New York City mayoral candidate Maya Wiley lives in the cultural heartbeat of New York’s Haitian community: Flatbush, Brooklyn.
“For me, it’s a big part of the fabric of New York City,” Wiley said, of the Haitian community. “Like many Black, Latino and Asian communities in the city, Haitians were particularly decimated by the economic crisis that is COVID.”
If Wiley wins the election, her policy proposals could benefit the city’s Haitian-Americans, and particularly those in the home care industry and small business communities reeling from the global pandemic, she and her supporters say. Guided by her family legacy of activism, one that connects racial and economic justice, Wiley said her brand of political leadership will be rooted in delivering for everyday people.
“You have to listen to the people that are impacted by the problems, because they know best what the problems are,” said Wiley, 57. “People have to be seen as the central part of the solution. [That] is what my parents taught me and that’s the way I was raised.”
Wiley lives off of Church Avenue in the heart of Flatbush ‒ a neighborhood marked by numerous Haitian-owned businesses, yet a place that was also devastated by COVID-19. Flatbush zip codes like 11226 have seen 376 deaths per 100,000 people, well above the Brooklyn average of 322, per city Health Department data.
Flatbush is also home to thousands of immigrants from the Caribbean, Latin America and elsewhere, people like Jeanella Edward-Pilgrim.
In a recent interview on Church Avenue, Edward-Pilgrim, who did not have a favorite mayoral candidate, echoed a major concern about the city needing to offer more vaccine access to help the community recover from the pandemic.
“They need to have more vaccination sites around this area,” Edward-Pilgrim said. “They need to have something closer around here especially for the senior citizens that don’t have Access-A-Ride and they have to be taking public transportation.”
Maya Wiley’s roots
Born to George Wiley, founder of the National Welfare Rights Organization, and Wretha Frances Wiley, an activist prominent in progressive circles, Maya Wiley’s life and career was shaped by advocacy for the poor and marginalized. Her father made a career in political organizing, mobilizing women of color to fight for their economic rights and greater civic participation.
The family first lived in Manhattan, then moved to Washington, D.C. while Maya Wiley was a child.
When it came time for school, Wiley returned to the city where she always saw herself, to attend law school at Columbia University, where she earned her Juris Doctor degree in 1989.
Currently an attorney and legal analyst with MSNBC, her 30-year career has included stints as an NAACP staff attorney, a civil rights attorney for the federal government, counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio and chair of the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB).
While he has not yet made an endorsement in the mayor’s race, the term-limited de Blasio expounded on Wiley’s service as mayoral counsel while she worked for him.
“From her advocacy for minority and women-owned businesses to her expansion of broadband access for low-income neighborhoods, Maya has played a foundational role in many of this administration’s most significant accomplishments,” de Blasio said about her accomplishments in his administration.
Wiley is also a professor of urban policy at The New School and spent three years as its senior vice president for social justice, until September 2019.
Building grassroots connections
Wiley has considered herself a New Yorker ever since her time in law school. But it was also during that time, when Wiley was a law student in the late 1980s, that her stepfather, the late Bruce Hanson, made frequent visits to the city.
Years earlier, George Wiley had tragically passed away in a boating accident, when Maya was nine years old.
“When I was organizing in Brooklyn in the Haitian community, [Hanson] was instrumental in sponsoring us and working with us,” said Francois Pierre-Louis, a political science professor at Queens College and an adviser to Maya Wiley’s campaign.
The mayoral race includes other progressive candidates in the crowded field, including city Comptroller Scott Stringer and nonprofit executive Dianne Morales. But Wiley’s strong history advocating for women, the homeless, immigrants and other groups can help her stand out.
“When she becomes mayor she will have a sensitivity to these people that others don’t have,” Pierre-Louis said.
Like her family members, Maya Wiley has already built strong connections with grassroots groups. She co-founded the Center for Social Inclusion, which now goes by Race Forward, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting for racial equity. In February, she earned the endorsement of New York City’s largest labor union, 1199 SEIU.
Wiley’s proposals and the Haitian community
Wiley’s proposals could help the community, from entrepreneurs, to home health care workers, recover from the pandemic.
Her campaign website details a $30 million emergency grant program for small businesses, funded through federal stimulus dollars. These funds would be strategically targeted to zip codes hardest-hit by COVID-19, such as the Flatbush area, she said. City government would partner with local community-based organizations, to offer application assistance for entrepreneurs.
Wiley has outlined another ambitious proposal called Universal Community Care, which would give 100,000 caregivers ‒ including at-home, as well as paid employees caring for children and the eldery ‒ a $5,000 annual stipend, while also building community care centers that would serve more than 300,000 New Yorkers, both children and elders. Funding would come through resources currently allocated for incoming law enforcement cadet classes.
“Care work is a huge area of work, and it’s been decimated [by COVID-19],” Wiley said. “It also means for the folks struggling, either to get to a job interview or get to work and not forego a paycheck, they’re able to drop a child off, or a family member off, who needs care.”
Wiley’s other proposals can bolster her image among progressive voters, namely her plans to divert money from law enforcement, into violence prevention and community health programs. Her New Deal New York economic plan involves $10 billion in capital spending, creating jobs in public works, construction, technology and other areas. Its very name hearkens back to the post-Great Depression era of liberal economic policy pioneered by leaders like Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
To address the citywide affordable housing crisis that Haitian-Americans face, Wiley supports more housing development spearheaded by nonprofits, along with a $251 billion fund relief fund for small landlords, to keep tenants in their homes.
Wiley has also proposed recent subsidies to address eviction and halt the process of gentrification, a process that she said on her website is displacing New Yorkers of color.
Her grassroots fundraising strategy could serve as yet another feather in her progressive cap. About 75% of the $715,000 Wiley had raised before the January disclosure deadline came from donors giving less than $100, Politico reported.
And, as of the latest March 15 deadline, Wiley had raised more than $2.9 million in private and public matching funds, putting her fourth among more than 40 active mayoral candidates.
“She didn’t go to Wall Street or any place like that, she went to real people in New York City,” Pierre-Louis said, of Wiley’s campaign. “She will bring people together, instead of dividing the city.”