Sabrina Gates has always been civically minded. A proud Georgetown alum, Gates has resided in North Brooklyn for almost two decades and can often be found volunteering in soup kitchens or mentoring local youth. Now she’s hoping to extend her philanthropic experiences into a seat on city council.
Greenpointers spoke to Gates about being a small business owner, the city’s budget, and how to make sure everybody has a say in politics.
For our readers who might not know you, can you give us a quick introduction? What motivated you to run in the first place?
While I grew up outside of the city, like so many individuals that now call New York home, I stepped foot here, and I never left. I’ve lived in the district for more than 15 years, and I love it. It is diverse in so many ways, and sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in all of the problems, which there are many, like the inequities in healthcare and education, or the problems in social justice, climate change, housing, and struggling small businesses, that we sometimes forget what is good, and that’s the richness of the people who make up our community. This is what keeps me going – this desire to see people thrive, not just survive.
I started my career in the nonprofit sector, so I worked with college students to engage them around civic participation and also service. Early on I worked with after school programs to help them implement financial literacy programs, and this actually gave me an amazing opportunity to see some of the extraordinary work that community based organizations are doing across the city. My education actually informs a lot of what I care about. I went to Georgetown University. Before that I went to a private all-girls school. Both of those instilled in me a great desire and commitment to service that’s echoed throughout my life. Even after I left working nonprofits, I started my own business, and still worked with nonprofit organizations and start ups.
I am running because every four years, we’re talking about the same issues. We have to do something different if we expect different outcomes. We have to be bold, we have to demand more than band-aids, and we have to demand sustainable change. We have to have a vision of what we want the future to look like. We do have to be holistic, because all the issues that the city faces are interconnected. We’re truly at a critical juncture, and we can walk the path we always walked, or we can dare to be better. COVID-19 made a lot of people more aware of inequities in our city, but I still don’t think people grasp the magnitude of how great the problems are.
What would you say are the top three issues specific to this district that you plan to tackle?
They are vast, and they are interconnected, so when we talk about housing and homelessness, that’s also related to economics.
I’d say small business would definitely be one of my top priorities. Having been a small business owner, I understand some of the challenges. When we think of small businesses, we tend to think about the ones that we can see, like restaurants and stores, but there are so many that we don’t see, that those need to be part of the equation. Businesses like office buildings and what becomes of those businesses start to move to a different form of operations, and also what happens to the ones that just closed. There’s also small corners of people’s homes that occupy business as well, and how can we use that as an opportunity to shift those folks into store fronts where we have vacancies. We have to factor in everyone into the future of the city. We have to make sure that not only our businesses survive, but we also open up opportunities for new businesses to get a foothold, and consider creative ways to use our storefronts. I mean, Montague Street is the perfect example. We are wrought with vacancies here, and the community needs services in order to continue to function.
The other thing is responsible development. Probably everyone has pointed to this, because it’s definitely a huge issue facing our community. Because of proximity to the waterfront, we bear the brunt of much of the development activity in the city, but I tend to think the city continues to get the short end of the stick. We need to make sure that affordable housing is truly affordable, and that we get equal returns to some of the developers. We have to make sure the development respects and protects the integrity of our communities, and community voices are factored in as we proceed on any project.
The last thing I would have to say is economics. Not to be cliché, but show me the money. Before we can talk about any matter in the city, we have to shore up New York City’s budget. Given what we know about the disparities about New York right now, we have to recognize that the city is operating on a budget that is nowhere near what it should have been in the first place, if we’re to meet the demands of all the people who need the services.
People who know me know me to say “make it make sense.” New York City is not only the capital of innovation, but it’s also one of the richest cities in the world. There are solutions in our body to change things for the better, and there’s no excuse that we’re not further along.
What lessons have you learned from owning a small business and working in non-profits that will serve you in this role?
In business, I’ve learned that communication is key, and that looks different for everyone. You know, stepping into city council, there are 51 members, there will be 50 other voices that have a difference of opinion for how things should be done and what should be done. I think making sure that the voices are not just heard, but that we move the conversation along because we can be stuck in a space and not get anywhere. I would hope that we can do better. We also have a crisis of communication which is something I don’t think that people really talk about. 18% of households have no access to home or mobile data in the city, one of the richest cities in the world, there’s no excuse for that. Let’s think about in the context of how you access services or get information about the resources that are available to you in your community. If our avenue to relay that information is online, we’re missing people.
To add another layer, there’s actually some really amazing programs that I found and programs that are available through city agencies and in conversations with friends, it’s interesting because they’re often marveled by the information that I’m able to disseminate to them about things that they can do to either further their businesses along or to help their senior parents, and we need to do a better job at connecting people to that. One of the things we tend to do in the city is build a website, but again, overload of information. How do we streamline it to make sure that everybody gets connected?
