New City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams. Photo: @nyccouncil
This year, New York City council representatives look like the constituents they represent, and for the first time ever there will be a women majority—31 out of 51 council members. There are also numerous firsts that are worth noting. Many members will be the first of their gender, race and/or ethnicity to represent their district. This new class of city council members will be the role models for the future diverse leaders that are yet to come.
Sayu Bhojwani. Photo:@sb726
Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado spoke with Sayu Bhojwani, founder of Woman’s Democracy Lab and the first Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs of New York City, who tells us that the journey is not over and that being a woman of color in office will be just as difficult as running for office was but the outcomes of having women of color represent us will be worth it. The women of the city council will likely face many challenges throughout their terms and Bhojwani tells us how we can support them and hold them accountable at the same time.
Shahana Hanif is sworn in as NYC’s first Muslim City Council member. Photo: @shahanafrombk
The old play book will be a thing of the past
Many of the newly elected officials have previous political experience. Bhojwani highlights that many of the women including Amanda Farias, Crystal Hudson and Shahana Hanif were already working as staff members. They represent Parkchester, Central Brooklyn and Park Slope, respectively.
“Women of color have been foot soldiers of our democracy for a very long time. You are coming in with a group of women who both understand how the legislative process works as well as with new voices and new energy,” says Bhojwani. Bhojwani says she hopes these women will change the way the city council functions and operates in three different ways.
A potent mix of savvy and expertise
“You are going to see a level of savvy and expertise as we have never seen before in the council because women of color always bring their whole selves to the work and are the strongest voices for constituents and communities rather than for themselves as individuals. The way that we talk about policy and the way we talk about issues is going to be much more nuanced and is going to have an intersectional context that we have not seen before.”
Bhojwani continues: “For a long time, women of color were used to being the only ones in the room.” She says this will have a deep impact on the way the city council will operate.
Amanda Farias is sworn in as City Council member, District 18. Photo: @amandafarias.nyc
Building power as a collective
“The second thing that you’re going to see is the building of their power away from themselves as individuals to themselves, as a collective,” she says. “The powerful visual symbolism of seeing themselves in a room and recognizing that collectively they make up a majority is going to be very powerful visually. And I think it will take a little bit of time for them to get around how much it matters when they come together around an issue either in support or in opposition.”
Cultural connections go a long way
Lastly, the women of city council come with cultural connections and experiences that will inevitably impact the way they govern. As Bhojwani says, it’s not enough to just look like your voters and have experienced the same things as your voters, the women of city council will turn their experiences into policies that are responsive to the needs of the community.
“When you come to the table with these experiences, you bring an intersectional approach that you have lived. [Being] a woman of color and immigrant women is an experience that can never really be taught. You know, you can learn about the issues. You can’t learn what it feels like to carry all of those experiences with you every day and having that proximity to the experience gives you proximity to the solutions,” says Bhojwani.
Julie Won, newly elected City Council member, District 26. Photo: @juliej_won
Your support didn’t stop at the ballot box
“The reality is that women of color and people of color are being elected into systems that were never designed for us to be there. We were never there when the table was being set, we were not the guests that were expected to be at the table,” says Bhojwani. “There is a huge amount of difficult work that these women of color are carrying on behalf of their districts and their constituents, but also on behalf of a democracy that was not designed for us.”
When people are trailblazers, they are paving a path that did not exist before, and while that is praise-worthy it can be burdensome. Bhojwani says New Yorkers must find the balance between support and accountability so that the women on the city council can continue to thrive, and offers some advice.
“One of the things that we can all do is recognize that the job of serving is as difficult as running for office. We have to be extremely supportive of the people we elected to ensure that we’re looking at the full picture of what it takes to make the policy go through,” she says.
Set realistic policy expectations
Oftentimes politicians who are making history by being “the first” are assigned purity tests and are expected to do everything they said they were going to do on the campaign trail. Bhojwani says voters must catch themselves before they fall down that rabbit hole.
Orientation day at City Hall for new City Council members. Photo: @nyccouncil
“They’re not going to do every single thing that we expected them to do because there just isn’t enough time for that,” she says. “Being in elected office is also a long game. They’re new, they’re learning things. They’re going to figure out how the system works for us and not for us. Making that transformation to the system can take decades, so we have to be patient and supportive.”
Honesty is a two-way street
Lastly, Bhojwani says it is important that New Yorkers are authentic and honest with their elected leaders.
“It’s important for us to create spaces where they feel that they can be honest and authentic with us, rather than performing perfection as leaders, because that kind of leadership is [not] sustainable. I think we need courageous leaders, vulnerable leaders, leaders who are honest and authentic, and we have to create the spaces for our leaders to be that way,” she says.
There are no winners and losers
“The important thing is that leading New York City is not a zero-sum game. People don’t have to lose for other people to gain,” says Bhojwani. “Having women of color in power is a way that we can all benefit. It doesn’t take anything away from male leaders or from white women. I think that figuring out how we can ensure that everyone is gaining and that you know that the rising tide lifts all boats is the philosophy and mentality that we want all our leaders to have male or female.”
These women are up for election in two years because of redistricting. They certainly do have to come out of the gate running if they want to maintain the 31 or add to the numbers.