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Building Community with Kathryn Garcia
Kathryn Garcia is running for Mayor of New York City. She is former Commissioner for the New York City Sanitation Department, and has held roles as Chief Operating Officer of the Department of Environmental Protection, Interim Chair and CEO of the New York City Housing Authority, and was Food Czar for New York's emergency food program during the initial phase of the Covid outbreak. You can watch the interview here or listen to it here.
We’re recording on April 1st, the day that the state of New York typically passes its budget (which I always thought was funny because it’s April Fool’s Day). How would you as mayor address a big budget shortfall?
I think everyone is looking forward to seeing what is in this budget and how New York City does and whether or not we are getting our fair share. The biggest buckets are always education funding and what the Medicaid reimbursement looks like. We know that the city needs funding in order to do what we have to do to ensure that we are dealing with the pandemic aggressively and ensuring that people get vaccinated but also returning kids to school making sure the streets stay clean making sure that people feel safe on the subway. Advocating for ensuring that we're getting our fair share is terribly important.
The other piece of this is just how do you manage the budget and I really take the view of what exactly do we need, and that you go from there. It's almost like baseline budgeting. like how you would start in your own home, so that we are ensuring that we are being efficient as we move forward.
How do you figure out what we need?
On the personal level what I’ve been hearing from people is really that they need those city services that are local services; they really need to see their kids get back in school and ensuring that we have enough teachers to make that happen. They're very worried about the educational loss and the socio-emotional challenges that kids are facing, and I think sometimes their own socio-emotional challenges of having been a teacher for a lot of this year.
Knowing that they're going to need more support beyond what we are accustomed to in school. They're very worried about crime rising and the increase in shootings and the anti-Asian hate crimes. It’s the feeling of randomness around that is deeply concerning to many members of the public that I’m talking to. I am concerned that we're seeing a spike in crime and they really want to feel some more normalcy. They want to be around people they know, that it's not quite safe enough yet but they really want to be with their family with their friends.
How do you reconcile that need to lower crime and the calls for rethinking policing and adjusting police budgets?
I believe that public safety is a broad term. We do need to have police visible on the street but if you even think about reopening restaurants and having eyes on the street because there's more activity, that actually does make us safer. Having that sort of compact that we have as New Yorkers about watching out for one another is incredibly important. We need both to have a police force that's effective; I’ve said that we can walk and chew gum, that we can have reform as well as have police officers who are going to respond to shootings and assaults but that we also know that we need other things to lower crime. We need to make sure that we are very intentional with our young people about them envisioning careers for themselves, and us envisioning careers for them. Making that happen.
How do you make that happen?
There are some really fascinating opportunities out there, like early college where you're graduating from high school with the two years of college credits, which means you're 50 percent paid for by the time you're done. 529 plans for all children--that's being done in district 30 in Queens. Also thinking about our trade schools and ensuring that those kids come out and can get a job within the public sector or in the private building trades world. There are a lot of opportunities to make it so that young people see their future. That they're not just trying to you know check all the boxes to get a high school degree, but they really are trying to use that for something where they're looking forward to the future.
I was talking with my nephew who is 16 years old, asking him for advice over the summer and the fall when things were very tense nationally, politically. I wanted to know how does a young person think about how to bring people together. How do we span divides whether it's generationally, politically, etc. He said food is the way to bring people together. So that’s a two-part question: what are you hearing from young people in terms of their ideas, and what's the role of food?
Food is incredibly important; it's how we mark our lives. I'm so accustomed to engaging with different ethnic groups through food, you get invited to someone's house and they are going to serve you what is important to them and what comes from like their family. That is them sharing a part of who they are with you.
If you talk about distributing food it's there's some groups are like “Halal is not vegetarian. Halal means we need to have Halal meat in it.” Or other communities where we are all vegetarian and we only have plant-based food. Lentils was really a challenge at the beginning; it’s so important for many communities.
There are so many different opportunities for New Yorkers to come together, so it is around food, it's at the dinner table it's at the party it's in a restaurant, marking all of our events.
It's also being able to have communal spaces--one of the things that saved us during Covid was our parks and being able to be social with people in a space that was safe where you could actually breathe and not worry that you were gonna be infected.
To go back to food, communities stepped up over and over again to volunteer at food pantries to do distributions. That has been one of the shining stars of humanity and what has been a very dark year.
What concerns are you hearing from young people?
Young people actually also have a much longer term view. They are the most passionate about environmental issues, they are the most concerned about climate change, and the most willing to say we need to be radical, we need to really be taking steps to change our environment.
