"You make the decision if that dark place is a burial or a planting."
This month’s CivicList features an interview with Eric Adams, Brooklyn Borough President, candidate running for Mayor of New York, and a man of many talents. You may listen to the interview here or watch it here.
How are you feeling right now?
These are challenging times; we are all experiencing loss, from Hollywood icons to our friends that live next door. The extent of how Covid-19 has impacted our families and our community is devastating. But we’re resilient and I think every generation had a challenge and we were able to overcome, and that's where we are right now.
As long-term elected official, how you get a sense of what other people are feeling, and what's on their minds?
I think more than just being an elected official, for the last almost 30 plus years, my life has been on the ground. I was there as a police officer when 9/11 took place and I saw the fear and uncertainty that was really on the face of many New Yorkers. Also now experiencing covid-19, watching the face of people. When it hit the city, I moved into Brooklyn Borough Hall, put a mattress on the floor and stayed there for about five or six months so I could respond to the needs of people. And going to NYCHA housing, to hospitals, meeting many of our transit employees, supermarket employees, essential workers. What's interesting there was a report that came out in December that showed out of the New York City employee pool, Black and brown workers had the largest amount of deaths, and it just showed how they were on the front line making sure that the vital services in the city. And I see the faces of those people who have lost their loved ones and the fear and uncertainty.
I was speaking with a group of funeral home directors and they were talking about walking in the middle of the night or the day and seeing body parts fall out of the temporary body bags, and seeing bodies thrown on top of each other, and rushing people through the funeral not having enough space. And so there are stories of many of the essential workers and people who really had to dig in deep; they are going to have traumatic experiences that's going to follow them a long time. And that's why we have to really focus on the mental health aspect of this entire coronavirus process.
In terms of dealing with mental health and uplifting the city's mental health, it's interesting how you talked about being on the ground and literally having a mattress in Borough Hall. I know you're a person who meditates, and the story of Buddha's enlightenment comes to mind, when he touched the ground, and instead of being in this abstract world, it was about that contact. So what grounds you?
It's amazing Matthew, that sometimes when we think about recovery, when we think about how do we get through moments, there's some simple things we can do every day, like starting our day with gratitude, and before you go into the restroom to wash your face, just take a moment to sit on the edge of your bed or wherever you are, and do an assessment of gratitude. It really it sets your attitude for the entire day. That's what I do in the morning and during the evening, I reflect on my day and I give thanks of the ability to help others. I spend that moment in the morning to meditate to do some best basic exercises and stretching, and just really start to allow my body to understand I’m blessed to get up every day and contribute to the greatness of humankind.
Who in your community are you grateful for?
So many people, particularly of the members of the Chinese community. What they did during covid-19, I believe was just amazing. While we had a president who was attempting to demonize them and call covid-19 the Chinese virus, there were some mean people here in the city and country who attacked and actually harassed them, in some cases we saw physical assaults. But when I reached out to many of my Chinese constituents and told them we were in need of PPEs (personal protection equipment) for NYCHA developments and for frontline workers, they responded. We were able to secure over 200,000 pieces of PPE that we delivered to NYCHA developments, to transit employees, to supermarkets, to hospitals and it was about showing the resiliency of New Yorkers and those who come to America, and embrace and love America. And they inspired me, and we did a ceremony at Brooklyn Borough Hall where we honored covid heroes, and the number of people who sent in stories of everyday New Yorkers who just really went beyond the call of duty to help of this city get past covid 19.
I interviewed recently Rahsaan Harris, CEO of Citizens Committee for New York, a great organization does very local work and he talked about leadership, the need for leaders to really be visionaries or futurists. You're hoping to be mayor, so let's say that works out, and it’s 2030. I’m wondering what should be happening in 2030? You've done two terms already at this point.
That's a great question. The real challenge we are having in our city, in cities across America is not covid-19. It’s the skills gap. Oxford University did a report that in the next 20 years, 40 percent of the jobs we're training our young people for today won't be available. What I want to be noticed for, in my legacy, is how I prepared our city, existing in the computer age or computer intelligence, artificial intelligence, and we move from a city that is dysfunctional because many of our crises are self-inflicted, and move to a city where we will have a more functional, well-coordinated city that we can use this city as a place that could be a model across the entire country.
How specifically will you prepare the city for that?
When I went into the police department as a rookie officer, I went in as a computer program as police officer special assignment. I worked on a small team for the first time using computer data, to go from being reactionary to crime to proactive, and eventually to predictive. I saw it that all of our agencies in the city should have moved to a real-time model of running government. So it's time now to take our cities from this 1960’s, 1970’s way of running government to real time, and coordinate our cities. I think one of the three most important things as mayor I want to do is to number one, have all of our agencies clearly define their mission, make sure that mission feeds into the overall mission of the city, and finally to make sure we do an analysis of our agencies that we are not doing any actions that is in conflict with the mission of another agency.
For example, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, they spend millions of dollars to fight childhood obesity, childhood diabetes and childhood asthma, yet the Department of Education is in conflict with them because they feed our children 960,000 meals a day, and those meals cause what? Childhood obesity, childhood diabetes, childhood asthma. That's a dis-alignment of how we should operate as a city, and there are too many other examples of how we are not utilizing our resources and moving our city forward. And the inefficiencies is what create the inequalities and it gives way to the injustices that we are witnessing.
