By Uniqua Smith
The Big Apple is up for grabs.
This year and next, at least 41 of New York City’s 59 elected seats will change hands: 35 of 51 City Council seats, all five Borough President offices, the Mayoralty, and the Comptroller’s slot will all gain new occupants, as a diverse new generation of leaders emerges across the five boroughs.
For some in our city, this is an exciting period; a time of historic change and limitless potential. For others, it’s a worrisome upending of the status quo. Many incumbents are scrambling to groom successors and ensure an orderly changing of the guard amid a historic public health crisis, while an energized field of upstarts – activists, organizers, parents, and other socially-engaged Bronxites – anxiously await their turn at the political table, ready to take the lead as change agents and office-holders.
As a political newcomer myself, I have a message for my fellow New Yorkers: If we do not take the historic election cycles of 2020 and 2021 seriously, the effects could be just as disappointing as the 2016 Presidential race, but on a local scale.
With almost three quarters of city government turning over, newly elected officials will face a formidable array of challenges: widespread unemployment and food insecurity; demonstrations by grief-stricken workers, tenants, and landlords; poverty and homelessness; and PPE and COVID-19 test shortages, among others.
Not since the Great Depression has the Bronx, and New York City, experienced this kind of upheaval.
Now, more than ever, it’s important that Bronxites stay informed and engaged. It is vital, too, that we elect candidates who prove effective at uniting diverse groups, grassroots organizing, and community building.
Progress is being made in our borough and city, but those gains could disappear if we fail to elect candidates up to the task. In doing our due diligence, we should look to the city’s new generation of leaders, some of who will play key roles in the years ahead.
My own journey into the world of New York City politics may be instructive for others. It began with a local battle; one I decided to turn into a campaign of action.
In late September 2019, my twin 12-year-old sons were riding an MTA bus when they were robbed for their iPhone, in plain view of a bus security camera.
We followed the necessary steps, filed a police report, and visited the police station for a photo lineup. But my children were unable to identify anyone, since their robber had worn a hood.
Soon after, the phone calls from the NYPD all but ceased. And in my attempts to follow up, I did not get the transparency that my family – and all Bronx families – deserve.
Unwilling to give up, I brought my concerns to local elected officials, reaching out to my City Council member and State Assemblywoman’s office for help.
Within days, new life was breathed into the robbery investigation. A detective reached out and told me that police were unable to get camera footage from the bus the night of the crime. Despite an uptick in such robberies, the detective told me, “nine times out of ten the cameras on these buses do not work.”
Unable to live with that answer, I submitted a project proposal through the city’s participatory budgeting process, requesting that Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson allocate a portion of her discretionary spending budget toward replacing the cameras on the BX40/42 line that runs through our district.
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the participatory budgeting process has been cancelled for this cycle, but the councilwoman said her office will continue to follow up on projects that have already been submitted.
Most of my neighbors know what happened to my children. They also know about the subsequent actions I took to safeguard them, turning their tragedy into a triumph for our entire community.
Now, many turn to me with their advocacy needs; from requesting removal of antiquated signage in our neighborhood, to assisting with the distribution of grocery donations, and more.
Recently, I founded Build The Bronx, a non-profit organization focused on addressing education inequality, food insecurity, homelessness, healthcare, and other key issues. Our first initiative, aimed at providing emergency PPE to local organizations in need, has facilitated the donations of nearly 500 surgical face masks, 200 cloth face coverings, several hundred gloves, hand sanitizer, face shields, and other vital supplies to institutions like the Davidson Community Center and PSS Highbridge Senior Center. The requests come in daily, and we strive to meet the needs of the entire Bronx community.
With our city undergoing dramatic change, local engagement and competent leadership are no longer optional. If we are to keep making progress in our borough, they are requirements.
It’s like my grandmother used to tell me: “Leadership isn’t a title. It’s a call to action.”
I take that to mean the role of a leader cannot be appointed; it has to be harvested from within. Leadership is seen in how you respond to crises. It is demonstrated in your ability to build capacity. Most importantly, leadership (just like charity) begins at home.
In these pivotal elections, let’s make sure we take our civil responsibilities seriously. Change is coming, and it’s all of our jobs to make sure its the kind of change we want.
Uniqua Smith is a Career Development Teacher at Port Chester High School with a background in business development, business management, and entrepreneurship. She formerly owned a tax office in the Bronx, and has managed several retail operations over the years. A mother and activist, Uniqua petitioned for a Bronx County Committee position in Assembly District 77, Election District 25, in the upcoming election, and is also an announced candidate for City Council in 2021. Her campaign website is www.SmithForCityCouncil.org.