BSN Interview: NYC First Lady Chirlane McCray “Exhilarated” By Protests For Transformative Change and Sees “Tipping Point”

First Lady Chirlane McCray. Photo: 
In a wide-ranging interview, New York City’s First Lady Chirlane McCray spoke with Black Star News publisher Milton Allimadi about the ongoing protests around the country and overseas since the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin on May 25, the growing calls for “defunding” the police, addressing the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 in Black and Brown communities, poverty, unemployment and hunger, systemic racism in the U.S., empowering communities to better address mental health challenges before they reach crisis point, the work of New York City’s Racial Inclusion and Equity Task Force, and building organizations to ensure that any gains—such as progressive legislation that emerge from the ongoing demonstrations—are sustainable and don’t unravel once there’s a backlash. 
McCray said: “We cannot go back to the old days when we had one leader and the leader was shot down and then we were left bereft of leadership, bereft of a plan.” 
Ms. McCray is a co-chair of the Taskforce on Racial Inclusion and Equity, whose work includes ensuring that the City’s resources for fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as economic recovery, are adequately allocated to the Black and Brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. One of the first initiatives was to expand access to primary healthcare providers–including neighborhood-based mental health services–through NYC Care.
The interview was conducted via Zoom on June 10 and covered several other topics. Conversation follows a Q and A format. 
Black Star News: I just want to start by asking for a broad overview.  Since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by ex-police officer Derrick Chauvin, the nation has experienced convulsions; we have seen the protests, demonstrations and even internationally. Do you think we are at a unique point once again in this nation’s history where there is an opportunity to enact serious transformative legislation,  new laws, similar to what we saw in the 1960s, as a result of the Civil Rights movement, and obviously I am not talking about New York alone, I am talking nationally, I am talking other states as well. What is your view on that?
Chirlane McCray: I do believe we have reached a tipping point and I am exhilarated by it. I would never ever have wanted to see the pain and loss of so many lives, but to see so many people out there protesting and demanding change, and not just change in one area, sweeping change, it really has moved me. I am not a young person, I’m 65 years old so I was actually around back in the 60s—this has been a long time coming. Of course there have been gains over the decades, but we’ve never seen anything like this before.  I have never seen so many Black, Brown and White people out protesting together.  
This is just really incredible and I do believe that all across the country people are seizing the moment to make very critical policy changes, like immediately. We see that, we see that in Minneapolis. We see that in D.C. and we see that people are asking for and demanding change and the powers that be are responding. Here in New York, the Racial Inclusion and Equity Task Force, we are serious. We have never had an opportunity to actually work together as leaders within the administration, as Black and Brown leaders, within the administration and there are 80 of us. That is a force to be reckoned with.  I know that it’s going to have a very deep impact, not only on this administration and the community which we seek to respond to, but in administrations to come.
BSN: And, obviously before we move on to the work of your Task Force, the other side of the same question is that we did see the Southern reaction in the 1960s, the backlash, the Southern Strategy that derailed or at least diverted that progressive march which had begun in the 1960s. How do we avoid that repeating itself?
CM: Well, you know, it’s funny that you should bring that up because I was just speaking to someone yesterday about the backlash, and how we have to prepare for that. It will come and one of the ways that we do that is be more organized and I can use the Task Force as an example, but all around the country, not just here, we do have to form structures, organizations that recognize that this is coming and figure out ways to make sure that the reforms we actually achieve are sustainable, and that we have a mechanism to continue communicating with each other about the pushback and about how things are changing on the ground. We have to learn to be more nimble, how to be adaptable. We cannot go back to the old days when we had one leader and the leader was shot down and then we were left bereft of leadership, bereft of a plan. We can’t let that happen again. So, I encourage anyone who’s reading or listening, it’s on us to make sure that we’re ready and know that we will be challenged. 