The city Department of Ed buys almost a million meals every day-- it seems like there's huge purchasing power, so is there a way that that could be leveraged to change the national food system, instead of subsidized junk food getting funneled to every American city?
Yes, it's a great opportunity. Think about it for a moment: the city agencies purchase a substantial number of meals every day at the Department of Correction, Department of Education, Health and Hospitals. Those the meals we are purchasing for the most part are unhealthy, and what it is it doing? It feeds our health care crisis. 17 percent of 12 year olds in this country have early signs of heart disease, our number one killer. We are also experiencing food deserts so why don't we use the buying power of the food that we purchase every day to invest in hydroponics, vertical farming, urban agriculture so we can start changing the dynamic of number one, identifying food apartheid, food deserts, start serving healthy foods in these communities instead of junk food, start serving healthy food in our hospitals because the research is clearly showing that lifestyle medicine with a plant-based program has great results? And really start looking at all the places that we are feeding people as government to make sure that we're giving them a healthy start. I like to say that we spend a lifetime pulling people out of the river no one goes upstream and prevent them from falling in in the first place.
You've got such an interesting background in everything from law enforcement to government, and you're a person who practices spirituality and meditative grounding and also appreciates and wants to leverage data, and you work seven days a week so I'm wondering, what's driving you?
I’m sitting here laughing because people often say that ‘you can't put Eric in a box’ ‘how do you classify him?’ ‘what is he?’ I think that it is so unfortunate that we don't develop our full personhood because we attempt to fit into classifications for others. My mother told me when I was a child and I had an unfortunate circumstance with police officers who beat my brother and I, she shared with me that ‘son you're going to find yourself in dark places and you will make the decision if that dark place is a burial or a planting.’ I believe that every moment that I’ve experienced gave me an opportunity to see it as a planting and I came out of it as a better individual. I came out of it using the fruits of that harvest to help people who are also finding on themselves in dark places. So my motivation comes from I believe personally that we all deposit into the social bank of life so that when we need to withdraw from that bank we could do so.
A program that I do every day is the 100 points program; before I go to sleep at night I want to make sure I received or I met my 100 points. I'll get three points for holding the door for someone, I'll get a point for saying good morning to someone I don't know five points for buying someone a meal. At the end of the night I’ll add up all those points and if I have a deficit in points I donate whatever the deficit is, I put it in a jar and donate it to someone or something at the end of the week. This allows me to build into my everyday experiences a way of giving back. You can't accidentally give back, it must be part of your makeup and part of your existence, and that shows how grateful you are to be able to give back.
This newsletter is all about building community. A lot of people feel disconnected, isolated, even before covid. I think you may have addressed some of these some interesting tactics and ideas about building community, but I wondered how would you how would you describe your method of building community?
By meeting people where they are. Here we are in one of the most diverse cities on the globe and if we are honest with ourselves we don't know each other. We have someone that lives in the apartment next door, or in the house down the block and because they are of a different religious or cultural belief, we probably don't even know their name. So here in Brooklyn and throughout the city, we're doing something called Breaking Bread Building Bonds. Attending 100 dinners, 10 people at each dinner and all the participants are from a different religious ethnic group.
They go around the table and they share information about who they are. If you're from the Hasidic community, why do you wear a black hat? If you are from the African diaspora why do you wear a kufi? Different foods, different cultures. The Sikh community--why they go to a temple? Our goal is to have people communicate with each other, talk to each other break down all those walls and all of those misconceptions that we have. Our goal is just to turn to the thousand people who are going to participate in the dinners, each one of them to host their own Breaking Bread Building Bonds and become ambassadors of how do we live with each other in a peaceful way.
Anyone who wants to do a Breaking Bread Building Bonds--we're now doing it via Zoom. They can go to our website and they can sign up and our team will communicate with them and coordinate them through the process.
I always felt like food is the missing piece in community, whether it's organizing or activism; people are very busy and we focus on legislation and elections, which is important. But when I talked to our friend Elaine Perlman about somebody who she thinks I should interview for CivicList, somebody who's in the food world, you were the first person to come up.
This is how I turn those dark moments and turning into plantings. As a child I was beaten by a police officer, instead of saying ‘woe is me’ I said ‘why not me?’ I joined the Police Department and was able to retire as a Captain. And the same with food, and that's what Elaine knows me from: experiencing Type 2 diabetes that caused me to lose sight in my left eye and permanent nerve damage, the doctors stated at the time, and told me that I was going to eventually lose some fingers and toes. It was only because of food, going to lifestyle medicine and a whole food plant-based diet, within three weeks, my vision returned my nerve damage went away, my diabetes went in remission. It was a moment of using that experience to help other people and I wrote a book Healthy at Last that is really showing people how to reverse chronic diseases by the power of food. It’s more than what we put in our mouths, it is something that allows us to nourish our bodies, our minds, it allows us to really change the conditions in our communities. It’s my goal to really show New Yorkers how do we empower ourselves with the food we eat, how we interact with each other, how we become more efficient as a city, because we can't continue to have these inefficiencies create inabilities and the inequalities that we are witnessing. That is my goal.
Frozen leaves of grass, New Paltz NY
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God's eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time, there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed . . . I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.