First Lady Chirlane McCray recently delivered remarks to the Women’s Initiatives Networking, a diverse forum of New York City-based women’s groups organized by the New York Coalition of One Hundred Black Women.
I really wanted to come tonight because I have this question that I’ve been wondering about for some time.
And that question is: Who exactly are the 100 Black Women?
Such a powerful name! And you all have been such a mystery to me. I’m not talking about your names on paper of course. And not your professional affiliations. And what you’ve achieved.
I’ve just wondered, what exactly does it feel like to be in a room with you all?
Well, I can say it’s feeling pretty good… I like the company.
And I feel so lucky to be alive and standing here with you.
I love the way you have come together to support one another and do the kind of work that you’re doing for our young people.
You know people ask me how I can live this crazy political life. Giving up so much of our privacy, living in a fishbowl. The pace. With no two days ever alike. Traveling from the Bronx to Staten Island to Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn, and then doing it all over again.
And I have to tell people that everything I’ve been through in my life has helped to prepare me for this moment.
I’m sure most of you follow the news pretty closely, so you’ve probably come across an article or two about me.
But you’re also savvy enough to realize that what you read in the newspaper is only one part of my story.
So let me tell you just a little more – of my version of my story – in condensed form.
Because there is definitely something interesting, some spirited blood flowing through my veins.
I’m the granddaughter of immigrants. My maternal great grandmother, my maternal grandfather AND my maternal grandmother all traveled from Barbados to the United States.
The farthest back I can trace is my great grandmother, Louisa Parris Edwards. And let me tell you, that woman had a lot of gumption. The short story is that she was a widow, working on a mail ship that traveled between the islands in the Caribbean. A wealthy family took a liking to her and invited her to work for their family. In Claremont, New Hampshire.
She could not have known how COLD it was. Right? Anyway, she accepted the offer. And one by one she brought her children over and eventually bought the house my mother was born in. Then Louisa, after raising her family in Claremont, packed her bags and moved to Harlem. And there, she joined the Marcus Garvey Back to Africa movement.
She invested in the Black Star Line and the Parent Body of the Universal Negro Improvement Association Construction Loans. AND she invested in the Negro Factories Corporation. And I know that when she died, she had one of the biggest funerals ever held in Harlem. That’s the activist blood I have flowing through my veins!
My parents had a mixed marriage. Her folks came to this country from Barbados and my father’s parents came from the south. And they brought me up in Springfield and Longmeadow, Massachusetts, which was about a million miles away, culturally, from Harlem.
I was always the only black student in my class, and there was a stretch when I was the only black student in the entire school.
It was tough – emotionally and psychologically. I was teased, I was chased, and yes, I even was spit at. But I was the first girl in my family to go to college.
So for me the real mystery is, how my parents managed to achieve what they did? And my grandparents? How did they all do it? This is something I spend a lot of time thinking about these days.
So when people ask me, how can I DO what I’m doing, I tell them that, everything I have experienced has helped to prepare me. And I had help.
I had afterschool and weekend programs — at the Girl’s Club, West African and jazz dance and theatre at the Dunbar Community Center, youth group at St Peter’s Episcopal Church, the YMCA. I had piano lessons, swimming lessons and swim team. And every week we’d go to the library and I’d find refuge in the tall stacks of books. I would check out as many of them as my little arms could carry.
And there were adults who encouraged me. Not just one. And no ONE in particular. But they were there and I drew strength from them.
Once I started writing, poetry, in high school, the writing was my skill and it sustained me. It was my therapy and my outlet.
At Wellesley, where I went to college, I teamed up with some other students to launch Brown Sister, a publication celebrating the voices of women of color. And I had professors there who encouraged me.
And then I moved to New York City — in 1977, with two possible job contacts, a place to stay and about 35 dollars in my pocket.
My first job was with Redbook magazine. My first freelance assignments were with Essence magazine. It was challenging to be in that industry, when so many people were still claiming that Black people did not read. And there were so few people of color in NY publishing houses.
Outside of Essence and Black Enterprise magazines, there were only a handful.
But when I started an organization called Black Women in Publishing, the editor in chief at Redbook made sure we had a space for our first meetings. He encouraged me.
But it was not ALL easy. When I finally decided to leave publishing and work full-time as a writer, I learned first-hand the challenges of being a single artist without a lovely benefits package!
