Welcome to CivicList, an independent newsletter to build community and uplift voices! In this edition I include:
What I'm grateful for
Resources for you to take civic action today
An interview with Adriano Espaillat, Member of the U.S House of Representatives.
A bit of art outside the gallery
A quote by Bill McKibben
I'm grateful for those who shared action items for this month's newsletter. I’m grateful to learn about the genius of John Lewis's nonviolent action: the discipline required for self-restraint and to treat one's opponent with respect. I'm grateful to remember that the mind is not limited to the brain, and to remember sensory awareness as a way of everyday liberation.
What’s missing? Send me your civic action opportunities: firstname.lastname@example.org
Building Community with Adriano Espaillat, Member of Congress
Adriano Espaillat represents northern Manhattan and part of the Bronx (NY-13) in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is the first formerly undocumented immigrant to be elected to Congress, and the first Dominican American to be elected to Congress.
"Considering what John Lewis did for us and what it took for us to get those rights, for us to diminish the importance of them by not participating--it's a travesty at the very least.”
What do you love about the Congressional district you represent?
I think the diversity is one of its strongest points, and the iconic neighborhoods that it has, for example it has Harlem, which is the capital the capital of the African diaspora. It has East Harlem, which is sort of like the launching pad for the Latino experience in New York City-- the Puerto Rican experience--and then you have immigrant northern Manhattan and a working class northwest Bronx. So it's a very diverse district with people from Senegal, from Albania, from Mexico from Puerto Rico, from west Africa, from the Dominican Republic, a very strong Jewish community—both German Jews and Soviet Jews—so is a very diverse district, and I'm happy to represent it.
How did you get started in politics?
I started very young, I was active as a young teenager in getting the community organized, and when I came back from college I was very active in the fight against crack cocaine in the neighborhood and to bring about safer neighborhoods and to try to work with the youth at the time, so I’ve been around this a long time.
How about today, what do you think the challenges are in the community?
Right now, clearly health is the number one issue because of the pandemic—the health disparities. How do we break those health disparities? How do we implement a significant and important mental health component post-COVID-19? How do we get our health care institutions to address diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and all the health problems that really contributed to the high number of deaths in our community? So that's got to be number one, but traditionally it's been housing. Housing has been a key problem and one that draws many constituents to my office as well as immigration, because of the diversity of the neighborhood.
When constituents come to your office, what's the process by which you're able to listen to understand all of their concerns?
Well they come to my office to do casework. Very often they email me and then we make the appointments for them to come in, and we're one of the busiest offices in ensuring that we return our emails, and we respond to them. It's like 40,000, and we have interns and staff just constantly every day responding to emails with constituents complaints, and constituents asking information about us. We have a very active Twitter account. We do robo calls--for example this past week I did a robo call for zip codes in the district that show they were dragging a little bit with regards to the Census count. So I wanted to push to see how we can get a better response for the Census count. We do mailers, in those tough months of the pandemic, I mailers so people knew where to get tested, where to get food, etc, and try to use the mechanisms offered by government to communicate with my constituents.
I think I got one of those robocalls.
Okay there you go.
When I worked in a couple of different U.S. Senate offices, I was picking up phones, answering emails, just like I think your staff do, and we had to log in every phone call, email, fax, etc. Is that still a process happening today?
Yes, we do a yearly report, at the end of the year that highlights, for example, how many constituent cases; we break it down by issue—immigration, housing, etc. How many emails we answered, and so it's a good tool for us to use to determine what our constituencies are looking from us. And so every year we use the framework that's already available to us online to try to establish this road map that we will go to in December, and by January we'll give out this report so everybody knows how hard we're working. And we have also three offices—in Harlem, Washington Heights, and Washington, D.C.
What about voices that aren't as active in writing to you, or reaching out? How do you figure out what's on their minds?
Well for example, the Latino community, particularly the immigrant community, they're new to this, so I make sure that I am culturally and linguistically sensitive, that I communicate with them in Spanish, that I know what are the key issues. For example, right now, the food security issue is a problem, so we put out a fact sheet with all the testing sites, and all the food distribution sites, and then we just continuously send that out. When there's a new one that pops up, we include it on that master list so everybody knows that if you don't have any food you may be able to go down the corner, to the local church once a week and get spaghetti, and rice and beans and, tomato sauce. That's important because people are having a rough time, or if you feel like you want to get tested, you know exactly where to go. I think we got probably more testing sites than any other community in the city of New York.
So, reaching out in multiple different languages?
