By State Sen. Jesse Hamilton
With Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders coming to Brooklyn to debate on April 14th we should remember that the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of Americans intersect with the well-being of America’s cities. When surveyed, a quarter of Americans describe where they live as urban. One in three Americans lives within one of the ten largest metro areas and the US Census classifies 80% of Americans as living in an urban area. As the race for the presidency turns to New York, candidates should focus on the needs of America’s cities.
The challenges that Brooklynites face are fundamentally similar to challenges faced by residents of urban centers around the country – indeed, the challenges faced by all Americans: safe neighborhoods, affordable housing, high quality schools, altogether, ensuring the next generation has more opportunities. And yet, the urban context adds a dimension to policy-making worth special attention.
Prioritizing cities and their unique context means the candidates should answer difficult questions. Questions about safeguarding the future of the urban commons. How will the federal government ensure that whether in the form of public housing, community centers, libraries and museums, or parks and public spaces, ensuring that we preserve and pass on the best of urban America to the next generation? As president, what plans will you advance to promote community cohesion, continuing the US track record of integrating communities of all ethnicities and faiths? Both with respect to those who are disillusioned, disaffected, or disconnected who are targeted by those who mean us ill, but also with respect to advancing the well-being of individuals living in some of the most diverse cities on the planet?
For Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton, that should mean making an effort to reach out to those communities that have difficulty gaining access such as Brownsville. All those who do not have lobbyists, those who spend time working double shifts so they cannot get into constituent office hours, all those who are not able to afford a fundraising dinner or a campaign house party.
It is incumbent upon us, as elected officials, and certainly for the would-be occupant of the Oval Office, to put in the extra effort, go out of our way pursue outreach. In my corner Central Brooklyn that means mobile offices in libraries, senior centers, and community centers. On the level of Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton, that should mean holding the April 14 presidential debate in Brownsville. I enthusiastically support Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ proposal that the upcoming presidential debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton be brought to Brownsville.
Secretary Clinton, Senator Sanders, you need to get to the neighborhoods in our cities facing some of the most pressing challenges. See those who would otherwise be unable to see you. Even as the economic recovery has picked up steam in Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, the sense of security, relief, wholeness is not yet widely shared. Too many households still struggle with affording rent, paying the bills, or financing education.
Brownsville confronts precisely those challenges that neighborhoods across urban America face. In the public health sphere New York City’s Community Health Profiles reports that Brownsville faces childhood asthma hospitalizations for children aged 5-14 that are ten times worse than in Borough Park (61 of 10,000 compared to 6 of 10,000). Infant mortality rates are nearly four times higher than those in Park Slope (infant deaths of 8 in 1,000 versus 2.2 in 1,000). And Brownsville has a nine-year life expectancy deficit compared to Borough Park (74 years compared to 83 years). The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute reports that the percent of youth out of school and out of work remain far too high for Black and Hispanic youth.
These selfsame neighborhoods also offer the prospect for great opportunity: developing the talent and under-used potential of so many. I have seen it in coding workshops, career resource fairs, and community events – these neighborhoods do not want for creativity, entrepreneurial spirit, or talent.
Central to this outlook is the view that every single resident matters. I intentionally go beyond voters and citizens – every resident of our community matters: young and old, straight and gay, documented and undocumented. Because that is the neighborly outlook, the outlook that matches with New York values. One of the most striking things – among many that deserve scrutiny – about the campaign amongst Republicans is the lack of charitable spirit. The focus on being as dispassionate as possible, the wholly ungenerous character of the Republican’s discussion is something no elected official anywhere should seek to emulate. Ever. They seem to forget a fundamental part of what is important to being a public official at any level: the willingness to listen and to learn. Learn from the stories of your neighbors to better inform thinking, to attune skills at the job of representing the people.
Learn from the experiences of families struggling to make ends meet, from those recounting their experience with intimate partner violence, those confronting trying health circumstances. Sometimes they are stories of triumph in the face of adversity, the true American dream of forging a pathway towards better opportunities. And sometimes they are stories of grave difficulties not yet overcome, living in an era when the economic recovery has not visited every household. These are the experiences I want our next president to have encountered on the campaign trail.
Both Bernie and Hillary should bring their policy prescriptions to Brownsville. They should also bring their listening ears. Whether through the upcoming April 14 debate or visiting a public housing complex, let’s make Brownsville the next stop for the conversation.
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