district 46 candidates
Left to right: Candidates Mercedes Narcisse, Dimple Willabus, Shirley Paul. Photos courtesy of the candidates' websites

By Sam Bojarski and Larisa Karr

Plans to expand public education and reduce health disparities featured heavily in a May 6 Council District 46 candidate forum. Among the proposals was returning to the tuition-free system at the City University of New York (CUNY) that existed until the mid-1970s. 

“We need to bring that back,” said District 46 candidate Shirley Paul during the forum, hosted by The Haitian Times. “We need to make CUNY free, and once we can do that it helps us all around, because then we’ll produce better students who can do better jobs.” 

The other two candidates in the forum, Dimple Willabus and Mercedes Narcisse, also agreed with the idea of making CUNY tuition-free. Candidates said they were motivated to run after seeing the lack of engagement by current elected representatives. They shared ways to reduce disparities in health, education and housing, while also discussing strategies for improving engagement with residents. Six other candidates also have active campaigns in the race, per the New York City Campaign Finance Board. 

A sprawling district that includes Canarsie, Flatlands, Bergen Beach, Mill Basin and Sheepshead Bay, District 46 contains a strong Haitian population of more than 18,600 people in a population of more than 172,000, per Census figures. 

Paul, who has worked in the New York governor’s office, characterized herself as the candidate in the debate with the most legislative experience. Narcisse, a nurse and entrepreneur, said she has a deep understanding of the struggles facing the district from her decades living there. 

Willabus, a small business owner, touted her grassroots campaign, which she said is not tied to any special interests. Funding more educational services in the district could specifically help the growing immigrant population, Willabus said. She proposed an after-school program to teach English to non-native students. 

“English programs would help them acclimate better to the classroom,” Willabus said. “The pandemic has really exposed a lot of the disparities that we’ve seen, which have already been there.” 

Candidates also shared how they would use their discretionary budgets to fund nonprofits and other service providers in the district. Narcisse said she would make funding for mental health services a major priority. 

“When you’re looking at the school building, we have so many kids that have mental health issues that are not being addressed until later on in life,” Narcisse said. “Now more than ever, we need to address mental health issues in our community.” 

With foreclosures high in minority neighborhoods like Canarsie, Paul proposed a basement conversion program, aimed to help homeowners convert their basements into apartments to rent as a means of extra cash flow. 

Narcisse called for more research on basement apartments to ensure safety. “We cannot convert cellars into apartments because it’s not going to be safe for people to live in.” 

Better engagement with residents

All three candidates also stressed the importance of a new councilmember actively engaging with District 46 residents through frequent outreach.

Paul said she would like to employ a diverse staff reflecting the community by having liaisons in offices who speak the languages of the community.  

“We need to really codify and make sure every resource center, every city agency, has languages that meet the needs of the residents,” said Paul.

Like Paul, Willabus also emphasized language accessibility to connect with residents, as well as the need to bridge a gap by providing proper education and resources throughout the district.

Narcisse said that the district’s previous elected officials have not been present and that was the impetus for her deciding to run for city council office. The effect of COVID-19 exacerbated this disconnect and she said that she would empower nonprofits, so they could better serve residents.

“This pandemic has highlighted the problems, but this time around I promise you we are going to work together to make this a better place,” Narcisse said.

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America corps member. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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