Elizabeth Adams is a lifelong New Yorker and a current Legislative Director in the City Council. Having worked in the education and healthcare spheres, Adams has earned the endorsement of state senators Alessandra Biaggi (NY-34) and Jessica Ramos (NY-13). Despite its reputation as a haven for liberalism in this country, New York City is sorely lacking in female representation in politics.
“At the council level, we are slated to have five women out of fifty-one council members if we don’t elect women in the next council to a greater degree,” Adams told Greenpointers in a phone interview. “Women have been particularly hit hard by the pandemic, and yet a lot of the solutions that we have put forth really seem to be missing a lot of key understandings of what’s happening on the ground.”
Though the city will certainly see its fair share of challenges in continuing to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic, Adams is optimistic about the future of city council politics: “I think that we have an opportunity for the next council to really be a progressive beacon. We’re going to have a new mayor and a new speaker, and I think it is very much the time to not just have someone who ran on progressive issues like de Blasio but really think about how we’re doing big, bold changes here.”
For our readers who might not know you, can you give us a quick introduction? What motivated you to run?
I’m a lifelong tenant. I grew up in the city, and I know the issues that we are facing personally. I went to public school here, I was raised in rent stabilized housing, and I worked in bars and restaurants. Just after college 10 years ago, I moved to North Brooklyn and Brooklyn is really where I’ve made my home and built my community. I’m running because I believe we need a community organizing approach to government right now. No more politics as usual.
My background is in education and healthcare organizing. I worked for Planned Parenthood because I was a longtime patient, and they were there for me when I needed healthcare and didn’t have access to insurance. So the value of “care no matter what,” of healthcare as a human right is one that I hold deeply, and that’s what I fight for to this day. That is what informs my work currently and always. The pandemic has really shown the inequities in our city and shown how hard accessing basic services like healthcare and food can be when the government is not working in service of our communities. That’s why I got involved in mutual aid work when the pandemic hit. We didn’t have time to wait for our elected leaders to act, we just went to work ourselves.
I have seen neighbors show up for each other over and over again, and it is something that inspires me about this district. I feel very lucky to get to be a part of this community that I call home. I currently work in the local district office, and I saw unilateral decisions get made without our communities on the table. I’m running because it’s time that we changed that. Every one of our neighbors deserves to live with dignity and have a voice in our local government.
What are the top three issues or projects specific to this district that you plan to tackle?
First, I would say we need a just COVID recovery budget, and that has to be focused on our district’s specific needs. Women, working class families, and people of color have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, and yet have too often been left out of the conversation. We need to get our city back on track with local childcare for all, funding our local childcare providers, and with a sustainable food distribution system that works with our local community groups, and supporting our community health care centers. We need to put in place protection for our tenants and small businesses. We have watched far too many beloved Greenpoint businesses close during the pandemic. This district is home to some of the best nightlife in the city, and yet our neighborhood businesses have been decimated without any real plan by this mayor or governor. We need both immediate relief and a long term plan for rent regulation and small business protection.
Second, we need real affordability, and we need to invest in our communities and not policing. This district has seen significant development. I went to work in local government because I was seeing development pop up in my community that was not affordable for me or for many people that I knew. Now I work in the council with the general welfare committee on social service issues, and I really see the way that housing is core to so many issues in our city right now. Our city’s homelessness crisis is really a crisis of affordability. We have neighbors experiencing homelessness, street homelessness as well as [the fact that] a lot of people are going to be facing eviction when the moratorium is up.
We need to raise our rental assistance for people experiencing homelessness and look at affordable housing that doesn’t just rely on private development, like we’ve done for years. We really need to look at our public land to get to affordability. Our city has long relied on incarceration and policing as responses to our housing and social service needs. The civil rights organizing and protests that we saw this summer and continue to see is really a response to the fact that our communities deserve better and are calling for something different. The vigils at McCarren Park every night show that people really want to keep each other safe and care for one another, not rely on carceral responses.
In the council, I’ve been pushing for the Fair Chance for Housing Act, and I’m proud to have drafted that bill. We drafted it in coalition with people who are formerly incarcerated, with criminal justice organizations, housing justice organizations, a lot of people coming together and saying housing is a human right, and for too long, a criminal record has been used as a barrier to housing. It goes against our values of everyone being able to have an opportunity for healing and growth. If we’re denying people housing then we are only perpetuating systems of violence against communities of color in our city. In the next council budget, we really need to see a divestment from the NYPD and shifting that funding to investment in restorative justice and mental health care and trauma informed care.
My third top priority is addressing climate justice. Greenpoint and Williamsburg have multiple Superfund sites and Brownfields as a result of decades of environmental abuse. Our communities know firsthand the devastating health and safety impacts that come from failing to center climate justice in our city plans, from higher asthma rates caused by air and soil pollution to Hurricane Sandy’s devastation of our public housing and our waterfronts. For our district particularly, the stakes really could not be higher. I have a plan for creating a local green jobs/green force to bring our energy grades in compliance with Local Law 97. We also need to invest in offshore wind and work with local unions for job creation. We really need a city-wide resiliency plan and permeable city infrastructure planning so our waterfront communities are safe for future generations.
What lessons have you learned from being a legislative director, and an organizer in education and healthcare that will serve you in this role?
