Democratic Women of Brooklyn Re-Imagine Politics

If all politics is (or should be) local, then this is where change starts. Not with criticism, but with shared vision and values. On July 29, Democratic women of Brooklyn came out to talk about politics. Brooklyn politics.  The event was co-hosted by a coalition of women’s organizations leading change and empowerment efforts across Brooklyn and the New York City metro area. These included The Broad Room, Women to the Front, WHARR (of Get Organized BK) and Women of Color for Progress. Community organizers Ny Whitaker and Emily Gallagher were also co-hosts and helped raise the visibility of the event in their communities.

More than 40 women participated in the workshop, and they were incredibly aligned in the top values they believed should guide their political leaders- integrity and transparency, with more than 50% of attendees ranking these two values the most important.  The group discussed an incredibly diverse group of leaders they admired, from national figures like Kirsten Gillibrand to more local candidates and elected figures like Joanne Simon, Corey Johnson, Tish James, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes, and Genesis Aquino. Brooklyn Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, who represents the New York’s 55th Assembly District, also made the list. She and Alicka Samuels, who represents overlapping City Council District 41, both attended the workshop and made time on their Sunday afternoon to participate in the two-hour workshop.

Describing the qualities of a good leader, the group mentioned the importance of being “authentic,” and “true to your values.” They wanted leaders who were adaptable, inspiring, unapologetic, and fearless, but who were also “willing to change their mind.” A leader, they said, should be an “advocate for equity,” guided by humility and a focus on service, and be committed to dialogue and listening to foster a deeper connection with the community. With these qualities, as well as courage and grace, leaders could become champions for “innovation” and “systems thinking” that could improve lives.

Women of Brooklyn vote for Transparency at a Vision Project Workshop on July 29, 2018.

Women of Brooklyn vote for Transparency at a Vision Project Workshop on July 29, 2018.

Responsibility for building a better future, of course, doesn’t lie with leaders alone. The residents of Brooklyn also have a role to play in strengthening our community. Describing the qualities of a good citizen, the group identified key qualities connected to both awareness and action. Citizens, participants said, should “do their due diligence” to be “educated” about the challenges in their community, approaching people from other cultures of cultural separation with curiosity and respect. A good citizen would get to know their neighbors, “assess their privilege” and create inclusive spaces that welcome other members of the community to take part.

Citizens, they said, must also take action: “participate!” “vote!” “use their voice” and skills. “Take initiative” to take collective ownership of their community, including “taking care of the planet.” “Teaching children civics” was another important civic responsibility, as well as self respect, and giving credit to others, where due. One woman summarized these sentiments as the need to “practice belongingness,” the intersecting responsibility of active engagement and collective care-taking.

So, what is community, anyway? One woman flagged that community was something leaders and residents should work to define, acknowledging that community isn’t always geographic, and often multiple communities exist side by side in the same area, sometimes without mutual acknowledgement. The unspoken implication: perhaps there are ways leaders can take an active role in fostering dialogue among communities currently sharing geographic space. This collaboration, they said, should “start with real communication” and a “cultural shift to anti-oppression practices.” It would begin, many said, with leaders practicing “accessibility.”

As a leader who often hears this request from her constituents, but isn’t quite sure how to address it, Assemblywoman Latrice Walker posed a clarifying question to the group: “Can you all give me some examples of how that could be done?” Without hesitating, members of the group chimed in: office hours, multilingual and inter-generational staff and resources, a hotline, open public forums, and presence in community were immediate suggestions. Leaders, they said, should be present not just for a photo op, or to be seen, but to actively listen to and learn from the experiences of their constituents. The women in the workshop imagined what such “public forums” might look like, suggesting that leaders could raise awareness of important issues or “host open discussions that foster solidarity.” They might use food or music that honored long-held community traditions (like fish fries in Harlem) to bring people together in ways that foster inclusion and connection. By looking for ways to collaborate in their shared commitment to democratic principles, leaders and citizens could together build alternative sources of power that can strengthen our communities.

A vision of the future of the Brooklyn Democratic Party?

The last question of the workshop is the most open and audacious. “Imagine you have fallen asleep for 10 years ,” it posits, “and awakened to find the Democratic Party thriving. What do you see?” Responses to this question varied widely, but coalesced along three core themes.

A few women voiced specific policy solutions that don’t necessarily fall under the traditional purview of the Democratic Party, but which would have big implications for the lives of most Brooklynites. “More community land trusts,” “clean water rights,” and “all renewable energy,” were among the ideas shared, along with “planned urbanization” and “no more guns.”

A different subset of women voiced concern for a few key issues that currently represent pain points in the lives of most Brooklynites. “Public transit that works,” was one point that brought nods and chuckles of affirmation from many present. Others mentioned: “Everyone eats and has a place to live,” “Quality schools in every district,” and “Women’s rights are equally protected.”  

Ultimately, the desire for a culture of greater equity and prevailing civic engagement, in which political “leadership reflects the diversity of the community,” and “everyone votes” was the predominant focus of the vision for the future ideas discussed.   A need for “self-determination for communities of color” was voiced, and it was discussed that honoring community-led cultural traditions could powerfully subvert legacies of racism and the conflicts related to gentrification. “Respectful open discourse” connects neighbors so they are mutually understood. “Independent local news” would ensure that everyone had access to quality reporting and information, and “civics in the classroom” would engage children, early and often, in understanding their political power within a democratic system.

This workshop was just one of many workshops taking place across Brooklyn as part of the Vision Project, a collaborative effort by a coalition of partners to create a shared vision for the Democratic Party in Brooklyn.

Want to share your vision for the future? Sign up to attend a future workshop, or write to us and we’ll help you host one in your community!