates for the issues that are impacting us, our families, and our community at all levels of government - federal, state, and local. And with age comes experience so it is important that we find ways to be mentors to the next generation. You can share the tools and knowledge you have acquired in your work to influence the policy of tomorrow.

Congressman Gregory Meeks- 5th District of New York

15. Gregory Meeks: Congressman- 5th District of New York

  • Why did you initially run for office?

I initially ran for office due to my desire to serve the residents in my community. Social justice is one of the main pillars of my beliefs and values. I wanted to ensure that my neighbors had all the resources and opportunities to excel for themselves and their families. As a Member of Congress serving New York’s 5th Congressional District, I am steadfast in revitalizing our economy, creating jobs, and enhancing our transportation, housing, and environmental infrastructure.

  • Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?

It is critical that every American celebrates Black History Month because it is America’s history. It is a time to educate citizens on diversity and enjoy the laurels of the Black community’s contributions to our country. Meanwhile, it is also an opportunity to acknowledge our difficult past and ongoing efforts toward equality and justice across the nation.

  • How can Black New Yorkers 50 plus make a difference in public policy?

Black New Yorkers 50 and older can make a difference by reaching out to their local, state, and national politicians with any concerns they may have regarding their communities. It is critical to stay informed on current news detailing public issues such as proposed laws being introduced. Most importantly, voters must head to the polls to cast their ballots to ensure advancement is made in our communities.

Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubry- Assembly District 35

16. Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubry- Assembly District 35

  • Why did you initially run for office?

I never thought of running for office as a younger person.  My interest as I left college was to work with people, teaching, social work, or some other profession helping others.  I spent more than thirty (30) years pursuing that vision which has led me to understand the intersection of politics and improving people’s lives, groups and communities.  This was especially important to me as I lived and worked in the neighborhood where I grew up.  As my life became intertwined with that of a friend and colleague Helen Marshall who left community work for a career in politics, I was inspired to consider serving as an elected official.

  • Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?

Black History is essential to understanding who we are as Americans and our contributions to this country.  It enlightens all Americans about this country’s journey from theory toward real justice and inclusion.  A journey we are still traveling.  America needs to tell the truth about who we are to get to where we need to go.

  • How can Black New Yorkers 50 plus make a difference in public policy?

Serving as a mature person allows for a fuller understanding of the many complex issues that face the State of New York.  Personal experiences which have shaped us provide an in-depth vision of the struggle of our constituents from children through adulthood.  Public policy should work to address those struggles to provide a better quality of life.

Assemblymember Edward Gibbs - Assembly District 68

17. Assemblymember Edward Gibbs - Assembly District 68

  • Why did you initially run for office?

I ran for office because people rely on my experience. As the first formerly incarcerated elected official to serve in the New York State legislature, I am in a unique position because I have had direct experience in our criminal justice and correctional systems. In my work I care deeply about my community, East Harlem is a vibrant and diverse district and I want to fight to ensure that we get jobs, housing and education.

  • Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?

Honestly, every day we remember Black History. But it’s nice to have an entire month that we highlight the accomplishments of our Black brothers and sisters. It’s a time to reflect and learn but I think the history of America is Black history and should be remembered every day in our institutions, schools and communities.

  • How can black New Yorkers 50 plus make a difference in public policy?

Our aging population can make a difference by getting involved and encouraging younger generations to be active in their communities and politics. We learn a lot by learning from each other and that’s important lesson that can span generations.

To learn what else AARPNY is doing in honor of Black History Month, click here

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