What are some of the environmental ideas that you would like to see happen if you're mayor?
The impacts were are being seen across the country already: last year California burned and Texas froze. We really need to look at decarbonizing our entire economy. The largest piece of greenhouse gases from the city of New York is actually heat and hot water. Getting conversions to high efficiency heat pumps will make an astonishing difference. We also need to ditch dirty diesel. The worst air quality is around our highways. We have school buses that carry our youngest children and they are some of the most polluting vehicles, so I would electrify those.
We need more clean electric power--that means ensuring that we are getting the transmission lines from upstate to bring down solar, that we are supporting offshore wind, that we are turning Rikers into a renewable Rikers. Ensuring that we have the batteries so that when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow we still we still can take care of each other. I really view this as all-encompassing; it also gives us such benefits now: if you have more trees it cools our streets now, and mitigates what is called the urban heat island effect.
I was talking with a friend yesterday about Joe Biden’s new plan for infrastructure and a greener economy and I was wondering if in the regulations there might be an opportunity to include a carbon neutral statement or a carbon negative requirement?
Certainly, you can pass local legislation, and we have passed some really far-reaching climate legislation already like local law 97. That is going to require and incentivizes folks to start to make those investments that will make your co-op not a D-grade for energy efficiency, and ensure that it is meeting the environmental goals.
Ibram Kendi talks about racism in terms racist policies. In the same way we require environmental impact statement for new public policies, can we require anti-racist impact statements?
I've never thought of it like that, maybe because I've worked on projects impactful to the whole city, like when we put a new water tunnel that serves the whole city. In terms of environmental justice issues, I've done a lot of work on waste equity to ensure that we don't have transfer stations in overburdened neighborhoods and cut those permits in those community boards to make it so that we did have more equity. And finished and completed the solid waste management plan that moved the residential out of most of those communities and moved it on to trains which are much cleaner. It took like 60 million miles of long-haul trucking off the road. Not an inexpensive solution, but a much more equitable solution.
The last thing you want to do as candidate right now is shake hands and kiss babies; it's dangerous. Are there stories of people you've met recently that you might want to share?
Parents will tell stories of their kid who's a preteen beginning to look like they're suffering from depression, who hasn't been in school in a year misses their friends, misses the interaction. Or that even if they're in school, in hybrid, it gets closed so often and it's so hard to manage, which I really feel for. As a working mom the idea that I couldn't depend on school on any given day-- I don't know how I would have managed. These parents have been absolute heroes to try and to try and get this done.
Do you have any ideas for improving the city's mental health?
There is going to have to be counselors at schools. There is going to have to be protocols where teachers and principals have a conversation about every kid, every week, to make sure that we are catching if there is trauma, or if it's starting to manifest. Because who knows what this year has been like for many of these kids, whether or not they could have lost a parent or a guardian, or their parent has lost employment, and now they are struggling with housing or food insecurity.
I think we need to make sure that we are engaging children through other means whether that's art or music or sports or theater. There is a real a real opportunity as for them to be creative and expressive as we begin to think about what does school look like post pandemic.
We all know that we've been suffering. Psychologists and social workers are overbooked, and people are actually reaching out, which may have broken the stigma a little.
We need to make sure that our mentally ill street homeless population are getting into housing that has supportive services. Housing for homeless families means you're healthier, it means you're re likely to get an education, it means you're more likely to be able to hold a job.
Housing seems to be the number one issue for all New Yorkers; is there anything else on housing that you want to share?
Building more affordable housing that's deeply affordable. Looking at converting some of these hotels or office buildings so they're not just empty assets. Vouchers for families and homeless shelters. Investing in NYCHA. We have been watching that slow speed car crash for 10 years now-- It is time to get it done. There are some buildings that have been completed and those renovations look amazing— Betances, Baychester, Murphy, Ocean Bay-- where those families now have a new bathroom, have a new kitchen, have an elevator that works. They want their families to come over for Thanksgiving. It really gives them dignity.
Anything else on your agenda that you'd want to share?
Maternal morbidity. We need to make sure we are saving our moms and ensuring that there they have access to programs. Midwives for the medical portion and doulas to support women during labor. Creating a medical relationship not just during birth but as you're as you’re raising that child.
What’s a small-scale action that everyone could take today?
Don't litter. Pick up a piece of garbage. Make sure you've got your reusable bag and your reusable water bottle. Think about what you buy and how you travel. All those all impact the environment.
People pay good money to go on a retreat and sweep a monastery dirt floor. We could do that here in our own backyard.