Those were the years when I learned what it was like to live in a building with drafty windows and not enough heat.
Those were the years I learned how to get by with second-rate medical care because I couldn’t afford a good doctor. And I learned what happens when you land in a hospital with a newly diagnosed, severe chronic disease and you have no health insurance.
And thanks to a job, I took as a substitute teacher, those where the years when I gained a fuller appreciation for why my parents sacrificed so much for my education.
I eventually landed a position in the Dinkins administration, as a press person. And that’s where I met my very tall and very handsome and very smart husband. The spot where we met is just a few yards from where his office is now.
And we were married nearly 20 years ago. We celebrate our anniversary is in May and we have the two fabulous children you’ve heard about – Chiara and Dante.
Since then I’ve worked in communications and as a speechwriter — in government and politics and healthcare. But I’ve never forgotten the lessons I learned during my youth.
I know that government has a powerful role to play in the lives of everyday people. And has powerful tools to help protect people and keep the doors of opportunity open.
I’m so proud to be a part of the de Blasio administration. And I have to say that I did not go door to door to door, hand out flyers in subways, go to bed late and get up early — campaigning side by side with my husband so I that could sit back and put my feet up!
After all these years together, I know how committed he is to using those tools of government to lift up all New Yorkers.
Today Mayor Bill signed the paid sick bill legislation, which means a half million more New Yorkers have the right to take a sick day without losing their job. Or care for a child or parent who is ill. Which makes for a healthier workplace and city if someone with the flu is not serving your food!
I’m also proud to be part of the movement to bring universal pre-kindergarten and after-school programs for our middle school students
We are working day and night to provide every young person in New York City with full-day pre-kindergarten when they’re young… and high-quality after school programs when they’re in middle school.
I could rattle off a bunch of statistics proving that early education is one of the best investments we can make in our children, but instead I’m going to tell you one little story.
A few weeks ago, I visited a model pre-K classroom in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
It was Choice Time, so all the 4-year-olds were clustered in different centers, working on different aspects of construction.
Some were building with blocks. Some were measuring and hammering, and drilling – using adult-sized tools!
And some had just finished building a castle. And this one teeny-tiny gal with pigtails and a squeaky voice grabbed my hand to show me the drawbridge and other parts of their castle.
I was impressed with all the detail, but I was even more impressed with how articulate she was.
A few minutes later, right before story time, she plopped herself down in the front row, looked into my eyes with great seriousness and said, “I’m paying attention. I’m engaged.”
I just laughed. I was so tickled with her AND the other children in the class.
Her vocabulary was bigger than she was. And her intelligence… off the charts.
But just imagine. What if she – like some 50,000 of her peers in New York City – didn’t have access to pre-K?
There’s a good chance she’d spend most of her time at home, perhaps sitting in front of the TV. Which would be such a waste.
So if you haven’t already, I urge you to join the UPK-NYC movement. Please help us make New York City history by making sure all of our children have pre-kindergarten and all of our middle school students have access to high quality, after school programs.
And… just in case you think I’m not busy enough, I want to remind you that I also serve as Chair of the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City.
My team is just getting started, but already tackling some of the toughest problems facing us today. To give you a sense of the Mayor’s Fund broad scope of concerns, there were two projects that were in the news last week.
Last Wednesday was the opening of the city’s fourth Family Justice Center, in Lower Manhattan. which provides crucial support to the victims of domestic violence.
Then, on Sunday, I was in East Harlem to announce a relief effort to help victims of the tragic building collapse put their lives back together. And I am so grateful for all the donations we have received. If there is one thing New Yorkers can count on when tragedy strikes, it’s other New Yorkers.
Because there is so much I want to share with you. So, I invite you to check out my blog on tumblr. It’s flonyc.tumblr.com. The letters stand for First Lady of New York City and I call it FLOW-NICE. The blog one of the ways I share my thoughts, what I’m doing around the city and the people I am meeting. With poetry, pictures, video and stories. It’s interactive you can share your stories on it too!
Think of it as one of the ways we can continue getting acquainted.
And I do want to get to know you better and work with you. So please, consider this the beginning of a long conversation we get to have over the next four to eight years.
I know we share the same dreams for our young people and if history has proven anything, it’s that nothing – and I mean nothing – can stop us when we unite behind a common goal.
Together, we can help get our young people and our city where it needs to be.