I’m running really to bring a community organizing approach to the council. The experience both in being in education and being in non-profits has really helped me to build coalitions and think about creating change from a co-governance, collective model. I took that with me when I went into the council, being the legislative director, the way that I approach policy and legislation is really thinking about a community-up approach. That is needed more than ever, and a lot of the bills I’ve worked on have been in partnership with local community groups, in partnership with neighbors and folks directly impacted by the issues that we’re talking about. I believe firmly that laws are only as good as their implementation, and if it’s not grounded in people’s real lives, it is just something written on a piece of paper, and that’s not beneficial to us. The importance of creating policy change and doing real large scale city planning change, that has to come from an understanding of ideas that we talk about how they play out in practice in people’s everyday lives. The power of the council is strongest when council members are leveraging their power together.
There is a real need for co-governance and collective leadership here. We are facing a lot of challenges ahead, and we need vision. Our current leadership does not have vision, and it does not have real planning. In order to do the large scale change that we need, that our communities deserve, we have to have people organized and people working together in a strategic way. So that’s a governance shift. For me, that’s working shoulder to shoulder with our community leaders and our neighbors, and that’s where we saw the power of things like community composting and local streets planning, where people said “Look, we need to do things differently and let’s figure it out, let’s come together and do some planning and let’s adapt.” We need creative thinking and adaptive responses for the next few years especially and that is really what I’m looking to bring to the council, creative thinking and an understanding of if we collaborate, we can do a lot more than if we’re just pushing things forward on our own.
What is your favorite thing about living in this district?
To me, this district is so much of what is great about our city. We have diverse, unique communities with neighbors from different backgrounds and a lot of pride and connection to our history. We really have an incredible waterfront and greenspace, which has gotten me through this pandemic, the waterfront access and being able to be outside with neighbors, being able to get together with people in our parks and in public space, and so that is just so core to Greenpoint and Williamsburg.
We have a really strong history of resistance in North Brooklyn, against environmental injustice and fighting for the well-being of our communities. That is what we have seen over the last several months, organizing with neighbors to stop the North Brooklyn Pipeline. That is the continuation of people who have stood up and demanded better for our health and well being. When North Brooklyn neighbors are fighting together, they’re unstoppable.
You have advocated for decriminalizing sex work, what do you envision that looking like?
My learning and understanding here really came from working at Planned Parenthood and the recognition that criminalizing and removing access to support is never in the interest of our communities. The importance of decriminalizing sex work is that it keeps people safer, and it trusts people to know what is best for their own lives. The perspective that I take is harm reduction. It is more caring and compassionate. It helps people get to the place that’s right for them. We have seen what has happened by criminalizing sex work in our city. It has led to arrests and violence against sex workers, particularly trans women of color.
We saw the death of Layleen Polanco in Rikers Island, and she was picked up for prostitution charges. Continuing to allow criminalization of sex work leads to harassment, abuse, and incarceration of people based on their sexuality and who they are. I call for a full decriminalization, not the Nordic Model [Editor’s note – where buyers are criminalized for purchasing sex, but sex workers themselves are not criminalized] which still relies on the harming of sex workers…For me, the reason that I push for decriminalization of substance use is that restricting access only makes things worse for people, and on the substance use side, this is a public health issue. Drug usage is a health issue and requires a health response and not a policing response.
Any other last thoughts about what our readers/voters should know about you?
I pushed on the government from the outside for a long time to listen to our communities and respond to our community’s needs and learned the tools on how to make legislative change in local government. I’m running really to change the way that we have done business as usual for so long. As we face a challenging coming years, the importance of both understanding the tools on how to enact change and being really personally committed and understanding of the way that systems have worked, I think we need people who understand the systems that they’re trying to change from a personal level.
The legislative priorities that I have really focused on and pushed during my time in the council is addressing housing needs for people experiencing homelessness and addressing our climate justice needs at a neighborhood level. I passed a bill around Community Choice Aggregation to really look at local planning around our renewable energy needs and small businesses. One bill that I was really proud to help pass in the beginning of working in the council was exposing police raids of bars and restaurants, which is particularly important in North Brooklyn. There are these [MARCH, or Multi-Agency Responses to Community Hotspots] raids of nightlife, which can be really harmful and scary for staff and customers. They are NYPD raids that are interagency. The reason they have all these agencies is so they can find violations for literally anything. I’ve talked to bar owners who told me that [MARCH] gave them all the violations they could, and they came in SWAT gear and cleared the place out. This really came out of the Giuliani era of going after LGBT bars and bars of people of color. MARCH is not very well known, and that’s kind of how they operate.
I think particularly with a lot of the biggest needs that our council needs to take on around land use and housing, climate justice and recovery is going to take large scale coordination and thinking, and that really is going to need more of a co-governance model. This is something that I have already done through my work, and building with other council candidates about. During the budget fight last year, when the council failed to defund the NYPD by at least a billion dollars, I was opposed and spoke out throughout the process because our government was not meeting the scale that people were calling for, and the budget did not reflect real community need or investment. I organized with other council candidates across Brooklyn in saying now is the time to be clear about our conviction and the wider values for the next council… We wrote an op-ed putting some of this together from a place of saying we all need to come together in organizing around this, and that’s what’s lacking in the council and what is needed in the future council.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.