BSN: Why don’t we talk a little about some of the work of the Task Force then. I see that a survey which was conducted came out with the fact that out of 17,000 Covid-19-related deaths in New York City, 50% were in the Black and Brown communities. And I suppose you could talk about some of the underlying factors that make people in these communities much more vulnerable in the first place.  
Broadly speaking, the Task Force has two specific missions. One is to deal with the immediate needs, which of course is understandable, and the second is long term and how to close some of the economic gaps, and people want to hear about both of these two tasks. Specifically, when it comes to the economic gap, is there any possibility that New York can transform itself and adapt some of the programs that we saw Mayor Maynard Jackson for example implement and he transformed Atlanta and Marion Barry in D.C., transformed D.C, and created a viable, strong Black middle class. Is that a possibility that that could be one of the end results in New York City as well? 
CM: The immediate needs are actually not surprising. Mental health was one of them, mental health access, roughly 28% of the people who responded said that access to mental health services was a top concern, food access, and it pains me to hear that being able to get food, feed your family in New York City, in America in 2020 is a top concern for individuals and families. Getting Covid-19 related information. Remember that many people don’t have cable; or they’re not online and don’t have broadband, so that is an issue. When people can’t leave their homes, how do they get information? And, of course jobs and employment. So many people have lost jobs and so many people had to put off getting health care for chronic conditions, diabetes, asthma, hypertension. 
These are one of the main reasons for the disparities to begin with, when people are not in good health because of being underserved for decades and decades, of course it makes it harder to withstand an assault that this pandemic is. So we’ve taken immediate action to address many of these concerns. We’ve made announcements this week, even today, that will address some of these concerns and we intend to continue rolling out actions that we are taking over the next months. Your other question was about transforming New York City so that we have…
BSN: A viable middle class. Atlanta, D.C. 
CM: I don’t really know how to answer that, especially at this time, where we’ve had so many economic setbacks. I can say that we are going to do everything that we can for the communities that have been hardest hit, but nothing is off the table at this moment. I think that I’m going back to the first question.  This is a time when we have to take advantage of the goodwill, of the desire to change things that have contributed to the systematic racism in this country. So who knows what will come. I think our job is to lay the foundation so that more good things can happen.
BSN: I interviewed a health care worker in Oregon and she spoke about the challenges of communicating some of the vital information that are necessary in our communities. People historically, because they have been disappointed so many times, there is a lack of trust and willingness to engage with people that typically don’t go to those communities anyway.  So she said what she found has been more effective was to send mobile units in vans and deploy them in our communities, some of the people that were trained from those communities to interact and serve as more effective intermediaries because they are more trusted.  And she’s found that it’s been very effective. Is that something that New York is thinking of or might consider implementing and see what it’s worth perhaps?  
CM: Nothing is off the table.  I think that is an effective response. Of course New York City is a lot bigger than a lot of other places, 8.6 million residents in and five boroughs, so we are challenged in that way. That there’s just a lot more people to serve.  I can give you an example of something that we have done. We have, through our Thrive NYC Initiative, which provides mental health services for all New Yorkers. We have invested in co-response teams. It’s a partnership between a mental health clinician and two officers and they do proactive engagement…We will soon be experimenting with these teams to respond to 911 calls, mental health calls, and in some of our high need neighborhoods, we’ve found that this is an effective way to reach people and this is again proactive. For the needs of some of our higher need neighborhoods it’s something that we will continue exploring. But we know that we have to have outreach in combination with all of our other efforts to reach people affected.
BSN: Right. To tag on to that, as you know some of the criticism of the police has been that with the Police Department when officers respond to calls related to mental health distress, they are not trained on how to interact, and in the past it’s resulted in some fatal incidents that could have been avoided.  So, are there plans to make this a much more formalized and systematic structure whenever there is such a call not only would police officers come to the scene but people trained in mental health issues would also respond?