That's correct. Connecting people to local resources. For example, last week I went to 116th street, where I walked with the Senegalese and the African community with Iman Konate and a bunch of leaders there from the African community to hand out masks and to speak to them about the importance of being safe and social distancing. I’m gonna do that today at the River Park Towers, the Roberto Clemente complex in the Bronx; I’m gonna go there and give out masks and hand sanitizers because there was a big issue with deaths in that complex. In fact there was a big New York Times article about how many people died in those in those towers.
What community leaders and organizations are you proud of, that you would like to highlight in our community?
Catholic Charities has done a tremendous job. They have a food security program and the Monseigneur has done a tremendous job of getting to the neighborhoods where we really need it. Also the SOMOS group, the doctors of the individual physician association called SOMOS, they were the ones that helped us put together these testing sites very early on, one of the first ones when was put over there in the parking lot right across Lehman College, and they just did a fantastic job very early during the pandemic. They were out there, in fact a couple of doctors unfortunately passed away from that group. They lost a couple of members and they went all over the place--Governor Cuomo sent them to Texas, to New Orleans, to Florida, they went down there. We just recently and set up testing sites over there. That's a great group that I worked with. They also launched food security programs in many other restaurants in the neighborhood.
Restaurants and a lot of other small businesses are struggling right now. What is your office, what is federal government doing to support local folks?
We encourage them to--over 6,000 of them apply for PPP, and I think all together there was over 40,000 jobs that were retained. And New York Presbyterian also gave a 10 million dollar grant that has now helped close to 500 businesses, and they're not even there yet. They've only spent 4 million dollars out of 10, so I think at the pace there are going to be way over a thousand businesses. I got five, ten, fifteen, twenty five thousand dollars to help them reopen in addition to PPP. We're working on a regular basis, on a constant basis to inform the businesses what the Opportunities are, that could be helpful.
How about folks struggling with paying rent and mortgage?
Well there is a moratorium right now but as you know there is a concern about that because people are backed up in their rent and so that's why I'm pushing really hard with Chuy Garcia from Chicago for the 100 million dollars in in rental assistance in the HEROES Act, so that's why that's one of my primary issues that I'm advocating for--for that funding to be approved so that people could pay their rent landlords then could also meet their obligations with the bank and everybody's safe.
What would you advise to people who live in your district and districts in other parts throughout New York City who care about the HEROES Act and the provisions like PPP and rent alleviation, education? How could regular people get involved?
Push the Senate, let's keep the pressure on Trump to pass rental assistance and the $600 as well as monies for education, state and local government funding which he seems to be again against is critical too because if we send federal money to the states or the municipalities it means they have to make dramatic cuts in their own budget for programs that are so important to families. So state and local governments might get some money. Public transportation is important, and I put some money into the MTA system because eventually when we open up we got to have the subway system and the bus system available for working class New York.
So should people call Congress, write letters, and what do you recommend?
Absolutely. Email, call, write letters, and make sure that the Senate and the White House, understand that as voters this year, you want the $600 unemployment benefits, you need the additional stimulus check, and you must get some rental assistance to make sure you're not you don't wind up homeless after this pandemic.
You mentioned the Census. How much more time do people have to reply to the Census and what at stake?
Well unfortunately Trump cut a month off the Census process which was a critical month because now is just about the right time where the enumerators go out there and start knocking on doors to make sure that everybody responds to the form. So if we're if we have 30 days less in the process, that would almost guarantee that we have a major undercount. And we don't want that because I don't know of any executive—mayor or governors in this case a president who's pushing for an undercount. That's like sabotage. Sabotaging your own self.
If we get that higher percentage we'll get more funding allocated. It's about three thousand dollars per person that will be lost for any person that's not filling out their census form. Usually what happens is unfortunately parents don't put their children down or anybody else that lives in the apartment. You ought to do that, there's no penalty for people that live or rent a room from you. Don't forget to put your kids even if they're like a month old or if they're you know 30 years old and they live with you.
What else could we do to help improve turnout?
Today's registration should be a no-brainer to us; in increasing funding for the Postal Service so they can respond to the inquiries of the vote by mail. The Board of Elections needs to get its act together to ensure that if you apply for your ballot you get it on time and you can return it on time. So those are all things that we need to do but I think we're on the right track and in the right direction
What's a small scale action that you think any citizen should be taking today?
Well those folks that I think register to vote, and those folks that are answering the Census I think are doing their civic duty and particularly when we know what it took; we just lost John Lewis, two nights ago we had a big zoom memorial for John Lewis in conjunction with the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Considering what he did for us and what it took for us to get those rights, for us to diminish the importance of them by not participating--it's a travesty at the very least. So we should register to go cast our vote. Let's answer the Census. Very simple right? I think we could all do that.
Beneath the pavement, the beach; or, the Hudson River reclaims 12th Avenue.