Inherent in non-profit work is the idea of collaboration. As I talked about, there’s so many members of the city council with all different voices. Getting everybody’s voices to be heard in that sense matters, but it also matters on the local level too, and people keep saying “We wanna make sure that the community is part of the conversation” but what does that look like?
It’s so easy to talk about equity as this elusive thing, but equity also matters in terms of how you engage the public. So think about time of day. We have hearings in the middle of the day. I understand that they have to be scheduled, but we also have to think about how we’re allowing for community engagement. If we have a meeting, and we’re only having meetings at night and we only publicize in one particular way, how are we really stepping out to meet the needs of people, if the same voices continue to be heard. How do you engage new people into the system, or into the process?
Not everyone’s gonna wanna be engaged and not everyone’s gonna wanna be involved, but there is a segment of the population that says “Well if I only knew.” So we need to continue to have feet on the ground and organize, and we need to continue to look for other avenues to connect people to the information that they so deserve. Not just need, but deserve.
What is your favorite thing about living in this district?
I love the parks in our community. I love nature and walking outside. But actually the biggest thing I love about this district is the people. I love talking to strangers. I love talking to people. When you have conversations with folks, you learn so many things and you hear amazing stories. I volunteered for Open House New York, and I happened to meet an older woman who lived down the street from me. I never saw her before, and we started having tea regularly. I learned so much from her about her life and her travels. It makes New York come alive in a wholly different way, and you can start to see where we have gaps in our city that need to be fixed and what the challenges are, but also the greatness of New York and the richness of New York.
I really do think that New York has a genius about it that will allow us, if we let it move us, down a path to be really progressive. We often talk about New York being progressive, but really fundamentally, we’re nowhere near what we need to be. People make the difference – people matter. Without people, there’s no community.
When we talk about development and pushing people out, the character of the community changes, so it’s important to look at that in a larger context, the things that attract us to a community are not just location. It’s the flavor, it’s the culture, all of the things that make a neighborhood what it is. And if you lose that, is it the same? I’m very cognizant that I want that flavor of our city, our community, our neighborhoods, our district to stay the same.
2021 will be a big year in New York City politics. What’s your general sense of city politics as a whole, and where do you see this seat fitting into that?
Have you ever heard the poem by Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken.” We’re at that path. One road is the way that we’ve gone so many times before, and one way is where we can lead ourselves into a truly progressive city that is based on a vision for something greater and better. All of those parts are gonna factor in the whole, like who we get as our mayor and controller are really gonna have a significant impact on how we look towards the years ahead. Our 2022 budget is going to be a big issue, how it plays out in terms of access to resources in the city. I’m excited for what happens in the election cycle. It’s always a tremendous opportunity to do something new. It’s always a tremendous opportunity to envision our city in a different way.
If you’re looking across the board at different candidates, a lot of people see the specialness, see the opportunity that this past year has given us. If people can maintain that momentum and maintain that enthusiasm, I don’t care who gets elected – we’re gonna be in a much better place. But I hope that we keep that energy alive as we move in towards this next phase in our city. I think about the fact that there’s only 13 women serving in New York City Council. If you look across the board, there’s a plethora of women running, and it’s so exciting. I would love to see more women in the council. I’m biased, yes, but I do think there’s a collaborative nature about women. We have empathy and vision for what things could be, and possibilities. It’s been shown through many studies: women do add a lot of growth to things that they come into contact with.
I’m excited about the opportunities to hear more voices of people of color. I’m the only Black person in my race. Given that communities of color in particular have been so hard hit by COVID-19, it would be really impactful to see our voices and influences in legislation hopefully on a greater level. Representation matters in every way.
Any other last thoughts about what our readers/voters should know about you?
One of the things that would make me a great person for this position is that I am often a bridge. I can be quiet, and I can be loud, but one of the things I am always is that I try to find ways to connect people and connect ideas. I can see the larger picture and how people’s ideas relate to other people’s ideas and relate them. That I think is a valuable tool when you’re trying to get things done and try to move an agenda forward, because sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in place. Everybody is so stuck in their space and how the world should be and how particular legislation should be or how this particular program should run, but at the end of the day, the larger idea is that everybody wants the best outcome. When you start from that place and look at how you get there based on taking pieces.
New York City’s 2021 Primary Election is on June 21. Ranked-choice voting will allow voters to select their top five candidates for each position. Greenpointers will feature an interview with every City Council Candidate for District 33. Catch up on our conversations with Lincoln Restler, Victoria Cambranes, Ben Solotaire, April Somboun, Elizabeth Adams, and Stu Sherman.