CM: Again, I think one of our biggest challenges is that our city is so big and some time with these crisis calls, speed is more important than anything else, getting someone there quickly. We have a mental health call to 911 every four minutes.  I want you to imagine that for a moment, the volume, every four minutes. So that being said, we have had to significantly expand our teams of health and mental health professionals to proactively reach out to people.  
What we’ve been trying to do is to educate people, so we do not have this volume. Because generally people don’t go into crisis in a course of minutes or an hour or even days. Generally there’s a buildup and if we teach people how to recognize the signs of their loved ones or friends and help people know how to guide those people to help, so then we avoid having a crisis all together, which is better for everybody.  Crisis situations are so difficult for everyone involved, for the person in the crisis and the person who’s trying to help. So we’ve leaned into prevention, we’ve leaned into education, and we are exploring adding more co-response teams, doing other things to change the dynamic. Our officers are trained; but the reality is officers are getting training now. They’ve been in de-escalation and mental health crisis response. But the reality is the uniform itself has a chilling effect on many people and can escalate, no matter what the officer does, right? So we know we have to take more measures going forward to address this situation and we’re looking at it now.
BSN: It’s interesting that you mentioned that the uniform itself because I was thinking yesterday, I was saying, a lot of the mental health related issues in addition to being correlated to poverty, racism and other forms of discrimination, also the stress of people thinking that the police or police officers are not perceived as there to protect and to care, so there’s that underlying fear which itself creates another level of stress as well. So I don’t know if you want to speak to that issue as well?
MC: Yes, that reality has been acknowledged; and that is why we feel it is important to employ people who are trusted in our neighborhoods. We are working very closely with the clergy. We have provided mental health first aid trainings for free to, don’t quote me on the exact number, but roughly 125,000 members of our communities. We’ve worked with sororities and fraternities and other traditionally Black-led service organizations to get their members trained so that people have a better understanding of mental health and the mental health challenges, so that people can understand more about self-health care but also what to do in an emergency, who to turn to, what to do to keep themselves and that other person in crisis safe.  
We have to raise our level of understanding throughout our city. We didn’t grow up understanding that mental health is just as important as physical health. We didn’t learn that in school. We were taught to do pushups and sit-ups, all those things, but no one said you’ve gotta self care. In terms of your emotional and mental health, it’s just as important, and people don’t have the tools or the understanding. What we’re doing is actually making sure that our clergy members have the tool kits and these courses and helping them understand what they can do so that they can share this information with their congregations. We are doing the same with community based organizations. People trust the neighborhood organizations, they know these people, and we are helping them to be part of the solution, helping them be part of the teaching and the coaching and leading in this area.
BSN: And of course, relating to that is the stigmatization of mental illness. People think that something is perversely wrong with people that are afflicted. I know that in the past I have seen some PSAs that tried to explain that no, this is something that is much more common than many people are aware of because some people are afraid to come forward, and it’s something that can actually be treated and people can live a relatively normal life as a result of that. So, is there a specific program to escalate this kind of education?
MC: Yes, it is part of mental health first aid, it is part of everything that we do. We know that we need to change the culture around mental health and teach people that mental health, mental health challenges, are part of the human condition. Just like some people can’t do as many pushups as other people, some people have more trouble with anxiety or depression than other people. It’s just like asthma or diabetes or any other health condition, all conditions can be treated. I can say that now. Not everything can be cured but everything can be treated. 
This is 2020, we’ve come a long way in people’s understanding, but we have to talk about the stigma, talk about the shame that many people feel when talking about this. It’s not a question of character, it’s not a reflection on who a person is. We wouldn’t feel ashamed to say we have asthma. We wouldn’t hesitate to talk about our allergies around the water cooler at work, but we do have this hesitation when it comes to talking about mental health. And the more we actually talk about it like you and I are talking about it today, the more people will share their stories. I have talked about my anxieties, I’ve talked about the stories, my family stories. It is the only way we are going to help people comfortable talking about it, to share our own personal stories. And to say ‘look it’s alright. I’m alright. They’re alright.’ This is something that we are all in together and no one should feel any hesitation about asking for help if it’s needed and everyone should know that mental health is all about maintenance. That we all have to do things to keep ourselves stable and sane.
