On Tuesday evening, Community Board 4’s Social and Racial Justice Task Force convened with guest speakers Deputy Manhattan Borough President Keisha Sutton-James and Dell Smitherman, representing health care workers’ union 1199 SEIU, to discuss equity in a number of arenas citywide, from health care to education. In Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine’s office, Sutton-James explained, equity is a top concern alongside public health and resiliency — but it’s also a lens through which all undertakings are considered.
“If there’s a project, if there’s an initiative — if it does not either address inequity specifically or have a component that balances out some existing inequity, it’s not going to be a priority,” said Sutton-James, whose grandfather, Percy Sutton, was a former Manhattan Borough President, a Freedom Rider and an attorney to Malcolm X.
Currently, Levine’s office is working on the “Million More Trees” initiative — to plant one million new trees throughout the city’s five boroughs over the next decade — which Sutton-James explained would focus, in part, on addressing the racial and economic disparities linked with access to “canopy.” The office is also planning for a yet-to-be-announced small business initiative to center women and minority-owned ventures. Mostly, discussion during the February 15 community board meeting revolved around the uniquely devastating impact of COVID-19 on health care workers and the importance of easily-accessible mental health support, in addition to education resources and affordable housing.
The Toll of COVID-19
Of the 1199 SEIU community — the largest healthcare workers’ union in the country, Downstate Political Director Smitherman explained — over 75% are women, with 60% of that majority being women of color or immigrants. During the pandemic, the union helped to procure PPE for healthcare workers, some of whom resorted to wearing trash bags or had to use the same gear for multiple weeks, Smitherman said.
“In the spring of 2020, March and April, that was something that we were not prepared for,” Smitherman explained of the COVID-19 pandemic, “as a nation, as a state, as a health care industry. Decades of disinvestment from healthcare created the perfect storm for the pandemic and sadly many people paid with their lives — and at the center of that was health care workers.” Sutton-James added that she “wasn’t at all surprised when the pandemic broke out, and the people who were impacted were Black and brown women, immigrant women” in the health care setting.
When asked how 1199 SEIU has responded to COVID-19 vaccine mandates for healthcare workers, Smitherman responded that the union has been a proponent of vaccine education.
He also spoke to the importance of mental health care, noting that offering those resources in the same setting as physical health care services is paramount in decreasing stigma. Especially during the pandemic, the necessary diversion of city efforts to COVID-19-related issues left some “at risk” populations without adequate support, according to Sutton-James. “Our city needs to invest in young people’s mental health and stability, so that we don’t raise more generations of people who are suffering,” Sutton-James said.
Equity in education was another theme of discussion, especially in relation to the Percy Ellis Sutton Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK) program, which is funded by the state to send students with financial need and who would not otherwise be eligible — due to admissions criteria — to CUNY campuses, with additional support along the way.
Sutton-James, who shares a personal connection to the program named for her grandfather, noted that while SEEK is a tremendous help to many, it ought to be better advertised. “There are a lot of kids who just don’t know the program exists and that there’s an opportunity out there,” she said.
Affordable Housing (Or A Lack Thereof)
Affordable housing was also top of mind on Tuesday evening; Smitherman noted that 220,000 1199 SEIU members live in the five boroughs in total, but that Manhattan ranks as the fourth most populated borough — only home to more 1199 SEIU members than Staten Island — due to cost. “When we survey our members, outside of wage issues and just work related issues, this is the number one issue,” he said of affordable housing.
In Levine’s office, there’s been a specific focus on affordable housing for families in Harlem, where a new development project called “One45” has been proposed. During the CB4 meeting, talk among members and guest speakers also touched on the topic of Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) co-ops — a complex form of affordable housing in the city.
Speaking more broadly, Sutton-James acknowledged the intersection of racial equity and affordable housing. “Communities of color should not be expected to bear the brunt of our affordable housing crisis in this city and in this borough,” she said.
“If there’s a project, if there’s an initiative — if it does not either address inequity specifically or have a component that balances out some existing inequity, it’s not going to be a priority.” Deputy Manhattan Borough President Keisha Sutton-James