BSN: Another question I’d like to ask you is what are some of the, perhaps that you read or when you watch [TV] or listen to the radio, that you feel has been maybe perhaps unfair criticism of the work that you do that perhaps you think comes from a misunderstanding from those people that may have criticized your work and if there is something you’d like to explain related to that, could you? 
CM: I’m not sure what your asking here. Of course I receive criticism as anyone that is a public official receives for their work. It doesn’t mean that the has merit. I think that one of the things that I’ve been criticized for is focusing on mental health so early in this administration. The reality is that, you know—to think about it now, six and a half years ago that was a radical thing to do, focus on mental health.
BSN:  How dare you! How dare you!
MC:  How dare I! And now you know the world is so different. One would not think that that even happened. But it’s true. I was criticized for focusing on it. I was criticized because the administration did put a great deal of money into the programs, and right now we are in such a better position because we have a foundation, we have a Help line that people can call, we these co-response teams, we have community based organizations able to deliver virtual services in neighborhoods and so much more. People have a better understanding… 
There is so much good that I have heard because we did invest early for something that was long overdue by the way. We would be in a terrible situation if we did not have these services now. And, almost all of our services are up and running virtually even though we have this pandemic. It’s helping people tremendously. So sometimes you just have to blow past the criticism when you know you are doing the right thing and you are doing it for the right reasons, because criticism is just that. It’s not always constructive and it’s not always merited.
BSN: And given the pervasive nature of the mental health affliction, it’s quite possible that some of the people criticizing you may actually be beneficiaries of these programs.
CM: That is true. I can say for sure, that is true.
BSN: This may not be in your portfolio, but obviously you are monitoring the uprisings going on and people are talking and we hear terms like de-fund the police and then obviously we hear revamp and reform. This is not your portfolio but as a citizen of New York, of this country, of the world, what are some of your thoughts on this issue?
CM: It’s not my portfolio but I think it’s fair to say that there is broad agreement that we want to change the culture of out police departments across the country. We’ve taken giant steps to do that here in New York City with neighborhood policing with the crisis intervention training and so much more. We’ve got to do more. I think that, there is no way we are going to not have a police force. Very few people are asking for that. We still have gangs, we still have people who have negative intentions against our communities. So we need, there’ve always been guardians, going back to our villages. There’ve always been some people who looked out for those who intended to do harm. But the important thing is that we make sure that we have good guardians who are well trained and responsive to the community.
BSN: When President Obama was elected, the symbolism was tremendous, the first Black president, this  beautiful Black family. When your husband was elected, the mixed couple, the symbolism was also there. But at the end of the day we realized there were so many conversations that we were not having. And how do we know that? Because we are suddenly having that conversation after the brutal murder of George Floyd. I just want you to wrap up by speaking on that subject.
CM:  Well I can’t speak to what’s happening in the rest of the country, but I can tell you that we are having these conversations in New York City and in this administration. They are not always reported on and that is a reflection of our media, our mainstream media. It’s important to have people like you, publications like yours, online and in print, to actually ask these questions. You are one of the first people to actually ask me this question. 
Our Racial Inclusion and Equity Task Force, I think is just one of the many signs that we are moving forward and we are moving forward in ways that are different than ever before. We have 80 leaders of color within the administration who are planning the future of our City and affecting the hardest hit communities by the Covid-19 virus. Economic, housing, young people, you name it. Whatever the area, health, whatever the area it is, we are taking action and vetting this work and the policies of the administration. That needs to happen everywhere, it needs to happen all over this country. But we do also need more communications that help people understand what is happening so they can be inspired and so that they can also be part of what is happening.
BSN: Would you like to say something about the current occupant of the White House?
MC: No. We have an election coming up and I want everyone to vote.

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